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Warhammer 40.000: Eternal Crusade Interviews: Graham McNeill - Shaping the 40k Universe

By Garrett Fuller on December 19, 2013

MMORPG.com: Graham, your work has helped to really shape the Warhammer 40,000 universe, what is it like to write about such a violent time?

Graham McNeill: Yeah,  I've been a part of the Warhammer 40,000 universe for the last thirteen and a half years, and it's been a lot of fun to be part of the cabal of creative types who've helped populate such a vivid, gothic and bloody universe. Everyone that contributes to 40k is helping flesh out that universe, whether they work for Games Workshop or not, and that collaborative element is one of the main reasons I love the hobby so much. Getting to tell stories in the grim darkness of the Imperium is like getting the key to the candy story and then being told it's calorie free. As to violence of it all, I think whichever genre I write in, there's going to be copious amounts of blood being splashed at the screen, but the violence is always there to serve the story (and show off the cool imagery and background) so I reckon it's okay to be excited about seeing Space Marines and their enemies beating the hell out of each other.

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MMORPG.com: Eternal Crusade has the rare opportunity to bring 40K into the MMO battle genre, something fans have been waiting for, are you excited for the genre to enter into this platform?

Graham McNeill: Absolutely. I've enjoyed playing the games that have previously come out based on the 40k license, but there's always been something missing from them, as you're only one warrior and the Imperium is a big battlefield intended for entire armies to wage war. From what the guys at Behaviour Interactive are telling me and what I've seen of Eternal Crusade, I can't wait to get my Space Marine on screen and look left and right to see hundreds of fellow Adeptus Astartes...all of whom are fellow gamers, hell-bent on destroying the foe in front of us. If ever there was a universe ripe for an MMO battle genre, it's 40k.

MMORPG.com: You do a great job in painting the Space Marines as battle brothers (no pun intended), even if they are from different chapters. What is your inspiration for this?

Graham McNeill: I look at the Space Marines as warriors who share a common cause, albeit ones who often disagree about the means by which that should be achieved. My inspiration came from the notion of different medieval knights on crusade, how they were all there for, ostensibly, the same purpose, but went about it in very different ways. So while you might have the knights from two different Chapters side by side on the battlefield, they might view their aims, the foe and even why they're doing what they're doing very differently indeed. To get into the head of a Space Marine is a tricky proposition, since they're so different from us, so much so they can barely even be called human any more. But the key word there is barely. However many genetic enhancements they've had done to them, they're still, deep down, at the very core of their being, human, with all the characteristics and flaws that entails. It might take some real trauma to bring that out, but it's there and remembering that they're still human is how you get into the right headspace.

MMORPG.com: In your short story, the Tyranids pose a massive threat to a chapter stronghold, how hard is it to describe these massive alien insects?

Graham McNeill: I don't find it particularly hard, as I've written about them for many, many years. The trick is in not thinking of them as insects, but as one vast body with each of the variant genus as its many limbs, where every part of the body knows what the other is doing at the same instant. Actually, now that I read that back, it does sound quite difficult! I look on them as creatures driven by a single gestalt consciousness that will drive any part of its body to destruction if it serves the hive's objectives...making them so utterly remorseless and unstoppable that it beggars belief that they could ever be defeated.

MMORPG.com: Warhammer 40,000 is known for its crazy futuristic weaponry. You do a great job of describing the destruction in your stories, what is it like writing about such fantastic weaponry?

Graham McNeill: When you're writing science fiction, even gothic dystopian science fiction where technology is a half-remembered myth, its important to find the differences between the weaponry of today and the weaponry of the Imperium. Bolt guns are a good example of this, with their mass-reactive warheads that only detonate when they sense the mass of a target. Meaning they blow up inside of you! It's easy to forget that a Space Marine's bolt gun is, to all intents and purposes, a rocket launcher. Weapons like melta guns, plasma guns and graviton weapons are all devices that do utterly horrific things to bodies of flesh and blood, but are immense fun to write about!

MMORPG.com: The universe is so vast, is it difficult to capture such a powerful aspect of it in a short story for Eternal Crusade?

