(NOTE: I’m lumping StarCraft and Brood War together, here. To me, they’re two parts of the same game. This entry counts for both of them.)
Designed for: Personal Computer
Developed by: Blizzard Entertainment
Published by: Blizzard Entertainment
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Year Released: 1998
I’ve been having trouble writing this one. I’m finding that it’s just tough for me to really engage StarCraft on either a critical or personal level, both for basically the same reason. From an academic standpoint, there isn’t really much about the game that’s up for discussion or debate. Are there actual reviews of StarCraft out there? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. History tells me that it was released in 1998. Was it? I feel like it just kind of fell down out of the sky at some indeterminate moment in time, fully formed and with its reputation as the undisputed gold standard of its genre already in place. My personal experiences with it go the same way. I have no memory of purchasing it or playing it for the very first time, even though I can recall the analogous moments with other games of the period. I just feel like I’ve always had it, like it has always been the game that I reinstall every couple years and play all the way through again. It’s weird.
So, what I’m saying is that I don’t really know how to write about it. It probably doesn’t help matters that I appreciate StarCraft for reasons pretty much opposite the rest of the world. I don’t play it competitively or online at all, and I never have. I’m not particularly versed in RTS history, nor am I a seasoned player of them (there are only two on my top 50 list), and I’m not very good at them anyway, so I am unable to appreciate much of the nuance in balance and gameplay that the game is known for. Most of the time I played with codes on, just to get through the missions without the toil of slowly building a base and amassing an army. I know, blasphemy.
Then why am I so fond of it? Well, the narrative and the game’s universe simply blew me away. The cohesiveness of it was something I hadn’t really seen before. All of the aesthetic things–the detailed sprite graphics, the great audio, the story, the lore–all jacked straight into the gameplay in such a direct way that it was just such an experience for me as a young man.
Specifically, most of it comes down the the story and how it connects with the gameplay so tightly. At the time, I was pretty into sci-fi. I had just been reintroduced to the wonder of Star Wars through the theatrically rereleased “Special Editions” and I was right at the right age where–while Luke and Han and the gang were frickin’ sweet, I could’ve done with something with just a little more edge. StarCraft filled that niche bigtime.
Set in a future where Earth is overpopulated and convicts are fired off into deep space to colonize new worlds or die trying, StarCraft hit just the right level of 90’s gritty violence and silly pop-culture references to appeal to me as a 13 year old. But that was just the hook really; the narrative is much, much more nuanced than that kind of description can give it credit for. Having handily stuck its foot in the door of my imagination by appealing to my adolescent space-violence needs, StarCraft quickly set about building an honest-to-God epic so full of compelling characters, legitimately interesting plot turns and tight presentation that I will never forget it.
The bottom line is that the story in StarCraft was planned and executed very, very intelligently. It’s clear that, rather than being developed beforehand or just separately from the creation of the engine and the gameplay, they wrote it completely in concert with the rest of the game. They worked with the engine’s limitations and clearly knew every corner of the overall design and the result is a story that is highly active and interactive rather than simple between-mission briefings and cutscenes. Exponentially more dramatic moments are played out in the middle of hectic, player-controlled battles than in the inbetween, with many of the CGI cutscenes just being casual asides or humorous little episodes. Obviously, this is huge for connecting the player to the story and it’s miles more effective than showing a little movie of your commander talking to you and then dropping you unceremoniously into some sterile battle completely divorced from the plot.
Which is not to say that there aren’t any briefings, because there are, and they’re awesome. At first glance, the setup of the between-mission interludes seems quite limiting–space for four small character portraits against a race-themed backdrop and scrolling text accompanying their dialogue–but as with the rest of the game the writers make the absolute most of it. When they can wring drama out of the timing of the character portraits disappearing, signaling that they’ve left the meeting, you know there’s some effort put into it. In addition, the little pictures of the VIPs talking to you are the same ones that pop up when you click them in a battle, and they have around two animations with twenty frames in total. Still, though, they manage about seven times the personality of, oh, say the horrific robot-people from Heavy Rain. It certainly helps that the writing and voice acting are uniformly superb, too, but this is a western-made game we’re talking about, so I guess that’s kind of a given.
During missions, the dialogue and little scenes that are triggered by player action are presented as cinematically as possible. The screen is automatically centered on the important characters and occasionally the ambient battling is paused to lend weight to an intense moment. For the most part, the characters themselves are in-game as commandable units, which really, really appealed to me and was something I hadn’t seen in an RTS before (aside from, like, The Commando and Dr. Moebius from Command & Conquer, but they don’t really count). Being able to take the important guys from the briefings, and send them out with the regular grunts to KICK ASS (they made sure they were appropriately overpowered) was a real treat for me. Narratively, it’s a great way to grow the player’s emotional connection to the characters, and it allows for players with a little imagination to put their own spin on the proceedings as they order them around.
