- Introduction ...................................................................................................................................................................................................
Prefatory Content ........................................................................................................................................................................................
The Story .......................................................................................................................................................................................................
- Sector One .......................................................................................................................................................................................
Sector Two .......................................................................................................................................................................................
Sector Three ....................................................................................................................................................................................
Appendix: Zerg History ..............................................................................................................................................................................
So...I have been for some time now, on the fence as to whether or not I would actually get Heart of the Swarm or not. I've been teetering over period of a few months in looking at pros/cons, personal opinions, and I only finally caved and made the decision to purchase this first SC2 'expansion' a couple of weeks ago, though I was going to be entering with a rather large dose of skepticism.
Why? Well, like a good number of people I have been rather disappointed by Blizzard as of late with their recent releases of Wings of Liberty and Diablo III (late having the meaning of the last 4-5 years as I've known Blizzard as a gamer since 1994). While I don't really go out of my way to talk about it here, I have never really made it a secret that I strongly dislike both D3 and SC2:WoL in terms of their stories. As an artist and someone with considerable experience with the performing arts as an actor and singer I am always thinking very critically about such expositions of story, character motivations, or narrative choices, or at the very least have a high standard as to what is acceptable in terms of these ideas. It is no wonder then that both of the aforementioned titles disappointed me so much as those respective stories, the execution notwithstanding, are giant vacuous caricatures of once interesting ideas (I'll explain this a little more in detail later). I suppose that with my current feelings and apprehension then, that Heart of the Swarm would in my mind be either a necessary measure of redemption for Blizzard...or strike three in the story department. Does it correct many of the problems of Wings and recapture that old maniacally chaotic, and manipulative backstabbing of Brood War, or does it continue with its recent development of multiple personalities  and flail wildly in every direction (if a picture says a 1000 words, what does this one say? + Show Spoiler +
In order to be appropriately prepared for looking at Heart of the Swarm I also recently replayed through all of Star1 and Star2 a couple of weeks ago in order to refresh my memory of some of the story elements, character personalities and decisions they made, and other issues before I delve back into the Koprulu sector once more.
I will not talk about multi-player in this review as mainly because many of the new multiplayer units, strategies, maps, etc... are not of primary importance to the development of the main story elements, and where my heart primarily was invested in for Brood War (though issues regarding personal attachments to or enjoyment of units and the like may be touched upon). I also had planned to cover the newly improved Battle.net UI, but as Wings got this update a few weeks ago, you can find that review and analysis in the following post already. I also shouldn't need to mention this, but if you have negativity or non-constructive or critically developed ideas to say (e.g. 'no one plays Starcraft for the story, lol' or other less than constructive posts), please refrain from hitting the post button. I do welcome critical discussion however.
I will additionally be referencing the Wings and Brood War stories for obvious reasons in that context and systemic problems or ideas are important to note or reference.
Finally, and this is a huge disclaimer, but as an artist I know that our viewpoints on topics can be widely different at times when talking about certain ideas or executions, so keep in mind these are my own personal thoughts as someone who has more than 25 years of experience in creating and performing. That and there is an important distinction to be made near the end of the piece.
p.p.s. Additionally it should be noted that this write-up is more than 12,000 words long, so it may take a little while to get through it all.
PTSD, Rise of the Curtain
If nothing else, the opening cinematic for Swarm is pretty (aside from faces and lips which still look really awkward at times), and makes me want those siege tanks (fun fact, those tanks have a ~7sec deployment time), though one need not even enter the game itself to see a glaring cue to the onset of 'Blizzard dementia', e.g. the Viking who thinks it's a good idea to take on an Ultralisk... I know the reason behind why it was done, obviously to feature in a "cool" way a Terran unit from the game but also in connecting the storyboard concepts of the Viking, but the decision to feature this questionable and suicidal strategic move (yes I do realize this is reflective of Wings TvZ and Ultra switches) in this cinematic harkens back to the previous brand of storytelling of the last installment, and made me cringe on an otherwise enjoyable entr'acte (as we realize later this is some sort of nightmare or vision, so maybe you could argue that it's a creative license of sorts, but it still would be out of place as imagery from a the mind of fully matured adult (this would be appropriate creative license from a younger person however, hint hint)). Actually, funny enough, watch at about 1:55 in this recent music video and the Viking is much more at home here.
What is a very interesting idea however that this cinematic touches upon or at least hints at is that Kerrigan may have developed a form of PTSD, and I rather liked that conceptual idea, ignoring the face palming nature of how we got to this place.
Flashpoint and the Problem with People
I am not, nor will I am I ever likely to read supplemental materials to IP's such as this. The overall idea based around world building is a decent one but the problem that inevitably and consistently crops up is essentially this; if you rely on external materials/information to give your story proper context or explain things, fill in gaps, etc... (and this happens very often in video games) then your story is poorly written.
This is a problem with all episodic content in that the episodes must exist by themselves and be complete entities, save for a few circumstances where these episodes are in a sequence (TV, Episodic Movies, SC to SC2, Mass Effect 1-3, those kinds of instances). In those cases many times you have instantiated so much nuanced information that it would be impossible (or at the very least incredibly tedious) to re-expose your audience to this information every time you released new content (that and the periodicity of release between episodes plays a big part in this as well and how its treated). No disrespect to Christie Golden, but I won't be reading Flashpoint because it is episodically unimportant material. Yes you could probably argue that the book is in itself an episode of sorts, but it is because this chronology is in a different medium that a great number of people will not read it or never experience it. If this is the case and this information is used in this fashion you'll find many of the timeline, informational, or situational holes or problems begin to crop up. Essentially, if you assume your target audience is going to gobble up everything you release, then you're are already making a big mistake. People are individuals and not hive mind-like entities.
