Okay, enough of this serious shit. You know what I feel like talking about? Storytelling in videogames.
I picked up Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm a little bit ago and just recently finished the Story Campaign (yeah, I know — I’ve been busy, okay?). From what I’ve heard, a lot of people were seriously unhappy with the storyline. Personally, I liked it, but today I just want to talk about one thing I think they did well. First, a bit of background:
There’s an interesting dimension to videogame storytelling that’s nearly unique to the medium; the relationship between the audience and the protagonist. In non-interactive media (novels, movies, etc.), this relationship is fairly straightforward — the audience is (by definition) an observer.
But in a videogame, it gets more complicated. The player controls the protagonist’s actions, at least to some extent. So this means that the actions of the character become difficult to distinguish from those of the player, and so the identities of the character and the player become kind of muddled.
Let’s use an example, so I’m not just talking pseudo-existentialist wank. Let’s go with a Legend of Zelda game. I’m going to pick Ocarina of Time, because it’s the last one I actually played. Yeah, I’m showing my age a bit.
Link is, of course, a classical silent protagonist. He takes no physical actions that aren’t controlled by the player and has no actual dialogue. So in that sense, he acts as a stand-in for the player, rather than a character in his own right.
At the same time, though, Link does have character attributes that are distinct from the player. First of all, he starts the game with a background and something that distinguishes him from the other members of the village — he’s lacked a fairy companion since birth (oh, shut up). He also visibly responds to certain events — often registering shock, confusion, anger, or surprise when weird stuff happens. So in that sense, he’s distinct from the player and he is his own character.
If this still isn’t clear, consider this: Do you kill Gannondorf, or does Link? Did the Kokiri bully and ostracize you, or Link? Does Princess Zora fall in love with you, or Link?
Yeah, it gets pretty weird if you think about it for awhile.
How this question is handled naturally varies from game to game. To use an iconic example, the Half-Life series keeps Gordon Freeman as a completely silent protagonist and the perspective never shifts from his view, so he’s clearly meant to be more a stand-in for the player than anything else. At the other end of the spectrum, you have something like a Real-Time Strategy game, where you control your units, but are clearly just issuing them orders, rather than “being” them in any sense.
Most games take a middle ground, where the protagonist is neither a full alter-ego nor a completely distinct entity. A good example of a game that uses this to its advantage is the Mass Effect series. Dialogue and action options are pre-recorded, and it’s clearly Shepherd speaking or acting, rather than the player. But the player gets to choose from several dialogue choices, deciding which one best suits their version of Shepherd. Shepherd is thus somewhat more like a pupil that the player guides and trains, rather than a representation of the player themselves.
To come back to the point of this post, the original Starcraft’s storyline handled this largely in the “Half-Life” method, with a nameless, faceless, silent, unseen character standing in for the player. In Wings of Liberty, however, this changed, and the player switched to “being” Jim Raynor, former Marshall of the Terran Confederacy and current rebel against the Terran Dominion. Raynor is clearly his own character in most respects — he has his own pre-written dialogue, cutscenes show him interacting with other characters, etc. — but the player makes several key decisions for him and acts in his role as commander during the battles. This is another one of those “in-between” approaches to the player/character question.
In continuing the storyline, Heart of the Swarm moves the protagonist role to Sarah Kerrigan, former Confederate Ghost, former hive-queen of the zerg swarm, and current…well, that’s a major question raised by the storyline, but that’s another issue. The point is that coming into Heart of the Swarm, the writers had a dilemma on their hands; how to switch from Raynor as the protagonist to Kerrigan as the protagonist?
The simplest way, of course, would be to have Raynor absent when the game opens. That isn’t really practical, given how the previous game ended. So they had to come up with a different way to communicate to the audience that they were “being” Kerrigan, rather than Raynor. And the way they did so is really clever.
The first and somewhat less interesting way is in the cinema for the first mission. Here it is, for reference:
Sorry for not linking directly to the three-minute mark — seems Youtube and WordPress aren’t getting along flawlessly.
3:00 When the scene opens, it’s pretty much indistinguishable from cutscenes in Wings of Liberty; the shot follows Raynor as he approaches the test chamber and talks to the guards, showing us pieces of the facility only as he comes into view of them.
4:20 In terms of storyline, the next minute is the transition between Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm. Here we get the long-awaited reunion of our favorite Battle Couple, and the first transition point. It’s subtle, but effective. Listen to Raynor’s voice.
The second line — “It’s your last one” — is muffled by force field between Raynor and Kerrigan. In other words, we’re hearing it not as Raynor hears it, but as Kerrigan hears it. This is the first time in the cutscene — and one of the few times in SC2 up to this point — that Raynor is present, but we clearly aren’t seeing or hearing something as he does. This also establishes that we, the audience, aren’t omniscient. In some sense, we’re supposed to be “physically there” in this scene, and so our senses are limited and affected by the surroundings. It communicates that we’re not just watching the characters, but we’re with one of them in some sense. But only one of them. And for just a second there, we were with someone other than Raynor — a rarity up until this point. The POV swaps between Kerrigan and Raynor through the scene, and the sound changes to match. This just reinforces the idea.
5:15 And when the blast doors finally close, we’re now with Kerrigan. And just as we never saw Kerrigan’s side of them before they opened, we now never see Raynor’s side of the doors after they shut (in the cutscene, anyway). The close marks the final transition between the two games, and the two player identies. To whatever extent the audience “were” Jim Raynor before, we’re now Sarah Kerrigan instead.
But like I said, that’s the less interesting of the two techniques they use, at least for me. This is mainly because this first one, though effective, isn’t unique to videogames — in fact, up to this point, we’ve been effectively watching a film. But the second one communicates this in a way only a videogame could use, and it starts in the second mission of the campaign.
Here’s Day9 (one of the real public faces of the Starcraft 2 scene) playing through Mission 2 for the first time. The first thing he notices is the first thing noticed by anyone who played the original Brood War. Jump to 3:35.
“Oh! Oh, I don’t control Jim.”
Some context, in case you’re not familiar: this has virtually never been the case in any Starcraft game. Whenever there have been major protagonists on the field, the player can control their movements. There were several missions like this in Brood War, in which Raynor and Kerrigan were fighting together, and it has always been possible to control both of them. Even in a Starcraft game in which you’re supposed to “be” Sarah Kerrigan, anyone familiar with the series would absolutely expect to be able to control Raynor, which is why Day9 tried to do it without even thinking about it. Every ally character Kerrigan encounters in HOTS is controllable, except Jim.
Furthermore — and this is completely unique in the series, as far as I’m aware — Jim’s bar and select-circle are green. That may sound completely inconsequential, but it’s actually not. There have been allied characters you can’t control before, but (a) they’ve been characters who aren’t explicitly protagonists, and (b) their UI color is yellow. Green characters are defined as those units under your control. The fact that Raynor uniquely breaks those rules means the player is going to notice it. If there was any lingering doubt about who you’re playing as, this pretty much snuffs it out.
Storyline and mechanics are often thought of as separate components of videogames, and what’s cool about this to me is that Blizzard here is using the mechanics to convey something about the narrative. No medium other than videogames could use this technique. And it’s a very small change that results in a huge difference in the experience of the audience. Furthermore, it only works because they’ve established the rules of the UI previously and never deviated from them, so when they do break them, it’s a big deal. I always find it really interesting when game designers find ways of delivering a story that are unique to videogames as a medium, and Blizzard has done a really elegant job of that here.