Screenshot2010-04-16-15_46_23.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch opinion column by Tom Cross focusing game narratives and the ways that play, gaming, and narrative mix. This week, Tom slogs through Starcraft 2's single player campaign.]

Starcraft’s designers plugged many spot-on references and jokes into their space-strategy game. From the three race’s relative similarity to FOX’s extraterrestrial heavy hitters (now the stars of the wretched AvP movie series), to almost every scene and line from Aliens, Starcraft wore its heart and its inspiration on its sleeve.

It may have pioneered a certain brand of space epic (that stars garrulous space hicks), but for the most part it kept such antics to the brief cinematics that interspersed the Terran campaign.

All the rest of the exposition was delivered by serious space bugs and serious space zealots, talking about chrysalides and the like. I am thankful for that small blessing, considering what I think is the overloaded, painfully insistent plotting and long-winded exposition found in Starcraft 2.

Starcraft’s world was mostly represented by ingame voice work and art. We got a feel for what the technology and movements of each race were from the animations and sound produced by units ingame. For the most part, when we saw zerglings and marines in the CG cutscenes, they looked (as most CG characters looked at the time) a little stretched out, a little stilted and peculiar, and nothing at all like their ingame counterparts.

Blizzard was and is immensely pleased with its CG work (presently they’re neck and neck with the Final Fantasy games for most overblown cinematics), but in Starcraft they handed over most exposition and character development to surprisingly effective and attractive pre-mission talking heads, and in-mission chatter. There’s a reason why we don’t see the principal actors (Kerrigan, Raynor, and the various Zerg and Protoss heavies) in CG cutscenes: they’d look pretty awful, and the disconnect between their CG selves and their ingame and pre-mission selves would be evident, even laughable.

Thus, while the tone and delivery of Starcraft’s script was as cheesy and overblown as you’d expect from a company that created Arthas and Deckard Cain, it mostly went about its business and then got out of the way. Pre-mission conversations were used to develop character arcs, conflicts, and (too often) to explain what the hell was going on in each mission. That was often due to the different missions’ repetitious and uninventive structure. There are too many “survive the assault” and “kill the other guy” missions. The writers had to give some reason for the player’s dogged pursuit of tactical victory, over and over.

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These pre-mission conversations were given a little extra flavor by two kinds of ingame dialogue: that delivered as part of pseudo cutscenes, by main characters, and that which was produced by units, when those units were selected. This (now-common) RTS quirk was first introduced in Warcraft, and it is indicative of Blizzard’s approach to genre storytelling in their genre-heavy games. While the game itself might include humorous moments as part of the larger plot, the main thrust of the story is deadly-serious – the kind of horribly earnest tale of combat between the good, the bad, and the third faction that most game stories can’t escape from.

To help us forget all of the serious, solemn goings-on outside the game proper, Blizzard peppers every unit’s dialog with pop culture references and simple humor. It’s the kind of design that caters to those steeped in the same culture as the designers were, and thus Starcraft’s pilots, marines, and aliens all seem to have walked out of a series of 80’s action movies (most of which are near and dear to my heart, I must admit).

Again, for the most part, these humorous bits were kept away from the main plot and extended conversations of the out-of-combat briefings. Blizzard settles for two methods of storytelling: the lengthy, increasingly serious talking heads, and the units’ humorous ingame responses to repeated orders.

In Starcraft 2, Blizzard changed things up, obviously, but some of the changes (those not relating to balance and ingame mechanics) break up gameplay in an unavoidable way. The pre-mission briefings are now quite brief. You’ll only see one talking head, and whoever that head is he or she will quickly, efficiently inform you of the story’s reasons for your immanent strategic efforts. The rest of the exposition comes in-mission and in-cutscene. In-mission dialogue is as James Cameron-like as expected, but it moves players from set-piece to set-piece.

