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Thoughts on Fallen Stars

July 31, 2010
Yes, it's finally here. And it dissapoints. A little.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

From → All Posts, Games

9 Comments
  1. This was an amazing piece of writing. You don’t come off as hating Starcraft, so no worries about that. You bring up some valid points. I especially like the conclussion, and I think it’s a problem we’ll see more of. I think (for the same reasons you mention) Bungie, Square (Final Fantasy & Dragon Quest-wise) and to some extent Harmonix all are falling in to the same pit here. One could possibly put Valve in this category of developers as well, but they have been known to develop new IPs (and hence been able to explore new gameplay territories) in the past.

    The question you pose shouldn’t be limited to the Starcraft-series and Blizzard, but to any one developer that has passed the border mentioned. And to that you have to ask bigger questions. Because although Blizzard made this game, they had a bit of pressure on them. The fans of the first game (and by fans I mean the ravenous lunatics who’ve been playing Starcraft and nothing but Starcraft since the release) seem fairly (extremely) satisfied with the result. And in dealing with fans’ expectations the product is shaped. This time it got shaped a lot.

    Where is the company that dares take on new entertainment ground and ignore the mob outside their window? When will the angry mob realize that you can never have “the same game” again?

    It is when questions like these are answered that one can start speculation about the medium’s future, where it could be taken and what really could be done with it.

    And regarding the tweet that brought me here: Please do take 3 hours to write this stuff. It reeks of quality (if things of quality are able to reek, that is).

    • Wow, thanks for your compliments and for sharing your thoughts! I’ve added a bit to my shit-list, as I knew I would, so maybe I’m not ready to start my own magazine or anything yet. The problem with getting pangs of inspiration is that one easily wants to post ASAP, rather than wait and think things through again. Especially when you’ve been at it for hours. :)

      I personally am pretty happy with the gameplay in Starcraft 2. There’s another problem when making sequels this late after the original is released, and that’s the pressure of having to incorporate absolutely everything that the genre has seen since. For example, nowadays all FPS games need to have the recharging health system from Halo. Even when it’s nonsensical in the aesthetic (pretty much always is) and/or puts unwelcome constraints on the gameplay. I think Blizzard were pretty tough to not make their game into a cover-based Company-of-Heroes type game. Because I think many other RTS makers would have, regardless of their heritage. Then again, maybe it’s not toughness… maybe it’s, as you say, their doing it as a piece of fan-service.

      I guess that’s why I feel that more companies need to develop new IP’s. Only that way will one ever really be allowed to do whatever one wants, gameplay-wise.

  2. Anders Elfgren permalink

    Before commenting on how awesome the campaigns of the original Starcrafts were, remember the horrible linear indoor (perhaps sometimes outdoor) levels.

  3. Mike permalink

    I somehow stumbled upon this blog. Very interesting post. I too was a giant fan of the original Starcraft (and its story), and while there certainly were points of SC 2’s story that I enjoyed, there were definitely more than a few issues, some of which you mentioned (the Overmind retcon is probably the most frustrating point for me).

    I also agree with your overall thesis that Blizzard is less concerned with quality control now that they have the financial success available to them. A related problem to this is a preference of gameplay before story. Blizzard has sold millions of copies of the original Starcraft, and millions of copies of World of Warcraft. While I am sure there are fans of the story and design, and quite a few of them, I suspect that invariably these are outnumbered by those who play competitively in multiplayer (for SC) or in high-end raids/PvP (for WoW). I got frustrated a while ago at the decreasing quality of the Warcraft story due Blizzard’s clear shift of importance from the story to gameplay. Honestly, one can’t even conceptualize of a radical re-alignment of races/factions in the Warcraft world now because it would upset gameplay balance. The nature of a persistent MMO has more or less frozen the long-term story progression of Warcraft beyond a new baddie showing up in a new area to be killed by players.

    The point of the preceding digression about WoW is to emphasize the need of Blizzard to please those who play for the game mechanics rather than those who enjoy the story immensely, perhaps even more so than the gameplay. This dictates that if they can produce a high-quality multiplayer product for SC 2 (which I believe they did), then the story can slip up a little, or even a lot. That’s my take on it, anyway.

    • Mike,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think your assessment is absolutely correct about Blizzard putting gameplay over story. And I think I would actually agree with their priorities in that regard. But the two are definitely not mutually exclusive. The parts of Starcraft 2, and the Warcraft games, that are poor with regards to story/narrative are in many cases just bad because of their writing and implementations. They could have made the same concessions to gameplay and still write it a lot better than they have.

  4. Wow. Amazing post. Fully agreed. I think we’ve seen this happening not just with Starcraft, but in general, with MANY franchises. For instance, FFVII will always be heralded (for good or ill) as this amazing game, yet FFXIII and XIII-2 (neither of which I’ve played due to lack of PS3) have only gotten lukewarm reviews at best.

    Similarly, whereas warcraft 3 was extremely interesting in its play and its plot (especially Illidan–oh my god, Illidan in warcraft 3 was AMAZING as a character–powerful, flawed, sitting on the fence of hero and villain), from what I understand, WoW simply took all the characters we knew and loved, and either made them static faction leaders, or kill targets, aside from perhaps Thrall.

