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A fairly dangerous set of opinions are espoused, wherein I condemn the words of Penny Arcade and talk for too long about Starcraft II, only to find myself accidentally making a point regarding the state of videogame journalism.

Nick Creamer, Blogger

October 26, 2010

23 Min Read

 Alright, this one may get a bit tangential, long, and self-indulgent – in fact, it may very well start that way. I feel this first exposition-y bit is necessary to give my position some context, but if not, I'll queue all you neanderthals into where the meat and potatoes start a-cooking. Also, just to add a little context, I originally wrote this just after Starcraft II was released, so this article was at one point actually relevant. Finally, this is (again) a tidied-up version of my thoughts from over at CriticHit.blogspot.com. Anyway.

So Starcraft II is now a thing that exists. That is awesome. Although I wasn't in or keeping tabs on the beta throughout the first few months of this year, I was still desperately excited to see the game released. I can still recall first seeing a two-page advertisement spread for the original Starcraft in some distant Duelist release (ah yeah, CCG old school) and being absolutely captivated by the action, the madness, the synthesis of Aliens and Warcraft. Man, I played the shit out of that game. I played the campaign first, reveling in the twin joys of Power Overwhelming and Show Me The Money (and Operation CWAL, and Black Sheep Wall, and... yeah, I was a nub). My utter inability to beat the game in the absence of absurd cheats in no way lessened my appreciation of the story – I fell in love with that universe. I can still recall the fall of the Science Vessel Amerigo, still hear the soft regret of Dugal's final words. I went online, and sucked there. I made huge numbers of carriers bolstered by the easy-mode infinite minerals of Big Game Hunters, and when that became rote I discovered the joys of Recalling forty dragoons into an unsuspecting mineral line. Hearing the screams of SCVs as plasma ripped through steel was a pleasure too good for this world.

A blood pact sealed my allegiance to the Protoss, casting me forever against the vulgar, primitive Terran and despicable dripping protuberances of the Zerg. I played in Starcraft tournaments at nerd camp (more specifically the now tragically defunct ACE), drawing lines in the sand and making friends on the battlefield, finding victory and glory. I still sucked, but I was better at making Carriers than anyone else there. Although unknown pleasures such as Diablo II and Super Smash Bros Melee conspired to steal me away, I would eventually return to my first love – by the end of high school I was playing 2v2 matches against semi-real opponents using semi-real strategies, a major milestone in my Starcraft development. Eventually I would even learn about Korea, and be able to utter sentences using proper nouns like Flash and Bisu in a semi-authoritative monotone. Eventually, Starcraft II became a thing that would happen. And now, Starcraft II is a thing.

I have played Starcraft II. I bought it opening day, tore through the campaign in about three more (Props for me – No cheating! Slops for me – Normal difficulty. Yeah). I created an online account, chose my avatar, and promptly alt-tabbed back to Youtube, far more comfortable watching pro tournaments than actually playing anyone at all. Eventually I found the confidence to fight some computers, and then do some 3v3s with friends, and finally run through my placement matches. After having watched more than 50 (well, actually maybe more than 100) match/tutorial videos, having played Starcraft II for a week, and having played Starcraft 1 for five years on and off, I successfully place myself in the gold league. Gold? This is terrifying. I don't want to play any more. I alt-tab again, linking my way through a few comfort websites, and see that Penny Arcade has a new comic – and hey, Tycho's talking about Starcraft! Sweet.

Okay, would you believe that's all preamble? Here comes a point. Maybe.

Prior to the release of Starcraft II, I spent a great deal of time worrying. Not that this is anything resembling news – I spend my life vibrating in a state somewhere between fretting and total emotional breakdown, forever seeking new objects of anxiety. However, this new strain of worrying was directly related to Starcraft II – I was afraid they were going to destroy everything Starcraft had become. At this point, I no longer played Starcraft even semi-regularly – however, I still cared deeply about the game not as a player, but as a spectator. Starcraft was one of those rare games that are so fundamental and yet so complex that they can reinvent themselves in response to themselves, with play evolving based on dominant strategies, and new skills emerging even a decade after release. Because of Korea's plague-like infection with Starcraft madness, the game had been propelled to the forefront of the e-Sports world, played at the highest competitive levels and importantly, unlike so many games, was actually riveting as a spectator sport, as careful economic work and subtle strategic choices perfectly meshed with explosive tactical action. As a gameplay experience, Starcraft was transcendent. As a sport, Starcraft was very nearly perfect. In order for Starcraft II to not disappoint me, in order for it to continue providing the level of spectator entertainment and engagement I was accustomed to, it would have to both adhere closely to the original design aesthetic and innovate in enough small and varied ways to keep the experience fresh.