Ok ok, so positive or successful example of supplemental materials? Viral marketing. It's marketing for your product and serves to set up the upcoming story. Say what you will about Deus Ex Human Revolution, but its internet marketing was pretty well done, and served to set up the world and story you were going to soon explore without giving you pertinent information to understanding the story (project Blackstone is an example of this too). The main difference between this external information and that of a novel, is that a novel takes a considerable amount of time to read, and often (and more importantly) will contain 'critical' plot points that are then referenced whereas, in the case of viral marketing, most of the information is non-pertinent and only fleshes out the world in a generally non-invasive manner. This was one of the problems I had with the Mass Effect DLC in that the final DLC for ME2 attempted to be a bridge into ME3 and why you returned to earth (you + Show Spoiler +
, though let's not get into the inconsistencies surrounding that). I never got Arrival, so I was left somewhat confused as to why I had returned to Earth, what were the circumstances, etc... Clearly they wanted you to play Arrival but didn't think entirely through the connectivity issues how to make it a feasible if you hadn't (somehow you were told to go back to Earth and be benched for some inexplicable reason, the game never made this clear).
blew up a Mass Relay
So as my initial venture begins I am immediately given two bits regarding the prefatory content I wondered about. First, I don't know if flashpoint is important somehow, but thanks to the prologue the connectivity between Wings and Swarm doesn't create the same questionable holes I found in ME3. The other thing however is in talking about my interest in the possible psychological ramifications of being the Queen of Blades and PTSD, Blizzard didn't seem to deem this important to touch upon in the slightest. The only time you see this is from the opening cinematic, and never again. I can't help but feel this is a missed opportunity to explore something that games rarely ever do, the psychological ramifications of trauma (ME sort of did, but even there it was very cursory). I should mention that Kerrigan conveniently has amnesia and thusly doesn't need to remember or deal with that possible outcome, but what is perhaps more important to the opening cinematic, is that it's in fact a vision of the future, we just don't know that quite yet (so that my initial hypothesis turns out to be an erroneous supposition anyway).
Sector One: Missions 1-4 Next
I'd love to tell you that from here on we get a great and well developed story, but we don't even get to the second mission and already there are systemic problems cropping up (Wings problems notwithstanding). The first is that after Kerrigan lets loose Zerglings everywhere an causes mass panic Jim comes up to her post-op and kind of jokingly tells her that she made a mess of things down below...Shouldn't Raynor be concerned about Kerrigan lapsing into old behavior of being the Queen of Blades, or at the very least concerned with all the Zerg in the facility now? Unfortunately it doesn't stop there. When Kerrigan somewhat playfully asks if he regrets bringing her back, he laughs and says "Never." Did, uh, did we forget about what happened on Aiur, or Shakuras, or Char? And what about Fenix, or all the other billions of other people she killed?
Ok, so she has amnesia so she kind of can get a pass on her behavior to a degree...Wait. It is pretty well established in Star 1 that the infestation and acquisition of power corrupts Kerrigan to the point where she enjoys the new Sarah, and this is reinforced when the 'new' Overmind is being coalesced and she makes a move to permanently seize absolute power over the Zerg by killing it. Now whether this corruption has more to do with the infestation process or from Kerrigan actually liking this acquisition of power is left somewhat ambiguous, but regardless, it is pretty clear that Kerrigan is fully reticent of what has happened to her through her transformation so it seems to preclude the amnesia angle entirely. You may ask however, what about the artifact impacting this? Well, I'll get to that a bit later. Anyway, apart from this Jim Raynor most definitely does not get a pass as he's seen both sides of Kerrigan and swore that he'd kill her if it was the last thing he did, so he should be more than a little apprehensive, or at the very least concerned.
So I have to ask why is he being portrayed this way? Well, primarily it's because Blizzard has to sell us on the idea that Kerrigan and Jim were in love at some point and that it meant something, and they have to do this very quickly. Continuing with that, when the Dominion find the facility and Jim starts yelling "Sarah!" we get really good moment, and then an odd one.
A nice moment for a change.
When Jim hears Kerrigan get enraged behind closed doors, it's a palpable and nice moment of panic, but what I found much nicer about that sequence was when Raynor throws the rifle to Kerrigan and she gets a small moment to reflect upon the last time she held a gun. This is one of those Blizzard gets it right with its storyboarding concept, in that it's a powerful retrospective image (I even feel the take could have been longer), and also connects with the previously used cinematic in Wings (when Kerrigan is abandoned on Tarsonis). Then they mar that moment by having Sarah 'incidentally' get close to Jim so that she can kiss him and say "Yep, like riding a bike" Awwww....wait, that's not right...
I can't help at this early juncture that they are telling me "
In Brood War there are a few moments where we get any information regarding this possible outcome of their meeting. The first is when they first meet on Antiga Prime Jim thinks less than savory thoughts about Sarah, to which she interrupts herself:
- Kerrigan: Captain Raynor, I've finished scouting out the area and... You pig!
Raynor: What, I haven't even said anything?
Kerrigan: But you were thinking it.
Raynor: Oh yeah, you're a telepath! Look, let's just get on with this, ok?
The second moment is in the next mission briefing for Antiga Prime, there is a short bit in the pre and post op mission briefings:
- Kerrigan ...Zerg are attuned to the psychic emanations of ghosts.
Raynor: So the Zerg are here for you darlin? This keeps getting better and better.
Kerrigan: Shut Up. There's been a lot of secret confederate....
The third moment is just before the New Gettysburg mission:
- Raynor: This is bullshit! Kerrigan, are you reading this?
Kerrigan: I've heard. I'm going down there. Arcturus knows what he's doing, I can't back out on him now.
Raynor: Funny. I never thought of you as anyone's martyr.
Within the mission:
Raynor: Why are you doing this, Kerrigan? Look, I know about your past, I mean I've heard the rumors. I know you were part of those experiments with the Zerg, that Mengsk came and saved you. But you don't owe him this. Hell... I've saved your butt plenty of times.
Kerrigan: Jimmy, drop the knight in shining armor routine. It suits you sometimes, just not... not now. I don't need to be rescued. I know what I'm doing. The Protoss are coming to destroy the entire planet, not just the Zerg. I know that because... well, I just know it. I am a ghost, remember? Once we dealt with the Protoss, we can do something about the Zerg. Arcturus'll come around. I know he will.
