20 Years Later, StarCraft's Story Is Still An Engrossing Take On Space Opera

Image: Blizzard

StarCraft was unveiled to the world 20 years ago, and in the time since it's become a legendary fixture of the competitive gaming scene. Which makes it easy to forget that it's also a fantastic space opera.

Earlier this month, Blizzard, StarCraft's developers, released StarCraft Remastered, a face lift to the original title meant to spruce it up (along with its expansion, Brood War) for a new era. It didn't change anything substantive, mostly just the graphics, but it offered a chance to get sucked back in.

And I have. Since I'm beyond atrocious at the multiplayer, that's meant digging into the sprawling solo campaign, which tells an intricate story of war, betrayal, and greed involving all three in-game races. A story that is much more engrossing than I remembered.

The story begins with the Terrans, a band of humans who have colonised deep space. You play as a magistrate for the Confederacy of Man, but you quickly join up with the dissident group the Sons of Korhal after the Confederates leave your colonists to die. The Terran campaign is taken up by a pretty straightforward story in which you fight the Confederates and the Zerg, a race of violent, parasitic aliens who seem to have no purpose but to consume and destroy.

The story introduces you to a heroic frontier sheriff in the form of Jim Raynor and a morally complicated heroine, the psychic special operative Sarah Kerrigan. This first tale ends in betrayal: the Sons of Korhal abandon your people to the Zerg, and Sarah Kerrigan is devoured.

Then the Zerg campaign begins, and things get interesting. The world of the Zerg is an entirely foreign one. The Zerg are much smarter than they initially appear, but the sentient intelligences serving the Zerg are cruel and petty, bound together only by their shared hunger for conquest and blood. The goals of the Zerg campaign are more primal than the Terran one: you destroy your enemies and consume their territory, waging a nasty war against both humans and the Protoss, a warrior race that has travelled across the galaxy to crush the Zerg infestation.

You spend your first missions protecting a chrysalis, an embryonic Zerg organism that gives birth to an infested version of Kerrigan, recreated as a special Zerg champion. All her human intelligence and tenacity, turned monstrous. She uses her unique individuality to gain power within the Zerg and sets out to annihilate the Protoss once and for all.

Protoss vs. Zerg.

Now, a lot of that might not sound all that distinctive on its own. But what's compelling about this story, and the Protoss campaign following it, is the way it involves the player in the beats of the narrative. In StarCraft, playing a race is a sort of embodiment. It's a way to learn to act, to think, the way they do. Zerg capture territory mercilessly and multiply through hideous organic structures. The Protoss build small groups of specialised, careful warriors with which to purge the Zerg infestation.

In both cases, you digest the story by doing, by becoming. Learning how to play a race means learning how to think like them.

After a couple of missions playing the Zerg, I felt the same reckless hunger that they did. I looked at the humans, at the Protoss, and I saw targets. Vectors of expansion. To my surprise, I was rooting for the monsters.

A lot of science fiction struggles to draw the audience into imagined spaces, failing to tie fantastical ideas to elements that feel lived in or relatable, but StarCraft passes that test beautifully. It provides an unlikely blueprint for how to tell these sorts of stories. By giving the audience hooks into this world's inhabitants, by letting them see how even the most foreign beings in it understand themselves, Blizzard has built a story that lasts.

The effect of this is that, even at its most trope-y, StarCraft's storytelling always feels urgent. As different factions of each race play off each other, the game pulls the player into their struggles, compels empathy and fascination even for the entirely alien Zerg. The world of StarCraft is dense, but it feels lived in and alive.

I don't just learn about and fear the alien hordes. Here, I am the alien hordes. Even more than the immaculate tactical gameplay, that sort of storytelling is addictive.


Comments

    One of the best storylines in games still to this day.

    OR... and bear with me here... StarCraft has always been the most shameless remix/mashup of Aliens and Warhammer 40K. The religious Space Marines still LOOK like Space Marines with their circular pauldrons, but they've been personality-overprinted with the down-country Colonial Marines from Aliens. The Zerg are the Tyrannid and the Protoss are the Eldar with almost no attempt to hide this in any way.