I shouldn't have worried.

Starcraft II is absurdly good. It pays tribute to the core units of Starcraft: Brood War while enhancing the gameplay experience in virtually every conceivable way. It tweaks those units that remain to make them both more evocative and more universally useful; the Zealot, for instance, which has always been a powerful early-game force, is now given power throughout the game through the researching of a single passive “charge” ability. It combines the more evocative parts of certain units to provide creative and unique new options; the Hellion seems to be a mixture of the Vulture and Firebat, losing the scouting and map-control powers of the Spider Mine while gaining a gratifying, crowd-pleasing, and micro-intensive Area of Effect attack. It even automatizes virtually every conceivable rote activity from the first game, providing unit command queues, smarter AI, more intuitive control groups, and a thousand other small tweaks. It is still hard as balls and deep as an ocean, with strategies constantly evolving and reshaping the online landscape. And most importantly, it is still Starcraft – a game of careful resource management, map control, and battle, where gaining information on your opponent is of paramount importance and trying cute (or, in the minds of mediocre players, “clever”) plays will always be worth it for the one game in ten where they actually win you the fight. I should have known Blizzard would never break my heart – that they were too smart to break my heart, and the hearts of all the loyal Starcraft players. They knew the value this game would hold, the standards it would have to maintain. They knew that perfecting the Starcraft formula could well mean the true emergence of gaming as a mainstream sporting industry. They knew this game was Important.

Tycho thought a little differently. I'll quote him in full here, because his words are both critical to my argument and illustrative of a way of thinking that is, somewhat paradoxically, incredibly close-minded in its demand for innovation.

“I eventually played enough Starcraft that I wanted to try Company of Heroes Online or reinstall one of the Dawn of War games, which I'm sure is an act of villainy. It's very difficult not to be tantalized (read: manipulated) by the presentation of this software, and I've chosen to be manipulated for my own entertainment, enjoyment, and return on investment, but that is is a matter quite apart from being ignorant of the gulf between Starcraft II and what constitutes the state of the art.

“Again: you can't not like it. I'm not an absolute jerk. They've leveraged the oldest verbs of RTS to give us a highly calculated, almost algorithmically "satisfying" form of amusement. But to the extent that the game is different - outside of the Wing Commander cribbing and the rancid script - those differences are beyond my level of play.

“Warcraft III was, by comparison, chockablock with innovations and crazy bullshit - the sort of prayerful long pass that a company with Blizzard's talent and resources can bring to fruition. I don't know who else is supposed to take these chances. Beyond its narrative strengths, which were manifold, its technological and philosophical bones gave rise to Defense of the Ancients, which I've argued constitutes an entirely new genre. It was a game so bold that it contained games within it. Where is that bold heart?

“For the consumer, maybe "polish" is - as an ideal - the highest calling of the medium. I'm not satisfied with that. At our best we advocate with our selections, curating it thereby. In that spirit, let us be clear with one another. We may call Starcraft II "old school," the electronic equivalent of comfort food, and these things are not untrue in the particulars. But there is a safety in thought and deed here that borders on cowardice.” - Jerry Holkins, 8/2/2010, available at http://www.penny-arcade.com/2010/8/2/