Raynor: I hope you're right, darling. Good huntin'!
and Post Op:
Raynor: I can't believe he actually left her down there. I'm gone, and you better come with me. There's no telling who Arcturus will screw over next.
The last telling bits are during the Zerg campaign and Kerrigan is in the chrysalis, about to be revealed to us:
- Raynor: All right. All crews, stay frosty, and keep your eyes peeled for our target. Remember, not only are we up against the Zerg here, but our old pal General Duke may be creepin' around here, too. Let's hope this trip wasn't a big mistake...
and just a little later:
Raynor: Mother of god. Kerrigan, what have they done to you?
and at the end of the mission:
Raynor: Sarah, is that really you?
Kerrigan: To an extent. I'm far more than I once was, Jim. You shouldn't have come here.
Raynor: But, the dreams. I dreamed you were still alive, that somehow, you were... calling to me...
Kerrigan: I was. While I was in the chrysalis, I instinctively reached out to you and Arcturus telepathically. Apparently, Arcturus sent Duke here to reclaim me. But that was then, Jim. I am one of the Zerg now, and I like what I am. You can't imagine how this feels.
Raynor: So? What? Are you goin' to kill me now, darlin'?
Kerrigan: It is certainly within my power, but you're not a threat to me, Jim. Be smart; leave here now and never seek to confront the Zerg again.
Raynor: Doesn't look like I have much choice.
So why would Jim come though? Guilt. Because of Arcturus' deceptions, Jim (remembering he is our white knight) was forced to take partake in something so morally dubious that his conscience simply cannot get over what he has done (even if it is somewhat by proxy as Mengsk is the one who initiated everything). This is intensified and rationalized in his mind because he and Kerrigan had become friends in their time together in the Sons of Korhal. Moreover, because of this level of guilt in leaving someone behind we can also extrapolate from this that psychologically, Raynor is desperately trying to recover a part of his own humanity by trying to save Kerrigan to make up for his questionable act (there are times sir, when men of good conscience cannot blindly follow orders). But it's too late, and that's part of the tragedy and why Jim becomes yet a further damaged character.
None of this however indicates that there was anything more than just a camaraderie or friendship between Sarah Kerrigan and Jim Raynor. One way to help solve this however, if intending the love angle, would have been to use a flashback (or series of) in Wings before the Tarsonis cinematic so that we are given a setup, or some kind of insight into the development of this relationship so that it is more palpable to the audience (I'm still not convinced this one instance would be enough to sell us on the idea though).
Actually let's look at something similar. I have become a fan of the TV show Person of Interest since it began last year, but there is one thing in the inception of that series that is very similar to this current situation. When Person of Interest began last year it faced a rather large potential issue in that because of its story, it needed you to buy into the fact that one of our protagonists, John Reiss, was some sort of colossal badass. This is problematic because it is hard to buy into this idea without seeing his skills and bad-assery, so many people cannot buy this premise immediately. I was one of these people, but found that after about the first six episodes that I had finally begun to accept the fact that Reiss was in fact crazy good at what he did. This only happened as I had time to experience the character, and be shown is adeptness in a number of hairy situations. Now? It's one of my favorite shows currently, and that's thanks to their careful treatment of this and other characters, but also no small part of mine for sticking around to accept this overall premise.
A Return to Story
In getting back to the story, Kerrigan rendezvous with the Hyperion and because of the lack of Jim being there both makes a scene and also decides to stay behind on the planet when the Dominion fleet arrives. In waiting and worrying about getting separated from Raynor, she overhears a Dominion broadcast that Jim has in fact been killed, and is the driving force for Kerrigan to take what she just did on the planet and become the Queen of Blades again (at least in the hopes of controlling the swarm to kill Mengsk). But Jim, dead? If they had the balls to do that I would have been amazed and may have marked this as a major turning point in the game, but as it stands, Jim Raynor is too lucrative a piece to just throw away so casually. Basically, they gave themselves away and they're not even trying to hide it. This is all about the suspension of disbelief and could have worked at least a little better, but because we are shown an interaction between Raynor and Nova (or Tosh maybe?) previously, you already know that he's not going to die by her hand due to the underlying dialogue (and previous help mission in Wings) between the two people. Is this intentional then? I can't help but think that it is, but it doesn't make sense as to why you would want to subvert the primary emotional drive for Sarah in order to tell us that the broadcast is more Dominion propaganda. The trade off isn't worth it.
There's yet another thing that I don't understand about this scene either. When Sarah finds out that Jim is dead she goes into a rage, but then immediately breaks down emotionally. This is supposed to be the turning point in the game, but there's something here that that Anita Sarkeesian is exploring in her Tropes vs Women in Video Games videos that I wanted to mention (I don't agree with everything she says, but there are a number of important things she talks about). I'm noting this because the emotional breakdown and lack of fortitude in the character development of Kerrigan at this moment seems to disempower her a lot, and subverts the idea that Kerrigan was one of the best ghosts in all of the Koprulu sector.
Sector Two: Mid Game Missions 5-15 Previous Next
In arriving and finally starting our long process of being with the Zerg, Kerrigan is forced into making decisions that she wouldn't necessarily be keen on. I do like that she's being forced into morally questionable decisions, but the way it's imparted to us is somewhat uneven. In one moment she's determined, another apprehensive, and all the while she seems to be remaining the same person she is currently. I find this uneven because we are being told that there is a subtle breakdown of Kerrigan making decisions from bad to worse, just to sate her lust for vengeance, but I never got the feeling that the overarching narrative was working. This is because one moment she wrestles with bad memories, another she has no qualms infecting and straight up killing people or making morally dubious decisions (there is no decent into darkness, we're just all of a sudden here). An example of this is the way she finally takes out the Protoss ship, by infecting and killing a researcher and then sending her back. I like this idea. No, I really liked it, but how Kerrigan deals with the ramifications of that decision isn't consistent with this having to make bad choices to satisfy vengance. This is what's supposed to set up a big and somewhat poetic plot point later down the road, but the road is full of cracks and the impact is lessened because of it.
