Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Is Starcraft grimdark?: Darker than expected RTS storytelling

This essay will contain spoilers for Starcraft, Brood War, and Starcraft II.

    Already, I can hear some of you sniggering in the background. Starcraft? Grimdark? We're talking about Blizzard's other successful real-time strategy series, right? The one with the little cartoon space marines, aliens, and space elves, right? The one that isn't Warhammer 40K but is similar enough that at least one of the designers played it before the franchise moved in a different direction. Why yes, yes I am. I actually think Starcraft is a grimdark series even if it isn't as grim or as dark as the aforementioned series set in the 40th millennium.

    Why do I think that? Well, that's a complicated question but it boils down to the fact if you scrape away the fact it's a bright colorful world of cartoon aliens then you'll find it's a monstrously corrupt and horrifying universe. Aside from Jim Raynor, a drunken washed-out criminal turned revolutionary, there's no real heroes in the universe and it's a place where the savior of the galaxy is someone entirely capable of murdering whole planets of innocents in order to get revenge on one man. Good and evil are subjective in the Starcraft universe and antiheroes are the franchise's lead characters.

Yes, I can feel the grimdark!
    I first started realizing Starcraft was something different from regular science fiction when I played the original game in 1998 when I was eighteen. I was already familiar with the Aliens franchise and mostly assumed this game would be about heroic power-armored marines vs. xenomorphs stand-ins called Zerg.

    I also heard there would be a resistance against an evil empire so I assumed it would be Aliens meets Star Wars--a cool combination but nothing to get excited over. No one was expecting all that much from the campaign so, like Warcraft III turned out to be, the in-depth writing surprised people who payed attention during the game's three single-player campaigns.

Such a trustworthy guy.
    The Terran campaign turned to be about you joining a revolutionary group called the Sons of Korhal to fight an oppressive Deep South-themed government appropriately named the Confederacy. The Confederacy had made your character an outlaw for destroying Zerg-infested buildings they were implied to be studying. Your boss, Arcturus Mengsk, was an idealistic rebel who said the Confederacy had created the Zerg as a weapon to solidify their control over humanity's colonies. This would turn out to be a lie but the player had no reason to doubt the revolutionary leader at this time.

     I should mention in 1998, player characters were a lot more inclined to view heroic resistance groups favorably. In Final Fantasy 7, you could blow up a power plant and no one would call your group "terrorists" because such conflicts were still largely across the world. Indeed, Major Kira Nerys on Deep Space Nine was a self-admitted terrorist as if it was a neutral word.  Thus, no player expected the Sons of Korhal to be anything more than the good guys you were joining versus a faction with its own moral ambiguities and sordid history. This, despite the fact the game says Mengsk was someone the Confederacy said had committed atrocities in the past. Why not believe Mengsk when he says the Confederacy is lying? I mean, they've certainly given you no reason to trust them.

     As your new boss, Mengsk justified increasingly extreme methods against the Confederacy until he ordered you, Jim Raynor (A Malcolm Reynolds-esque sheriff before Malcolm existed), and psychic Special Forces agent Sarah Kerrigan to lure the Zerg to the Confederacy's capital. This abominable war crime is something you assist on until Mengsk abandons Sarah Kerrigan to her death (and possibly you) so he can save his own skin. Mengsk proceeds to use the crisis to propel himself into power, showing his revolution was nothing like the Rebel Alliance but more like the countless ones across history where the new boss is as bad as the old boss.

Kerrigan's loss wasn't quite Aerith's death was but it was close.
    The game then shifted over to the Zerg and you got the chance to play as the surprisingly-intelligent but still-malevolent abominations you'd been fighting up to this point. The Zerg, it turned out, were a race which simply wished to advance itself biologically as well as technologically.

    They were a hive-race with no free will despite distinct personalities and the Overmind had a love for his species even though he was willing to sacrifice millions in the name of perfection. They were hostile but not necessarily evil as they bore the races they conquered no malice and only wished to bring themselves closer to (their version of) perfection.

