StarCraft was unveiled to the world twenty years ago, and in the time since it’s become a legendary fixture of the competitive gaming scene. Which makes it easy to forget that it’s also a fantastic space opera.
Earlier this month, Blizzard, StarCraft’s developers, released StarCraft Remastered, a face lift to the original title meant to spruce it up (along with its expansion, Brood War) for a new era. It didn’t change anything substantive, mostly just the graphics, but it offered a chance to get sucked back in. And I have. Since I’m beyond atrocious at the multiplayer, that’s meant digging into the sprawling solo campaign, which tells an intricate story of war, betrayal, and greed involving all three in-game races. A story that is much more engrossing than I remembered.
The story begins with the Terrans, a band of humans who have colonized deep space. You play as a magistrate for the Confederacy of Man, but you quickly join up with the dissident group the Sons of Korhal after the Confederates leave your colonists to die. The Terran campaign is taken up by a pretty straightforward story in which you fight the Confederates and the Zerg, a race of violent, parasitic aliens who seem to have no purpose but to consume and destroy. The story introduces you to a heroic frontier sheriff in the form of Jim Raynor and a morally complicated heroine, the psychic special operative Sarah Kerrigan. This first tale ends in betrayal: the Sons of Korhal abandon your people to the Zerg, and Sarah Kerrigan is devoured.
Then the Zerg campaign begins, and things get interesting. The world of the Zerg is an entirely foreign one. The Zerg are much smarter than they initially appear, but the sentient intelligences serving the Zerg are cruel and petty, bound together only by their shared hunger for conquest and blood. The goals of the Zerg campaign are more primal than the Terran one: you destroy your enemies and consume their territory, waging a nasty war against both humans and the Protoss, a warrior race that has travelled across the galaxy to crush the Zerg infestation. You spend your first missions protecting a chrysalis, an embryonic Zerg organism that gives birth to an infested version of Kerrigan, recreated as a special Zerg champion. All her human intelligence and tenacity, turned monstrous. She uses her unique individuality to gain power within the Zerg and sets out to annihilate the Protoss once and for all.
Now, a lot of that might not sound all that distinctive on its own. But what’s compelling about this story, and the Protoss campaign following it, is the way it involves the player in the beats of the narrative. In StarCraft, playing a race is a sort of embodiment. It’s a way to learn to act, to think, the way they do. Zerg capture territory mercilessly and multiply through hideous organic structures. The Protoss build small groups of specialized, careful warriors with which to purge the Zerg infestation. In both cases, you digest the story by doing, by becoming. Learning how to play a race means learning how to think like them.
After a couple of missions playing the Zerg, I felt the same reckless hunger that they did. I looked at the humans, at the Protoss, and I saw targets. Vectors of expansion. To my surprise, I was rooting for the monsters.
A lot of science fiction struggles to draw the audience into imagined spaces, failing to tie fantastical ideas to elements that feel lived in or relatable, but StarCraft passes that test beautifully. It provides an unlikely blueprint for how to tell these sorts of stories. By giving the audience hooks into this world’s inhabitants, by letting them see how even the most foreign beings in it understand themselves, Blizzard has built a story that lasts.
The effect of this is that, even at its most trope-y, StarCraft’s storytelling always feels urgent. As different factions of each race play off each other, the game pulls the player into their struggles, compels empathy and fascination even for the entirely alien Zerg. The world of StarCraft is dense, but it feels lived in and alive. I don’t just learn about and fear the alien hordes. Here, I am the alien hordes. Even more than the immaculate tactical gameplay, that sort of storytelling is addictive.