Where Blizzard went wrong

I first played Diablo and StarCraft very late. Diablo a while after I had played Diablo II at its release, and StarCraft only when it was already over ten years old. I found Diablo to be somewhat simplistic but still a lot of fun playing through it once. StarCraft on the other hand is an awesome game that has aged really well. It’s just as playable today as it was 20 years ago.

But when StarCraft II came out, I couldn’t really get into it. I only finished the Terran campaign after the Zerg campaign was released, and I only got a third through that one before I lost any interest in the game. Diablo III I never really felt like playing from all I’ve seen about it before and after its release. The problem with these games for me isn’t gameplay. From what I can tell, gameplay in StarCraft and StarCraft II is identical. Not a fan of the main base menu and dialog cutscenes addition, but that’s something that can be breezed throught quite painlessly without disrupting the actual game much. And Diablo III at least looks like it plays the same as Diablo II.

These days I’ve started to realize that the main problem I have with these games is their overall style, or perhaps more fittingly their feel. StarCraft II and Diablo III just don’t feel right. They look wrong. WarCraft III is one of my favorite games that I think I played almost every year since its release. The graphics took a bit to get used to, but for the slightly quirky fantasy setting, it worked. The same colorful cartoony style isn’t working for StarCraft and Diablo. WarCraft has always been colorful, but these two had graphics that were grainy and dominated by washed out grays and browns. I wouldn’t say they are pretty, and in fact I’d even say they are kind of ugly looking. But the games had a clear visual style that is matching perfectly with their dark themes and stories. The new cartoony laser beam spectacle creates a feel and overall style that is quite different from the older games. It’s hard to say which one came first, but the new graphics are matching the new tone of the stories. Blizard games have always been somewhat pulpy, but Diablo and StarCraft were very earnest at being grim and gritty. The cutscenes in the first Terran campaign had some campy humor to them, but that quickly disappeared as the story progressed. WarCraft III on the other hand is overly dramtic, but at least in a somewhat charming campy way. But in these recent games, this aspect is lacking. Instead of being more sedate, the stories and cutscenes turned out to the point of being cheesy. Overall this leads to a completely different appearance, in which drama and spectacle take center stage and genuine gloom and bleakness are thrown out the window.

Is The Witcher Romantic Fantasy?

Working on a new setting that draws heavily from The Witcher and considering starting a new campaign in the forseeable future, I was remembered of how Joseph and Trollsmyth defined Romantic Fantasy and it’s application in RPGs.

And all of them really lines up very well with The Witcher. It’s not actually wrong to describe Geralt’s story as him trying to save the last true heir to the throne of Cintra from being murdered in a struggle between ruthless monarchs. But it’s much better described as the story of an aging warrior who stops at nothing to rescue an orphan girl he has taken in his care from impossibly more powerful foes. And despite being the protagonist, he’s not doing it alone but is always a part of a greater circle of friends.

I think it’s actually one of the best examples around for what Joseph is talking about.

Friendship is Magic.

In related news, I just learned that the Witcher RPG by Talsorian Games is still being worked on, and from what scraps of information have been released recently, it appears to be very far in the development process, already dealing with the layout of the book. It was announced well over two years ago with barely anything heard since then, so I don’t know how soon we can expect it, but it’s nice to see that it hasn’t completely faded off the world.

My Star Wars Headcanon

While writing about the Star Wars games that I played, I noticed that almost all of them are pretty old by now. So I got to work to create some kind of timeline of what I consider the important books, comics, and games of the Expanded Universe and the result I got is this.

You can get the 90s Kid out of the 90s, but you can’t get the 90s out of the 90s Kid. It really seems like the golden age of Star Wars to me, which is not terribly surprising given how old I was then. If I would have been into anything else, I probably would still vonsider the 90s to be the best period it ever had.

Another thing that surprised me in hindsight that there were six years between the release of Episode 1 and Episode 3. Such restraint! It almost seems like they were making those movies one at at time. Which seems incredibly slow by today’s standards. At least I got to be relieved that the time between 3 and 7 was not nearly as long as the time between 6 and 1, which by this point would no longer have surprised me. Still, in trade school I have classmates who were not even born when Episode 1 was out.

My Star Wars Game List

There are a lot of Star Wars video games that have been released over the years and I have played a substential part of them myself. But I have not played any new ones in quite a while, which got me to make this list. These are a roughly chronological order, as far as I can remember it.