So either you finish Char or the Kaldir missions, and then, guess what.... your old friend Zeratul shows up.... I was dreading this moment even since I hit the purchase button, as it signals the laughably silly prophecy arc that so many feel is bad being explained more.
For no apparent reason, Kerrigan is pissed to see Zeratul and initiates a fight. Wait, why? Sarah Kerrigan as a human never met Zeratul, so why is she so angry at him and starts the fight? Wasn't it Kerrigan that was always manipulating Zeratul to do her dirty work in Brood War? Didn't she even force Zeratul kill his own Matriarch? Shouldn't this be reversed? Oh right, it's because it's an excuse for her and Zeratul to fight again (oooo pretty), except that in makes no sense. What makes even less sense is what happens next...
Kerrigan throws Zeratul around like a ragdoll for a little bit, and then Zeratul faceplams Kerrigan and shows her a vision he's had. Or memories, er...I'm a little confused at this point. Anyway, it is revealed to us that Zerus is a planet where the Zerg were born and evolved on, and it is here that Amon, the dark one, or fallen Xel'Naga altered them. Let's look at this shall we?
First, in Star 1 we initially learn that the Protoss and Zerg were created by the Xel'Naga, but this isn't entirely true. The Xel'Naga didn't create the Protoss or Zerg, but simply modified existing creatures (or insectoid life forms) and then developed them in to the two races that we know of today. It should be noted that we do know that life on the world of Aiur was at least in some ways initially engineered by the Xel'Naga, though Zerus does not follow this same path (this is less clear but it is heavily inferred in the writing). And I'll quote from the original SC Manual for this:
- "Driven to perfect their science of proto-genetic evolution, the ancient, enigmatic race known as the Xel’Naga traveled to the distant fringe world of Aiur. The vast jungles of Aiur had produced the most advanced race that the Xel’Naga had ever seen. Believing that they could steer the race’s evolution to the pinnacle of physical perfection, the Xel’Naga began to conduct their proto-genetic experiments."
- "Unfortunately, the Xel’Naga pushed their experiment too far. The inherent essence and sentience of the Protoss developed far too rapidly, leading to bitter strife and division between them and their creators. The Xel’Naga deemed that the purity of form they sought to create had been sullied by a conflict of essence and thus decreed that the Protoss were, in fact, a failed creation. The Xel’Naga abandoned their children and launched themselves into the void.
Travelling thousands of light years into the burning core of the galaxy, the Xel’Naga eventually settled upon the volatile ash-world of Zerus. The Xel’Naga planned to continue their Grand Experiment of evolution, only this time they dismissed their tenets of physical form and focused chiefly on the pursuit of a distinct purity of essence. Residing in their massive ships high above the fires of Zerus, the Xel’Naga began once again to challenge the wiles of fate.
The Xel’Naga were more successful with their second venture than they could have imagined."
- "They labored to advance the evolution of the most insignificant life form on Zerus, a race of miniature insectoids known as the Zerg. Through Xel’Naga proto-genetic manipulations, the Zerg survived the torrential firestorms of their world and thrived. Although extremely small, wormlike, and possessing no ability to manipulate their physical surroundings, the Zerg adapted to survive. They developed the ability to burrow into the flesh of the less vulnerable species indigenous to Zerus. Feeding off the nutrients contained within the spinal fluids of their hosts, the Zerg learned to parasitically merge with their host creatures. Once they became capable of controlling the metabolic and anatomical processes of their hosts, the Zerg used their new bodies to manipulate their surroundings."
- "As the swarms continued to grow and strengthen, the Overmind turned its thoughts towards its own future. It realized that within a few short centuries its race had assimilated all of the indigenous life upon Zerus. It knew that to further evolve the swarm, the Zerg would need to leave Zerus. The Overmind began to reach out with its senses, looking for something - anything - which would provide them with transport from this world. That opportunity soon arrived. A race of gargantuan, space-faring life forms passed through the Zerus system, and the Overmind called to them. Drawn to the barren world"
- "As the Zerg incorporated more and more host creatures into their fold, they began to assimilate their various genetic strains and processes. Zerg chemistry began to mutate and adapt according to the volume of new genetic material being processed. However, as diverse as the range of host creatures became, there was always the undeviating drive to consume only the most evolutionarily advanced species encountered. The Zerg were innately selective as to which species they consumed, ensuring that at every stage of their development they were at the top of the proverbial food chain. Any race that the Zerg came across that was deemed unworthy of assimilation was eradicated to further purify the strains."
I can understand however, is the reasons for why Sarah wants to go to Zerus. In a quest for power, she is looking to unite the swarm for her own purposes and thusly 'ancient zerg' or the original location would be somewhat enticing (remembering what I just spoke of before). I am left with the somewhat perplexing question though of how does Zeratul know about this place anyway, and how did he learn about it? More scribbles on the wall? Voices in his head? This also begs the more important question as to why Kerrigan doesn't or didn't know about Zerus already, removing the necessity of Zeratul in the first place.
One last thing I wanted to touch on was why is the manual ok as a supplemental material to reference, but stated that the books aren't? The reason for this is because many decades ago, a games manual was a very important tool and most of the time was a direct extension of game. Especially if you talk about the Ultima series, but very often stories or parts of the stories relied on you having read the manual to get proper context to their world, or in many cases was a tutorial in how to navigate and play the game effectively. With the advent of the internet and better technological innovations this practice was eventually abandoned, and for a number of acceptable reasons, but this is an important note as the landscape of gaming has shifted monumentally since that time.
So apart from all of these issues, it is here at this moment that we know for sure, that Sarah is about to, of her own volition, become a Zerg again, I find this precipice to be lacking in steeled determination on Kerrigans part. She should at this point know that she's making the decision to forever lose her humanity and become a Zerg again, but there isn't even a blip, let alone a foreboding underpinning of this outcome. After all, it is this willful shedding of humanity that is supposedly the tragedy of this act, in that later when we find out that Raynor isn't dead, that she's also sacrificed the possibility of a life with him as well.
