on Jun 20, 2013
It has been suggested by some that the campaign story in Starcraft 2 is hammy, obvious, and slathered in thick, cheesy melodrama. I can’t really argue with this, but I don’t think Blizzard’s storytelling has gotten any worse. I think the problem is that their production values got way better.
It’s sort of intuitively understood that the events we see during gameplay are abstracted and stylized a great deal and that we shouldn’t take them literally. I mean, if we did we’d have to conclude that a barracks was about the size of your average living room, tanks are minivan-sized, and the dreaded Protoss Carrier is barely larger than a schoolbus. We don’t want our small units to be teeny tiny things that are impossible to click on and we don’t want our large units to cover the entire screen so we can’t see under them. Averaging out the sizes solves both problems. We also have the sides wearing vibrant colors and nobody can see more than twenty meters in front of their face.
|Try to picture that marine climbing into the cockpit of that plane.|
There are really good gameplay reasons for this, and nobody minds these abstractions because the game would look ridiculous if we tried to depict it in a photorealistic way.
Keep in mind that while the original game had animated cutscenes, they were not used to tell the story. Often the events depicted were completely unrelated to the stuff you were doing. Once in a long while a main character might make an appearance, but generally these little vignettes were just there to set a mood and show what the world “really” looked like outside of the abstracted depictions that we were given during gameplay. They were a fun reward for completing the recent block of long, grindy missions.
The bulk of the story was told in mission briefings. Every mission briefing was basically a Google Hangout with the principal characters, but with lower video quality. (The future of the past always looks kind of strange.) They would talk, argue, emote, and threaten, all while the same few seconds non-lip-synced head animation looped.
Sometimes it was even told in blocks of text.
Like the abstracted visuals of the gameplay, the story itself is told in broad, exaggerated strokes. Since the story happens with talking heads, it would be very, very easy for this to become tedious. The writers keep it lively by filling the story with vibrant, over-the-top characters. You’ve got flawed heroes, noble idealists, scheming opportunists and devious backstabbers. The performers lay it on thick and try to sell the drama with just their voice.
And then we get to Starcraft 2…
In Starcraft 2, we’re no longer constrained by the graphical and budgetary limitations of 1998. Blizzard has heaps of riches, tons of skill, and lots of processor power to throw at the problem. If they want their story to look like a movie, it can. It does.
Continuing the practice of telling the story with talking heads is no longer viable. Okay, for a lot of us that would have been just fine, but we all know that some people would say it looked “cheap”. Over the past fifteen years Blizzard has perfected the art of making gripping, epic cutscenes. Their efforts now exceed even Square Enix, the previous masters of lavishly over-produced spectacle and fan service. It was inevitable that they would want to bring that talent to bear when it came to telling their story. We could imagine a hypothetical timeline where the suits, the designers, the producers, the artists and the writers all signed off on the notion that they didn’t need eye-grabbing, YouTube-friendly, viral-ready shorts to tell their story. But only if we imagine really, really hard.
So they changed the format of the story from conference call to a series of animated shorts. I’ll admit it looks great, but the transition has done odd things to the tone.
Check out this scene:
That’s a cutscene from Starcraft 2. It’s a flashback to a moment from Starcraft 1. In the original game, the same dialog played out in raido messages while you were managing your units. Now it’s a movie. When I saw the newer, sexier version of this scene my first thought was, “Wait. Why did he leave her behind again? Wouldn’t it be super-useful to have a badass Ghost like Kerrigan on our side? What possible benefit could there be to ditching her?” Suddenly the story is a movie and now I’m expecting movie-type things like proper character motivations.
In the first game, Mengsk busts Raynor out of prison. No explanation, nothing. He just does. Duke changes sides and all his nebulous forces come with him, no questions asked. And all of this is fine because at this removed distance we don’t expect to see much detail. We just need the characters to be iconic and vibrant.
