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.

Leave a comment


  1. Roy

     /  August 27, 2010

    So THAT’s what I can’t stop watching SCII replays. Wonderful insights, as usual.

    • lauramichet

       /  August 27, 2010

      since veret introduced me to them about three weeks ago– maybe four– I have been watching one or more a day. It is CRAZY, I don’t even OWN the game

      • Seeing you link to that IdrA match immediately filled me with pride…then I connected the dots to your recent addiction, and to your long absence, and ohGodwhathaveIdone. Although you’ve apparently found time to work on a thesis, so congratulations there!

        Something interesting you’ll find if you ever do get the Starcraft 2 is that Blizzard actually avoided the campaign-as-multiplayer-tutorial as much as possible. The two are completely separate entities, so new players that are fresh out of the campaign can often be seen asking how to train medics (you can’t), where all the upgrades are bought (a different place from the campaign), and why they keep losing (the campaign AI doesn’t play to win; other humans do).

        Blizzard actually did include a real multiplayer tutorial, and it even comes with a rather token narrative. Perhaps they had the same idea as you did, and decided that even a tutorial needs a story for coherence? For reference, it’s just the difference between “Mission objective: Go kill everyone” and “The Queen of Blades has given you a small force of specialist units. Go kill everyone.” But it’s still there, and this is the best reason I’ve heard so far.

        Okay, enough thinking. Gonna go watch HD and Husky cover MLG RALEIGH! YEEAAAHH!

      • lauramichet

         /  August 27, 2010

        Huh, that’s interesting. I knew that the campaign was hugely different from the multiplayer in SCII, but I had no idea they were that separate.

        I’m certainly going to check it out eventually, though. It’s not like a tutorial NEEDS a narrativey-kind-of-story for coherence, but I think it helps enormously, not only because it makes these things “more interesting” or more “immersive” ( :/ ) but because it just helps us organize our thoughts about shit. In subtle ways, I suppose. In ways you wouldn’t expect. It cuts down on granularity and helps us generalize constructively, the way rewriting history to include periodization does.

        When next I have sixty dollars to spare, I’m definitely getting SCII. However things like the Plain Sight sale, or the sale on Riven, chip and chip away at that… and Riven doesn’t even play nice with my computer, damn it!

  2. This is an interesting take on the campaign model but I don’t agree. Now I come at these things from the story angle. Generalizing here, of course, but: players have a need for narrative.

    Sins Of A Solar Empire had no campaign and there was a lot of love for this game which spawned two expansions; but that didn’t mean people didn’t demand a campaign. I don’t think a campaign is necessary to enjoy a game, but without one, there is a colony of RTS players that think the game is missing something, a certain sparkle. They like the idea of fighting for something, a narrative that justifies the actions as opposed to just having a bit of fun with the CPU. Sins’ opening movie suggested a story; but when you began playing, story was nowhere to be found. That movie was just to set the mood.

    Multiplayer has no need to construct a narrative, by virtue of having very real opposing forces that have personality and character. That doesn’t mean purpose couldn’t be added to multiplayer, but it’s not strictly necessary, because the purpose already exists. To beat the other humans.

    Neptune’s Pride doesn’t need a campaign. Every game is a story, even if you do act the angry space alien – it’s superfluous. (Tom Jubert on multiplayer narrative) A campaign on multiplayer might conflict with the players’ own story – essentially you have two distinct authors trying to write the narrative. The players would, of course, win.

    Campaigns *are* one tool in which the game can be taught, a way of reflecting meaning upon the random shapes and various mechanics that the designers have implanted in the game. But you don’t need to be taught all the way from the start of the game right through to the closing credits. That’s a lot of writing effort just for a tutorial. I think campaigns can be utilised to teach; I don’t think that’s their primary purpose.

    But I can go with sports commentators being someone to retell the story (translators within the framework of your article here) – of a multiplayer game.

    Good luck on the new move, Laura.

    • I’m inclined to agree that the stories which naturally arise out of the interactions between players in multi-player games are generally going to be more interesting than any scripted narrative.

      Neptune’s Pride, for all its many, many flaws, provides a fantastic platform for creating these sorts of stories. I hope I never play it again, but my last match in that game has basically been etched into my brain for eternity.

  3. I think you could build a competitive narrative reactively within an arcade setting: players come in, match happens, players leave, next story chunk is written.

    Babycastles might be the perfect venue for this as of right now.

  4. You’re totally right about our desire for tidy little translations and histories, of course. This is exactly why I’m always fascinated to hear people talk about Street Fighter or Dwarf Fortress.

    • lauramichet

       /  August 29, 2010

      Well, yeah. I’m not saying that x kind of narrative is better or more interesting than y; just that they have powerful teaching potential even if they’re not straight-up talking about the things they wish to teach

  5. If you enjoy watching Starcraft II commentated replays, you might want to take a look at the high level play that goes on in Quake III/Quake Live matches. It’s a really understated game. Most people just assume that it’s two dudes blasting each other with rockets, but there’s a huge amount of high level strategy that goes into each match, based on the maps and relative skill of the players involved.

    Here’s a cool match analysis by top player Rapha who explains his victory in Quake Live. It’s incredibly fascinating.

  6. Gassalasca

     /  September 5, 2010

    Yeah, some good points on the whole multiplayer side of things, replays etc.

    However, I must say, the original Starcraft’s campaign and the story that went for it remain by far the best I’ve seen in any RTS. Twelve years later, it’s the only one that actually managed to make me care about it, and want to revisit it, which I did three or four times now.

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