When Spheres of Interest Collide

Discussing Starcraft and Spirited Away over a spot of tea.Why
people read what they read and watch what they watch has recently been of interest
to me. As a cultural consumer and producer both, I know that advertisements
and reviews are hardly the overwhelming factors, just the most reassuringly
quantifiable. Recommendations from friends have the advantage of being motivated
by passion rather than profits, but subjective passion can also misfire: as
anyone who’s had someone feverishly press something into their hand and heard
“It’s gonna change your life” can attest. That said, I have a few friends whose
recommendations have hugely enriched my life, people with shared sensibilities
that span genre and medium.

But that wasn’t why I finally played StarCraft (Blizzard, 1998).

Lots of people I respected had spoken highly of it, many of whom weren’t gamers and for some of whom it was the only game they played. There were stories of people going to Korea to play it professionally in televised games. I’d played Warcraft III (Blizzard, 2002), the company’s fantasy real-time strategy game, even though I’m more inclined to science fiction (though in that case a friend had actually lent it to me). I expect that had a lot to do with it — like the book you read because it was at the airport bookstore, it’s often a case of convenience that’s the deciding factor. Look at all the Solitaire players out there, courtesy of it being built into the Windows operating systems. I’ve been bored enough to play Minesweeper.

It wasn’t Bill Gates that influenced what I played this time, however, it was Hayao Miyazaki. The legendary Japanese animator might be best known for Princess Mononoke (1997), but it was Spirited Away (2001) that sent me scrambling for everything else he did. This story of a girl who gets trapped in fairy-land is a stunning mix of intricate and detailed mythology filtered through a modern perspective. It’s impossibly cute and surreal without being manipulative or contrived. One scene where the little girl’s protector thrust out his hand to magically encase a demon was so reminiscent of Bubble Bobble and yet consistent with the magic in the movie that I was left unsure: was this a reference to the videogame, or was the videogame referencing Japanese magic?

Discussing Starcraft and Spirited Away over a spot of tea.I decided a bit of research was in order, and discovered via a search on the Internet Movie Database that Miyazaki had credits not only for his other movies (of which My Neighbour Totoro is another standout) but also for StarCraft. I hadn’t known that did videogames as well, so I read that Miyazaki had been thanked in the credits to the real-time strategy game with the pleasant surprise of worlds intersecting.

It was obviously meant to be. I tracked down the game and loaded it up on my PC, wondering why it had taken so long — I guess because I had had the impression that StarCraft was a really complicated version of chess, the science fictional background a pretext for cold strategizing and world conquering. But if it had even a tenth of Miyazaki’s baffling and beautiful whimsy, it was worth checking out.

It was worth checking out, though it’s more James Cameron (who’s also thanked in the credits) than Miyazaki. It’s funny, though, cresting the edge of satire: at the beginning, you’re a human who decides to betray the “Confederate” cause in the interest of greater humanity, despite the drawling outrage of one General Duke. The marines and biker gangs that populate the game are anachronistic but a good deal more colourful than the whitewashed Trekkie model. Another clear influence is the comic book Heavy Metal, where European graphic novelists fetishize everything from curvy hipped robots to shoulder mounted nukes — though in StarCraft things aren’t sexed up so much as confabulated.

If the artwork shows its age, not so much in style but in graphical chunkiness, the voice acting is excellent. Which is good, because every time you direct your troops (which is a lot) they talk back to you, and the missions can be long. An early mission had a goal to survive for 30 minutes against wave upon wave of invaders. It went by quickly, however, as I had my troops gather crystals and Vespene gas so I could build more defenders.

At one point, having gotten all my factories a-building and not wanting to watch the progress bar, I went to pour myself a cup of tea. It was peculiarly satisfying, like it is whenever I can leave something working when I go to do something else — and I kind of miss the days when computers were so slow that we naturally had more of these interstices as the obsolete machine processed or loaded. At one point we were forced to take a break, which was actually kind of healthy –now that things are so much faster, we have to decide to take a break, which requires a kind of discipline.

But between cues like progress bars, and the way you draw boxes around the
troops you want to move, I have to admit that it feels like too much work. I
found myself trying the shortcut CTRL-A to select all at some points. A wave
of invaders almost wiping me out gave me a brief boost of anxiety and excitement:
what if the next wave of invaders had 10 big monster guys instead of two? But
as I made more and more stuff I was getting positively existential. Can one
ever have enough?

Categories: Videogames

4 replies »

  1. I haven played Starcraft almost once a week since the year it was released. While it can be daunting at first. If you keep at it, you will reveal complexity and depth in the gameplay that few games achieve.
    I believe the best part of Starcraft is the balance of the races. Unlike the RTS games that preceded it, the opponents were not carbon copies of each other. In Starcraft you have the all organic Zerg, the practical and hardy Terran, and the near magical Protoss. All these races have unique limitations and advantages and if played well they are all equally powerful.
    Some tips for selecting units:
    – double clicking a unit selects up to 12 units of the clicked type that are on screen
    – ctrl-clicking a unit portrait in a group filters the selected group into only units of the ctrl-clicked type
    – shift-clicking a unit in a group (or its portrait) removes that individual unit from the group
    – when you have a group selected, you can save it by hitting ctrl-(a number from 0 to 9), you can then call up the group again by hitting the number you selected. try developing a system where you have certain numbers devoted to certain unit types or duties. For myself I use 1-4 as my standard units and defenses, 5-7 for intel units like ComSat Stations or Observers, and 8-0 for my special units that I’m building for a specialized attack. like a group of battlecruisers and their wraith escort. or a ghost, a dropship, and a science vessel.
    try playing on with friends too. I’m going away to a different continent for a year on wednesday and one of the ways i’ll keep in touch with my friends is through SC.
    Happy Bug Hunting!


  2. Starcraft was delayed for over a year…. A lot of Blizzard’s amazing titles are (Diablo II was also pretty amazing). But this guy and its interface and design raised the bar quite high for game design. It’s probably the reason why a lot of people (including Brent) still play it.


  3. i also got around to Starcraft after Warcraft 3, and didnt mind the drop in graphics as the gameplay was so addicting.
    Speaking of addictions, have you cracked Blizzard latest multi-user offering: World of Warcraft yet? Instead of one person managing armies, each player manages their own unit. The range of people playing WOW is amazing — i joined a guild with several players from Toronto — the gameplay can completely reverse real life roles — i’m director @ a web shop but when i play with co-workers they can easily direct me — i become the grunt!
    anyways, that doesnt have too much to do with your article… which i really enjoyed (i’m a big fan of Miyazaki)… it may inspire another one though ;-D


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