  • X-Wing: (1993, PC) My first “proper” videogame that I played at my home for serious amounts of time. After having first played it at a friend’s place after school for dozens of hours, it was the very first game I got for myself when we got our first computer. Wonderful game that I still never completed.
  • Tie Fighter: (1994, PC) Much more polished than X-Wing with better graphics, a much wider variety of ships, and a much stronger campaign. And to my knowledge so far the only game that lets you play as a loyal Imperial from start to end. This one I did actually finish.
  • Rebel Assault II: (1995, PC) An okay arcade game that I played quite some time when I didn’t feel like X-Wing or Tie Fighter, but ultimately it was forgetable.
  • Rebel Assault: (1993, PC) I got this one because it was a Star Wars game and I needed more! Of this one I remember almost nothing and I didn’t play it much.
  • Shadows of the Empire: (1996, PC) A game that I think is objectively pretty poor and probably aged terribly by now, but back in the day I thought it was really awesome. A fun third person console shoter that captured the style of Star Wars pretty well but had a really weird 3D-Engine that handled perspective in a rather wonkey way.
  • Rebellion: (1998, PC) This is a strategy game that was very different from the Command & Conquers and Warcrafts that were the mainstream of that time. Pretty much the whole game takes place on a big map of the galaxy on which you place orders to produce ships and train troops and send them to guard or attack various systems. There is a 3D space battle mode that lets you command your ships in a way somewhat resembling Homeworld, but it never worked well and took really long and you always had the option to simply let the computer calculate an outcome for the battle instantaneously. Still, as a strategy game it was pretty cool and I played it a lot.
  • Rogue Squadron: (1998, PC) This game has lots of big fans, but I am not one of them. I just wanted more stuff like X-Wing and this one is more of an arcade style console game. And I thought it also looked rather ugly with its very limited range of sight and pretty small combat areas.
  • X-Wing Alliance: (1999, PC) This game looks much better and sophisticated than Tie Fighter, but in the end it left me somewhat lukewarm. I still played it all the way through two or three times, but the campaign just couldn’t compete with Tie Fighter.
  • Episode I: (1999, PC) This is one of the worst games I ever played, and certainly the worst one that I finished. It’s just awful in every way and I was actually very hesitant to get it, but it was a Star Wars game and I needed it!
  • Racer: (1999, PC) Making a Star Wars racing game that is really just a reskin of Wipeout sounds like a terrible idea, but the end result was actually really great. It’s really fast, as you would expect from Podracing, and the tracks are just gorgeous. When I got Wipeout HD for PS3 a while back I was actually really disappointed how poorly it held up compared to the cool tracks of Racer. I might actually hunt down an old N64 just to play this game on a big TV.
  • Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast: (2002, PC) This game is awesome! Kyle Katarrn is awesome! And you run around slicing stormtroopers to pieces with a lightsaber! The plot and the villain are crap and the levels not very pretty, but fighting against Dark Jedi with lightsabers is just such amazing fun. I actually played this one online for quite some time, which was always a blast with pretty much every match having force jump and force push set to maximum.
  • Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy: (2003, PC) And this one is even better! You don’t get to play Kyle Katarrn and your new generic Jedi apprentice isn’t that interesting, but the level design is much prettier and the various levels have a lot more variety. And more lightsaber action.
  • Knights of the Old Republic: (2003, PC, Xbox) Widely considered to be the best Star Wars game ever made. And for good reasons. It’s a pretty standard BioWare RPG and actually the first of the post-D&D games style that has now become the standard with Mass Effect and Dragon Age. For some reason I completed the game only once when it came out and started a second short-lived attempt years later. Now 14 years later I am finally giving it another go. (And so far it doesn’t disappoint.)
  • The Force Unleashed: (2008, PS3) This game really is just a Star Wars reskin of God of War/Devil May Cry. And I have to give it to the game that it is pretty fun to play. But as a Star Wars story it’s just terrible. The plot and especially the protagonist are just completely bonkers and have no place in Star Wars. Unlike what I hoped for, this game is in no way a substitute for Jedi Knight. (Still got a Platinum trophy on PS3.)
  • Racer Revenge: (2002, PS2) I got this game when I first heard that Racer was also available on PS2. Though only kind of, as it turned out. It’s the same engine, but this game has completely different tracks. Which just nowhere come close to the awesomness of the original game. A straight up port would have been much better.

Upcoming

These are games that I have not played yet but plan to do so, or which have been announced and that I am looking forward to to see how they turn out.

