Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ill bodings for Heart of the Swarm's story

Back in 2010, there was nothing as eagerly anticipated as StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. It was high time that the torch was taken from StarCraft's hands into a more modern game that displayed more than 640x480 pixels. While its multiplayer was almost flawless, the Single-Player-Campaign left much to be desired for. In comparison to StarCraft I, it paled considerably. In my eyes, there were two main reasons for this, one in the structure of the story itself and the other one in a game design decision that never really payed off. Let's start with the latter one, work toward structural problems and finally discuss the upcoming "Heart of the Swarm" expansion that, against earlier promises, will be a full-priced game rather than an expansion. 

I sense...revenue...

The unique storytelling decision in "Wings of Liberty" - for a Blizzard RTS, that is - was to make the missions modular. Oftentimes, you could choose which mission you wanted to take first and even omit some if you wanted. This had some effects on the game, since new units were activated in these missions and the activations taken over to other missions, so the order determined which units were at your disposal (or not). You also earned credits with which you could upgrade units. While that part worked decently for the missions themselves - which were designed very well and had a great range of objectives and play styles -, it made the story a mess. Since they couldn't tell a linear story anymore, they were forced to make most missions stand-alones, since there was no way to tell which mission the players did before. 

Do what I tell you.
This prevented the story from progressing in a compelling way, like it did in the first StarCraft. The missions all felt very loosely connected at best. Blizzard also tried to tie the missions to the cast of secondary characters, letting their character influence the style of the mission. Plus, you got to play these guys in some missions. What sounded like a good idea in theory proved problematic because it enhanced the disconnected feel of the missions and greatly varied the overall tone. There were epic Protoss missions encompassing visions about the end of the universe which would be followed by small-scale heists with a more humorous tone. It became especially prominent in missions like when Raynor, Tycus, the engineer and the scientist (forgot the names) go into the Nydus channels to wise-crack about while the fate of the world is decided above. This would all be well if the main character, Jim Raynor, would have been a soldier of fortune trying to make the best of the situation, Han Solo style. Unfortunately, Blizzard decided to make him into a more complex and nuanced character with the events of StarCraft I having taken a high toll on him. While a laudable decision on its own, it simply didn't fit to the mission structure and contributed heavily to the disconnected feeling, with the epic last missions on Char coming almost as a surprise and not providing a seamless transition in tone. 

Look at the doom of the universe, and then collect 10.000 minerals on the lava world!
The structural problem of the story is even worse. To be fair, its origins like with the StarCraft I expansion, Brood War. In a bonus mission you could unlock in the Zerg campaign, you controlled Zeratul, finding a grand scheme of a race older than the Protoss, who merged a Protoss and a Zerg to a new and mighty hybrid race. This story was featured heavily in "Wings of Liberty", working its way from the background to the foreground inch by inch in what's basically a clever story structure. However, StarCraft as a universe never lacked for epicness, with several all-or-nothing battles happening in the previous storyline. Some other decisions from "Brood War" also backfired on the writing team of "Wings of Liberty", as the Brood War was essentially without consequence on the whole set itself - it was left pretty much the same as it was at the end of StarCraft I. 

There is an endless supply of Marines to kill.
So the team for "Wings of Liberty" decided to set the whole StarCraft II story up as the looming conflict with the ancient precursors who are still around and created the hybrids, which are fought in the Protoss missions of the game. This increases the scope of epicness once more. While an epic storyline is enjoyable in its own right, it is too often used as a cheap vehicle of creating a storyline that isn't too complicated. The same was done in Diablo III, where the proportions are simply enhanced in comparison to previous games in order to progress the story. You can do this trick only so long before it grows ridiculous, and you have to create larger and larger stakes. Since your stakes can't really rely on the characters any more (when you're fighting Galactus, you can't follow your personal goals anymore without seeming like the stupidest oaf alive), you have to create new tension by rasising the stakes. When the whole universe is threatened, though, you can't raise them anymore. Watch "Dragon Ball Z" for a prime example of what happens when you don't know when to stop with this principle. It really is the template for this. 

Which leads us to Heart of the Swarm. Blizzard released the intro CGI, which looks impressive as always. From the glimpses it offers us, plus the ominous teaser Blizzard provided (“Sarah Kerrigan is on the loose. Even without the terrible powers of the Queen of Blades or the might of the Swarm at her command, the former Ghost remains a foe not to be taken lightly. But if the artifact really did set her free, then why is Kerrigan seeking out Zerg broods scattered throughout the Koprulu sector? Is she still pursuing her quest for vengeance, or has her transformation given Kerrigan a new purpose?”), one can conclude easily what the storyline of Heart of the Swarm will be.

Burn, Ultralisk, burn!
Kerrigan, having glimpsed the upcoming doom, wants to fight the ancient ones. For this, she wants to unite the Zerg under her command. Since the writers at Blizzard aren't bad at their job or anything, we can expect some twists and turns and real character moments on the way. But in the end, we steer towards a big, epic finale (presumably in the Protoss expansion which is still to be released). And in the view of such scales and stakes, everything other - character development first and foremost - will be drowned. It would be a wiser course to tone down the stakes and concentrate more on the characters. The old Terran campaign was about Raynor escaping first the grasp of the Confederation and then Mengsk, and it was considered a victory to flee Tarsonis. The Zerg conquered Aiur, and the Protoss defeated the Overmind. In Brood War, the Protoss wanted to free one planet of the Zerg, the Terrans fought a civil war and the Zerg gained dominance in the Koprolu sector. In StarCraft II, we reconverted Kerrigan and gained an ancient artifact. Let's see where this leads us. I'm very concerned, and like Nathan Grayson in his article over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun I'm not entirely sure whether I care as much for the game as I once would have.

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