The single-player campaign storyline for one of 2010’s best-selling PC games stands at the intersection between awful writing and awful social politics. It’s a terrible story with terrible things to say that is stupid and offensive. Nobody really likes it, although in the testosterone-filled world of hardcore PC gaming, most people haven’t taken too seriously just how sexist it is.
This isn’t a secret — among the millions of Starcraft fans, the storyline of Starcraft 2 is widely mocked and insulted. It’s bad even for video game stories (which are generally pretty bad) – and it’s bad enough that it’s high time people outside this niche gaming community saw exactly what sort of narrative is being foisted on gamers. Everyone deserves better – we can send a better message, and we can do it by writing a better story. It’s an interesting, niche situation where making the story better would also make it more socially progressive (although this isn’t always the case, or life in general would be a lot simpler).
Starcraft 2 is a tremendously popular multiplayer strategy game, the long-awaited sequel (13 years long-awaited) to the crown jewel of real-time strategy gaming, the game that became the de facto national sport of South Korea, with pro players earning six-figure salaries and multiple television channels showing professional matches all the time. And the single-player missions are generally well-designed and fun, anyway. So, people are still going to play it, even if the single-player storyline that frames the missions is awful. But there is definitely something to be learned from looking at how and why the story is so bad.
Warning – there will be spoilers throughout, along with a rundown of how to go about making a good Starcraft story, and how to expel nova pulses from your Xel’naga penis.
SPOILERS – Beginning at the End
The best way to get a sense might just be to watch the end cinematic, which is by far the worst part of the story, bringing together all the mistakes and missteps it has made along the way. (I’m curious what people’s reactions to it are, with the rest of the game sight-unseen. Let me know in the comments.)
Okay, so what happened here?
The naked girl is Sarah Kerrigan – a main character in the original Starcraft and the central antihero/villain of the Brood War expansion. She is the ascendant ruler of the Zerg, a species of alien monsters that operate through a hive mind and sweep through the universe destroying civilizations, taking over planets, and subsuming the genetic material of other organisms in a quest for perfection. They are known to “infest” their enemies, exerting a sort of biological mind control on them while turning them into monsters. They’re a lot like the bugs in Starship Troopers with a dash of the Borg or Species 8472 from Star Trek.
Sarah Kerrigan is a former human special ops solider (called a “ghost”) with powerful psionic abilities who is left for dead in an act of betrayal by her commander and captured and infested by the Zerg. Once she becomes a Zerg/Human hybrid, a series of events unfolds wherein, rather than being rendered a zombie monster slave, she seizes control of the Zerg, becoming one of the most powerful individuals in the known universe. Here’s the cinematic of her betrayal that they made for Starcraft 2, although the events it portrays actually took place during the original Starcraft. (It’s a mark against Starcraft 2 that its coolest scenes have more to do with the storyline of the original than its own storyline.)
She is also the ex-girlfriend of one of the human heroes (the guy with the space helmet and the mustache in both videos), a space marine named Jim Raynor. A big part of the plot of Brood War (and really what makes Kerrigan’s character interesting and notable), is that Raynor always holds out hope that this ruthless interplanetary tyrant who is killing people by the billions, deep down, still cares about him and wants to be his girlfriend. Of course, he is totally wrong, there are bigger things going on than their relationship, and he is continually disappointed by the fact that no, this woman does not exist as an erotic object, but is in fact a totally legit badass who is playing him like a fiddle because he is dumb and sexist and keeps underestimating her.
The Starcraft 2 betrayal cinematic really hammers in on the new, retconned, damsel-in-distress Kerrigan that has in Starcraft 2 replaced the one we know and love from Starcraft and Brood War. Look how helpless she is without the men in her life, despite her being a special-forces soldier with psionic powers and a personal cloaking device! The sequel is trying its best to recast Kerrigan as a vulnerable innocent the player needs to save, not a powerful rival or somebody you yourself would want to play as in the game (People really like playing as the Zerg – unlike, say, the pre-Voyager Borg, they’re quite sympathetic among players and aren’t always seen as villains. Starcraft 2 doesn’t even have any missions where you get to play as Zerg, a major expected feature from players that Blizzard is holding back to push an expansion next year, for which it will charge the price of a full game, because they can.)
