Thoughts on Fallen Stars
They say a man never really knows himself until his freedom’s been taken away. - Starcraft II intro cinematic
I absolutely, positively loved Starcraft. To a large extent it was because of its story and aesthetics. The plot and characters in Starcraft and its expansion were spot-on, as were the graphics, unit vocalizations and sound. Everything was just right in this game. At least up until the end of the Broodwar campaign… I don’t know if any of you remember how it ended, but in case you don’t, here’s a recap (first and only spoiler alert goes out here): a certain character is exposed as having engineered Protoss-Zerg hybrids, and gives a speech on how he serves a higher power, succeeding in offering a cliffhanger and a jump-the-shark moment all in one. I didn’t know why, but even all those years ago this whole thing set off alarm bells in my head. Still, it wasn’t enough to not leave me wanting more, and feeling that Starcraft represented a milestone in game world design as well as writing for the medium.
In spite of this, I wasn’t really that hyped for the release of Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty. It’s a bit hard to say why; it might have mostly been because I was convinced that my old PC would render the game unplayable, which luckily proved mostly untrue. To some extent it might have been because I’d set the whole thing aside in my head following the initial announcement of the release date; Starcraft II was always going to be released “soonish” as far as I was concerned. And then, at the beginning of the week, it hit me that the game was finally here. I downloaded a digital copy without fail, and proceeded to play as soon as the Battle.net servers let me.
I have since finished the campaign and can whole-heartedly recommend the game to everyone. It’s really, really good. But, like Assassin’s Creed II, it stumbles when it comes to its story. And that breaks my heart a little. Not just because I feel like Starcraft deserved a better continuation to its story, but also because the mistakes don’t seem unavoidable in the least. At least not if one takes oneself, and one’s universe, seriously.
Victims of Circumstance
Some of the problems with the story are tied to the scope and design of the game, and to prove I’m not just “hating” on Starcraft II, let me elaborate to show that I do have understanding of some of the challenges Blizzard faced in the game’s development:
- Scope: While Starcraft had 10-ish missions per faction, and all 3 factions’ stories were included in one game, Starcraft II focuses on the Terrans almost exlusively, offering about 25 missions for just this one faction’s plot. Naturally, if one wants to tell a story that doesn’t feel padded out and that revolves around people rather than politics or whatever, this invariably means more characters, more plot arcs, more dialogue, more key events, and so on and so forth. Just more shit, in the non-literal noun sense of the word. Sadly, this provides more opportunities for fuckups; there’s a bigger chance of lines of so-so writing quality and/or performance sneaking through, and for each secondary character that’s added the likelihood of one or more of them being crap goes up. Quality control becomes harder as scope increases. And the median level of quality has indeed suffered.
- Design: Someone thought it would be a good idea to have a free-roaming, non-ordered mission structure. Granted, one must play the different “threads” in order; Matt Horner’s missions are played in their order, as are Tosh’s. But one is still allowed to jump between these parallel story arcs at will. Why they thought this was a good idea is anyone’s guess. Granted, all things being equal it’s probably a nice thing to let players go through missions in whatever order they prefer. However, there is one problem with this that I find painfully obvious, and that I can’t really believe Blizzard didn’t acknowledge and then subsequently ignored. The problem is that if you have a free-roaming mission structure like this one, it becomes all but impossible to have the same type of character development that was so expertly presented in the first Starcraft, where mission progression was pretty much linear. Until the very last story bottleneck at the end of the game (the endgame missions must all be played in order), everything is in a sort of limbo. Characters don’t really go anywhere, because they have to remain in whatever state the free-roaming mission structure requires. So there’s very little cross-referencing between story threads, because cutscene X has to be understandable to players that may or may not have played optional mission Y. This results in pretty much everything standing still for the majority of the game. It’s like an episode of a daytime TV show where nothing substantial ever happens and there’s no real plot arc that requires you to have seen any of the previous shows. Why on earth someone thought that it was worth compromising the narrative in this way for the negligible benefit of making missions playable in any order is beyond me.
The Big List of Letdowns
So, with the high-level problems explained, let’s take a look at a partial list of the specific issues that bugged me.
- The Recycling Project, Part 1. – When Blizzard borrowed from themselves in Warcraft III, by letting Arthas go the way of Kerrigan in the whole good-guy-gone-bad thing, I kind of accepted it for pretty selfish reasons. Starcraft was my preferred game, and I didn’t really care that much if Blizzard compromised the integrity of their franchises in that direction, so long as they let Starcraft be the anti-Warcraft that I loved. But now they’ve gone and messed with Starcraft II. Towards the end of one of the game’s plot threads, it is revealed that the Zerg race never had any free will, and that its overmind was a mind-controlled slave in its own right. In other words, the bad guys aren’t really bad. They were just under someone else’s control. Remind you of anything? Why yes, it’s Warcraft’s plot twist. Chris Metzen apparently only has one story to tell, and he’s not ashamed to make it obvious.
