There’s Narrative in my RTS: StarCraft Told a Story, Will the Sequel Make People Listen?

On the eve of StarCraft II's release Hellmode writer Ashelia argued in rich detail why Blizzard has struggled to express a great, epic story in their real-time strategy games, despite great potential. We proudly republish her sharp analysis here.

The next great American novel won't be inspired by a zerg rush, but Kerrigan and Raynor want their story to be told nonetheless.

For over a decade now, the StarCraft series has aspired to a daunting task. It's tried to weave a compelling tale in the real-time strategy genre, attempting to break categorical confines and produce a memorable story in addition to gameplay. In some ways, it has succeeded, but it has generally failed. We still go to series like Mass Effect for our tales about outer space and few if any remember Arcturus Mengsk's betrayal.

However, if we looked closer, we might see that StarCraft isn't just a game known for its balanced design and contribution to competitive gaming. It also presents an engrossing story to its players, although it remains to be seen if any are listening.

StarCraft is largely disabled by its presentation. Even if people are listening, the words can be hard to hear when they are sandwiched between endless base-building missions and overshadowed by the multiplayer. Furthermore, the story reads better on paper; it shines in novelizations or wiki articles which give the universe depth and is clumsy when explained in the game. The protoss have multilayered intentions when they burn infested terran colonies, but the game's missions fail to show this convincingly.

While Kerrigan is an antihero, we learn this from the cinematic instead of the actual game experience. We don't control units as Sarah Kerrigan, playing instead from the perspective of a cerebrate she has severed from the Second Overmind to command the campaigns of Brood War. She is a unit on the battlefield and struggles to become more — despite her efforts, she doesn't stand out and it's hard to get into the character behind the armor. In contrast, she is full of depth in the end of the game's conclusion video, saying of her decimation of the Dominion and protoss encampments as well as her depressing betrayal of Raynor: "I am the Queen of Blades, none shall even dispute my rule again." She burns with a need for revenge, but it creates dissonance when captured as an afterthought rather than directly in-game in midst the carnage is unfolding.

Much like finding out the depth to which Raynor loved Kerrigan after her capture, the emotionally charged cinematic was too late to invoke the proper response in players.

There’s Narrative in my RTS: StarCraft Told a Story, Will the Sequel Make People Listen?

A lot of the problem is, again, the genre. RTS is a really poor vehicle for delivery and it fails the series repeatedly; the two worlds are universes apart in the first game. The story is presented perhaps unintentionally as secondary to gameplay, and they clash when they finally do intertwine through mission briefs with short movies. It feels, at times, tacked on.

As polar opposites, the gameplay is ruled by logos and narrative by pathos. They do not meet in the middle, either. The ludic world is cold and calculating in nature, a place where players frantically count their mouse clicks per minute while surveying the terrain for tactical advantages. It is the very essence of competitive gaming, even when it's single-player. We build up bases and we micromanage armies for nearly every part of the story to achieve hollow victories. In the final chapter of Brood War, players must build a successful base so they can lay siege to the terrans and protoss with their zerg armies. It is not much more different than loading up a match against a friend or playing against the computer in a skirmish–it certainly has no more emotion and no more depth than those two alternatives. It isn't quite as climatic, even though it's the pinnacle of Kerrigan's descent into the arms of evil and rise to power. While it is a final battle, without direct control of its major players it becomes just another RTS match.

The story and the RTS gameplay do not mix organically so StarCraft tries to do it synthetically. It tries to force powerful imagery and compelling dialogue to bloom out of a barren genre whose previous titles are a slew of unimagined war games like the Command & Conquer series. To some extent, it does this. Rather than curtailing to absurdity and live-action presentations like C&C does, SC sticks to its guns. The movies and the dialogue alone are [mostly] serious (ignoring the oft amusing propaganda trailers) and engaging, even when they aren't showcased quite right and risk becoming clunky interjections to the gameplay.

