I played starcraft solely for the story of the campaign.
Same here - though I loathe Starcraft 2 with every fibre of my being for the same reason.
But a good narrative campaign is hard to pull off. You need a good story, engaging characters, but also the maps, unit design and mission objectives themselves need to participate.
To take Starcraft as an example:
- Many missions have an objective other than "destroy the enemy". Some require to survive a given time. Or to protect a specific unit. Or to destroy a specific unit. Or even to destroy a specific unit with another specific unit type. More than once, new objectives pop mid-mission. And each time, for a good story reason.
- The unit design tells something about each faction. The Terran Marine is a dude put into a tin-can and given a rifle cannon with a handle slapped on it. Most high-tech units are on the "slap weapons and some life-support on an engine, then slap armour slabs on it" variety. Those people are ingenious, but they can only afford to build "good enough" stuff, elegance be damned. Contrast the Protoss with their cybernetic and high-tech curves everywhere, even though they avoid unnecessary frills. After all, they can afford lavish factories on their homeworld.
- While it's not Stephen Zweig, each character has understandable goals, principles and motivations, and conflicts mostly arise from this. Also good voice actors.
- The story itself isn't static, with characters joining or changing sides, and a few hidden agendas. The ending of BroodWar is rather bleak, in fact, with Zerg queen Kerrigan emerging on top of the pileup and still a few bones to pick. More importantly, it avoids the worst clichés in lieu of actual story events.
Note that apart from the first point, nearly everything was thoroughly screwed up by the sequel, as well as systematically retconning elements of the story and replacing them with generic, boring awfulness.
For possibly the best narrative RTS ever made, check out Homeworld
Cataclysm Emergence(1). It is also one of the best narrative zombie games ever made, which is even more surprising as it is a space RTS.
Here is an article about an especially memorable mission:
(1) Remember, kids, it's the one with the most money that owns the trademark. Some of you may still be under the impression that it would be prior claim by a decade, or that trademarking a rather common word isn't possible, silly you...
The problem is, this above isn't exactly possible for Zero-K. Good professional voice actors are out, the best available staging is a briefing text and maybe some simle in-game camera play (like the intro to the first mission), and we have to work with the unit and map style we already have.
Mission objectives and in-mission events are doable, but those require someone to dedicate significant time and efforts on it, so better be as light on those as possible.
My best bet would be on this narrative - while unoriginal, it can be done reasonably well with lesser resources:
The main character awakens after an indeterminate but extremely long time, on board a powering-up Commander. Stars have drifted too much to be measured, every clock has reinitialized...
All comm channels are dead. In fact, more thorough scans and picking up machine data from wreckages reveal a total absence of detectable intelligence. No organics left, no cyborgs, nor uploaded minds or thinking machines. The varied armies seem to all be on autopilot, for who knows how long.
The reason for awakening now is probably the massive battle happening outside.
- The first mission/tutorial is about powering up a few inactive bots and getting the hell out of here. At least one of the belligerents's IFF seems to recognize the Commander as an ally.
- Then, each mission is about searching for clues about what happened, maybe reprogram armies to fend off more hostile ones, and getting new tech along the way.
- All of this is described by some text (in addition to the current briefing text) in the description. It may be in italics to denote the Main Character thinking.
- Ultimately, something very far away seems to be detected, and one last mission, only available after several end-campaign missions are beaten, is about going there and leaving those mad armies behind. Maybe reaching a stargate. For example : reaching a stargate, capturing it/beat the local force, feeding it enough energy to power it up, fending waves of attack (chickens?) from local forces awakened by the stargate activity, and then walk the Commander into it.
- Maybe some final text about leaving this crazy place, and hoping to find something worth on the other side.
The main advantage of this kind of story is that there is no other character.
No dialogue, or having AI feel like a human (or any sapient being). No spoken text. Minimal descriptions - the story can work entirely on the main character's inner thoughts/notes/journal entries - whatever the narrative text in the mission description is supposed to be.
No characterization needed : the good old technique of the hollow protagonist, that the readers/players naturally paint their own projection.
Also, it works for everyone. Male, female, baseline, cyborg, gene-enhanced, sapient machine... Any type of character the player identifies with or root for can be the main character. And it is removed enough from the Planetwars story context to avoid incoherences there.
Duskers is the best example I can think of of a game using this type of narrative, with similar resources, and a proof that it can work well.
This should be doable by slapping narrative texts into the mission description text. If that sounds good, I can even try to whip something up.
This would be no Homeworld: Emergence, but it should be enough to keep narrative-minded players like us interested enough in the campaign.
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