    As for the story... remember that one kid in Year 10 who would spend his lunch times furiously scribbling (typing these days, I guess) away at this enormous and convoluted sci-fi/fantasy/ninja epic, where half-sketched characters endlessly reveal deeper secrets to each other, and everyone turns out to be a demigod or half-demon or something?

    And then there's this famous Penny Arcade strip of course, it's about World of Warcraft, but all the same things apply:

    https://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2006/04/10

      That kid went on to make a game about his epic.. E.Y.E. Divine Cybermancy

      "After an unending war with the metastreumonic Force, the powerful organization Secreta Secretorum you belong to is finally ready to undermine the head-strong federation, despite an intense struggle for power."

        Bloody hell, that game was a mess.

        I couldn't tell what it was supposed to be, and it sure as hell didn't want me to know.

      Yeah, I agree with this. The story is still interesting and I like it, but it's not really all that original or novel. Even the 40k SPAAAAAAAACE MARINES, Tyrannids and Eldar are sort of rooted in Tolken's work of corrupt but self-righteous men, monstrous hordes with a complex governing cadre, and the all knowing elder race that act aloof and in decline. The better parts of 40k are where they move away from those core fantasy elements.

      Starcraft's real strength is in its storytelling and delivery - but that said, I don't give it too much praise for making the player sympathetic to whatever race they're playing. Most games don't do this because you only ever play one side - it's natural to feel some sort of connection with whatever side you play as to drive the narrative. None of the SC races are inherently evil after all.

      Now TIE Fighter making the Empire seem like the good guys... that was an achievement!

      I'd say the Protoss are actually more of a mix between the Eldar and the Tau. The Zerg are clearly based on the Tyranids but also are very much inspired by Giger's Alien designs.

      Once upon a time, there was a rumour that Blizzard and Games Workshop were working together to create a RTS game based on 40K but GW were either unhappy with the result or decided to pull out for other reasons. Blizzard decided to take what they had already done and change it enough to turn it into their own product and Starcraft was born. Now, as I said, this was just a RUMOUR, and has *never been proven to have actually happened*. It MAY have happened, but it's never been proven. It won't stop someone from trying to tell you it's the absolute truth though.

      And 40K is cribbed directly from Starship Troopers which features powered space marines fighting hordes of arachnids. I don't remember Blizzard claiming they invented these concepts either, so what's your point?

        You're super wrong! That's the 1997 MOVIE version of Starship Troopers which post-dates 40K by 10 years and beat StarCraft by only one year.

        The 1959 book it's based on, by Heinlein, is very different. The "mobile infantry" is dudes in powersuits that can jump kilometres at a time. In the beginning of the book they fight "skinnies" as well as the Arachnids - the point of the book is Heinlein's fascistic orgasm over a perfect army where "everyone fights, no one quits" from the Colonel down to the cook.

        Oh and in the movie they don't have power armour anyway.

        My point is that while much sci-fi is influenced by earlier sci-fi, StarCraft is more of a... ahem, accurate homage... to Warhammer 40K than many other works...

        And the story ain't that great.

      If you looked into it enough, almost everything has been influenced (some more than others) by something before it. It just a case of how far it does as some its more obvious than others.

      Sure, Starcraft and 40K share some very similar points, but so does a lot of sci-fi. Parasitic aliens who's technology is organic, using claws and spikes as weapons. Human technology is always gritty and industrial, weapons seem to be bullets and explosives, even though you would think they would have found something better in the hundreds of years since. You always seem to find a benevolent race of super intelligent beings who are the energy weapon and shield users.

      Don't think about it too much, enjoy the ride!

        [Watches squad of Protoss Zealots charging down the hill towards our bunkers, psionic blades flashing, screaming their terrible battle cry..]

        B... benevolent?

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