With StarCraft 2 upon us, Blizzard released its extended trailer, and proved it is going to have an extremely personal and detailed story this time as well. The trailer even revisits past game defining moments and retells them with aplomb–showing betrayal and regret in a way rarely touched upon by the media of video games. It's emotional. People were quick to comment that it was stunning and tremendous, regretting that it was "just a real-time strategy game" and not a "role-playing game."

Judging SC2′s potential for storytelling from the first installment of the series is a mistake, but it's an easy one to make–especially if you aren't a fan of the genre. Still, we should remember it's nearly twelve years old and what was told for the time period was very strong. Disregarding the first StarCraft's story because of that context is unfair, to both the players and the game itself. It has a story and it is remarkable, it's just not presented as well as it could be. Dismissing StarCraft 2′s future potential because of StarCraft's shortcomings is also ridiculous. It's very possible that it could defy the narrative barriers RTS instills through new technology and refined presentation.

There’s Narrative in my RTS: StarCraft Told a Story, Will the Sequel Make People Listen?

After all, Kerrigan and Raynor's stories are compelling — the first game alone proved this. It was memorable. Left behind on the planet in midst of an assault on the zerg capital, Kerrigan calls for help as she is pushed back by the swarms. Betrayed by Mengsk himself, her cries fall on deaf ears and she eventually is captured to become infested. Meanwhile, left in the wake, Raynor watches his second-in-command transform and become consumed by the swarm. From her grief and his grief, guilt and further conflict arises, and StarCraft does manage to tell this tale in the first game although somewhat muted through its buried narrative. It's the sequel's duty to grow this and cultivate it into something deeper. It shouldn't be judged before it's had a chance to show itself.

If it's played right and Blizzard pulls off expanding StarCraft with the sequel, a lot more of us could fall in love with the world. As gamers, we've all done stranger things after all, like connecting with the entire cast of Team Fortress 2 including a ham sandwich solely thanks to Valve's unique characterization.

It still remains to be seen if powerful plots are enough to break through the game presentation and its limitations. Real-time strategy is colder than a first person shooter, there is no denying that. This particular genre is a far higher hurdle to jump over than normal, one strong characterization alone can't resolve. Impersonal and distanced, players control from above in an RTS game. They play God, or perhaps more aptly, they play a war general and they are detached. They set up the pins and then they knock them down. Positioning is key and there is no player agency. There is also no emotional impact; units are expendable, just numbers in a large math equation leading to victory. It is hard to truly identify with characters in a RTS simply because of how the game presents itself.

In an RTS, narrative is inherently subdued–there is always a fourth wall. You are always overseeing, rather than becoming. You are completely withdrawn.

You are looking down at the characters, not looking with them.

There’s Narrative in my RTS: StarCraft Told a Story, Will the Sequel Make People Listen?

Blizzard's own WarCraft 3 suffered from this distance less and that was encouraging. It offered some changes from StarCraft and its narrative expanded in result. This makes sense since it came out over five years later and was full of lessons that SC and previous WC games had taught developers. SC taught Blizzard how to make a good RTS game by mechanics, but WC3 taught them how to refine it and give it a heart.

The biggest added feature was hero classes. By introducing hero classes, it was easier to associate with a specific character. Heroes provided a degree of agency and countered the genre's problem of distance. Rather than just controlling nameless forces on the battlefield, these special characters leveled up and grew–they were alive, stars of the conflict. In contrast, StarCraft presents named and important players as just slightly altered skins of already existing units with a bit more health. They weren't usually put in the forefront of battles because if they died, the mission failed. They didn't stand out much as a result and became inconsequential, like the entire narrative eventually started to become. While Raynor begins as a special marine unit, he becomes later a Vulture unit in one mission and a spaceship in another. Unfortunately, he's still confined to the back of the line even if he switches vehicles, hoping to keep an errant Zergling from sinking its claws into his side and prematurely ending the mission. He doesn't command the battlefield and inspire awe in fellow soldiers.