Man, there is a whole lot to unpack there. As a disclaimer here, I must first say that I have the utmost respect for Gabe and Tycho – they constantly toil to improve their work, act as critical unslovenly ambassadors of the videogame medium, do tremendous work with their charity, and are the creators of one of the only videogame-based webcomics that employs anything resembling humor. As opposed to the general population of webcomics, they do not fall back on two to three replayed jokes (I play a lot of videogames. This is funny. Videogames are not like real life. This is funny. I often confuse videogames with real life. This is funny. This new game is good, bad, or strange. This is funny. Violence is funny. Double-takes are funny. Pregnant pauses in the third panel are funny. Etc. Ad nauseum) that, because I have no reason not to, I can actually accuse hacks like whoever writes Ctrl-Alt-Del (who also uses the crafty trick of replacing humor with “character development”, wherein characters with one personality trait (which is normally wacky, snarky, or girl (yes, girl is a personality trait to these people)) enter relationships with other characters with one personality trait) (whew, that's a lot of asides (maybe I should just make a full post about how humor sucks and being funny is hard? (probably a bad idea))) of personifying. They innovate, both with critique and humor. They are important, valuable people.

They can also be huge flaming jerks (this was not my original word choice) from time to time. The thing is, in the same way that Gabe and Tycho help break videogames out into the “real world” (oh man, is that ever a relative term (why does every article end up containing the seeds of ten other articles I'd rather be writing?)), so does Starcraft. Clearly, Tycho sees in each game the offspring of games that have come before, and the potential of games to come. He sees each game as one more step towards the future of gaming, that golden frontier of gameplay potential that each new game does its best to investigate. The central problem with his post here is that this generally admirable forward-looking mentality has given him gameplay tunnel vision – his emphasis on what games can be removes any perspective on what each individual game should be. Starcraft II is not an exercise in innovation – it is a treatise on revision and perfection. The ways in which Starcraft II is innovative lie outside the game proper – it is innovative in that it is creating a network and support structure on a level previously unheard of among real time strategy games. He is accusing a square peg of cowardice in its refusal to fit through his round hole of game value determination. Starcraft II is uniquely suited to be yelled at by Tycho because, unlike most rigorously played fighting games, Starcraft was enjoyed by virtually all gamers at the time of its release, and thus virtually all long-time gamers feel they have some emotional stake in the sequel, regardless of their current involvement in the real time strategy... “scene”. This only serves to explain Tycho's disappointment – it does not excuse his ignorance of the beating heart of competitive gaming.

Reading through a mountanous slew of complaints far less eloquently expressed than Tycho's, it seems the vast majority of unsatisfied players want their hand to be held in more evocative ways than Starcraft II can muster. This is fine. This does not mean, however, that one of the only games that could potentially throw videogames into the competitive mainstream should be tailored to your desire for a certain subset of a certain genre's idea of innovation. Tycho states at one point that “I don't know who else is supposed to take these chances” in reference to the evolution from Warcraft II to III – my answer to him would be any other company, any company that is not entrusted with the one product that holds this much baggage. There are literally thousands of people for whom the most important leisure pursuit in their life is Starcraft, hundreds (at least) more for whom the perfecting of this game (or the commentating on of that perfection, or the helping of others to achieve that level of play) is literally their life's work. To deny the sequel the possibility of a similar or grander legacy for the sake of adding heroes and a cover system seems to me the height of either (almost certainly) ignorance or (unlikely) selfishness. Tycho at one point states, “But to the extent that the game is different... those differences are beyond my level of play.” Yes, they are. Clearly. But is the extent to which this game is positioned differently from virtually all other games that hard to recognize? I know well that when first a man stated that his work was not “for” certain critics, Twisp and Catsby were born – however, I find myself willing to throw out the statement, and the thesis, that a game like Starcraft II is simply not for a person like Tycho Brahe.

And yes, that is my introduction. Thesis established: certain games are not for certain people, and this is interesting and important and misunderstood.

Yeah, that's right. Transition time, kids.