I also wondered why they in the cinematic had to show Mengsk and that he had acquired the artifact. I am left with the idea that, once its revealed why it was used in the first place, that Mengsk will inadvertently revive Amon, but that hypothesis is debunked almost as immediately as we learn of the artifact's purpose. If that's the case then, showing us the artifact preemptively like that, seems like it would undercut the final cinematic in that Mengsk isn't helpless. I originally didn't catch this and so the final cinematic was more impactful in the reveal, but in retrospect this decision seems in an odd place.
A Short Game Design Excursion: Really, It's Short This Time
So I should take a short time to say that most of the campaign I found works ok, most of the system is fairly well designed, but two things really stuck out like a sore thumb in this space that really irked me.
The first is sound in sound design. So, I should mention if you didn't know already, but I am a professional musician, and I own a studio sound system for my professional use that is in the order of around $2600 (an audio interface, 2 monitors, and a sub). Basically, everything that I hear is acoustically more accurate than %99 of people in general. This isn't really a brag, but is necessary to explain a problem in Blizzards sound design. I have my subwoofer set to a relatively low level as I am a classical musician (in that it resonates and the proper amplitude for a naturally acoustic setting), and so bass heavy music acoustically speaking is not what I want nor need to hear. So when I'm playing SC2 many times I have to play at an incredibly low volume because the bass is so loud in comparison to other frequencies that if I turned my speakers up, I wouldn't hear anything else. In certain parts of Swarm, this has gotten even worse, to the point where at some point I had to pick up and use my headphones instead. Using these I am more likely to hear what Blizzard wants you to hear, but as a composer and someone who works in electronic music, this is something that shouldn't be an issue ever (you should always be designing for multiple platforms, e.g. bad speakers, professional speakers, headphones, earbuds, etc...).
The second thing that really irked me was I knew that Swarm would be more of an RPG-like event, and that's not necessarily bad, but when we got to the moment where it was kill or be killed on Zerus, all of a sudden I stopped playing Star 2 and started Playing Diablo III again... You can probably imagine how that made me feel. And as if the first three 'bosses' weren't enough, to add insult to injury Zuvran (the ancient zerg) turns out to be basically Belial (oh also if you didn't notice the other mini-bosses are not so subtle Diablo or WoW boss clones). Here's a comparison if you don't know what I'm referencing:
Definitely not Belial
I didn't really like Diablo III, and they're making me feel like I'm playing Diablo III again? I almost lost it at that point. But enough of that.
Sector Three: Revelations and the Endgame (Missions 16-27) Previous
So now that we have our newfound power, we finally return and from a transmission from Mengsk find out that Jim is *gasp*, not dead! Yea I know already. But here again we never get this sense from Kerrigan that she realizes that she didn't have to sacrifice what she just a few moments ago did, and I am reminded of that... ok, I won't mention that again, suffice it to say this problem permeates all of her decision making with regards to this, and keeps cropping up.
Speaking of cropping up, guess who showed up in my game? Alexi Stukov?! Wait, didn't Duran murder him in cold blood in the Psi Distruptor years ago? Wasn't his body placed in a capsule and sent out into space? Well apparently that's not what happened. Now I can I guess from a pragmatic position see that this is a decision that could maybe be opened because hell, did we actually know %100 that his body was recovered? This is where my initial talk about Flashpoint begins to rear its head.
In a number of story-based scenarios that Blizzard released for Brood War, it is explained to us that Alexi Stukov was found and regenerated by a rogue cerebrate called Kaloth, bringing him back to life as an infested Terran. Later in the story Jim Raynor and the Protoss Taldarin (the first dragoon) attempt to de-infest Stukov and are in the end successful, but this and another couple of issues surrounding this story make Stukov's appearance in Swarm somewhat odd (for example if he is now de-infested why is he still an infested terran, also more problematic is why of all races did this serum to save Stukov get developed by the one race (Protoss) that believes that purification by fire is the only answer? Maybe Artanis is more evolved, but this is still really odd). Anyway this is a perfect example of this issue, that these missions are considered by Blizzard to be cannon but because they were never part of the original storyline nor are they explained in the slightest (in Swarm) to people who never knew this to be the case (as it is a supplemental material) we are left with rather large questions as to how and why Stukov is even here in the first place.
Anyway, regardless of the logistics or back-story, I actually vehemently disliked this decision to bring him out of the closet and dust him off, as it felt like an incredibly cheap and lazy tactic on Blizzards part to try to curry favor with the older audience, or those who've played Brood War at the very least. Why couldn't you use a scientist who worked with Narud, like maybe work Branamoor (the head researcher for project blackstone) into the equation instead?
Logistically however, the reason that Stukov is used is for narrative purposes only, as a means to talk about Narud and his experiments. I think I also found this silly because talking about Narud seems unnecessary as we need to know more about what he's doing, and from Narud's perspective specifically. An external source is only going to tell us so much, and leave out important elements that the audience needs to parse the situation properly.
This brings me to the Hybrids, Emil Narud, and the meaning of the artifact. The first thing I wanted to mention was that it is finally revealed to us that the Tal'Darim, that annoying Protoss faction from Wings that we have been fighting, actually worship the Xel'Naga Amon, which I actually felt works. It played into the Protoss Xel'Naga reverence ideas, but I felt that they could have done more to explain the sociological and historical position of the Tal'Darim as that has always seemed a little confusing in how they fit into Protoss society (the lore in the manual would lead me to believe that they were one of the factions that did not embrace the Khala). Cue yet another supplemental materials issue.
Christie Golden also wrote a series of books called The Dark Templar Saga, and this is the first appearance of the Tal'Darim. Here their origins and societal position are expounded upon along with many other bits of information on Protoss society in general, but I can't help but think that because this is yet again another supplemental material and not part of the episodic contents of the games, that there has to be some indication or introduction to all of this very convoluted historical material to the audience, else we will be left with a host of unanswered questions.