Graham McNeill: With any story, you home in on its fundamentals. What's it there to do, what do I want the reader to take away, what archetypes can I draw on to make my point as succinctly as possible? Now, I'm not known for the brevity of my writing, shall we say, but in stories of this length, you need to get in, tell what you need to tell, and then get the hell out of Dodge. Here I wanted to establish the kind of fights the Space Marines excel at, the way they fight, and the horror of the Tyranids. That was the core of the tale, but woven around that are introductions to the planet, to its geography and, if you're reading it carefully, some hints as to what's been happening that's led to this fight...

MMORPG.com: Can you give us a hint on what faction you will play at launch? Hopefully down the line we will see Tau and Necrons as well.

Graham McNeill: As a dyed in the wool Space Marine player, I think I'll have to go with the Adeptus Astartes, but then I've also written a load about the Chaos Space Marines, so maybe I'll take a walk into darkness. Hmmm, but I'm writing a lot of Orks just now, and they're tempting me...And after reading Gav Thorpe's Eldar Path novels, I could quite happily play a lethal Striking Scorpion. All tempting choices, but I'm going to go for Space Marines. But if the chance to play as a soulless Necron warrior comes up, I'd jump at immortality in a heartbeat!

MMORPG.com: You have written a lot on both sides of the Imperium and Chaos conflict (especially the Horus Heresy), what does the difference between the two sides mean to you as a writer?

Graham McNeill: The best stories are stories about change, and writing on both sides of the loyalty divide gives me a chance to explore that. What made formerly loyal Space Marines turn from the Emperor and what was the journey they took to get from loyalist to traitor? And it's not just the traitors that change. The Space Marines who stayed loyal all faced a test of their beliefs, but they came through it with their honour intact. And being confronted with their traitor brothers has to have a traumatic effect on the collective psyche of the loyalists. No-one escapes unchanged by the end of the Horus Heresy, and the legacy of those choices and changes is still felt in the 41st Millennium. When writing loyal Space Marines, it's great to paint them as paragons of honour (albeit with their own Chapter-specific foibles...) but when you write for the Chaos legions, it's nice to balance that out with characters who have absolutely no moral compass, no compassion and no need to moderate their behaviour. The Chaos Space Marines are a great way of showing just how horrible the galaxy of the 41st millennium really is...there really are daemons and the damned out there who'll eat your soul...

MMORPG.com: The story centers on Brother Sergeant Castor, what is it like to give these individual Space Marines personality?

Graham McNeill: A thing that always used to annoy me was the perception that Space Marines were little better than robots, that they were indoctrinated battle robots with all the personality of a boiled potato. That's just wrong. Yeah, sure, they're psycho-conditioned, genetically modified post-humans, but as I said earlier...they're still humans. It's said that war brings out the best and worst in people, and that's just as true of the Space Marines as it is of anyone else. When you're so powerful that you can tear tanks apart with your bare hands, everything weaker than you starts to look a bit inferior. But what makes Space Marines so heroic (well, most of them...) is that they still know that it's their duty to protect those weaker than them. It'd be pretty boring to write about (and read) characters who don't have personality, so it's even more important that the Space Marines characters are just that...characters, with all the virtues, vices and wrinkles that entails.

MMORPG.com: What has been your favorite part of working with the Warhammer 40,000 Universe over the years?

Graham McNeill: Man, that's a big question... There's quite a few proud moments I've had over the years. Being handed my first novel (Nightbringer), holding the model of the first special character I developed (the Tau Etheral, Aun'shi) and seeing my name on the first codex I was part of (Tau). Writing False Gods, the second part of the Horus Heresy was also a real honour, and that cuts to the heart of what I'm most proud of. I remember writing the Horus Heresy novel, Fulgrim, and thinking back to the seventeen-year old me, playing 40k in my parent's house and being enthralled by the stories in the codexes where the legendary primarchs made war on one another and fought for the fate of the Imperium. I remember thinking that the seventeen year old me would never believe that he'd get to play with the big toys and get to be part of the shared works that are shaping the Imperium and 40k for another generation of gamers. I hope I've been able to inspire others the way I was inspired, and if I have then that's got to be something I can feel proud of.

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