But now we don’t need ham and overwrought dialog. If we want to show Raynor is harboring a grudge, we can have a cutscene where he slowly loses his cool. He doesn’t need to jump into Google chat with us and tell us he’s upset. We can zoom in on his eyes and see him nursing that old wound, deep down. We can see him pouring himself another whiskey from a now-empty bottle. We see him carrying around that revolver with one bullet and see how he fidgets with it every time Mengsk comes up in conversation. The game can show instead of tell, and it’s actually really good at doing so.
It’s a bit like the transition from stage play to motion picture. On the stage, performers needed exaggerated body language and emoting to convey the action to the people in the cheap seats. Then we put those performers in front of a movie camera and their performances seemed outrageous to the point of unintentional comedy. In the first game, Arcturus Mengsk is a cartoonish mustache-twirling villain in a cartoon world and it’s fine. (Oh yeah, spoiler for you time-travelers from 1998: Mengsk is a bad guy.) In Starcraft 2 Arcturus Mengsk is a cartoonish mustache-twirling villain in a semi-serious universe and he suddenly seems less like an insidious threat and more like a jackass troll.
So what does Blizzard do in a spot like this? Do they dial back the characters so they fit in this newer, more detailed world? Then the old characters might not feel the same and they could come off as bland. Or should Blizzard keep the characters as vibrant as ever, thus making them seem kind of ridiculous? This is the way they went, and yeah – people do suffer from a bad case of being Incredibly Obvious Archetypes.
I haven’t really played the Halo series beyond the first game, but I gather it’s suffered from the same growing pains. A faceless space marine was just fine for a 2001 shooter, but as the series went on he became increasingly anachronistic. Everything in the world became more detailed except the main character. They couldn’t “update” Master Chief without running a very real risk of ruining him (giving him a face would be like giving Gordon Freeman or Samus Aran a voice) but they couldn’t keep him the same without creating this odd tension between the characters and the world.
|Zeratul’s dialog is so cheesy that Kraft Foods is currently researching ways to put it on macaroni.|
So what I’m getting at is this: The characters in Starcraft were kind of trapped in their little Google Chat windows just like Master Chief is stuck behind his mask. Yes, the ending of Wings of Liberty is absurd and transparent fan-service, and the subsequent twists are similarly silly. The flashback to Zeratul’s vision of the future is an overly convoluted and brute-force way of establishing the stakes. But I think this is the result of tension between the origins of Starcraft and this newer, sleeker, higher-budget version. These new twists aren’t sillier than the previous events, we’re just looking at them up close and we’re suddenly judging them differently.
And now, total spoilers for everything Starcraft.
Having Said All That…
Even allowing for cartoonish comic-book level storytelling, I’m still kind of perplexed at some of the choices the writers made here. The entire first campaign is spent turning Kerrigan from Zerg to Human form again, only to have her reverse the process a few missions into the next campaign. Kerrigan has now gone from Human to Zerg to Human to Zerg. The mystique and horror are gone. It’s just a switch the writers can flip.
Kerrigan re-Zerging herself does strike me as a Dumb Thing for her to do, but in the context of this topsy-turvy world it’s hard for me to argue against this from a character perspective. Everyone feels VERY STRONG EMOTIONS and WILL! NOT! BE! STOPPED! by their adversaries. Jim, Mengsk, Sara, General Duke… they all do some ludicrous things because they’re VERY UPSET about some damn thing.
I am reminded of the death of Commander Shepard at the start of Mass Effect 2, only to bring him back a couple of minutes later. It doesn’t matter if this “makes sense” from the standpoint of in-universe lore, it’s a terrible thing to do to your story. Having things happen and then un-happen and then re-happen just shows the audience that this universe is arbitrary and that the rules don’t mean anything. When I run into stories that reverse themselves like this it makes me want to skip to the end. The author [hopefully] has a fixed destination in mind, and they see the space between here and there as a void to be filled with shouting and bullets.
I don’t dislike the Starcraft 2 story. But now I retroactively enjoy the Starcraft 1 story a little less.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.