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Opinion:  StarCraft II  And The Art Of Single-Player Storytelling
Opinion: StarCraft II And The Art Of Single-Player Storytelling Exclusive
August 12, 2010 | By Tom Cross

August 12, 2010 | By Tom Cross
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[Writer Tom Cross parses out the complex blend of narrative and gameplay elements in Starcraft II for Gamasutra -- to what extent are the characters and conversation related to the gameplay, and do their interrelationships serve the experience?]

Starcraft’s designers plugged many spot-on references and jokes into their space-strategy game. From the three race’s relative similarity to FOX’s extraterrestrial heavy hitters (now the stars of the wretched AvP movie series), to almost every scene and line from Aliens, Starcraft wore its heart and its inspiration on its sleeve.

It may have pioneered a certain brand of space epic (that stars garrulous space hicks), but for the most part it kept such antics to the brief cinematics that interspersed the Terran campaign.

All the rest of the exposition was delivered by serious space bugs and serious space zealots, talking about chrysalides and the like. I am thankful for that small blessing, considering what I think is the overloaded, painfully insistent plotting and long-winded exposition found in Starcraft II.

Starcraft’s world was mostly represented by in-game voice work and art. We got a feel for what the technology and movements of each race were from the animations and sound produced by units ingame. For the most part, when we saw zerglings and marines in the CG cutscenes, they looked (as most CG characters looked at the time) a little stretched out, a little stilted and peculiar, and nothing at all like their in-game counterparts.

Blizzard was and is immensely pleased with its CG work (presently they’re neck and neck with the Final Fantasy games for most overblown cinematics), but in Starcraft they handed over most exposition and character development to surprisingly effective and attractive pre-mission talking heads, and in-mission chatter. There’s a reason why we don’t see the principal actors (Kerrigan, Raynor, and the various Zerg and Protoss heavies) in CG cutscenes: they’d look pretty awful, and the disconnect between their CG selves and their ingame and pre-mission selves would be evident, even laughable.

Thus, while the tone and delivery of Starcraft’s script was as cheesy and overblown as you’d expect from a company that created Arthas and Deckard Cain, it mostly went about its business and then got out of the way. Pre-mission conversations were used to develop character arcs, conflicts, and (too often) to explain what the hell was going on in each mission. That was often due to the different missions’ repetitious and uninventive structure. There are too many “survive the assault” and “kill the other guy” missions. The writers had to give some reason for the player’s dogged pursuit of tactical victory, over and over.

Talking Heads

Briefing_room_%28StarCraft%29.pngThese pre-mission conversations were given a little extra flavor by two kinds of ingame dialogue: that delivered as part of pseudo cutscenes, by main characters, and that which was produced by units, when those units were selected. This (now-common) RTS quirk was first introduced in Warcraft, and it is indicative of Blizzard’s approach to genre storytelling in their genre-heavy games. While the game itself might include humorous moments as part of the larger plot, the main thrust of the story is deadly-serious – the kind of horribly earnest tale of combat between the good, the bad, and the third faction that most game stories can’t escape from.

To help us forget all of the serious, solemn goings-on outside the game proper, Blizzard peppers every unit’s dialog with pop culture references and simple humor. It’s the kind of design that caters to those steeped in the same culture as the designers were, and thus Starcraft’s pilots, marines, and aliens all seem to have walked out of a series of 80’s action movies (most of which are near and dear to my heart, I must admit).

Again, for the most part, these humorous bits were kept away from the main plot and extended conversations of the out-of-combat briefings. Blizzard settles for two methods of storytelling: the lengthy, increasingly serious talking heads, and the units’ humorous in-game responses to repeated orders.

In Starcraft II, Blizzard changed things up, obviously, but some of the changes (those not relating to balance and in-game mechanics) break up gameplay in an unavoidable way. The pre-mission briefings are now quite brief. You’ll only see one talking head, and whoever that head is he or she will quickly, efficiently inform you of the story’s reasons for your immanent strategic efforts. The rest of the exposition comes in-mission and in-cutscene. In-mission dialogue is as James Cameron-like as expected, but it moves players from set-piece to set-piece.