Granted, as a female villain, it’s reasonable, at least at first, to claim that Infested Kerrigan, the self-styled “Queen of Blades” is herself a sexist type. She is, after all, out to kill and dominate humans, and the human soldiers in the game are often, but not exclusively, portrayed as male. And of course, we on Overthinking It are suspicious of female characters who are merely powerful or capable, without being interesting or fully realized. But if you follow the female character flowchart for Sarah Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades does well:
- Can she carry her own story? Yes. (It’s called Brood War)
- Is she three-dimensional? Yes. (Although I tend to not think this is very important.)
- Does she represent an idea? No. (She’s pretty complicated.)
- Does she have any flaws? Yes. (Oh yes.)
- Is she killed before the third act? No. (She hasn’t died yet in the story.)
The result from the flowchart?
CONGRATULATIONS: STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER!
Prior to the release of Starcraft 2, Sarah Kerrigan had been voted in reader polls at places like IGN and GameSpot as among the top video game villains and the top female video game characters ever. She is powerful, intelligent and ruthless, sexual without being a sex object, part friend, part foe, part girl-next-door, part something else entirely. The site Tom’s Game calls her one of the “most fascinatingly complex and memorable characters of all time.”
Although the story wends through distractions and changes direction awkwardly, the ultimate goal of Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty is to redomesticate Sarah Kerrigan — to reassemble an ancient patriarchial artifact, which looks like this and floats, erect, when powered up:
And subdue her, take away her power, and leave her helpless, naked and wanting to love you and be your girlfriend again.
If you’d like, go ahead and watch this clip of the final mission of the game — note how Kerrigan actually emerges from a vagina dentata, how she is impressed and sounds sexually excited by the prospect of this artifact, and how the artifact periodically erupts in a flash of energy that destroys all nearby enemies, but then needs to rest for a little while before it can stand up and erupt again.
I know in the past I have written on this site that one ought not to consider as a creator of art a singular element or an individual creative act as “sexist,” because such labels depend on a full understanding of the real-world consequences of art, which artists can never achieve and should not aspire to. But under this same setup, we as critics are of course free to call it whatever we want, with the understanding that our terming an artistic piece as such is at least partially an act of our own creation and a collective act of the readership — one that is not justified out of the context of real-world, measured material consequence and never wholly found within the art object in isolation.
That all being said, sometimes a phallic symbol is really a phallic symbol, and somebody needs to call it out, because it’s ridiculous.
Furthermore, somebody needs to call out that this whole gross and unnecessary humiliation of one of the coolest characters in the history of video games is misogynistic and disgusting — and that it’s a really dumb goal to put at the end of a Starcraft game in the first place.
Let’s go into why Starcraft even has a storyline, and what that storyline needs to accomplish.
How to Assemble a Starcraft Storyline
Starcraft is a multiplayer strategy game. Players choose one of three races —
- The Terrans, who are a bunch of human beings who went all Gilligan’s Island a long time ago and developed their own civilization very far from home, but still appear to have watched Firefly, at least according to their music and character design. Terrans have stuff like tanks, soldiers and mech walkers – familiar sci-fi /military stuff.
- The Protoss (I’ll get to why they haven’t been mentioned yet), another alien race in this part of the universe — ten-foot-tall giants with long lifespans, psychic powers and advanced technology. They aim to produce smaller numbers of more expensive, more powerful stuff (like spaceships that shoot laser beams and units that teleport).
- The Zerg, the aforementioned low-tech alien hive mind. The Zerg hatch swarms of monsters in waves to overwhelm their opponents.
Then the players, either alone or in teams, battle against each other in various configurations over and over again. Terrans fight other Terrans. Zerg fight Protoss. Protoss fight a team of Terran and Zerg. People play as random or play favorite races to get good at over time.
When a game starts, each player has a single base and a bunch of workers, and build first the infrastructure and then the army to destroy the other players’ bases, all while collecting resources and managing an economy and army simultaneously. A Starcraft 2 game lasts about a half an hour most of the time, give or take 20 minutes or so, and each game stands entirely on its own, start to finish, on a map that is developed for its strategic and tactical features and not usually because it is important to the story.