    In any case, I feel that as game developers have fewer and fewer resources, they need to give the audience a reason to actually stay and play the game, despite the fact that they’re not the big dogs on the block–that they DON’T have the greatest production values, that their voice actors and actresses are nobodies, and that they may not have the most amazing gameplay out there. So, they have to lean on a strong story and great music, and Starcraft (heck, and Diablo, and to an extent, warcraft 3) delivered IN SPADES in those regards. But once Blizzard got rich, the storytelling took a noticeable drop in quality, the voice actors and actresses we’ve come to love have left (WHY did Blizzard jettison GLYNNIS TALKEN CAMPBELL when the CENTRAL character to Starcraft and ESPECIALLY Starcraft Brood War was Sarah Kerrigan?! Lots of voice actors from Warcraft 3 left as well over pay issues because Blizzard lawyered up), and the desire to experiment with new game mechanics (ooh, nonlinearity! *FACEPALM*) means the story has to be written around the whims of a zillion other moving parts, instead of

    “Well, imagine we had next to no budget, and need a killer story. We want events X, Y, and Z happening. How do we get them to happen?” and then have the rest of the team weave around that.

    Heck, IMO, storytelling needs to be more respected as an element of gameplay…because for instance, that’s what RPG Shooter: Starwish, and Last Scenario both had going for them, despite the fact that their graphics are very readily utter shit compared to what AAA studios have in this day and age.

  5. SoulLeGris permalink

    I do think that there was a decision, somewhere high in the hierarchy, to focus on game play over story, although you’re 100% correct that they are not mutually exclusive. It’s why the non-linearity always made sense to me. When the missions are taken as solitary challenges with their own quirk and not solitary scenes set as part of a larger whole, the non-linearity makes sense. You aren’t picking a story-line to advance. Even though they had a few missions that would seem to string into arcs, you make a great point in that none of them exist in the same story, but rather separately, and don’t tell much of a story themselves. But game play wise? It’s a smart move. If you’re having trouble with a mission, now not only do you have the option to try a different mission to maybe tech up or get credits to spend on upgrades, you can see the exact unit you’ll unlock for completing another mission, and maybe Goliath are the perfect units to overcome the challenges you’re currently having. And, again, each mission is pretty fun game play wise. I never felt that any of the gimmicks missed, keeping game play just diverse enough to not let the number of missions feel like too much for just one race, and while I personally loved base-building in SCI and relished in how many carriers I could build on each and every map while the AI uselessly charged into the ever-mounting numbers, I enjoyed that most level gimmicks in some way forced you out into the map to interact with your opponent, and rarely with a straight time limit (you always had a time limit, of course, but they did a decent job at hiding that, making the few times you saw a ticking clock somewhat jarring).

    However, that ultimately raises two questions: why did it have to be a choice between game play and story, and did they consciously make the same somewhere in SCI’s development? You’re correct that some issues were simply with the writing quality and voice acting, and whatever caused those to suffer between games would still be there (you can’t make Tychus make sense), but I’m also befuddled that the non-linear mission structure is what made it in. The game has to adopt structure for the finale missions on Char just to tell a story, showing they didn’t really have a different workable idea at all, and maybe we’ll see an improvement for story cohesion in HotS, something between complete player choice and a story hallway. I wish I had an idea of how you’d allow player choice in unit unlocks without cutting story quality, but I don’t, so I can’t bash Blizzard too hard for not coming up with better. Hopefully going forward they listen to the feedback and work on structuring the story more, because while I don’t expect the Xel’Naga to rise above Skeletor in terms of characterization or Raynor to stop making me cringe from his first Revolution overdrive rallying cry, it’d be nice to feel I’m expanding a universe I know and love, even if it feels less rich than before.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      I’ve been considering writing a post on a game that did non-linearity pretty well, and that was Alpha Protocol. Its mission structure was pretty open, yet the story was laid out in a pretty smart way that created a nice “hallway” of narrative for each playthrough, taking choices, performance and order-of-execution into account.

      A simple way to visualise it might be to think of a given situation in the gameplay progression, where you have three mission choices to make. Let’s call these choices:

      1
      2
      3

      Now, the missions in themselves have sub-choices. Like so:

      1 – A, B, C
      2 – A, B, C
      3 – A, B, C

      So let’s have ourselves a hypothetical playthrough in a given order and make some choices. Like this:

      First mission – 2, Choice made: C
      Second mission – 1, Choice made: B
      Third mission – 3, Choice made: A

      This will, from a linear, narrative point of view, play out like this:

      First mission – no references made to anything but the main plot line
      Second mission – references made to main plotline, mission 2, and choice 2C
      Third mission – references made to main plotline, missions 2 and 1, and choices 2C and 1B.

      (I think if and when I write that blog post I’ll have to visualise this differently than with plain text.)

      Does that make sense, all in all? It’s kind of nifty, and stuff gets more and more fleshed out as you progress through the game, with various references adding to the tapestry of the overall narrative.

      Also, yes – the game lets you hop around between missions even if you get stuck after having chosen one. I don’t think your choice of mission is “committed” to the story subsystem until you’ve finished it, so you’re free to hop around as you’d like.

      It should be said that the system isn’t perfect by a long shot. There’s plot holes and claims that I’ve done things I can’t remember doing, most likely a consequence of the ambitious nature of this way of doing things, as well as development woes in general. Still, I totally think the game is worth checking out.

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