Screenshot2010-04-16-14_38_51.jpgI can’t stand the in-engine cutscenes. While it’s nice (and nicely consistent) that Blizzard can now do almost everything in-engine, it has inspired them to produce a massive number of in-engine conversations, cutscenes, and interactions. In Starcraft, when the dropships pick up Raynor, or the Zerg guys start droning on about the Chrysalis or the Queen of Blades (in-missions, that is), it was presented by units moving around and bits of dialogue. That’s fine. It had a simplicity to it that blunted the soporific effect of the game’s script.

In Starcraft II, players are treated to beautiful, lavish cutscenes in which hardened, whiskey-soaked men debate the finer points of courtship, the differences between criminals and freedom fighters, and the loss of a good woman. It was bad enough when those pretty CG heads discussed pre-mission issues in Starcraft. This time around, every conversation is bookended by musical cues from Firefly and camera pans of pretty glasses of booze. The actor behind Jim Raynor plays it part Malcolm Reynolds, part Marcus Fenix, but the way he’s written and animated (and the way he looks, like some hilariously coiffed Masculine Ideal) betrays his every enunciation.

None of this is in any way surprising, content-wise. This is how Blizzard does, and depressingly, many companies take their cues from Blizzard. What’s surprising, and disheartening, is that there’s so damn much of it, and that a good portion of it is built into the myriad systems appended to the main campaign. Instead of simply offering up a series of missions, Starcraft II lets players take their ease between missions in a number of locations. When not commanding Raynor and Co., players can explore Raynor’s bar hangout (initially), and later his base of operations, the battlecruiser Hyperion.

Merit In The Unnecessary?

Aboard the Hyperion, players can visit the Cantina, the Bridge, the Armory, the Lab, and the Sickbay. Each area provides Raynor with characters to talk to (again, using the expertly crafted in-engine cutscenes) and upgrades to purchase. Talking to characters mostly just deepens the player’s knowledge of said character, or develops that character’s relationship with Raynor. It’s all completely unnecessary, from a gameplay perspective. One doesn’t ever have to talk to these people (though Raynor and the Gang spend a lot of time with each other talking in the main story sections), and all of the upgrades can be accessed sans conversation.

Screenshot066.JpgUnsurprisingly, it doesn’t matter that these conversations and characters are optional. They still make the non-combat parts of the game feel misshapen and unwieldy. It was a given in Starcraft that the ingame units and pre-mission characters shared nothing but a voice actor. The difference graphically was so inescapable that the division between the two could never be breached. Now that Blizzard has bridged that gap graphically, I have to wonder why they bothered with the cutscenes at all. Starcraft and Starcraft II are about commanding armies and building bases.

When I have to sit and watch my units talk, I accept that the single player portion of the game needs a reason, a purpose, for all of that to-ing and fro-ing (more properly, gamers need these things). Likewise, there’s a certain pleasure to be had in watching quick mission briefings: I’m a commander, and commanders get briefed, or brief people, right? Starcraft II goes ahead and makes a significant portion of Wings of Liberty about upgrading a dude’s sweet ship, and about upgrading ingame assets using resources (rather incomprehensibly) earned from previous in-game missions.

Starcraft II’s upgrade mechanics are mostly lifted from upgrades previously available in-game in Starcraft. If you want your marines to have stimpacks, or want to build medics without having to build a Barracks add-on, you must unlock those capabilities in the Armory. Percentage upgrades to damage and race-specific combat (damage to Zerg only, for instance) can be unlocked using research points collected in the field, and the lab lets players upgrade their forces using alien technology. It’s all here in the beautiful Hyperion, and it means that I’ve spent hours outside of the game proper fiddling with NPCs and upgrades.

I’m not against “RPG” and progression-focused mechanics in games by any means, nor am I against loadout screens, upgrade trees, and special items. I think that Dawn of War, Company of Heroes, and slower games like Valkyria Chronicles introduce interesting, meaningful choices into the way players grow and develop their armies.

I think it’s great that I can build different kinds of hero units, jump jet units, and sniper units in Dawn of War 2. I like these parts of DoW 2 because they are integrated into the game, more or less. Items and upgrades can mostly be found on enemies ingame, and character upgrades, equipment loadouts, and mission choice are all handled through one multi-tiered window, the strategic menu.