This three-race structure is the key selling point of Starcraft. Each race plays very differently from the other two – much more so in general than in other real-time strategy games – and Blizzard, the gaming company that makes it (A subsidiary of Activision that also makes Warcraft and World of Warcraft, thus the “craft” in the name), continually patches and updates the game to get it as balanced as possible across the three races.
So, what is the main reason to have a story at all? The story is tasked with putting the game in context — adding stakes to the matches, and making each match feel as if it exists in a fictional universe that has some general feel and internal logic.
Why are these races fighting, and why do they fight over and over again in different configurations?
The original Starcraft story and the Brood War expansion’s story do great jobs of answering this question. The Starcraft 2 story bails on this hardcore. It tries to focus on the characters, but it doesn’t do that well either, because the characters are very much informed by why these races are fighting each other over and over again in the first place.
The story of the original Starcraft is pretty complex, but it is built elegantly around the events on one planet, called Chau Sara.
- Chau Sara was a Terran colony that was invaded by the Zerg. So, the humans are fighting the Zerg. Great.
- While the Terrans were fighting aliens they had never seen before, a commander showed up like Paul Reiser in Aliens looking to protect some secret research installation and cover up the existence of the Zerg to support a corrupt and shady government. This is largely responsible for the planet not being adequately protected and eventually falling. So, the humans are fighting each other. Great.
- Meanwhile, the Protoss show up with a fleet of spaceships looking for the Zerg, because they are ancient enemies of the Zerg and hunt them down and exterminate them wherever they are. So the Protoss are fighting the Zerg. Great.
- The Protoss get an order to “purify” the planet, killing all life on its surface, including the humans who live there. The commander in charge of the fleet disagrees with the order. So the Protoss are fighting the Protoss. Great.
- But the Protoss decide to go ahead with the purification anyway, and zap the planet, killing all the humans and Zerg on it. The humans are caught totally off-guard and are furious. So the humans are fighting the Protoss. Great.
All the possible conflicts among the three races in the game are set up in this one event. The only one left out is the Zerg versus the Zerg. They save that for the Brood War expansion.
It’s really elegant, especially because the different perspectives of the various players sets up the conflict in inevitable ways that don’t paint anyone in particular (except the Zerg, but everybody likes the Zerg anyway) as the villain. So somebody who wants to play either Terran or Protoss gets reassurance from the story that there is some legitimacy to what at least some faction on their side is trying to accomplish.
The story then progresses through a series of complex crosses and double-crosses. The protagonist is nameless — the “player” is assumed to be a high-ranking commander of whatever race he or she is playing. It’s an epic military story with a large cast.
The Starcraft 2 Story
The Starcraft 2 story starts with an analogous event – the Zerg invade a planet called Mar Sara, where Marshall Jim Raynor, a hero of the Zerg wars, lives a relatively quiet life of local law enforcement.
- The Zerg land on the planet and kill everybody. So the humans are fighting the Zerg. Great.
- The protagonist and his buddies are rescued from the planet by a spaceship that leads a rebel fleet aimed at overthrowing the Emperor of the humans. So the humans are fighting each other. Great.
Yeah, that’s a lot fewer bullets. The formative events of the Starcraft 2 storyline, the ones that happen early and get everything going, don’t involve the Protoss at all. They are later shoehorned in with a really thoroughly bullshit series of missions involving having to steal rare gas from holy temples and getting some memory crystal with a bunch of prophesies on it that are apropos of nothing and throw the narrative into crazytown for no reason.
The actual underlying story, which you only really piece together gradually through indirect sources and don’t encounter in any major single events, works like this:
- The Dark Voice (a villain who isn’t in the game and you never face from a race that isn’t in the game) is the Big Bad.
- The Dark Voice is manipulating the Zerg to fight the Protoss so he can create super-powered hybrids (which you can’t play as and only show up in a few missions and never in multiplayer) that will destroy the universe and rule over total darkness
- The Dark Voice does this by infiltrating the brain of the Zerg Overmind (a villain who isn’t in the game, because he is already dead, and you never face him and can’t play as him).
