Interstellar fireworks

When a science-fiction game is as absorbing as "Starcraft," who needs the movie version?

Topics: Gaming, Business,

What a mess: Commander Kerrigan was in a firefight with not one, but two, alien races — the buglike Zerg and the cyborg Protoss. Caught in an interstellar game of diplomacy between feuding Terran factions, Kerrigan had been ordered to protect the Zerg and eliminate the Protoss. Unfortunately, no one had informed the Zerg that Kerrigan’s squadron was on their side. So while tentatively fending off a Zerg swarm, she failed to notice a couple of Protoss Dragoons. Two antiparticle disintegration bolts later, Kerrigan was dead.

In mission number nine of the Terran “episode” of “Starcraft,” the much-anticipated real-time strategy release from Blizzard Entertainment, Kerrigan must survive. Her death equaled my defeat. I had to start over.

I considered sampling another episode — how about those Zerg and Protoss missions? I knew that “Starcraft” had been getting high marks from hard-core gamers for its imaginative creation of three unique races whose widely varying capabilities imposed radically different strategic imperatives. But I couldn’t leave Kerrigan’s body in a pool of her own blood, either. I desperately wanted to know what was going to happen to the Terrans. A major drama had been unfolding between the rebel forces of Arcturus Mensk and the ruthless, tyrannical Confederacy. I had to be there to see it through. The Confederacy was clearly evil, but I was beginning to have my suspicions about this Mensk character, too.

I was hooked — not by the twitch of a finger but by a dramatic story, one created entirely by the game itself, without depending on reference to some classic science-fiction movie or book.

Judged purely as a game, “Starcraft” isn’t quite the acme of the genre that some fans and reviewers have made it out to be. It lacks the micromanagement intricacies of the robot-war maelstrom that is “Total Annihilation.” The graphics, while stunning, aren’t quite as pleasing to the eye as the historically based “Age of Empires.” But nothing I’ve seen comes as close to integrating a story line with cinematic values into a computer game as well as “Starcraft.” As a game, “Starcraft” is merely great; as a science fiction experience, “Starcraft” is sublime.

“Starcraft” is proof of what attention to production values coupled with artistry at every level — programming, animation, writing, even “direction” — can achieve. Ever since computer games began to stake their claim to the entertainment dollar, a vocal minority of critics has complained that obsessive attention to graphics has entailed a marked decline in the actual quality of game play. And more often than not, the critics were correct: More attention — and more of your computer’s resources — had been devoted to making something look cool, or to creating a 30-second movie clip, than to making the game work as a game. The history of computer gaming is littered with ill-advised attempts to apply cinematic conceits that end up looking clunky and stupid. Anyone remember “Johnny Mnemonic”?

But now, gamers have the right to be euphoric as they anticipate what is yet to come in the wake of games like “Starcraft.” For one thing, new computers are now powerful enough that there really aren’t any trade-offs in terms of allocating computer resources. “Starcraft” has video segments as compelling as anything a science fiction fan might see on “Deep Space Nine” or “Babylon 5,” but they don’t get in the way of the actual game. Furthermore, a major game release of the “Starcraft” sort isn’t the product of just a couple of geeks hacking away at code in the wee hours. A game-developing “studio” such as Blizzard Entertainment employs the talents of a legion of writers, sound engineers, voice actors, coders, graphic designers and, of course, marketing specialists.

In “Starcraft’s” case, none of them appear to be amateurs. From the thousands of words of historical background provided on each race in the “Starcraft” manual to the delightfully “Blade Runner”-esque techno sounds that accompany each click of the mouse, every note rings true. One is almost tempted to cry: Bring on the “Starcraft” novellas, the movie, the television pilot! If “Mortal Kombat” could become a film, what are we waiting for? Arnold Schwarzenegger as Arcturus Mensk? It could happen.

Except it doesn’t really need to. The game is already here. It’s got a plot, it’s interactive and it’s open-ended. Who needs TV or even Hollywood? For me, the power of “Starcraft’s” narrative is such that I haven’t yet dared pick up the alien mantle and start my diabolic efforts to massacre all Terran marines — even if, as a reviewer, I feel somewhat obliged to. So sue me. “Starcraft’s” designers put a great deal of care into setting up a story line that requires individual mastery of each mission before delivering a sequence of dramatic payoffs. I’ve bought into it. I plan to slog my way through.

But it is worth pointing out that no one is required to play each mission episode, or even sit through a single video clip. Contemporary computer games revel in permitting multiple approaches to game interaction. Not only does “Starcraft,” like all state-of-the-art, real-time strategy games, provide numerous options — single-player, multiplayer, missions with set objectives, wide-open skirmishes and so on — but Blizzard, following the lead of id software, creator of “Quake” and “Doom,” has made sure to include software tools such as map and campaign editors that allow game players to create their own scenarios.

Certainly, if the scenarios provided proved to be boring or unchallenging, I’d be happy to grow my own. But for now, I really must find out how the future of the galaxy is going to play out, as the designers of “Starcraft” have intended. Commander Kerrigan will live again. Death to the Protoss!

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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