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.