Divisions And Gaps

1035788-dow2_2009_05_25_22_39_03_22_super.jpgIt’s by no means a perfectly elegant solution to the problem that many games have, that of separating different parts of play from each other using non-playable elements. The cutscene is merely the most obvious and jarring of such divisions. The difference between the in-combat and strategic menus in DoW 2 is certainly vast. However, the strategic map is quite clear about what it does and what it allows you to do. It’s not full of exposition and long conversations; it doesn’t do as much to undermine all of the hard work done by the in-game narrative.

There are still in-game briefings, and they can drag on a bit (one almost longs for Rockstar’s by-now cliched in-game “horse briefings”), but they’re as utilitarian as possible, aside from the slightly pretty, slightly “huge dudes in space” planet and loadout screens. It’s all in service of play, of playing the game and moving from mission to mission. It doesn’t distract you all that much, and unsurprisingly, the repetitious, canned videos before each vanilla mission are the most annoying and unexciting parts of the game.

One could argue that character development and grandiose narrative are important to Starcraft II’s gameplay. That’s a completely incorrect assertion, but it brings up another issue with Starcraft II’s story and characters: they’re completely unnecessary. This is true of most game characters and stories. Most game narratives are tacked on after the game proper is finished. Game stories are window dressing; they have little to do with the actual playing of the game.

How Valkyria Chronicles Does It

I’m not a huge fan of Valkyria Chronicles’s story. I find many of the characters to be annoying, and its message regarding war and associated topics is both labored and unable to create meaningful, affecting characters and scenes. Valkyria Chronicles makes soldiers who are important to the play, the story, and to players. Not only is our hero’s disposition, rank, and familial situation relevant to the story, it’s relevant to tactics and squad structure. Characters express feelings and behaviors in cutscenes that mirror or explain their combat traits.

Some soldiers hate men, or women, or groups, or being alone. Some are allergic to grass, or have never seen the streets of a real city, or hate dust. Everyone has a long list of these traits. They slowly unlock, becoming available (and extremely important, tactically) as each soldier levels up. My favorite sniper may become completely useless in urban areas, once her fear of cities and dense clusters of people has been unearthed. When a character’s disposition and opinions are translated into in-game bonuses and weaknesses, character becomes all-important.

valkyria-chronicles.jpgValkyria Chronicles doesn’t just make each combat encounter hinge on the player’s knowledge and manipulation of soldiers’ quirks; Chronicles devotes entire missions to learning about important, previously unknown aspects of different characters’ lives and habits. This reinforces the importance of individual soldiers and their unique traits (both ingame and in-story) in a way that few other games can match. In Valkyria Chronicles (however much it pains me) story is much closer to play than is normal for video games (ignoring recent games made by Bioware and Obsidian).

It’s not really that startling to play a game with extraneous, underdeveloped elements. It’s a bit surprising in a Blizzard game, certainly. Blizzard spends years (almost a decade, in this case) developing each new title, and in a superficial way, Starcraft II is as refined as one could desire. It’s still deep and well-balanced: I can still find videos online of matches between players who operate on a higher level than me, employing strategies that confuse me.

The upgrades available in the lab and armory do offer a very minor kind of branching, gain/loss mechanic, but it’s incredibly subtle. No doubt, the upgrades and progression in Starcraft II are thusly subtle because if they were any meatier or stronger, they’d change the nature of the single player campaign; it would become something else, something much like Warcraft 3 or Dawn of War 2.

Starcraft II is a fun, well-balanced game (from what I can tell). It’s beautiful and easy to use and easier to understand, for the most part. It also takes something I’m used to (annoying, bombastic storytelling) and mixes it almost inextricably with not-good enough meta-combat mechanics. If it weren’t for this amalgam of underutilized progression mechanics and outrageous narrative, I’d be hard-pressed to find fault with the game. As it is, I wonder why Blizzard would put so much effort into making part of their game incomplete.