The Hybrids are also finally revealed to have a purpose, in that they siphon off (and store?) the psionic powers of others in order to gather this energy to
Thus we finally get to the (second) master manipulator of all of this, Samir Duran, or Emil Narud now. The portrayal of Duran also bothers me for a number of reasons. The most immediate of reasons is because his alter ego of Samir Duran is never revealed to Kerrigan (not even his voice). For an entity who fancies himself to be both omniscient and more powerful than any other being, this seems like a perfect time to flaunt to Kerrigan that he has been the one using her all this time. After all, this plays into his fanaticism to Amon, his hyper-intelligence, the reason for these experiments, and his overall personality in general as one who cannot be stopped even if you knew. And this is where I'd like to turn to Brood War and the secret mission.
The last time we saw Samir Duran, he explains to Zeratul about finding the first Hybrids, and I quote:
- Duran: "Magnificent, isn't it?"
Zeratul: "What? Who are you?"
Duran: "I've had many names throughout the millennia, young prodigal. You would know me best as Samir Duran."
Zeratul: "Kerrigan's consort! Is this part of her twisted schemes?"
Duran: "No. Young Kerrigan could not have engineered this grand experiment. Although her rebirth into the Zerg Swarm has sped up my progress, I can assure you that this endeavor is quite beyond her narrow understanding."
Zeratul: "If you are not her pawn, then what are you?"
Duran: "I am a servant of a far greater power. A power that has slept for countless ages. And is reflected in the creature within that cell."
Zeratul: "Have you any conception of what you've created here? Do you have any idea what this... this Hybrid is capable of?!"
Duran: "Of course I do. This creature is the completion of a cycle. Its role in the cosmic order was preordained when the stars were young. Behold the culmination of your history!"
Zeratul: "All I behold is an abomination."
Duran: "Your violence, young prodigal, is typical. As is your inability to comprehend the greater scheme of things. You can destroy all of the specimens here. It will do you no good. For I have seeded the Hybrid on many, many worlds. You will never find them all before they awaken... And when they do... your universe will be changed... forever."
Coming to a Head
Returning to the story, we finally get to the final arc of the story and the endgame; save Jim, and kill Mengsk. Saving Jim from the resurrection hub...wait, I'm sorry that's Battlestar, I got my worlds mixed up. Ok, saving Jim from the prison ship that doesn't jump to random locations, and doesn't remind me of the BSG resurrection hub (Star Craft does this thing called re-appropriation often) is, well... It's a silly idea upon a silly idea, upon an interesting idea that execution-wise has one or two things I felt were head scratching, or underdeveloped (or just a more obvious approach if you look at it another way), and something of importance. When Sarah busts down the door and walks into Jim's cell, he sees Sarah transformed again, and is aghast to this decision of hers. When she tries to justify it, he's pissed and starts going off on her.
From that basic standpoint, this moment kind of works (this of course is all supposing that you can get past all of the systemic issues I've already talked about), but let's look a little deeper into this. The first thing is when Sarah walks in that Jim sees what he wants to see, human Kerrigan, and I felt this was entirely unnecessary. He's been locked away for the whole show, in solitary isolation with almost no light for him this whole time. So when she busts in and there's finally light, his eyes need adjusting which they did cue in on. However, this is why the 'hallucination' is unnecessary because both this vision and then the subsequent reveal from the focusing of his eyes and the fog revealing her Zerg appendages, Jim is confronted with something he doesn't want to see (and we are, twice).
Here he also finally remembers, if for a small moment, that Kerrigan murdered a very close friend and ally Fenix, as well as countless billions of others and decides to make a scene (and while I'm on this, why does this game continually refer to things numbering in the millions? There are currently billions humans on the planet Earth, so a million is kind of a flash in the pan, especially when you remember that the Zerg are "without number"). This mention of Fenix was also another moment, like Stukov, where I felt that Blizzard was outright parading/abusing the lore to try to make a point hit harder, but is out of place and serves a very shaky purpose. This is because the character portrayal of Jim Raynor in SC2 has been up to this point so incredibly uneven swinging back and forth like a metronome from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other that it has become impossible to know just how he will react to stimuli. This only gets worse with time but I'll come back to this in just a bit.
Honestly, I find it rather hard to talk about this particular scene in general without getting really perturbed. Due to the fact that it brings together so much of why Star 2 is a pale shadow of what Brood War is all in one place, there are so many levels of reasons as to why this scene should never exist. Actually, let me list a few of them if they haven't been really clear up to this point:
- The love story never existed in Star 1, and if in the event that it did, is never developed and is not palpable or believable by the audience due to the execution.
- Kerrigan becomes the Queen Bitch of the Universe, and proceeds to kill billions of humans and turned countless worlds into smoldering piles of ash. Death and destruction includes the fall of Aiur and Protoss society, the death of Tassadar, Stukov, Raszagal, Fenix, Duke, DuGalle, and countless others.
- As Fenix and Raynor were close friends and comrades, and Fenix is now dead, Jim swears that the last thing he'll ever do is kill Kerrigan.
- If, in the event that they did somehow fall in love on Antiga Prime or Tarsonis, all the murderous backstabbing and wanton destruction between then and now precludes Raynor having any kind of warm feelings for her now, or makes him at the very least apprehensive towards her.
- The convoluted and contradictory nature of the artifact shows leanings towards (in a specific light) the idea that Kerrigan should have been killed on Char and not simply de-infested. Additionally however, understanding the psychic link of the Zerg, the artifact should never have de-infested Kerrigan to begin with (perhaps only severs her link to the Zerg).
- Raynor would not have saved Kerrigan as a result of all the aforementioned materials, nor would he have forgiven her for her actions in the unlikely outcome that he does (assuming that she doesn't die to the artifact), completely destroying the one reason that Sarah willfully chooses to become the Queen of Blades again (his 'death').
- The Primal Zerg not actually being Zerg also precludes the possibility that Kerrigan becomes again a Zerg (ignoring the lore and following this most recent retcon).
- Raynor has his gun on him, but if he's in his cell, where did it come from? No way Mengsk allows this possibly where they leave it on him to conspicuously allow himself to commit suicide, that would be a poor and sloppy use of a pawn (no Sarah does not have it, they were separated early remember?).