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I can’t stand the in-engine cutscenes. While it’s nice (and nicely consistent) that Blizzard can now do almost everything in-engine, it has inspired them to produce a massive number of in-engine conversations, cutscenes, and interactions. In Starcraft, when the dropships pick up Raynor, or the Zerg guys start droning on about the Chrysalis or the Queen of Blades (in-missions, that is), it was presented by units moving around and bits of dialogue. That’s fine. It had a simplicity to it that blunted the soporific effect of the game’s script.

In Starcraft 2, players are treated to beautiful, lavish cutscenes in which hardened, whiskey-soaked men debate the finer points of courtship, the differences between criminals and freedom fighters, and the loss of a good woman. It was bad enough when those pretty CG heads discussed pre-mission issues in Starcraft. This time around, every conversation is bookended by musical cues from Firefly and camera pans of pretty glasses of booze. The actor behind Jim Raynor plays it part Malcolm Reynolds, part Marcus Fenix, but the way he’s written and animated (and the way he looks, like some hilariously coiffed Masculine Ideal) betrays his every enunciation.

None of this is in any way surprising, content-wise. This is how Blizzard does, and depressingly, many companies take their cues from Blizzard. What’s surprising, and disheartening, is that there’s so damn much of it, and that a good portion of it is built into the myriad systems appended to the main campaign. Instead of simply offering up a series of missions, Starcraft 2 lets players take their ease between missions in a number of locations. When not commanding Raynor and Co., players can explore Raynor’s bar hangout (initially), and later his base of operations, the battlecruiser Hyperion.

Aboard the Hyperion, players can visit the Cantina, the Bridge, the Armory, the Lab, and the Sickbay. Each area provides Raynor with characters to talk to (again, using the expertly crafted in-engine cutscenes) and upgrades to purchase. Talking to characters mostly just deepens the player’s knowledge of said character, or develops that character’s relationship with Raynor. It’s all completely unnecessary, from a gameplay perspective. One doesn’t ever have to talk to these people (though Raynor and the Gang spend a lot of time with each other talking in the main story sections), and all of the upgrades can be accessed sans conversation.

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Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t matter that these conversations and characters are optional. They still make the non-combat parts of the game feel misshapen and unwieldy. It was a given in Starcraft that the ingame units and pre-mission characters shared nothing but a voice actor. The difference graphically was so inescapable that the division between the two could never be breached. Now that Blizzard has bridged that gap graphically, I have to wonder why they bothered with the cutscenes at all. Starcraft and Starcraft 2 are about commanding armies and building bases.

When I have to sit and watch my units talk, I accept that the single player portion of the game needs a reason, a purpose, for all of that toing and froing (more properly, gamers need these things). Likewise, there’s a certain pleasure to be had in watching quick mission briefings: I’m a commander, and commanders get briefed, or brief people, right? Starcraft 2 goes ahead and makes a significant portion of Wings of Liberty about upgrading a dude’s sweet ship, and about upgrading ingame assets using resources (rather incomprehensibly) earned from previous ingame missions.

Starcraft 2’s upgrade mechanics are mostly lifted from upgrades previously available ingame in Starcraft. If you want your marines to have stimpacks, or want to build medics without having to build a Barracks add-on, you must unlock those capabilities in the Armory. Percentage upgrades to damage and race-specific combat (damage to Zerg only, for instance) can be unlocked using research points collected in the field, and the lab lets players upgrade their forces using alien technology. It’s all here in the beautiful Hyperion, and it means that I’ve spent hours outside of the game proper fiddling with NPCs and upgrades.

I’m not against “RPG” and progression-focused mechanics in games by any means, nor am I against loadout screens, upgrade trees, and special items. I think that Dawn of War, Company of Heroes, and slower games like Valkyria Chronicles introduce interesting, meaningful choices into the way players grow and develop their armies.

I think it’s great that I can build different kinds of hero units, jump jet units, and sniper units in Dawn of War 2. I like these parts of DoW 2 because they are integrated into the game, more or less. Items and upgrades can mostly be found on enemies ingame, and character upgrades, equipment loadouts, and mission choice are all handled through one multi-tiered window, the strategic menu.

