Translations

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.

Secretly, a translator

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.

The Renaissance: didn't "really" "happen"

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.

Guest Article: Die for Me

I’m normally a very cautious player.  Beyond cautious, really; I can usually be found flitting nervously between neurotic and obsessive, with occasional forays into outright paralysis.  In FPS games I always keep my health and ammo topped off as much as humanly possible, and I quickload so frequently I may as well be playing Prince of Persia.

It’s not limited to any one genre, either.  Any RTS match against the computer will end with hundreds of enemy units dead, no more than a dozen casualties on my own side, and well over three hours of game time passed; I never attack until I’ve amassed an absolutely overwhelming force.  I don’t even touch the multiplayer most of the time, because I know I might lose.  Any RPG I play will quickly accumulate a massive archive of save files, one placed just before every decision I have to make—just in case I decide, after thirty or so hours of world-saving, that I would have been better off buying the Amulet of Herpes Resistance over the +3 Death Spork back when I was level 2.

Just in case.

Totally worth the herpes.

I might have been this way forever, but there was one game that finally showed me the joy of carelessness.

Half-Life 2 has these annoying critters called antlions, which spend a good portion of the game trying to kill you.  Then, once your hatred of them has had ample time to fester, the game flips them over to your side and gives you the ability to control them.  So it was that I found myself outside the front entrance of a Combine prison fortress with four of them following me around, ready to die at my command.  I may have hated them, but they were still a necessary resource, and I resolved to keep the four of them alive as long as possible—so I was a little distraught when I made a stupid mistake and got one killed before I’d even begun the full assault.

But within seconds, another one burrowed up from the ground to take the place of its comrade.  My hand froze over the quickload button.  Overtaken by curiosity, I took a hesitant step toward this newcomer and prodded it with my crowbar.  It squealed, but did not fight back.  I hit it again, more confidently this time, and it exploded in a shower of giblets.

The other antlions didn’t even react; as bits of their slaughtered companion rolled away out of sight, yet another one rose up out of the ground almost immediately to replenish their ranks.  It scurried over to me and waited expectantly, looking for all the world like an obedient puppy.  Realization finally dawning, I felt a grin creep slowly over my face.

I had minions.

Up ahead of me was a heavily defended beach swarming with Combine, overlooked by sheer cliffs with fortified gun emplacements.  No way in hell was I going to go in by myself; this was WWII-era Normandy all over again.  Anyone attempting a frontal assault would be immediately shredded by automatic gunfire from six directions.

I know this, because I counted.  As I watched my antlions being shredded by automatic gunfire.

Go, my super bug Pokémon!

As wave after wave of my stupidly obedient companions was cut down by the merciless cliff guns, I quietly snuck up a path off to one side and lobbed a grenade into one of the gun emplacements.  Now they were only being shredded from five directions.  A few antlions were starting to push through; the enemy lines faltered for a moment, and then broke.  Silence descended on the beach as I took a moment to observe the many, many corpses of my fallen allies around me.

“That was totally awesome,” I declared, in somber recognition of the slain.  “I wanna do it again!”  Truly, my eyes had been opened to the unbridled delights of getting people killed.  Now wouldn’t it be great if I could do this sort of thing in other games?

Enter Starcraft.

No, not the sequel.  The original Starcraft, which I have been proudly sucking at since I was a kid.  And the reason I sucked, as I mentioned above, is that I took such good care of my units.  I would never send somebody to the front lines if they were likely to die, so I never even bothered with the weaker units like marines or zealots.  But after my antlion epiphany I made a point of revisiting the bottom of each race’s tech tree, and it was then that I discovered the lowly zergling.

You already know what a zergling is.  Anyone who has ever played Starcraft, talked about real-time strategy, or visited South Korea knows what a zergling is, but I want to take a second to put them in perspective for you: The weakest Terran unit—a marine—has genetically enhanced everything, swings around a high-powered machine gun like it’s a toy, and wears more body armor than the Master Chief.  These are the guys that often get brutally chewed up by larger units, most of which are described with such terms as “mountainous,” “biblical,” and “oh shit.”

Everybody got that mental picture?  Steroid-munching cyborg supersoldiers getting torn apart by gigantic alien doomsday machines?  Good.  Now the zergling, by contrast, is roughly the size of a small goat.  And where other units have plasma swords and fully automatic gauss rifles, they have itty bitty claws and teeth.

The food chain.

Send any one of these little guys into a typical Starcraft battle and it will die almost immediately; the only upside is that you can build an awful lot of them at very little cost.

And if you send a lot of them into battle?  Well, they still die.  But so does everyone else.

Suddenly my games took on a whole new tone.  I was no longer carefully shepherding my expensive units into perfectly orchestrated battles; I’d just bang out a quick army of two dozen zerglings and send them blindly into an enemy formation, then cackle with mad glee as both sides shredded each other mercilessly.  Thirty seconds later, another swarm of zerglings would already be on its way to massacre the traumatized survivors.  Suddenly, I was almost good at this game.

As I wrap up here, I feel like I should offer a moral; something to properly honor the humble zerglings and antlions of our world.  But which to choose?  ”Nothing ventured, nothing gained” is already a cliché, while “zerg rush owns all” can be difficult to apply in situations outside of Starcraft.  Perhaps I should borrow a dry witticism, such as “never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

No, I got it: “Life’s easier when you get some other sap to do your dirty work.”

Anyway, many thanks to Laura and Kent for letting me do a…guest…article…

Waaait a minute…

Peter Riggs is a gamer and a crowbar-wielding murder machine who occasionally writes about games and crowbar-related murders. Most of his writing can be found on his blog, Intelligent Design, where he uses the pseudonym “Veret” to avoid detection. Don’t tell anybody.

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