Hero classes, however, are independent in WC3. Frequently the opening mission layout requires the hero to go by his or her lonesome to explore an area before settling down into a base building mission. WarCraft 3 greatly expanded on previous RTS games by giving a strong face to a nameless army to draw the player into the narrative and force a connection.

While traveling, WC3′s heroes can also fulfill optional quests. In the second act, Arthas and his companions find themselves embroiled in a conflict with the Scourge. In the process of going to point A and B, Arthas has many chances to do other things that add to the story. Meeting up with Uther the Lightbringer, both Paladins set to save a village and then meet at an encampment. Instead of sending Arthas directly to that plot point, he has the ability explore the map and find a village in the southwest where he's offered the chance to save Timmy who was taken by gnolls. Timmy is a farmer's son and Arthas will be rewarded if he manages to save the boy in time. The boy will later be seen with his mother in the game, providing the player a chance to see his story's end.

There’s Narrative in my RTS: StarCraft Told a Story, Will the Sequel Make People Listen?

This specific quest's subject would be revisited in World of Warcraft, where Timmy appears in Stormwind City to sell cats–bearing a striking resemblance to the WC3 character, so-called Lil Timmy walks the streets of the Human capital and remains a NPC with continuity. While Timmy isn't real, he may as well have lived and breathed. His story became connected to the universe as a whole, and he was just an insignificant little boy in a grand cast of characters. As it was, WarCraft's Timmy storyline was markedly different from StarCraft's presentation of side quests. It was a large step forward and one that should be noted in the annals of real-time strategy's evolution. It gave WarCraft depth and it generated a sense of agency from the avatar to the player.

In contrast, StarCraft had few optional quests. There were two secret missions released as Blizzard's maps of the month–a form of early DLC–and there was also one preexisting in-game, unveiled if Episode VI's ninth mission is beaten in twenty-five minutes or less. The bonus mission lets players play as Zeratul on a moon near Char. These missions are incredibly infrequent and sparse in detail compared to WarCraft 3′s missions, though. Unlike WC3, where an optional side quest (secret mission) could happen at any time and the maps felt open ended, SC was quite linear and confining. Exploring was possible–it was just unlikely one would find anything. The planets in StarCraft were covered in minerals and vespene gas, but had little else to see.

In StarCraft, optional quests didn't offer much if anything at all to the story–they glimmered and then faded quickly. In WarCraft, they made the universe alive.

Of course, the two titles were years apart. This is largely why people should not judge prematurely. It's been years since WarCraft 3 was released and StarCraft 2 will hopefully have lessons its learned from there. It will probably even have lessons from World of Warcraft put into its narrative.

There’s Narrative in my RTS: StarCraft Told a Story, Will the Sequel Make People Listen?

The point is moreover that StarCraft 2 is coming –- and this time around, people may want to realize it has a story. A good story at that. Kerrigan is no less compelling than Arthas and Jaina no stronger than Raynor. As a setting, Char is no less detailed than Azeroth. And the Scourge are no more menacing than the zerg who threaten to eliminate the terrans from the galaxy. Real-time strategy is indelibly a detractor from the narrative experience at times, but Blizzard is used to these barriers. In fact, they seem to prefer them. Blizzard has worked with the genre before to create impacting story arcs. There is no reason to presume that the genre of RTS as a whole can't tell a good story nor to dismiss an entire game solely because it falls outside of a preferred gaming comfort zone.

StarCraft 2 will be a journey worth taking and I hope that will be in part thanks to its excellent world and narrative twists. Or rather, I hope that people will recognize that it's in part due to the narrative–because it is there and as strong as ever, just as it was with the first game.

At any rate, watch the trailer a few more times and tell me that you aren't at least compelled to know what happens to those characters even if they belong in an RTS world instead of an RPG world like you'd expect.

Let's just hope this time the story stands taller amidst all the action.

Ashelia (Rhea Monique) is a 20-something female who works as a community manager for an indie video game company. She recently started up her own site Hellmode.com to cover game theory, news, and more. You can follow her on Twitter or on Steam.

Republished with permission.