- The Zerg Overmind (which again, isn’t in the game) tries to defy the Dark Voice (who again, isn’t in the game) by infesting Sarah Kerrigan, who will have more free will than he does and will someday defeat the Dark Voice (which is a huge retcon and not something we’ve heard of before in the previous games)
- A Protoss guy sees in a vision a possible future where human beings kill Sarah Kerrigan, which prevents her from defeating the Dark Voice, letting him take over the universe.
- A shady human organization lets a former marine out of prison and gives him secret instructions to find and kill Sarah Kerrigan. One wonders how they could ever possibly expect him to succeed, since he is just one guy with a gun and a robot suit, and she has psychic powers and is the tyrant in charge of an alien empire of billions of giant monsters.
- The Protoss and the Zerg are fighting each other over a sacred planet where there is a prophesy (“Prophesy” is code in screenwriting for: “Our characters are about to do a bunch of stuff for no good reason.”) that tells everybody about all this information. Sort of. It is never explained why the Zerg want it.
- The Prophesy is connected with a bunch of artifacts that are scattered around the galaxy. Everybody is trying to find them. It is never explained why they are doing this, since not everybody has the Prophesy, so not everybody could know why they are important. These things eventually make the magical penis that turns Sarah Kerrigan back into a submissive human lady.
- The artifacts were left by the Xel’naga, the progenitors of the Protoss and the Zerg (who again, aren’t in the game, and you can’t play as them in multiplayer).
Whew. Jeez louise.
Okay, so none of this really makes any sense, and all of it hinges on the actions of characters who aren’t involved in the actual gameplay. So it’s doing a really really bad job of explaining Why are these races fighting, and why do they fight over and over again in different configurations?
The story should focus on the races the player can actually play. It should focus on the things relevant to the multiplayer experience – that is its primary responsibility, and if this is done well, the single-player campaign loses nothing. The opportunity cost of keeping the backstory relevant to multiplayer is pretty much nil. And yet the backstory is pretty much totally irrelevant to multiplayer.
Which is hogwash, because it’s not like the first Starcraft game didn’t have characters, or that they focus on the characters less before their own stories are bogged down by unresolved complexity, or that stories that have elegant, well-formulated plots communicate them all through impersonal voice-overs.
I have longstanding contempt for “character studies” as forms of dramatic literature. In case you’re not familiar, the Random House Dictionary defines a character study as “a work of fiction in which the delineation of the central character’s personality is more important than the plot.”
I hate this kind of thinking – because it implies that knowing what happens to people and seeing them do stuff important to them detracts from understanding their personalities. I tend to think quite the opposite is true – that the more you learn about what people do and what they have been through the more you get to see their personalities in action, and the more you learn about what underpins the decisions they make and their priorities. I don’t see “character personality” and “plot” as mutually exclusive – or even mutually discouraging – instead, to me, they’ve always seemed to emerge one from the other as characters make their way in whatever world they live in.
So, perhaps somewhat wisely, somebody early on in the writing of the Starcraft 2 story looked at or formulated the lore around the Dark Voice and the hybrids and all that and thought “Wow, this plot is really alienating and doesn’t involve the player at all. We shouldn’t focus on this – we should instead focus on events that involve the player. We should put the player in the shoes of one of the protagonists so the player can identify with what is going on.” This is great, of course.
When they did, this they should have just ditched all that other nonsense and written a story where the things the protagonist does or experiences are the things that matter, and where the major events of the story explain why the Terrans, Protoss and Zerg are fighting each other and amonst themselves all the time in the fictional Koprulu sector. The story at least starts out trying to shot a ground-level view of an incomprehensibly large conflict, and that sort of difference in scope is sometimes cited to try to justify the unimportance of the player’s actions to the world in which they take place, but even in the context of a grant intergalactic war, the disconnection between what a player in Starcraft 2 playing single-player or multiplayer ends of doing and the story that supposedly explains it is so huge that it’s really offputting and self-destructive.