- The Recycling Project, Part 2. - Tosh is a troll. A ranged combat specialist that speaks with a Jamaican accent and practices voodoo. He is a Warcraft troll. Chris Metzen apparently also only has a handful of characters to portray, it seems.
- Questionable Cutscene Editing – Some of the cutscenes are very strangely edited and a bit on the needlessly elaborate side. To give an example; after one mission, Matt tells Jim something to the effect of “Sir, that thing we recovered is down in the science lab, let’s go take a look”, and then the game cuts to Jim in front of the thing in the lab. The scene could have started right there and lost absolutely nothing from it! Was the point to introduce players to the science lab if they’d not already been there or something? Surely there must’ve been a better way.
- Bad Unit Voices – This one struck me in the heart. The unit voices in Starcraft were amazing, and didn’t miss a beat. In Starcraft II, this is no longer true. Some of it’s just a question of not-as-inspired writing and certain lines make less sense than I’d like. Clicking a Ghost makes him go “You sure about that”, implying that he’s reading my mind. Contrast this stumbling piece of pseudo-cleverness with Kerrigan’s double-entendre from the original; “I read ya… hehe…”. It’s not all crappy writing though. Some of it is crappy acting instead (or also). More than anything, I’m curious as to how such bad acting could’ve happened. There’s not really a bigger number of units in this game than in the original, so there’s no real practical reason to settle for half-assed takes – which Blizzard has done more than once. This is one area where I can’t really imagine anything to excuse an execution inferior to the original. It all just reeks of lacking inspiration and a shug-of-the-shoulders attitude toward this very important aspect of the game.
- The Wrong Type of Tongue-in-Cheek – Starcraft did a pretty good job of being funny when it wanted to, and usually did so when appropriate, or at the player’s discretion. Starcraft II is often just plain ol’ silly. It’s acceptable in a couple of cases – the Thor unit in particular is awesome, as Ahnold will never stop being funny. Some of the time however the tone is kind of lacking in self-respect. There’s a fine line between not taking oneself too seriously and making oneself the butt-end of a joke. What’s next, Ewoks in Diablo?
- Lack of Tact and Subtlety – There are many lines in the game’s dialogue that serve to underline obvious things at the expense of the characters’ believability. But the biggest letdown for me was the missed opportunity in the last mission of the campaign. Briefly before the end of the mission, after Zerg-Queen Kerrigan’s portrait has popped up on screen several times as she’s taunted the player, a new face suddenly appears. This one is of Sarah, the uncorrupted Kerrigan, saying “don’t give up”. In the frantic circumstances of that mission, it’s a beautiful line of dialogue. Sure, it’s complete with a portrait that doesn’t really make any sense (she’s wearing her full Ghost attire and is pretty and shit) but it’s a welcome, stark contrast from the visage of the Queen of Blades. So what’s wrong with this line? Nothing. It’s the ones that follow that suck; Jim saying (I’m paraphrasing here) “Sarah..?” and Tychus replying “She’s losing it”. Such a wasted opportunity makes a man want to weep. Listen, Blizzard, she’s not talking to those two clowns… she’s talking to ME, all right? Simply cutting Jim and Tychus out of the dialogue would have made the whole thing much more powerful, and indeed representative of how Jim should feel if that voice were to appear in his head. And it would explain the portrait too; it’s just imaginary, triggered by the very human association of faces and voices. If it’s, however, broadcast on an open channel, then there’s some strange (Warcraft?) voodoo going on and it opens up for a meta-/physical discussion. Is it possible that nobody on the development team said anything about this? Or was it just ignored?
- Needlessly Complicated Plot, Part 1 – Central to the plot of Starcraft II is the nature of Tychus’ inevitable betrayal of Jim. In the intro cutscene it is audibly Arcturus Mengsk’s voice we hear, and it’s obvious that he and Tychus have struck a deal. When Jim asks about it, Tychus says he’s made a deal with the Moebius Foundation. An obvious lie, right? But wait, it gets more complicated. After all, the owner of the Foundation is Valerian, not Arcturus, and the latter is obviously surprised and enraged at Valerian’s taking half the fleet and General Warfield with him to invade Char. So… how was the plan supposed to have worked again? If Arcturus wasn’t the mastermind behind the invasion of Char, I mean; if it was his son’s rogue actions. Someone might say “ah, but the narrator voice in the beginning was just that, a narrator, so it’s possible that Tychus made the deal with Valerian and not Arcturus” – but Arcturus is clearly there at the end, speaking to Tychus over radio. What’s the plot in this game again?
