Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is a 2011 action game in which the player takes on the role of one of the titular marines — genetically-enhanced supermen fighting for the Imperium of Man in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium. Borrowing liberally from Dune, Alien, and a plethora of other sci-fi sources, the 40K world is a bleak one. It’s not for nothing that the term “grimdark” has become synonymous with the franchise. In the 40K world, the average citizen is liable to be devoured by an insectoid alien, taken as a slave by BDSM space elves, or executed for committing heresy in one of innumerable ways. That is, of course, if the Warp doesn’t get them first.
See, demons are very real in Warhammer 40K. They reside in a kind of parallel universe called The Warp, a place where the laws of physics have long since been run out of town by gibbering horrors and salacious devils. For the most part, the denizens of the Warp can’t get into the material plane to torment mankind. Except sometimes the barrier between realities parts. Whether it’s because you read a forbidden text, or got too horny, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, you’re getting dragged to space hell.
That reminds me — some time ago I took what I considered to be a hero’s portion of the dissociative drug ketamine. What followed was not quite the dead-to-the-world k-hole experience so many describe, but rather an unsettling trip into a world a few degrees off from our own. At lower dose, ketamine vibrates you ever to slightly out of your skin, placing a relaxing centimeter or so of detachment between you and reality. The dose I had taken, however, stretched that distance into infinity.
Ketamine isn’t a psychedelic like LSD or mushrooms. It can cause hallucinations, but doesn’t produce the color patterns and sounds we popularly associate with hallucinogens. Rather, high enough doses — but not high enough to cause complete sedation — catapult you into a cold echo of our universe. Your surroundings remain more or less the same, but become shadows of the real thing.
I started to wonder, when the full weight of the drug hit me, whether I had permanently destroyed my brain and would be stuck in a state of physical incompetence and mental confusion forever. But the thought wasn’t alarming, really. It did push me to rise to my feet and attempt to walk down my apartment’s hallway, which I don’t recommend. In that state, though, the psychological necessity of travel overrode the knowledge that maneuvering while heavily sedated was probably a bad idea.
Stumbling forward, I ended up face down on my living room rug. My head was swimming, but I was lucid enough to text “Merritt can have little a ego death, as a treat” to my group chat. Depending on who you ask, ego death can refer to either a profound transcendence of the self or a horrific rending of identity. For me — if I actually experienced it or something like it — it was neither. It was simply a state of being in this plane I’d been shunted into, or rather not being. It’s a little like I imagine death to be like, minus the texting.
Emboldened by my success at manipulating my phone, I slunk downstairs and confronted my cat. I was sure that she was somehow aware of what had become of me, and was eyeing me with wary suspicion. When I reached out to stroke her back, I couldn’t feel any warmth and this was further proof to me that I had sidestepped into a death world. She, I reasoned, could see clearly into this world because animals live closer to death than we do.
Collapsing on the shag rug, I awoke my roommate sleeping on the couch by asking him to make sure I didn’t die, adding that that was extremely unlikely. It felt superfluous, given that I knew I was half-dead already. It was becoming harder to recall life. Like the headache sufferer who cannot imagine a time before pain, I could not conceive of the world on the other side of the mirror.
Here, in the necroverse, all was chaos — but there was also profound order. It was like space — frigid, quiet, but punctuated by flares of random activity. Terrifying in scope, unfathomably dark. I was a twisted, broken little piece of debris floating through the void. But I needed to ascertain the contours of that debris, so I climbed back up the stairs and made the classic mistake of looking into my bathroom mirror.
What I saw repelled me — a vacant, ugly figure stared back at me, one that I knew could not be me. But at the same time, I found it difficult to get worked up about it, perhaps because there wasn’t really any I to feel any strong emotions. Whatever I was pulled myself away from the mirror and returned to my chair in my room, leaning back and spending what felt like eons waiting for the chemicals to run their course. After a time, I looked at my clock — the whole experience had occupied only about an hour and a half. Still dazed, I got into bed and slept for twelve hours.
Many users of hallucinogenic and dissociative drugs use them to access truths about themselves and the world. Trips are often learning experiences, for better or worse. But I struggle to put into words anything I might have gleaned from that night. The existence of a parallel universe existing as an icy shadow of our own? The fragility of what we think of as the self? The effects of altering one’s brain chemistry with pharmaceuticals? I’m not sure.
Perhaps I learned that this world is the cold, empty one, governed by chaos and teetering on the razor edge of instability at all times. Perhaps only in death will we truly know order and peace. Perhaps I learned nothing at all.
Anyway, Space Marine is a pretty good action game and I give it an 8 out of 10.