For the past week, I’ve been playing through the original Starcraft’s single-player campaign. For the first time.
I’d attempted it five or six years ago, but I was embarrassingly awful at it and therefore hated it. I’d grown up playing many, many RTSes, mostly set in human history. My favorites were the Age of Empires games. They are slightly more forgiving to those who, like me, are awful at ‘micro,’ and while I was never very good at any of them, I could still enjoy them and not feel like a complete idiot. Starcraft made me feel like an idiot.
Nevertheless, I might have stuck with Starcraft if its single-player campaign hadn’t struck me as such an awful piece of crap. I didn’t enjoy the talking heads. History buff that I was, I didn’t ‘get’ the heavy references to the southern United States (and I still don’t). The characters were only very fleetingly sketched, and people kept dipping in and out of view, changing sides, and saying asinine things in funny accents. I never even got to the bit where a certain someone transforms into a certain Queen of Somethings. It’s not like I expected overmuch from the game—I knew that RTSes can occasionally suck at telling stories. Starcraft, though, struck me as extraordinarily bad.
But I’ve been slowly plowing through it these past few weeks, and I’ve been enjoying it. I’ve also been watching many, many Starcraft II replay videos. Together, I think they’re helping me understand something about the role that story sometimes plays in multiplayer-enabled RTSes. Both campaigns and replay commentaries serve, in part, the exact same purpose. They’re translations.
Starcraft II replay videos with commentary are fun because they transform chaotic madness into coherent stories. Alone, I can’t access the ‘conversation’ that takes place between these high-level players as they compete. That conversation takes place in a long-running strategic context of strategies and counter-strategies stretching back over years and years, and it’s a context that I don’t yet possess. Whatever’s going on, it’s not necessarily going to fall easily into an attractive narrative, or even the kind of narrative that I can understand. But humans like to see things in terms of gripping stories, so people like HD and Husky step in and, voila, the story congeals. They turn a frantic conversation in a language I don’t speak into something I can understand and appreciate; they imbue the players with a kind of character that isn’t immediately discernable to the untrained eye; with the tones of their voice, they give structure and energy to a match. They are translators. Sports commentators have always been translators.
Additionally, sports commentators have always been authors. They’re not necessarily telling the story of a match in the same way that the players themselves would have told it. Instead, and of necessity, they’re writing a whole new one. Translation is never perfect, but we need translations, and we need stories. Humans love to see the things we don’t fully understand as coherent stories. They help us to understand those things, even if they’re not the kinds of things that can honestly be represented by a conventional story.
One example of this is historical periodization—the division of history into consecutive and self-contained segments of time, like “The Middle Ages” or “The Industrial Age.” We do it because it helps us to understand the past, not because the past actually took place in discrete chunks. We take a bunch of stuff that happened around the same dates, point out common characteristics, give that period a name, and slap it into a timeline and—voila!— the story of human existence congeals! On one level, periodization is important, because we can’t talk about things or ideas without thinking of them as things. On another level, a philosophical one, it’s not entirely ‘realistic.’ For example, historians have recently begun to freak out about whether or not the Renaissance ever actually ‘existed.’ We may have arbitrarily imposed our conception of it as a coherent time-block because time-blocks suit us. Rendering any kind of chaos into story always involves a little bit of arbitrary re-authoring.
On some levels, putting a story to an RTS is like this, whether it’s the story provided by commentary or by a single-player campaign. The story re-writes the experience into something a bit more palatable and accessible, reinventing it as something that we can learn from. It’s impossible to learn from chaos, and at the first glance of an untrained eye, many RTSes are chaos. But single-player campaigns and replay commentaries each provide the translations for single-player and multiplayer play, respectively.
It should be obvious to anyone who has ever played an RTS that single-player campaigns frequently exist to teach players the basics that they’ll need in order to function in multiplayer competition. By imposing careful restrictions, a mission can isolate certain skills and strategies, teaching you something that you might never have noticed in normal multiplayer play. Soon enough, you can talk the game’s talk—and, if you’re good, manipulate its mechanics as creatively as you could manipulate any language.
Similarly, the best replay commentary points out and isolates certain concepts and strategies in a way that allows players to decode the language of high-level play ’syllable’ by ‘syllable’, so to speak, teaching strategies that the single-player campaign cannot teach. While replay delivers this instruction in a simple, upfront context (“you want the translation, so I am giving it to you”), the way teachers provide translations of difficult concepts to students through traditional schooling, an RTS’s single-player translation takes the form of a straight-up fiction.
But each method uses stories, as I mentioned above. The story of a good match—say, the first clash between IdrA and Masq, and the eventual rematch—is as exciting as many of the stories Blizzard comes up with. Personally, I think they’re often a lot more exciting, mostly because the human drama is real.
At any rate, I find it interesting that RTS developers haven’t yet broadly acknowledged the similarities between these two teaching tools. They don’t provide competitive multiplayer campaigns that teach the same things that commentary does in the way that single-player campaigns teach it—with stories. Granted, for a game as complex as Starcraft, that would be incredibly difficult. You’d have to do an extended beta to test your multiplayer design, then develop a campaign around what you’d discovered, and perhaps find a whole new way to tie a translating narrative onto the top of all that. Worst of all, as the game entered its extended lifespan, strategies might emerge that you hadn’t predicted or worked into the campaign. They might even break the campaign. You might have to edit some of the creative content along with the natural act of balancing the game. You could definitely do it, though, and it could be much easier to do for a game with simpler mechanics. I’d love to see a game take some lessons from replay commentary and include a competitive multiplayer campaign with a story that reacts as the players defeat one another.
Then again, a good RTS should make it fun to learn to play competitively by simply playing competitively. That’s how I played Age of Empires II and Age of Mythology as a kid, and even though I sucked, I enjoyed it. People who currently battle for their rankings in Starcraft II ladders are having fun without a story in a competitive campaign. Nevertheless, they’re probably watching commentaries. They still want translations, and they use them often. Honestly, as a kid, I could have done with some good translations. If I’d had a few more than I did, I’d probably suck a lot less than I do now.
Also: Where have Kent and I been? Well, we’ve been having the END OF THE SUMMER, and it’s busy, and will continue to be. In the coming week I’ll be moving across the country—leaving the lawless, mazelike ruin that is Los Angeles and returning to the east coast, where people are NORMAL, goddamn it. Kent is also making mighty movements across our planet. On top of this, Kent and I have been working on a variety of separate simultaneous projects that also eat up a lot of time and energy. I, for one, have just had my thesis approved and am reading loads and loads of books and doing other kinds of quote-unquote research. But we hope to be back to our old something-on-the-site-at-least-more-than-once-a-week schedule in the “near” “future”. Interpret those scare-quotes as you see fit.