There is currently an established hierarchy both in videogame categorization and review that I feel is not only ludicrously inaccurate and unhelpful, but also just may be contributing to the lack of creativity and fluidity in mainstream game design, by encouraging an adherence to marketable and easily-describable categories. That's a fairly lofty claim, and like most such claims it is also an unfair simplification – clearly, the reason there is essentially zero creativity in AAA first-person shooter design is because not only does the corporate side of videogames crave dependable and safe commodities, but so does, by and large, their general market. Regardless of what effect the review/categorization paradigm is having on game design, it is certainly having a large effect on game reception, and is a fairly poor substitute for true game critique – that is, the current vocabulary of videogame review is doing many videogames, particularly many innovative and important ones, a huge disservice. The existing structures I am referring to here are twofold. First, there is the classification of games according to the time-honored genres. “Platformer”, “Role Playing Game”, “First Person Shooter”, “Real Time Strategy” and a handful of other designations are used to describe virtually every game released. On a base descriptive level, this is fine – these labels normally pinpoint something that connects games to each other through some aesthetic decision or the form the gameplay takes, and serve to group games that would more or less resemble each other when shown to an orangutan or your grandmother. The second level of classification comes through videogame review. While websites like Kotaku gracefully sidestep this issue by acknowledging that only through the relating of a person's experience with a game can information be gained, websites like IGN still rate games according to, to use their criteria, “Presentation, Graphics, Sound, Gameplay, and Lasting Appeal”. I think most people would agree that their favorite videogame experiences haven't come about because a game succeeded more spectacularly than any other in those five fields. But is there a more useful method of qualifying game virtues? I believe so.

Before games can be either grouped according to genre or rated on the basis of how they adhere to or expand that genre, the desires of their intended audience must be taken into account. To frame this in the context of a game review, a game could receive wildly different scores depending on whether it's being scored on the basis of:

 

A: Game as tool of transportation and “fun,” with the review emphasizing the cohesiveness of the aesthetic and the “stickiness” of the base mechanisms. This is the style of review in which Mario and Zelda games excel, as well as the style to which most existing review sites adhere most closely. This is also the realm of most casual games, though even something as prefabricated and corporate-driven as Farmville is innovative in its own wretched little way.

 

B: Games as innovators and tools of advancing the medium, with the review focusing on those elements of the game that both define it as unique and shed light on new design space for gaming in general. Most mainstream reviewers touch on this and will certainly acknowledge it if it makes for a truly brilliant and unique experience, but seem to look less kindly upon experiments that may or may not lead to fun gameplay, but are in themselves valuable simply for trying something new. This seems to be Tycho's holy grail of review types, and will certainly have to be more generally adopted if videogames are to advance and not simply become shinier.

 

C: Game as competitive activity, with the review placing an emphasis on not only how tight and carefully varied the gameplay is, but also how infinite the ceiling for improvement is, how completely the player can define himself as a competitor in a personal way, and how well-crafted the interface for finding challengers or tournaments. This type of review is niche and specialist, but also critical both to some of the most rabid and loyal segments of the game-playing population as well as the growth of videogames as a multifaceted medium. One large problem that inhibits the appearance of this type of review is that most game reviewers have to spread themselves across the medium, and are thus less likely to, for example, pan a new fighting game for losing its predecessors' distinct mixup game, or fluid advanced techniques, or unique methods of applying pressure, or etc, etc, etc, and instead focus on aesthetic changes that aren't really relevant to most dedicated fighting game players.

 

Most modern videogame reviews at least touch on these three pillars of gaming wherever applicable, but even acknowledging the necessity of this multiplicity of focus means denying a thousand other reasons people play videogames. There are people who play Second Life only to express their inner interior decorator, or World of Warcraft to be part of a community, or something like Rock Band or Wii Sports either as a social activity or for quick, instant stress relief. Interest in a game can be fueled by a desire to experience a story more intimately, to escape reality, to embrace nostalgia, to watch numbers go up, or to feel an emotional connection (which itself branches into different meanings when applied to a story-based RPG, Second Life, or Love Plus). These desires are very distinct from the coordination skill-checks and power fantasies that have dominated games for so long, but they are certainly quantifiable. One does not need to imagine a fantasy audience for any given game, and then cater their review to this theoretical demographic – a simple focus on what the game is attempting to do and capable of will suffice. Discovering what the game is trying to share with the player, or provide them – and how well the game succeeds at this goal – is the best and, I believe, only way to properly assess any game.

With this broadened view of potential game experiences in mind, a glance back at the current genre classifications (okay, ego time, let's see how many I can list off: RPG, RTS, FPS, 3rdPS, Platformer, Action Game, Racing Game, Adventure Game, uh... bullet hell games... text-based adventure games?... side-scrolling beat-em ups (wait, do those count as action games now? Is God of War the successor to Streets of Rage?)... um... dating sim! Wait, simulations in general! Aw man, that's like thirty genres right there. And why did I think of dating sims before, uh, The Sims? ANYWAY) shows that not only have games striving for unfamiliar markets completely destroyed the sanctity of these classifications, but that mainstream games have been working hard to destroy their relevance as well.