  • Republic Commando: (2005, Xbox) I’ve heard pretty good things about this game many times and always planned to try it myself some day. Until just recently I never realized that it’s actually been out for 12 years now. I finally got the game and play to give it a try after I finished my new KotOR run.
  • Battlefront 4: (PS4) Battlefront 3 is the most impressive looking game I’ve ever seen and I’ve been planning to give another shot at serious online playing for a while, but all the reviews for it just made it sound too simplistic to invest more than a few hours into it. With Battlefront 4 I am hoping that they won’t be repeating the same mistakes and the announcements for the campaign actually sound like something that could potentially be pretty interesting. Not expecting much from it, but it’s something I want to keep an eye on.
  • Visceral Games RPG: (PS4) I know very little about the game except that it’s an RPG that is being made by the developers of Dead Space and has the director and writer of the Legacy of Kain and Uncharted series. And as a huge bonus it is set during the Rebellion era, which means it probably is going to ignore the Clone Wars and New Wars material for the most part. This could potentially be huge.

My favorite style of fiction I never knew I had

Having recently seen Drive and looking around for interpretations about it, I came upon a term that I had never really paid much attention to.

Neo-Noir.

What is Neo-Noir? It really is pretty much the same as Noir except that it’s used for works made from the 80s forward instead of up to the 60s. Other good recent examples are basically the whole Nolan movie catalogue, with Inception and The Dark Knight standing out prominently. (Memento and Insomnia also really look like it, but I have not seen them yet.)

Inception is my second favorite movie of all time, beaten only by The Empire Strikes Back. And when you stop and think about it, that movie also has Noir aesthetics all over it. Pretty much everything happening in Cloud City is prime Noir material.

Looking back at it, the first works of this style that I really fell in love with were Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell (including the TV series). Of course, you could argue that these are perhaps the two biggest cyberpunk movies ever made. But what is cyberpunk other than Noir with futuristic elements?

Which reminded me of Mirror’s Edge, one of my favorite videogames that I’ve always been thinking of as “cyberpunk without the futuristic elements”. Yeah, once you consider Neo-Noir to be a distinct category, it falls perfectly into it. The socially isolated protagonist living in a blurry gray world on the edge of legality. Characters looking for meaning in a heartless world and coming to bleak realizations about their own lives. And they hang out in a place that looks like this.

And suddenly it all came together: Mass Effect 2 is also a work of Neo Noir. The first game had already blown my mind, but I was amazed when I came out to the street on Omega. And never had a game felt so perfect as when I first stepped through the door into Afterlife. It is my favorite game of all time, with no contenders.

After the really cool opening and time jump, the game starts with the Illusive Man smoking in a dark room with his Femme Fatale henchwoman Miranda next to him. I could write a whole article about that. (And I probably will, eventually.)

It might be a bit of a stretch, but I feel that there are at least a great deal of thematic elements of Noir in the Witcher books. The world went to crap, there’s no justice, characters with questionable morales are trying to do the right thing when dealing with those who are morally bancrupt, and there’s always a slight doubt that maybe everyone getting conquered by the Empire might not be the worst idea. And while it would probably be a bit nonsensical to call Bound by Flame a noir fantasy game, the mood of dignified despair is certainly there.

Bonus content: All my favorite episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. You know, basically everything with Garak in it. (The Wire, Improbable Cause/The Die is cast, and In Pale Moonlight stand out.)

It comes as a bit of a surprise after all these years that there’s an umbrella term that encompasses pretty much my entire top list of greatest works of fiction ever made. But then, many of the works I mentioned are considered to be really great by a lot of people around the world, so it’s not like this is a style that hasn’t proven itself over the past decades. The period of their making also started just before I was born, which probably isn’t a coincidence either. It’s a style that I’ve been exposed to all my life. While the aesthetics of Noir and Neo-Noir are generally pretty easy to pin down, definitions of the genre are usually rather blurred and unclear. Yet at the same time, works tend to fall into a pretty narrow band of stories. Socially isolated protagonists who are living with one foot in prison and one foot in the grave whose lives have become empty and who are searching for any kind of meaning in their seemingly bleak worlds. Sometimes they catch a faint glimer of hope they can pursue, other times they doom themselves.

Questions about identity and filling an inherently meaningless existence with meaning are the basic foundations of Existentialism, which to me is really the only thing worth exploring in a story. I’ve been watching, reading, and playing stories of this type for all of my adult life and so I probably already do know most of what there is to know about it on an intuitive level. But as someone interesting in writing my own stories this seems like a great opportunity to refocusing my research.

Update: Some more that I totally forgot and didn’t think about: Hellboy, Thief, The Big Lebowsky, Leon the Professional, True Detective, Breaking Bad. I think it’s probably much harder for me to come up with a list of movies, videogames, and TV shows that don’t have a strong Neo-Noir aesthetic.