Total War’s Warhammer expert on why we all love Skaven
The Rat men cometh
Ever been alone in a box with someone who knows an unusual amount about anthropomorphic rats? I have. The creators of fantasy strategy crossover Total War: Warhammer II [official site] were at Gamescom last week, showing off their endlessly quibbling goblins and skeleton men. So I sat down for a chat with lead writer Andy Hall, a man who’s spent 18 years scribbling fine detail into the Warhammer universe. I’m a bit out of my depth, knowing little about it, but he’s amiable and enthusiastic throughout. He tells me about how he bends the rules of this dark world, ponders the reasons everyone loves the ratty Skaven, and reveals his dream Warhammer crossover.
RPS: Has Warhammer given Total War a good excuse to refresh their normal historical warring?
Andy Hall: Yeah, definitely... I think if you look at being an artist or an animator being employed by CA [Creative Assembly] five or six years ago, you probably felt like you were going to be marching Romans for the rest of your life. And now you are literally animating dragons wrestling dinosaurs, so I think there is a bit of ‘unleashedness’ about it all. A good example of how the artists, animators, myself and pretty much all the dev team have kind of jumped into it, is this new feature. We have this giant monster versus giant monster combat. Originally we didn’t scope that in – we couldn’t afford it, to be blunt – but the animators felt so strongly that there should be a Hell-pit Abomination giving a Carnosaur a suplex, they started doing that in their free time. No one made them, but they cared about the product so much they wanted that kind of level of polish.
RPS: Do you think the lessons CA have been learning from Warhammer are going to influence the way they do the more historical games in the future?
AH: Yeah, I think there’s going to be some cross-pollination. We’re two different teams, although obviously we share resources... And I think definitely there are elements from Warhammer that will carry across. By the same token the next historical game can probably give us something that we can take. I mean, we now have some magical bombardments... that the Dark Elves have with their Black Arts, and that bombardment mechanic was actually in Fall of the Samurai. So I think it’s the case of cherry-picking those cool features, and re-skinning them and freshening them up for this one. Because obviously Dark Elves don’t bombard with black powder, they use tortured souls.
RPS: Is it difficult to write for something with so much elaborate lore? There must be a lot of rules to follow.
AH: Yeah, but I kind of helped set those rules. I used to work at Games Workshop. I don’t mean that in a ‘don’t you know who I am’ way! I mean, I’m just giving you some context. So, I’m totally at home here, I’ve written about and within the Warhammer lore for 18 years now, so I’m totally at home in it. So I think that’s why [Games] Workshop give us some leeway if we want to invent something, because they know I’ll do it sympathetically. I’m not going to say: “All dwarves are blue now”.
RPS: So you’re well suited to answer this question then: why does everyone love these rats?
AH: [Laughs] Um, yeah, it’s one of those crazy things… I think it’s just that there’s so many things going on with them. They’re all little Bond villains. And it’s almost like in the Austin Powers movies, Dr Evil was more popular than Austin Powers. People liked him, he was a funnier character. And the Skaven are all little miniature evil gits. To the point that, on the micro level, all the clan rats, the ones at the front have got to watch their backs, because they’re going to get stabbed in the back if they don’t look out.
There’s a great little story in the Skaven army book – we’ve got this flamethrower weapon – how one of them is carrying the fuel tank and the other one is scorching the enemy. And you hear the thoughts of the one [at the back] and he’s really resentful, he’s going: “He’s gonna get all the credit now!” and he’s trying to think of a way to fuck him over… So I don’t know, maybe it’s a British thing, we kind of like that pettiness. And the way they talk.
I think the Skaven are almost one of those races that have gone beyond Warhammer itself. I’ve seen people on the internet start talking about [them] who didn’t actually know that the Skaven were from Warhammer. There’s the silly and obvious joke about them not existing and they clearly do. In the timeline there’s an emperor called Count Mandred Skavenslayer. That’s literally his name, but people go: “nah, the Skaven don’t exist.” Also they’ve got all these cool aesthetics, that weird unethical science that they practice, all that cyberpunkish arcane weaponry they’ve got – it all comes into one kind of pot.
RPS: So as a Warhammer person first and a Total War person second, if you could do a Warhammer crossover with any game, what would you go for? What’s the dream crossover?
AH: Okay… Because I’m a writer and a storyteller, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do in the Total War franchise – bringing story without putting the player on-rails or impeding that sandbox gameplay, and those things are quite dispirate... I am also a massive Uncharted fan. I like the fact that you’re just a guy going through this story, so a kind of Uncharted style Warhammer movie-slash-videogame. An eight hour Warhammer adventure.
RPS: So take a single character from one of the races and have him go through the Warhammer universe?
AH: Yeah, and not even an obvious one. Like, an Empire roadwarden or a, I don’t know, a Dwarf miner, and just do an eight hour epic adventure. Why not. Naughty Dog, are you listening?
RPS: Has there ever been a time when you’ve tried to bend the rules of the Warhammer universe in a way people didn’t like, and you’ve had to pull yourself back from it?
AH: No, not really. There’s a couple of things where we’ve had to bend the rules. We’ve had to tamper with the size of the continents in the map and kind of pull it, distort it. That’s purely for a gameplay mechanic reason. Because we need a certain amount of provinces in the Old World to make sure there’s hundreds of hours of gameplay there and we’ve had to do a little bit of the same with the rest of the map. But we kind of represent the map, we’re saying it’s an artisanal piece, it’s not the actual world. It’s maybe this wizard who’s made this magical artifice of the map, is the way we’re viewing it. As we know, map-makers in human history would draw stuff out of proportion and stuff like that.
Yeah, so we’ve had to tamper with it, and we’ve had to juggle some of the timelines, some of the legendary Lords may have died earlier than we wanted to, we’ve glossed over that. But again, no one has, to my knowledge, ranted about that. People kind of understand if we want a good game we’ve had to tweak and bend the lore very slightly. But how the characters act and are portrayed, how they talk, I think we’ve been very sympathetic. I like to think we’re doing very well in that respect.
RPS: Thanks for your time
Total War: Warhammer II is due out on September 28