This sort of begs the question of why I've taken the time to analyze and look at the current story we're given here. The reason is that in an objective fashion I have to approach the story and look at the current character motivations and story in a manner devoid of this overarching content (e.g. Star 1's lore and story). This is primarily because the two stories are separated by so many years, and that a great number of people due to this will never have experienced Star 1 (additionally the maturity, nuance, and approach to the writing is far different from back when games were first starting to explore deeper content), but along with this, it also serves to show just how many pitfalls and mistakes Blizzard is still making in their approach, regardless of this overarching narrative. It therefore serves to show due to this approach, two levels of analysis that can be gleaned from this review, one that is more global, and one that is more immediate. Anyway, there's one last thing I need to talk about.
We come to at last this final set of missions to embark on killing Mengsk and reach the endgame scenario. Most the mission stuff is relatively unimportant save for being a sustained conflict as to mark the importance of this task in our minds (the way the invasion of Char was in Wings), though there is one major thing I need to talk about regarding the psi-destoyer mission. In order to explain my apparent 'confusion' surrounding this mission, we need to first turn back to our understanding of the Zerg origins:
- "The new race, called Humanity, was mere generations away from developing into a formidable psionic power. But the Overmind also knew that Humanity was still in its infant stages, hardly capable of defending itself against the ravenous Zerg. Although a short-lived and seemingly frail species, the Overmind knew that Humanity would be the final determinant in its victory over the Protoss. If it could assimilate the psionic potential of Humanity, the Overmind would have the ability to combat the Protoss on its own terms."
First we need some additional context. Remember that leaked ending that's been floating around for a year or so now? well it turns out to be almost identical to the actual ending, save for a few minor tweaks. This important to note because in the updated and edited version there are some notable changes.
The first and biggest change is that in order to pacify Kerrigan, Mengsk originally implanted Sarah with a kill switch of sorts long ago when she was a member of the Sons of Korhal, but because of whatever influence, they changed this so that the kill switch is swapped out for the Xel'Naga artifact (and I would be remiss if I didn't ask the question as to why and how Mengsk is able to get the artifact to become a torture device and not its intended use). This does present the interesting possibility that Mengsk, ignoring what we already know, could inadvertently revive Amon, but of course isn't possible because he's already 'awake'. Unfortunately, this change didn't seem to make it to the writers, because Mengsk still has a line that says "Did you think I'd keep an animal like you close to me without some kind of insurance policy..." Oops, I guess he had another Xel'Naga artifact tucked away knowing that he'd eventually sacrifice Kerrigan on Tarsonis to become the Queen of Blades, and then... yea this is entirely implausible.
It also did not escape me that this scene is reflective of Return of the Jedi almost exactly, where Kerrigan is in the role of Luke, Mengsk is the Emperor, and Raynor as Darth Vader? Then there's the Artifact, that's the lightning, making Sarah pay for her lack of vision.
It also seemed that Mengsk's death was neutered because of the Teen rating, in that the death was basically Agent Smith's death in The Matrix: Revolutions (serves as an off-camera and no blood version, good for the kids...uhh). This did not seem like Kerrigans style as it wasn't very clean or precise or more, but more than that, it removes us from the scene and denies us as the audience the satisfaction of witnessing his death. Sure we witnessed it with the destruction of his office, but by doing it this way Blizzard removed a palpable and visceral level of impact from this scene that, if especially when colored by Kerrigans and the stories overall narrative ideas of revenge, is needed in subtly influencing that narrate. This is why Mengsk's teeth are shown just before his final moments, as it's a subtle reference to the more primal and violent nature of human beings, and also reminds us on a more instinctual level of a predator trying to attack its prey (like a dog showing its teeth to intimidate).
The final section of this cinematic is probably the moment that I finally had had it with this story, and for two small reasons. Firstly, apparently Kerrigan can fly? More importantly however, I understand why Jim would come along and help Kerrigan (because he too has a long history and score to settle with Mengsk), but his injection in to this push and final scene shows just how delusional Blizzard has become. When Sarah says "Thank you Jim, for everything." he replies "My pleasure darlin... Always was." Apparently, remembering our cascading problems from the cellblock and that he's said we're done for being so appalled at her decision to become the Queen of Blades, Jim has entirely forgotten that he was pissed at Sarah in the first, or second, or hell, fiftieth time at this point.
The underpinning idea here is that because of this being the last cinematic Blizzard is trying to impart upon us a sense of rest after a long and arduous journey. By portraying Jim to have warm feelings for Sarah in his words but also in his physicality, it imparts a level of completion and finality to the audience alongside the music and cinematic visuals, except it actually undercuts that intention entirely.
So the first thing that overall strikes me on this approach to the story is that it has become very apparent of the way in which Blizzard approaches writing the story and fleshing out concepts. When storyboarding a concept or narrative, writers and designers lay out graphic panes set in sequences that are shorthand to express the story in an overarching manner, or a macro oriented focus. This is a commonly used tool in cinematography, and is quite effective but here it illustrates the biggest problem in Blizzards approach to storytelling more than anything else. In this approach, each pane in the sequence acts as a singular event, closed off from the rest, and is directly reflected in the unevenness in the story of Wings, and in Swarm, in that each scene has a certain penchant to it, a certain character portrayal, and a specific overall goal that it needs to impart. It is because of these elements being so separated from each other that all of the systemic problems regarding character motivations, story elements, and other items stab wildly in the dark and is precisely why I initially, and colorfully, mentioned that Blizzard suffered from a mental disorder. It's because this approach reminds me of someone who has a dissociative identity disorder, where one moment you have one personality, but five minutes from now they could be wildly different even though they are the same individual.
Storytelling Problems: Why you Can't Have your Cake and Eat it Too
So Blizzard is always placing in our heads and continually reinforcing that they want to tell their story (see their 'brand' of storytelling), and while that overtly sounds good, something has been occurring over the last number of years as a slow accumulation of rather large systemic problem. What is this problem?
Even evil Spock can see that something is amiss here.
