Looking back, I realize I'm disappointed with Starcraft 2's story

While I think Starcraft 2's single player is enjoyable, the story felt almost nonexistent to me. I'll give them credit, in that the CHARACTERS felt more cohesive and fleshed out. And yes, the missions actually have some unique objectives to them, instead of "oh hey, you have to level an enormous sprawling enemy base", plus the ways you could upgrade your units were interesting.

Still, the story was lacking. Almost nothing happened. The mission-to-mission dialogue is mostly explaining what the objectives are for the particular mission, but they have no greater context to the story. The only interesting story beats happen at the beginning and the end of the different mission arcs (Introduction mission arc, Colonist mission arc, Specter Tosh mission arc, Expose Mengsk mission arc, Zeratul mission arc, Gather Artifacts mission arc, Endgame mission arc).

Examples:

  • you find some colonists/refugees who want to escape the sudden Zerg attacks. You help them relocate; maybe they're infected, maybe they're not. Over the course of 3 missions, nothing else of lasting importance happens.
  • you find out about Tosh and the existence of Specters. You either kill all of the Specters and Tosh, or you free them and a bunch of political prisoners. Over the course of 3 missions, nothing else of lasting importance happens.
  • you find out there are 5 artifact pieces, and you should get them for some reason. Also Kerrigan wants them (for a reason that is never fully explained). Over the course of 5 missions, nothing else of lasting importance happens.

When I look back on the campaign, some significant plot events happen in sudden bursts, then you kinda just stroll from one planet to another doing busywork until that particular arc concludes and something else slightly interesting happens. The three examples I gave are probably the worst examples of being mostly irrelevant filler, but not a whole lot happens in the rest of the game either.

Starcraft 1 established locations like Mar Sara, Antiga Prime, Tarsonis, Char, Korhal, Aiur, and Shakuras. I guess part of that is Blizzard only having so many tilesets to work with and trying to define a few different planets with how the maps looked, but it was evocative. Starcraft 2 revisited most of those locations, but added pretty much zero new memorable planets, since most new planets are a one-trick pony with no plot significance.

Starcraft 1 had a bunch of characters across all of the races, both allies and enemies, and a fair amount of intrigue, backstabbing, etc. Starcraft 2's new characters are largely more personally important to Raynor, but few of them really seem like major players with any lasting significance, and few do anything surprising. Tychus' betrayal was the most ridiculously obvious thing anytime he and Raynor were in the same room together. General Warfield is the most standard military leader you could possibly write. Valerian Mengsk was the only new character that took an interesting turn, though I do enjoy Tosh's personality.

I just feel like you could summarize the plot progression in a single paragraph: "Raynor finally significantly damages Mengsk's public image and there might be a rebellion or something (Wings of Liberty...I guess?), Terrans attacked Char and now Kerrigan is human, Zeratul discovers a MASSIVE ZERG RETCON and their backstory is basically that of Warcraft's Orcs now". That's about it. Tychus' betrayal subplot was moving, but it came and went and I suspect we will never hear of it again, and I don't think it will change Raynor as a character in any way. It's nothing compared to when Raynor lost Kerrigan to the Zerg, that's for sure.

Comparatively, so much more happened in Starcraft 1. I mostly mean the Terran and Protoss campaigns, where they struggle both with exterior threats and their own internal politics; admittedly, the Zerg campaign is sorely lacking characters, and is pretty much "Protect Kerrigan while she's in a chrysalis, then use Kerrigan to cause trouble for Tassadar and Zeratul on Char, then beat the shit out of Aiur". Regardless, I loved how quickly the plot moved in that game and the expansion, and how so much could change from one mission to the next, and that's sorely missing from Starcraft 2.

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What would make for the best goofy and/or obnoxious theme song?

Hey everybody. My friend is organizing a casual video game tournament for our group of friends and their girlfriends. It's a lot of Wii games, we don't take the games very seriously, and it's usually just an excuse for everybody to spend a weekend together at somebody's place. This will be the 3rd time we've done this. The event is styled after the Olympics, in that each person has to (poorly) craft a flag, and have a national anthem, both of which are proudly displayed and played, respectively, at the awards ceremony for each game when the tournament concludes (my friend has a shoddily made podium and tin foil medals and so on).

