Storytelling Techniques in Starcraft 2
This last week has been light on posts because I spend a decent part of the week LANing it up at my buddy’s house to celebrate the release of Starcraft 2. It was a two day gaming session that saw countless cans of Mountain Dew consumed and a veritable epic of rollercoaster nerd drama: we laughed as we owned noobs and cried when we ourselves were owned. It was awesome.
But now it’s over – and after sitting down for an all day crunch session spent powering through the single-player campaign yesterday, I’d like to talk about the storytelling in Starcraft 2. There are some great moments and storytelling techniques in the game, but for the most part, the story and storytelling techniques are largely disappointing. If you haven’t played the single player campaign yet – don’t worry, I intend to keep this analysis spoiler free. I’m going to talking about the concepts, not the plot specifics.
So let’s start with what Starcraft 2 does well. There are some great techniques in the game that betray a real understanding of how gamers want to learn story in games.
The Good: Short, Punchy Cutscenes
First and foremost – the cutscenes are short, punchy, and don’t overstay their welcome. I know that some gamers love watching 30 minute cutscenes in RPGs, but most don’t – most are playing games to play them, not to watch them, and Starcraft 2 does a good job of getting gamers the plot and character information they need to know and letting them get back to the action.
The Good: Characters and Characterization
Starcraft does a lot with setting, mood, and nonverbal storytelling to get character details across without words. Instead of having a character saying, “I’m one brutal goddamn badass,” it’s shown through small actions instead: dark eyes in a cutscene, cigar smoking, facial expressions, etc. This is preferable – there are still so many games that forget storytelling in games is a visual medium – it’s not just about dialogue. The dialogue, for its part, is well done – filled with colloquialisms and interesting phrases – this is another plus. There are a few times where characters feel a bit stock, but the characters are pretty damn good for a video game.
The Good: Players Can Choose More or Less Story
Good God, I’ve been waiting for a game that did this effectively for so long, and finally Starcraft is an example of optional story done right. In between each mission players are sometimes shown mandatory cutscenes, but many of the cutscenes are optional – players can choose to talk to other characters in between each mission, or watch an ingame “news” segment, but they aren’t required to do this to still have a basic grasp of the story and the characters. If a player chooses, each mission can be started directly after the previous mission ends – all that optional story can be skipped. It’s about time that there was a game players could pick their level of immersion. Kudos, Blizzard. You did this right.
But now it’s time to talk about the flipside – there are a number of things I would have expected a game in development for as long as Starcraft 2 to have cleaned up, but these problems remain nonetheless.
The Bad: Nonlinear Missions Lead to a Weird Plot Arc
Many of the missions in the game, after the first few, can be undertaken in any order. This mechanic is fine – it’s worked in other games (like Dawn of War 2) – but for a game that really needs a consistent plot arc, it’s a poor choice. There are several subplot arcs in the game that take a few missions to complete, but the player can choose to undertake the missions interwoven with missions for other subplots. This is fine for the mercenary, go collect the Macguffin missions, but for missions that instill a sense of urgency (“OMG protect these people before they all die!”), it feels a bit silly to come back to them after taking a few side jobs.
Now, of course, the player can choose to power through and ignore the side jobs until the urgency is over, but this goes against decades of gamer logical progression. The side jobs are generally easier missions that give good upgrades, so doing them first allows makes the urgent missions easier. Plus, the way they are revealed to the player still gives the sense that missions revealed to the player first should be undertaken in the order they are revealed, so as to not get overwhelmed. Overall, it’s a poor mechanic that could have easily been remedied by allowing players to choose several mission arcs instead of individual missions. This would have made the plot hang together better.
The Bad: Not Enough Content? Hey – Throw in a Subplot
The other major problem with this choice is at least one major subplot with a player choice that doesn’t seem to matter all that much in terms of overall story – the subplot may carry to the sequels (via a save game or something) but it still feels strangely tacked on. Without giving too much away, I’m talking about the “Spectre” plot arc specifically. This arc only slightly impacts gameplay and feels like filler content. It doesn’t really fit into the overall story and just serves to compound the pacing problems brought on by a user-selected mission order.
The Bad: Mishandled Emotional Moments
This is a hard notion to discuss without spoilers, but I’m going to do my best. The plot mishandles several moments that could be interesting emotionally. It also relies way too heavily on a Macguffin that brings about a Dues Ex Machina ending in the worst way – instead of solving problems through character growth, the problems are solved by a particular item.
It’s strange, for a game that has great characters and great characterization, the characters don’t feel like they are fully explored in terms of their backstory and emotional reactions to situations. For a company that has created some truly beautiful emotion dilemmas in their Warcraft universe, I was disappointed that the story telling in Starcraft 2 didn’t live up. There are a bunch of missed chances for better character-driven story – the kind that elevates a cheesy plot to a good one – and I’m scratching my head as to why these opportunities weren’t exploited fully. I have specific examples for this, but I’ll save them for another post so as to not give away spoilers in this one.
So that’s the good and bad of the storytelling techniques in Starcraft 2, at least for the first installment. It’s a 3 part game, so maybe the story will get better as more expansions are released. But I’m not holding my breath. The thing is, for as long as it takes Blizzard to release games, I should be salivating for more and cursing Blizzard for being so slow. I should be on the edge of my seat.
But I’m not really. In fact, I kinda don’t care. And that, really, is a huge mistake.