- Needlessly Complicated Plot, Part 2 – Oh, and what was Zeratul’s whole problem? He pops up through some sort of freaky teleportation trick to tell Jim not to kill Kerrigan, right? And then we’re treated to more missions from a time-line (Jim even uses that word… the HORROR…) where Kerrigan is dead. So… if Zeratul knows that Jim would soon hold Kerrigan’s life in his hands, should we assume that in this time-line the person that killed her was Jim? That would all make sense, except that throughout the game, it’s very obvious that Jim would not kill Kerrigan if he had a choice in the matter… and not for the reasons Zeratul mentions… the saving of the galaxy and all that jazz. No, for his own personal reasons… because he thinks she’s pretty or something. So if Jim doesn’t have it in his heart to kill Kerrigan, what’s the point of Zeratul’s intervention? I mean, he doesn’t exactly warn him to look out for traitors that might kill Kerrigan in his stead either… so he’s done absolutely nothing to help. But still, Kerrigan survives. As if Zeratul’s pleading with Jim made him more likely to stop Tychus from shooting her in the face or something. What is this game about, again? Here’s a thought, just have Jim struggle with the thought of shooting Kerrigan for a few seconds in that last cutscene, not saying anything, just fingering his holster. Then have him sigh and take her into his arms. After that, the rest of the cutscene can continue as normal. It would make the whole Zeratul intervention thing less nonsensical… and it would make Jim a slightly more interesting character too.
This is hardly a complete list, and I know that I’ll want to add stuff to it if and when I play through the campaign again. Having spoken with some of my friends about it, some more and some less fanboy-ish about the franchise, I know that if we were to collate a list of issues together it would be many times longer than the one I’ve written.
The question that still lingers is “how did this happen”. Not everything on my shit-list can possibly be a result of linear quality dilution following the increase in scope from one game to the next (which in itself is a poor excuse considering the vast resources at Blizzard’s command).
So what’s up over at Blizzard? Did they all get George Lucas complex over there? It’s not a bad analogue really; the practical, technical constraints imposed on the original Star Wars movies are generally acknowledged to have contributed to their greatness. The newer films don’t hold a candle to them, quite possibly because of the increase in resources available to Mr. Lucas. I wouldn’t say that Starcraft II is as bad compared to its own original as the Star Wars films are, but it’s still not an unfair comparison. And then there’s the issue of aesthetic constraints; Relic’s Dawn of War games felt like a spiritual successor to Starcraft, especially as far as quality and aesthetic consistency is concerned, quite possibly to a large extent because Relic was forced to respect someone else’s Intellectual Property, forcing them to make sure every line of dialogue, every polygon mesh was absolutely perfect for the client. The IP wasn’t theirs to fuck with.
What I’m most curious of is the issues that seem to stem from a lowered bar of acceptable quality and lacking self-respect for one’s own heritage. The question I would like to ask Blizzard is this: if they would’ve had the same resources way back when they were making the original Starcraft, would it have been anything more like its sequel, or would they have used those resources some other way and maintained quality? Were they simply better at this stuff back then? Have they become mad with power, enslaved by their own lack of boundaries, unable to leave well enough alone? Or were they just lucky in crafting such an amazing, timeless classic? Maybe Duran’s speech at the end of Broodwar was a sign of things to come, the series’ own midi-chlorian moment. Maybe this was all inevitable.
I guess another way to pose a question is this: if Blizzard hadn’t become masters of the universe, with World of Warcraft assuring the financial means to do anything they want in any way that they want, if Starcraft II had been created with the exact same resources that were available when Starcraft was released, would it have come out being the same game, albeit technically less advanced?
I’m not sure even Blizzard themselves could, honestly, answer this question. When one has tasted success and has absolute artistic control, it’s pretty much impossible to go back, as history has shown. But it would be very, very interesting if the higher-ups in the Starcraft II team could do a little experiment. Write a set of design documents for what Starcraft II would have become if it had to be done in 3 years with a team half its size and, let’s say, a third of the budget. I think that could be an enlightening experience for us. But, more importantly, it should prove enlightening for them.
After all, they say a man doesn’t really know himself until his freedom’s been taken away.