[Tom Cross is a managing editor at Rules of the Game, writes for Popmatters, and blogs about games at Delayed Responsibility. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]

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Tadhg Kelly
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I thoroughly agree.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Alexander Benson
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What the author doesn't seem to realize is that, at least for some, strategy games in particular can be mentally exhausting. It took me years to finish the original Starcraft campaigns because I'd periodically get burned out playing mission after mission with the very minimal briefings breaking up the action. The cutscenes and time fooling around on the ship that the author decries have actually made the Starcraft II single player experience a lot more enjoyable for me. There need to be periodic respites from the tension of RTS gameplay, and I think Blizzard realizes this, incorporating elements to keep the player involved while providing intentional breaks between the combat.

Kris Graft
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Really Bob? While I get that DoW2 and CoH have similarities in the combat mechanics, I found both of those games dramatically different, both multiplayer and single player.

Samuel Browning
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And I thoroughly disagree, though honestly, this reads more like your personal impressions and opinions than it does anything else. I, none the less, can't help but feel that while story, character development, and elements involving such have nothing to do with game play per-se, they're something I myself enjoy immensely, and this goes for quite literally every game where the writing and story direction were made in such a way as to be engaging and interesting, if not crucial to the understanding of the motivation of the 'task at hand', or merely a tip of the hat to the longtime fans of the series. I, myself, played through the original campaign for SC and SC:BW (I reference this as you seem to want to pick on SC2 for it's usage of these mechanics) and seeing the characters I saw merely on tiny pixelated, endlessly gesticulating heads, or ten pixel tall sprites, finally fleshed out in full CGI eye candy or very nicely rendered in-engine cut scenes, was (and I use the past tense since I've completed the SC2 campaign, and thought it was) thoroughly awesome.

This all really begs the question, if you have such a distaste for CGI cut scenes or non playable story driven content in practically any sense, why don't you just press Escape?

Todd Allison
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Not to burst your bubble or anything, but "inventive" RTS' don't really sell all that well OR really work out. For example Sins of Solar Empire is one of the most inventive RTS' I've seen in a very very long time and it didn't sell anything like DoW2 or Starcraft (Obviously). DoW2 in and of itself is VERY inventive. Both of them get just as tiring to play as you say. Maybe RTS just isn't your game?

Also, I agree more with Samuel than I do the writer.

Gregory Kinneman
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@Kris: I completely agree, and here's why.

DoW 2 plays exactly like Dragon Age: Origins. You have 4 active characters out of a larger pool who you level up in different areas. They each have several combat abilities and item abilities to use. Their positioning is very important to the fight. Your scouts/rogues can cloak. Your rogue and fighter can both get 2 weapon fighting skills, but one will still play slightly differently than the other, just like training melee or ranged skills in DoW. In other words, DoW 2 isn't really a RTS, it's a tactical RPG!*

On the other hand, CoH and SC2 are built around creating an army on the fly with resources collected in-game and battling nameless/faceless opponents.

Therefore, my conclusion is that DoW 2 and Valkyria Chronicles don't fit into the same category as SC2 and that makes the article weaker since it doesn't come up with good comparisons.

* And by tactical RPG I mean the levelling, skills, limited number of characters part. The argument of whether the mechanic of levelling/training up characters constitutes an "RPG" is not the topic of this discussion.

BobbyK Richardson
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I'm having a bit of trouble trying to understand what you're trying to say, you list a buttload of facts interspersed with bits of disdain and dissapointment. A classic case of envy. Don't be jealous.

If you want to play straight up action, that's what multiplayer and the "challenges" on are for. The Single Player campaign is for people who want story and characters, they want to see the Starcraft Universe come to life. Blizzard did exactly what they set out to do, which is make the most comprehensive RTS campaign ever created. I have my own issues, but seriously, they did an amazing job, you're showing a lot of disdain for a campaign that's done it better than any other RTS before it.

Michael Anderson
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I agree with BobbyK here...

In the single player I want to know what is happening to Jim and Kerrigan and Zeratul and all the characters left after the first game. I love the missions and they have been a lot of fun so far! But I am the kind of gamer that goes and clicks on everything everywhere to get every little piece of fact and dialog out of everyone. It is really important to me that I get the story and the full story. I guess our desire for what the game should be is really just different, which is OK, but what seems unnecessary to you... is entirely necessary to me!