As an existing example, if a movie [insert conglomerate or individual] decided that they wanted to go and tell a particular story they had concocted, but ignore previously and already established themes/ideas, certain directions in mood, pacing, or other developmental considerations in order to make sure their idea worked in the existing world, then there are going to be rather apparent problems or unevenness in the storytelling, or characters, or mood, or all of the above... A more recent movie that makes this unfortunate mistake is The Hobbit. I'm not saying The Hobbit is necessarily a bad movie as it does a number of very good things, but it is terribly inconsistent from a storytelling angle due to the attempt at maturing the story to be in line with The Lord of the Rings while also coincidentally insisting on keeping the childlike tone of the source material in many places (such as the goblin king). Another more egregious and obvious example of this that I have already alluded to would be the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy (if you want to hear about a plethora of the issues that these movies have, visit the redlettermedia website for a rather comprehensive look at all three).
Now a big question here is, couldn't you do this and have it work? Yes, absolutely this can be the case. The problem with all of the aforementioned works however is that they all reference or use pre-existing materials or characters or events that have an existing history and therefore particular storytelling ascribed to them already. This is interestingly where looking at Valve can shed at least some light on the subject. In one corner, the Half-Life story arcs have one centralized theme and ethos to them, while in a different corner Portal is significantly different, yet, both of these stories exist in the same world and do so quite successfully with a large part due to their separateness. Should both of these worlds interact with one another in a direct way however (HL3 is a strong possibility), a number of problematic issues could easily arise, if not approached with a carefully thought out plan. Regardless though, their current incarnations function fairly well on their own.
Treating with the Heart of Children
In continuing my thoughts on storytelling problems or issues, throughout all of this conceptualization I have been trying to wrestle into words the reason that the stories of Diablo III and Wings, and now Swarm were/are such spectacular failures, and I have been left after much pondering with but one inevitable conclusion. Blizzard is not designing games for me, and haven't for a good long while now. What, me specifically? Well, allow me to explain this.
The first clue is that along with their marketing tactics and press statements, there is a less discussed and more subtle issue with their 'brand'. Their style of storytelling is specifically aimed at reaching and hooking non-adults (likely the 16 and younger crowd). This business practice in fact looks conspicuously like the tobacco industry who continually market to children because of the saying "once you get them early..." And this seems to be Blizzards modus operandi exactly, and can be directly witnessed in how their stories are presented to the audience. They lack depth, they use tropes of all kinds and clichéd techniques in every possible place they can, and generally lack the maturity and subtle nuances in behavior or character motivations, or story aesthetics.
To a younger and inexperienced mind, many of these things can be great tools at portraying types of character motivations or the reasoning behind character actions. Look at children's programming or cartoons and you'll see these executions all over the place. They can clearly set up certain elements that can be easily parsed out by a young mind, they can even be humorous and fun while still retaining a measure of seriousness... and this works for this demographic. However, here is where I take serious umbrage with this mo.
I started gaming when I was 5. My first games included the Legend of Zelda, Duck Hunt, Ultima I-IV, Pool of Radiance, Super Mario Bros., Battletoads, and a laundry list of now ostensibly 'classic' video games. I've been around a long enough time to have developed highly sophisticated tastes in what I watch, like to play, and additionally developed a good eye for detail and nuance in narrative ideas along the way. But Blizzard doesn't design games for me. I'm 30, too old for their demographic, am past the age where I would be a seri....wait, hold on a tic...
So in postulating this question it dawned on me to go look at the gamer demographics, and how they look in today's terms. I found something rather unsettling in looking at this data. Remember how I mentioned that Blizzard is designing and catering their games to teens? Well apparently, and any of us who are older have probably cued on to this already, but the average gamer demographics have drastically changed since Blizzard Entertainment was founded. According to TeamLiquid's own 2010-11 census, the average user age is around 21 with a major chunk between 17 and 26, but this does not show the bigger picture. In looking at studies from ESA the average age of gamers has shifted in a monumental way in the last 2 1/2 decades that I have been playing games. The average age for gamers today is around 33 years old, but perhaps more telling, is that more than %15-20 of the total gamers are over 50 years old now. There is certainly some wildly swinging data (in that only a few years ago the annual study showed the average age to be 37) but it still shows, and quite clearly, that by catering to teenagers companies are, or could be, ignoring the tastes of more than %75 of the total population of gamers.
That is frightening, and so disheartening on a personal note. I grew up with Blizzard. The first game I ever played of theirs was Warcraft 1, and I played Diablo 1-2, War2-3, and Star1 as soon as they came out. Now? Well I'm an adult now and I don't play games anymore because I have a job, and a real life that takes up so much of my time and...oh wait...
Now the biggest issue (that I would be remiss in not mentioning) in trying to reach an audience or target is trying to guess what they want, and especially with younger audiences it can be tricky. But I wanted to point out one last thing of interest. Browsing TeamLiquid.net you know that a lot of people are pretty enamored of HBO's Game of Thrones. The reason I bring this up is because the story elements in that show (and books) are rather mature and most definitely nuanced, and yet people love it. Clearly the 18 and older demographic likes their stories to have a measure of depth and for entertainment to not pull punches or placate their audiences, so I am left confused as to why this business operation was originally agreed upon, and I'm not sure that I can appropriately answer this question as there are too many unknowns here, at least in my current position.
In retrospect, looking at and playing through Swarm has been like riding the Tower of Terror, whereas my equilibrium has been violently thrown around in the hopes of confusing and arousing me. I appreciate the all the technical expertise that went into making this game, and I would be remiss not to mention that technically speaking Blizzard is still quite capable as a company, but suffice it to say that without a literary and story-centric expertise, Heart of the Swarm has done something that I had not thought was possible with my relationship with games; a slow but methodical psychological dissociation with a story (that I used to love) to the point where I no longer care. Kerrigan has flown away, and so to have my expectations of Blizzard's ability to write from this point onward.
Please remember that his has been a look into the single player portion of this game and I have not, nor will I ever write a Op Ed on multiplayer as I simply do not have the expertise to make the proper types of value judgments on balance decisions. I have my own feelings, but they are a far cry from a measured and objective analysis at this point. Also thanks to a few guys on TL for pointing out some story related things that I had initially missed.