The past two times, I went with Journey's Any Way You Want It, mostly because that song is just triumphant as fuck. It's worth noting that I end up winning at least a third of the games, if the past two events are any indication, so people will have to listen to a 30-second clip of my anthem probably 4-6 times within the span of half an hour. My goal this time is to pick something that is amusing/goofy/epic the first time, then gradually more obnoxious as you have to keep hearing it and seeing me revel in my terrible song choice.

Here are the candidates I've come up with so far (keep in mind I only get the first 30-45 seconds, so they have to count).

Music that is straight-up obnoxious:

  • Nyan Cat
  • Dubstep remixes (it's hard to find ones that have good heavy drops in the first 30-45 seconds, but I'm partial to this X-Files one. Definitely open to suggestions)

Music with a catchy hook that will get stuck in people's heads for hours (extra points if the song has terrible lyrics):

Music that is loud and dumb in the best possible way:

Music that will allow me to subject people to my terrible white boy dance moves:

Do you have a favourite among the possibilities? Or do you have an even better song idea? Let me know in the comments.

I have to email my friend the song I'm going to use, so if he vetoes all of my dumb suggestions and all else fails, I can always use Lucca's Theme, or either of these rippin' Mega Man X tracks.

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Civilization V has opened my eyes, but not in the way you'd think

While playing Civ 5, I've had an epiphany, but one that is not directly related to the games or series. When it comes to the Civilization series, I only played Civ II briefly at a friend's house years ago, and that's about it until I decided to jump in with Civ 5 earlier last year. I've been playing it here and there, and having a pretty good time with it.

But man, most comments on gaming sites bitch about Civ 5 whenever it comes up, saying it's sooo much worse than Civ 4. And hey, there's a good chance they're right! And you know what? I don't give a fuck! I don't have time to go back and try out all of the games in the series and then pass judgment. I'm not advocating an "ignorance is bliss" approach; on the contrary, I believe them when they say that Civ 5 has been scaled back in complexity compared to Civ 4, but at the same time, it's not as if it suddenly got demoted all the way down to being Risk. Civ 5 is still an interesting strategy game with a lot of things going on. In essence, they're overreacting - it's still a pretty good game.

Remember when Ryan did that Quick Look where all he did was blow Brad and Norm's minds with how it wasn't Starcraft II?

If you're a long-time Civ fan who was disappointed that 5 focused on a more intuitive UI, and streamlined the game instead of further ramping up all the systems that were in 4, I can see why you'd feel that way. Those changes certainly made the game easy to approach for me. But looking at the comments on articles related to the recently announced "Gods and Kings" expansion, people are still going on about how much they don't like it compared to the last game. It makes the fans of the series seem like a bunch of unappreciative assholes who don't even make an attempt to be optimistic that a new expansion will bring back the features they miss so much.

So back to that epiphany. Usually, I'm that guy who is like "OH DEAR GOD, how can you like Deus Ex: Invisible War when the first Deus Ex is leagues better?" But now I'm on the other side of that exchange, and I totally get it now. An ongoing series can ebb and flow, and you can find a game perfectly enjoyable, even when the fanbase is sure it's the low point of the series. Because even that low point will contain the basic gameplay hooks that drive the series, aside from cases where a series is rebooted in a completely different direction. And those gameplay hooks can still be fun to play with, even if they have been implemented more elegantly in other instances.

Now, I'm not seeking to just do away with the exercise of comparing a new entry in a series to the old ones. Obviously, sequel fatigue can set in, and a game isn't doing enough to differentiate itself from its predecessors, and that's worth noting. And while this streamlining in Civ 5 was likely done to revitalize the series and attract new people to the series, I don't think you should do that every time; if you do, you end up with Zelda, which seems to assume at the start of every single game that you're a 6-year-old who is just picking up their very first video game. But please keep in mind that in some weird way you're representing a series when you discuss it online, and the least you could do is be constructive or optimistic if you really are convinced the most recent entry was a misstep. I certainly will.

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On game music, and how I think it has lost much of its identity

I was looking at the past winners of the Spike VGAs Best Original Score award, and some of the nominees are downright baffling, while some of the exclusions are equally disappointing. I think Bastion absolutely deserved the award this year, though I also remember Portal 2's music being quite good.