Games that include multiple genres within them have moved from a risky proposition to the absolute norm – Halo is a first person shooter with moments of third-person action and a variety of vehicle simulators, Uncharted is a third person shooter with action and adventure segments, and most RPGs now include elements of other genres (Obsidian games, Demon's Souls, and Mass Effect are all partially action games). Those games that maintain the tightest grip on their genre-specificity often do so for specific reasons. As stated before, I believe Call of Duty and Starcraft have both adhered to their original aesthetic for reasons of competitiveness, not simple laziness or lack of imagination on the developer's part. But clearly games like that are the minority at this point, and games like Bioshock, which I feel kind of dirty calling a first person shooter, are becoming the norm. Can these classic categories be replaced with more modern variants? Kinda? Maybe? Clearly, the original categories are attempting to describe games in very concrete and physical ways, describing the physical features of a game (first-person, real-time) over the entertainment contained therein. If there were to be new categories based on the type of entertainment provided, according to something similar to what I've described above, it would have to be a fairly robust system, considering new types of gaming are being constantly invented. The appeal of a game like Little Big Planet or Scribblenauts clearly can be grouped into a single category, IF the player of Little Big Planet is appreciating it for its creative potential, and not just its capacity as a platformer and cooperative experience. Perhaps the best route would be to pinpoint the various types of entertainment a certain title provides, and explain how each contributes to the whole – then titles could be sorted both according to which individual categories they fall into as well as their combined aesthetic.

We have now morphed the problem of labeling individual games into the problem of finding all the potential labels games could fall under, and a quest like this necessarily becomes less and less useful the longer developers have to screw with our expectations. What's more, the dividing of various schools of “fun” and “entertainment” is a necessarily vague task, with certain classic genres existing as amalgamations of various sources of entertainment (first person shooters combining competitive and effortless fun, role-playing games combining stats and progression based-fun with narrative entertainment, etc). So I will leave this task for another day, considering my point is...

What is my point?

My point is, I believe, that anyone who calls himself a shepherd of the future of gaming is lying. Games are evolving constantly, rapidly, faster every year. Branching in new directions and discovering new niches and appealing to new demographics (or forcefully broadening the old ones). We no longer live in a time where a single person can appreciate all that gaming is capable of, or even just all the great things it is capable of. The old categories of gaming cannot stand before this proliferation, nor can the old standards of judgment. But most importantly, the egos of times past have to go – because in this new world, there is a place for every game, from the most innovative to the most iterative, from the most casual to those worthy of commentary and study (and of course even Farmville has something to say about society (personally, I think Farmville says we're all deeply, desperately unhappy people, but that's another article entirely)). While we can suggest which of these avenues of proliferation are the most valuable for gaming as a cultural touchstone, art form, or form of entertainment, we should recognize that these pursuits all require unique mindsets and are (nearly) all valuable. Of course I, personally, would love to see videogames accepted as an art form capable of true commentary on the human condition. Of course I wince when Raynor talks about “kicking this revolution into overdrive” - that is until I find it all so laughable as to be laugh-worthy. But defining your aesthetic as campy, stereotypical, and nostalgically iconic is a choice that works for Starcraft, because Starcraft knows and embraces exactly what it wants to be, what it has to be – the most archetypal, spectator-friendly, competition-ready space marine simulator in this sector. And by accepting this role, Starcraft is positioning itself to make the best possible use of its own infamy, both for its own sake and the sake of gaming as both a sport and, indirectly, a respected medium. So give me incremental tech tree changes, streamlined base management, and the most stereotypical version of the most overdone aesthetic ever invented. The future will be brighter for it.

Epilogue: I am now clawing my way into Diamond 1v1s despite spending waaay too much time playing on my 3v3 and 4v4 teams. I have probably already played hundreds of hours of this game, and I still can only use half the units of a single race anywhere near proficiently. I still suck at Starcraft. I still love Starcraft. Rock on.

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