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It’s by no means a perfectly elegant solution to the problem that many games have, that of separating different parts of play from each other using non-playable elements. The cutscene is merely the most obvious and jarring of such divisions. The difference between the in-combat and strategic menus in DoW 2 is certainly vast. However, the strategic map is quite clear about what it does and what it allows you to do. It’s not full of exposition and long conversations; it doesn’t do as much to undermine all of the hard work done by the in-game narrative.

There are still in-game briefings, and they can drag on a bit (one almost longs for Rockstar’s by-now clichéd ingame “horse briefings”), but they’re as utilitarian as possible, aside from the slightly pretty, slightly “huge dudes in space” planet and loadouts screens. It’s all in service of play, of playing the game and moving from mission to mission. It doesn’t distract you all that much, and unsurprisingly, the repetitious, canned videos before each vanilla mission are the most annoying and unexciting parts of the game.

One could argue that character development and grandiose narrative are important to Starcraft 2’s gameplay. That’s a completely incorrect assertion, but it brings up another issue with Starcraft 2’s story and characters: they’re completely unnecessary. This is true of most game characters and stories. Most game narratives are tacked on after the game proper is finished. Game stories are window dressing; they have little to do with the actual playing of the game.

I’m not a huge fan of Valkyria Chronicles’s story. I find many of the characters to be annoying, and its message regarding war and associated topics is both labored and unable to create meaningful, affecting characters and scenes. Valkyria Chronicles makes soldiers who are important to the play, the story, and to players. Not only is our hero’s disposition, rank, and familial situation relevant to the story, it’s relevant to tactics and squad structure. Characters express feelings and behaviors in cutscenes that mirror or explain their combat traits.

Some soldiers hate men, or women, or groups, or being alone. Some are allergic to grass, or have never seen the streets of a real city, or hate dust. Everyone has a long lit of these traits. They slowly unlock, becoming available (and extremely important, tactically) as each soldier levels up. My favorite sniper may become completely useless in urban areas, once her fear of cities and dense clusters of people has been unearthed. When a character’s disposition and opinions are translated into ingame bonuses and weaknesses, character becomes all-important.

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Valkyria Chronicles doesn’t just make each combat encounter hinge on the player’s knowledge and manipulation of soldiers’ quirks; Chronicles devotes entire missions to learning about important, previously unknown aspects of different characters’ lives and habits. This reinforces the importance of individual soldiers and their unique traits (both ingame and in-story) in a way that few other games can match. In Valkyria Chronicles (however much it pains me) story is much closer to play than is normal for video games (ignoring recent games made by Bioware and Obsidian).

It’s not really that startling to play a game with extraneous, underdeveloped elements. It’s a bit surprising in a Blizzard game, certainly. Blizzard spends years (almost a decade, in this case) developing each new title, and in a superficial way, Starcraft 2 is as refined as one could desire. It’s still deep and well-balanced: I can still find videos online of matches between players who operate on a higher level than me, employing strategies that confuse me.

The upgrades available in the lab and armory do offer a very minor kind of branching, gain/loss mechanic, but it’s incredibly subtle. No doubt, the upgrades and progression in Starcraft 2 are thusly subtle because if they were any meatier or stronger, they’d change the nature of the single player campaign; it would become something else, something much like Warcraft 3 or Dawn of War 2.

Starcraft 2 is a fun, well-balanced game (from what I can tell). It’s beautiful and easy to use and easier to understand, for the most part. It also takes something I’m used to (annoying, bombastic storytelling) and mixes it almost inextricably with not-good enough meta-combat mechanics. If it weren’t for this amalgam of underutilized progression mechanics and outrageous narrative, I’d be hard-pressed to find fault with the game. As it is, I wonder why Blizzard would put so much effort into making part of their game incomplete.

[Tom Cross is a managing editor at Rules of the Game, writes for Popmatters, and blogs about games at Delayed Responsibility. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]