    I always liked the Zerg because they were monsters who managed to avoid "villain decay" by virtue of being one of the protagonists. Under you, the Zerg destroy whole worlds and laid waste to countless armies as well as fleets. This nicely avoids the typical scenario where aggressive alien invaders come in all threatening but get stomped on by the heroes. Even when the heroes "win" against the Zerg, they usually suffered some sort of catastrophic loss in the process and that helped keep them threatening.

A face only a hive mind could love.
    Sadly, the Protoss campaign undermined my point as it was built around the renegade Tassadar trying to save his home world from a hostile Zerg invasion. There's not much more ambiguity in this section and the closest thing to moral ambiguity is the fact the Protoss council opposes you at every turn (which just means they're idiots). Tassadar ends up sacrificing himself to kill the Zerg Overmind and save his race even if his home world of Aiur is ruined beyond repair.

    Even so, the series took a turn back to grimdark with the Brood War expansion. Taking service under the Queen of Blades (the Zerg-transformed Sarah Kerrigan), the fascist Admiral DuGaulle, and the sinister Dark Templars--you got to fight a much more ambiguous conflict. In the end, the Queen of Blades annihilated all of her equally-vile rivals and established herself as "The Queen Bitch of the Universe." It was an unambiguous victory for the villain but was she the villain? Her opponents included individuals who wanted to exterminate the Protoss and the self-styled Emperor Mengsk who was enjoying the fruits of your labors.

Earth's forces, here to enslave and destroy!
    Part of what made Brood War so effective was they subverted many of the traditional tropes you'd expect from a game like this. The Queen of Blades was a popular character both before as well as after her transformation.

    When her character claims she's reformed and is now a "good" Zerg again, you're inclined to believe her. After all, Darth Vader was redeemed and many other villainous characters in space opera. She was also brainwashed into her evil so the player is even more inclined to cut her slack. So when she turns out to have been evil all along, you the player are shocked and even more so when she wins the game and becomes the most powerful person in the galaxy despite being a genocidal swarm queen. Best of all, she did it with your help.

Is it better to be a heroine or a tyrant? You decide.
    The Starcraft Expanded Universe illustrated just how dark the setting could get. The novel, Nova, for example had the story of psychics regularly kidnapped from their parents before being brainwashed into the common Ghosts units which our protagonists use. Other stories, like manga tale "Why We Fight", showed the soldiers of the setting aren't much better as they're often brainwashed prisoners put into metal armor to serve as suicide squads. Almost no one's hands are clean in the setting and every leader has to do something terrible in order to win over their enemies.

    The three campaigns of Starcraft II were an interesting mix of moral ambiguity and more heroic stories. However, the second campaign, Heart of the Swarm, was all about just how far a person was willing to go for revenge. In the case of Kerrigan, she was willing to go pretty damn far even when supposedly cured of her evil impulses. Ultimately, the story ended on a too-bright note of evil defeated and good redeemed. Still, it was a trio of campaigns with some interesting notes and refreshingly three-dimensional characters. For a game about war, it was full of betrayals, casualties, atrocities, and loss.

Sacrifice millions, murder your friend, and betray everyone.
    So, is Starcraft grimdark? Not...really. There's a lot darker and more three-dimensional writing than might readily be apparent but the sequel chooses to go with a somewhat more traditional good vs. evil story. Even so, I have to say I like the setting a lot more than I thought I would and think grimdark fans should give it a try if they're fond of real-time strategy games.

    There's also a few genuinely dark and interesting stories in the spin-off stories. Not even diamonds in the rough. More like diamonds among quartz and the occasional ruby. That's more than I can say for a lot of video game franchises where the game bends over backward to make the players feel like heroes. In Starcraft, at the very least, the hero was simply whoever you were commanding at the time--even when she's destroying worlds.


  1. Command & Conquer is pretty grimdark as well. From the introduction of Kane by shooting Seth in the head to the driving force behind the series machinations being a plot to lure unsuspecting aliens to Earth, kill them all, and then steal their stuff.

    The Red Alert series is more cartoony but also more dark.

  2. The intro for Brood War shows you how bad these marines have it. You don't realize that's what is happening when you send your SCV to scout enemy bases or when you gg and leave the game in the middle of an invasion.


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