In the single player campaign, the player spends most of his time raising money to fund his army by doing odd jobs for random people or pursuing side quests. There are a bunch of characters who don’t matter who offer credits in exchange for accomplishing specific tasks. When their tasks are done, they depart and they don’t matter for the rest of the game. The player starts out fighting the Dominion and its Emperor Mengsk, but he gives that up and never goes back to it to go get his girlfriend back. So I guess it wasn’t important. The player at the beginning of the game appears to have come to terms with losing Kerrigan, but by the end he’s ranting and raving about it and has undone all his progress. So I guess nothing that happened before mattered.
Oh, and at the end of the story, the player shoots his best friend in the face to save the life of a genocidal tyrant who has killed billions of people. He does it with zero hesitation, despite continually agonizing throughout the course of the game about the difficulty of his relationship with his friend. And despite the fact that his friend’s suit is rigged to kill him if he doesn’t carry out his order, so it’s not like it’s exactly his fault. And despite the fact that his friend has a bulletproof visor that he chooses not to lower for some reason. And this all happens with people aiming guns at the floor of a cave which is full of rocks, so that it’s almost guaranteed that one of them will be injured by a ricochet.
Here’s the thing…
Because the characters in Starcraft 2 don’t do things that matter to the story of Starcraft, the writers force the events to feel like they matter by mapping them to archetypal human conflicts.
- We start with a crazy explanation of a grand conflict that doesn’t really matter.
- We then drop down to “focus on the characters” because we don’t want to address the grand conflict.
- But then, in order to make the events feel like they matter and are resonant, we reach about for other grand conflicts instead, so we never really get to focus on the characters like we say we have wanted to.
In the absence of a better idea and a rush to fill a gap in the story we made ourselved by misidentifying the needs of the project, the grand conflict becomes the predictable old chestnut of binary gender roles. Instead of the Terrans and Zerg fighting each other, which, lest we forget, is a relationship rich with symbolism about the nature of life and authority, we decide instead to have the main point of the story being the necessity that men and women find each other and marry, that men take care of their wives, and that wives submit to their husbands.
It feels resonant. It feels romantic. It feels high-style. It feels like the kind of story people want to watch. It feels easy to do. I get the sense this sort of “sexisming up” of a story happens a lot, when people are tweaking collaborative projects to try to get them to feel right when everything is up shit creek because they’ve been poorly written from the get-go. People tack on the first thing that comes to mind that works, even if it’s socially destructive, cliche and offensive.
But you know what else feels resonant, romantic, high-style and the kind of story people want to watch? The one that involves Terrans, Protoss and Zerg, the one that has the name that is on the cover of the box of the damned thing. The story of Starcraft. People around the world have been reenacting the story of Starcraft, every day, for hours, for 13 years! Clearly there is something there that people connect with, and the writers would be wise to figure out what that is rather then de-emphasizing it and replacing it with their own petty prejudices.
Look, if we wanted to be spending our time obsessing about sexual relationships and gender roles in our households, we wouldn’t be playing Starcraft!
This may seem like an anti-nerd joke, and to a degree it is, but there’s something important here, too. Fictions so often seem to overemphasize the importance of sex – like sex is the only thing people look for – the only thing worth looking for. Sex plots, love plots, plots about getting married get tacked on to so many projects in lazy ways because there is a lack of breadth in scope on the human experience – because the writers, editors or producers assume people are just that simple. Well, people are not.
Adding sex to a story in a lazy or contemptuous way more often than not leads to adding sexism, as the contempt for the subject matter translates into contempt for women and progressive gender identity in general.
Starcraft isn’t about sex. It doesn’t need to be about sex. And it certainly doesn’t need to be about sex in a way that undoes so much of what it has already done to assert progressively the power inherent in all people that can be found in so many unexpected ways.
The saddest part of all of this is that after playing through the story, it seems for some reason the people who wrote it didn’t think Starcraft was good enough. They didn’t think Starcraft was worth it. Which makes them some of the only people familiar with the franchise who think it is that uninteresting. Too many people have put too much into this franchise for too long to let people who don’t like it write its story, and gamers already deal with too much negative reinforcement around relationships and women to have it dominate a property where it contributes nothing and is not accomplishing a basic function.
Here’s hoping Heart of the Swarm is better, and that in the next expansion we see a return to form from the Queen of Blades.