I’ve been enjoying the single player campaign of Starcraft II. It’s great fun. The tremendous variety of goals and mechanics of each level makes each level a very unique fresh experience. They are not so much “levels” per se, but more mini-games with rules all their own which just happen to use Starcraft units as gamepieces. The Mass-Effect-like mechanics of collecting resources which you spend on troop upgrades in between missions is likewise really engaging.

The story of that campaign is another matter entirely. Though the technical mechanics of the storytelling have advanced considerably beyond the disjoint unsynced-talking-heads-in-squares of yore, the actual writing is horrifyingly bad, a Transformers-2-esque grab-bag of cliches. It’s not that I expect high literature, but some small measure of coherence and sense would be appreciated. What is more, the shoddy writing is quite incongruous with the obvious care and love of craftsmanship that went into gameplay.

Things were rough from the start. When we first reacquaint ourselves with Jim Raynor, the game’s hero, he’s drinking hard liquor and watching TV. As it happens, one of the game’s villains is on TV, talking about him! This angers Jim, so we’re treated to a hearty “it ain’t over till it’s over you son of a bitch!” And he shoots the TV with a revolver. Wow.

That was actually one of the more tolerable sequences, if for no better reason than for the absence of our second hero, Jim’s old buddy Tychus Findlay. Like all the characters, Findlay’s conversational repertoire is mostly limited to trite one liners, but he is rendered all the more intolerable by his characterization; he’s a bulky muscle-headed half-wit who talks in a languid southern drawl. It’s somehow much more annoying than I just made it sound.

I list here a few gems of Tychus, prefixed by their context:

The zerg have attacked the human worlds. The death toll is in the billions (somehow billions of humans arose from forty thousand original settlers in the span of two hundred years; whatever). Tychus has just finished watching a video where Kerrigan herself rips apart a squad of armed soldiers with her bare hands. His appraisal of this threat? “Seems this queen of blades got everybody runnin’ scared! She don’t look so tough!” Right. You can take her Tychus! Please, go for it.

Raynor rescues survivors of a human colony. Their leader, a doctor who becomes your resident scientist, has seen the deaths of her fellow colonists, the destruction of her home, and other miscellaneous horror, doom, destruction, etc. How does Tychus comfort her? “I asked that sweet thang if she’d like to give me a physical.” Yeah… I think most people outgrow that chestnut by the time they reach their teens.

These selfsame colonists then settle on a new world, whereupon they are infested with the “zerg virus” which turns them into shambling zombies. His expert analysis? “Those colonists sure do have some zerg troubles!”

Oh, Tychus… Tychus Tychus. You insufferable jackass.

He’s utterly redundant, and from his introduction he’s clearly there so that he can betray Raynor at some critical point. I’m a little unclear on whether we’re supposed to know this or not; it seems really clear, but they keep foreshadowing in a way which suggests it’s supposed to be a mystery to us? I do wish they’d get it over with and be done with the beef slab. However, owing to the “multipath” mission structure, it would be technically awkward for it to happen anytime soon.

OK, I have now finished Starcraft II. The campaign missions remained delightfully fun and varied. They even managed to make the RPG squad based missions tolerable. Unfortunately, the writing remained execrable and senseless. I’m rather amused by how inept it is, so I think I’ll continue my screed.

Regarding the betrayal, Tychus waited to the absolute end to betray Raynor, so we had to suffer through his mouth breathing charm the entire game. Throughout the game it seemed clear the writer didn’t expect us to know Tychus was going to betray Raynor, which I found really confusing, given Findlay’s introduction with Mengsk talking about the price he’s going to pay for his freedom. The betrayal was: he had been blackmailed by Mengsk into killing Kerrigan. Yeah. So, I’m trying to comprehend Mengsk’s plan here. Mengsk wanted to kill Kerrigan; fair enough. He somehow felt that the best way to accomplish this was to let this random criminal Tychus go free, and blackmail Tychus so that, on the off chance he encountered Kerrigan, and Kerrigan was vulnerable, Tychus would shoot her. As far as plans go, that’s impossibly stupid; its success relies on a confluence of highly implausible events and happenstances that would have been impossible to anticipate at the time when Tychus was released. What is more, at the time Tychus was released, absolutely no one would have needed to be blackmailed into killing Kerrigan – anyone would have been only too eager to do so. The plan, and hence the plot, doesn’t make one iota of sense.

On the subject of Kerrigan, she was one of the more regrettable casualties of the terrible writing. Starcraft I’s writing and story were uneven, perhaps, but it often succeeded in making Kerrigan delightfully evil. Under the tender mercies of Starcraft II’s writers, though, she has been diminished to petulant incoherent outbursts. Here are two examples. She gives her first line in the campaign after you’ve stolen an alien artifact from under her nose: “I forgot how resourceful you were, Jim. I won’t make that mistake twice!” Aside from being trite, such a statement renders her impotent. Obviously you’re going to win, and continue being resourceful, so this declaration becomes nothing more than empty words. She clearly makes the mistake not just twice, but repeatedly again and again through the course of the campaign. So, we lead off by making our lead villain appear ineffective and weak. Nice. The last thing she says in the final mission is “you will pay for this treachery” after you beat back the last of her attacks. I found the comment bewildering. So… um, defense is treachery? This rather makes me suspect the writer doesn’t know the definition of treachery. This seems likely given the volume of other malaprops.

Then we have our hero’s characterization. Jim Raynor is supposed to be a pathetic drunk. We are treated to lots of scenes of him drinking, and in any one of these scenes he drinks a lot, gulping down in a single instant twice what I’d be hard pressed to imbibe over the course of a lengthy evening. Curiously, in no way is he ever affected at all by his drinking. Part of having a character be a pathetic drunk is that he is drunk. That’s kind of an important component of that characterization that they somehow missed. I wouldn’t have guessed it was even possible to make that oversight.

Aside from content, we have some weaknesses introduced by the technical aspects. The non-linear structure has some disconcerting effects. You go from discrediting Mengsk and fighting his primary military commander (the imaginatively named “General Warfield”), to fighting shoulder to shoulder alongside this same commander. He accepts your help without so much as a sidelong glance, and with Mengsk seemingly as powerful as ever. More broadly, the nonlinear progress often gets in the way of telling a cohesive story; the pieces of the story are necessarily modular, but a story itself is almost by definition non-modular; a modular part of a story is a part you can do without. Further, that you can talk to people in any order means that all conversations occur seemingly in a vacuum. The overall effect is a heightened sense of emotional flatness and meaninglessness, almost like everyone has been lobotomized, or that I was observing it through a dream. I think this might be a general problem with non-linear structure; I observed a similar uncanny effect with Mass Effect 2 – though strangely, Dragon Age had similar non-linear mechanics and avoided the uncanny effect somehow.

All this said, I’m perfectly delighted with Starcraft II. In the end I bought a game, not a novel, and the game itself is stellar. It’s not like story matters all that much in an RTS compared to, say, an RPG. I’m just rather amused the story is as bad as it is.