Michael Anderson
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Sorry: double post

Kee-Won Hong
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"The upgrades available in the lab and armory do offer a very minor kind of branching, gain/loss mechanic, but it’s incredibly subtle. No doubt, the upgrades and progression in Starcraft II are thusly subtle because if they were any meatier or stronger, they’d change the nature of the single player campaign; it would become something else, something much like Warcraft 3 or Dawn of War 2."

Have to disagree with this statement. The upgrades, especially the final ones on each research branch, have a dramatic difference in the way I played the game (I played on hard difficulty) - e.g. I beat the final mission using only infantry and structures - didn't build a single vehicle or starship.

Josh Foreman
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Good write up. I agree.

@ Alexander: Do you need cinematic interludes between games of chess or cards?

Kenan Alpay
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I think most Blizzard fans who care about the Starcraft mythos will enjoy the cutscenes and exposition and appreciate the break it provides from the sometimes stressful RTS gameplay.

Those who don't will absorb the information from the pre-mission briefing and hit escape on the other cutscenes. I'm sure you can review the mission objectives at any time while playing, like every RTS ever made.

And you've already said that ancillary story bits are optional, so where is the complaint?

If you want to treat Starcraft like a "game of chess or cards", Skirmish mode and multiplayer mode is that-a-way.

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As a game critique this is pretty awful and far from the mark. The SC2 campaign is brilliant, inventive, and compulsive - all the parts add to this mix except the awful story.

The dialog is anemic and sadly predictable and the plot largely revolves around an event from SC1 which they rehash over and over until all the emotional impact has vanished (even before they waste a really great pre-rendered cutscene showing the event in astonishing detail). The 'twists' are easy to predict and so very lacking in impact. At least the resource game between missions is really inspired, and the writing outside the dialog is spot on.

Even so SC2 is certainly one of the greatest games so far; it has the best RTS campaign to date, and the multiplayer is a thing a pure beauty that could finally ignite the e-sports flame in the west.

Brian Connor
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I quite enjoyed the between missions in-engine moments. It broke up the pace in a welcome way and I appreciated the added depth that was presented in a way that wasn't pushed in your face. If you didn't like the extra story from the talking heads of the first SC that's fine as the mission briefings are now much shorter. If you are interested in that exposition there is now as much of it as before, if not more.

Casey Labine
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The campaign more or less amounts to paying $60 for a movie ticket. That is to say, Blizzard fundamentally failed to deliver the game's story through play. It's really just astonishingly bad design. In the past few weeks other Gamasutra writers have expounded on this issue in relation to games generally:

And it was also Extra Credit's debut topic:

Jeff Addonizio
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Personally I was very disappointed with SCII. I've been playing RTS games since warcraft 1 and have enjoyed the evolution of the style. I've played inventive ones like Spellforce to commercial ones like WC3. I really liked the campaign and storytelling elements in SCII but what I was really looking forward to was the multiplayer! SC/SC:BW was still active game community (and probably still is) because of the multiplayer not because people wanted to play the campaign over and over again for all these years.

So I get a trial key from some of my friends who are playing and jump in for some 4plyr FFA. Considering that I haven't played SC in numerous years and they have been playing SCII none stop for about a week or so I was ready to receive a good beating! To my utter disappointment I ruled the match by building one of my old protoss build strats from SC 1. Pure luck I thought to myself. There is no way that after all these years of development and all these evolutions in RTS gaming we could possibly be back at....Build X...Faster than Y = YOU WIN.

Well I was wrong...5 matches later same formula applies and me knowing nothing about the game or new units continued to beat 3 other people simultaneously. The game looks gorgeous and plays very smooth...but I'll stick with my DOW2. I prefer battlefield tactics to massing armies. I prefer using cover and positioning than building 10 of one building type to mass produce a single unit type and win.

My main point is that in almost a decade the changes to the game are not significant. To me this is nothing more than an updated expansion to SC:BW and let's also be honest, if it another company had released a sequel that took a decade and had the same difference in changes it wouldn't have done half as well.

Blizzard has been great at combining great ideas and making them work, but true innovation moved out a long time ago. Sorry for rant.

Juan Del Rio
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Namby Pamby, mumble mumble.

I was going to write something more meaty but all I need to say is:

I laughed, I cried.

I am anxiously awaiting story part 2/3 and 3/3.

Yeah the in-game + cg cinematics are totaly apprecieated and worth it.