Blizzard also deftly sidestepped the issue of plot continuity in a game where you can play on different sides of the same war. Most RTS I’ve played just present an alternate view of the war with your side winning in a different ending movie when you’re done. This is fine, but StarCraft sports a single, excellent story that spans the three campaigns, and allows for the writers to play around with the narrative in some ingenious ways.
You start out as the Terrans (humans) as they struggle to live in their ramshackle colonies while dealing with growing civil unrest. It’s a nice introduction to the game and its mechanics, and is all smartly couched in the familiar. Rednecks and talk of revolution and border disputes and so forth. Slowly, though, the real threat–fucking aliens–starts to assert itself. If you’re only playing the single-player campaign, you’ve got next to no idea what the Zerg are (let alone the enigmatic Protoss) and as they slowly creep their way into the story, it’s more and more unsettling. Blizzard makes the player share the Terrans’ feeling of xenophobia as you’re steadily introduced to increasingly unspeakable horrors from under the black fog of unexplored map. What the fuck is THAT, you’ll mutter the first time you see an Overlord or, God forbid, an Ultralisk. This slow reveal and the unshakable feeling of other it gives you puts you in a very interesting place when the second campaign puts you in command of none other than the terrible Zerg themselves.
The Terran campaign’s story culminates in a betrayal that kills off one of the more likable heroes–pyschic soldier Sarah Kerrigan. As you start the Zerg campaign, your commanding entity charges you with protecting a pulsating larvae, apparently containing some unborn hero. Turns out that it’s Kerrigan, captured and transformed by the Zerg to exploit her psychic potential. As this plotline develops, the player gets a poignant callback to their previous experiences with the Terrans (providing a strong link between the two campaigns), sees the return of an interesting character in an epic face-heel turn, and the cunning plans of the not-so-mindlessly-feral-after-all Zerg is brought to the forefront of the plot. Outstanding.
And on and on down the line. The whole game is so thoughtfully plotted like this, and Brood War only ups the ante down the road. After being soundly defeated by a Protoss and Terran alliance at the end of StarCraft, Brood War sees the Zerg rally bigtime under the leadership of Kerrigan. This time, the scenario writers save the Zerg campaign for the end, and you take command of Kerrigan and her brood during an unlikely alliance between her and the other races’ heroes against the common enemy–a new human force from earth looking to wipe everything out. For a while, it’s a dream team of cool characters from both games rolling around whooping ass…aaand then comes Kerrigan’s inevitable betrayal. Yeah, it’s pretty predictable, but it’s also pretty damn devastating because you’re carrying out her sick plans. Step 1 of Backstab Initiative Delta is slaughtering two fan favorite characters from the original game. I remember loading up that mission for the first time and feeling my heart sink when I read the objective “Kill Fenix”, who–being a very Worf-like warrior caste Protoss badass, was my favorite character (and one who had already had a fake-out death in the first game and returned as a protoss cyborg (his name is Fenix…get it?)). Eventually, I marched my forces over to him on the map, convinced they weren’t going to actually let me do this and triggered the following in-game scene:
FENIX: This is a betrayal most foul, Kerrigan! We were fools to have gone along with this charade!
KERRIGAN: You’re right, Fenix. I used you to get the job done, and you played along just like I knew you would. You Protoss are all so headstrong and predictable, you’re your own
FENIX: That’s ironic. I can remember Tassadar teaching you a very similar lesson on Char.
^—[BIG shoutout to a mission from the first game]—^
KERRIGAN: I took that lesson to heart, Praetor. Now, are you ready to die a second time?
FENIX: The Khala awaits me, Kerrigan. And although I am prepared to face my destiny, you’ll not find me easy prey!
KERRIGAN: Then that shall be your epitaph.
…and then I FUCKING KILLED HIM. I felt horrible. It was a much stronger reaction than I would’ve had if I’d been playing as him instead. This mission is the last nail in the coffin for the character of Kerrigan, too, and it puts any hopes that be coming back from the dark side to rest. Oh yeah, and then you continue the campaign and win the game. As the bad guys. The ending of the original StarCraft story has you playing as the villain, killing or scattering all of the heroes and taking over the galaxy. The End! Simply stunning.
Aside from adventure games and maybe Half-Life, nothing I was playing at the time had anywhere near this level of narrative and it really made an impression on me.
There’s not much else to say that you don’t already know. The graphics were top-notch for the time, the gameplay is super-tight and balanced, the production value is very high, blah, blah, blah. It’s an ultra-classic for a reason, but not really for the single-player experience, which is why I love it. So, there.
IF THEY MADE THIS GAME TODAY: Well, the campaign would probably be so self-indulgent and overblown that they’d have the bright idea to split it into three games, one for each race, release them years apart, and charge full price (or more!) for each third of the game. God, wouldn’t that be horrible?