For those who are interested, here are the past winners and nominees:

  • Bastion, Batman: Arkham City, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Portal 2
  • Red Dead Redemption, God of War III, Halo: Reach, Mass Effect 2
  • Halo 3: ODST, Assassin's Creed II, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
  • Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Fallout 3, Spore, LittleBigPlanet
  • BioShock, God of War II, Halo 3, Mass Effect
  • The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Bully, Electroplankton, Okami
  • We Love Katamari, Call of Duty 2, God of War, Indigo Prophecy, Perfect Dark Zero

I don't claim to have played all of those games, but man, the vast majority of those nominees have completely forgettable scores that I don't remember particularly enhancing the whole experience of playing the game. And BioShock won Best Original Score? How? I went back and played that game earlier this year, and the soundtrack is easily the least impressive component of an otherwise pretty great game. Not even a nomination for Super Mario Galaxy?

OK, I could argue all day about who should've won what, so I'll get to the point. This highlights a thought I've had for some time about game music. I feel it has lost any kind of distinct identity it might've once had. Sure, during its humble beginnings, game music was simplistic synthesized music being played directly off a sound chip, but I'm of the opinion that it gave composers a weird sort of freedom. They were writing pieces for a medium that didn't have any expectations. When arcades started out, game music was little more than brief jingles like a pinball machine might have, just to get your attention and be a unique signifier of a particular game. Then as time wore on, the hardware got better and those jingles expanded, and became some of the most enduring video game music to come out of the 80s and 90s, despite even the SNES/Genesis/Game Boy era containing songs that were still often on something like a 30-second loop.

The following generation was something of a transition period, and still contained some memorable musical scores. Then, by the time we reached the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox era, it seems most big budget games had now more or less made the transition into having an original score that just tries to be an orchestral Hollywood movie score, in the style of John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and the like. Either that, or they had an all generic-instrumental-rock soundtrack. And that's largely how game music has remained. So I suppose my problem is an offshoot of the complaint that games are trying too hard to be interactive Hollywood movies. The point is, in terms of composition, instrumentation, and arrangement, game soundtracks tend to subscribe to some set standards based on music from other media, and I hardly even think of most recent game scores as "video game music" if someone asks me about games that have great music in them.

Occasionally, one of those scores makes a connection with me, but it's the exception, not the rule. Max Payne 1 and 2 give a huge amount of time to their one main theme, but it is incredibly good and suits the game well. However, it's the melancholy cello theme of the film noir movie that Max Payne is trying to be, and isn't useful for much beyond title screens and cutscenes. Similarly, the focus they give to the main themes in the Metal Gear Solid series works in its favour, but those themes are also very much a "here is the type of song you would play over the opening credits of a film" sort of affair.

And that highlights my issue with the scores of most modern games I've played. They seem to put most of their effort into a single main theme, as if they're Danny Elfman writing the Tim Burton theme song for Batman, and once that flagship song is polished to a shine, everything that follows is incidental, throwaway pieces. Recently, I don't find that I encounter as much quality in those tracks, the ones that should perfectly accentuate a particular story moment, capture the mood of a particular area, or suit a particular character just right.

I suppose my preference for the game music of yore may be a nostalgic yearning for chiptune instrumentation and musical stylings, and a trick of human memory, where due to the sheer repetition of some of those songs it becomes hard to forget them. But I can live with game music losing the particular sound and identity it had in its infancy, as long as there are still modern games that find a way to make a distinct game score that gives a stronger impact throughout the whole game. And thankfully, a select few do rise to that challenge.

Some meet that expectation of mine by creating a more ambient, synthesized score, like Metroid Prime or Portal 2, or Mass Effect, with this piece that plays while you survey the vastness of space, choosing the next area to explore:

Others do it by getting away with making a chiptune, 8-bit style score, like Super Meat Boy, or Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, with this piece that plays just after you've used your supernatural powers to undo someone's death and now eagerly await the critical information they might have:

And some do it by writing a score that switches between several different musical genres and styles, to emphasize the different locales and regions you travel through, and to accentuate key moments in the story. And on that note, I'll leave you with a piece from a score that does just that, from Bastion:

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