Note: Storytelling in Dominions 3, part of this feature series, is available off-site. You can read it at Flash of Steel.
If you were a hero, tasked with saving the world from an overwhelming menace, how would you go about it? You would gather information about your foe. You would arm yourself with the best weapons possible. You would recruit allies to your banner. And while you might wish for these things on a platter, in order to find them, you would have to explore the world. You would seek out clues and piece them together, one hint leading you to the next, until you found what you were searching for.
No game captures this experience as well as Star Control II (SC2), the 1994 game from Toys for Bob (rereleased for free as The Ur-Quan Masters). SC2 cast you as a starship captain from a long-lost settlement, given command of a rediscovered ancient wonder weapon. As far as you know at the start of the game, your objective is simple: journey to Earth with your starship, rejoin the fleet, and help defend humanity against the alien Ur-Quan. And after one of the best opening plot hooks I have seen in a game, the stage is set for you to explore the galaxy in pursuit of that goal. Along the way, expect a fantastic storytelling experience, delivered through a combination of (a) top-notch writing and (b) gameplay mechanics that place the responsibility for uncovering that story in your hands.
What made SC2’s writing so good? If you were to read a synopsis of the game’s universe, you would find it pretty familiar if you had any previous experience with space opera (say, Larry Niven’s novels, the Wing Commander games, or even Star Wars). Your wondrous starship was originally built by long-vanished Precursors. There is a craven species, the Spathi, who echo Niven’s Pierson’s puppeteers. There are warlike species, the proud Yehat and humorously stupid Thraddash, echoing the Kzinti and Kilrathi. There are space merchants, the Melnorme and the Druuge. There are even blue space babes, the Syreen. So far, nothing really out of the ordinary.
But what was out of the ordinary was the quality of the game’s writing and dialogue, which allowed SC2’s universe to transcend the dry summary I provided above. Most of the time, it was hilarious, often because it explored what a given space opera trope would REALLY look like. To name just one example, the Thraddash were not the first alien species to love a fight, but here, their entire backstory is structured around that trait, with… entertaining… results. For another example, try boasting to the Spathi about your “unique” Precursor starship. But SC2 could be serious when it wanted to. The tragic backstory of another race did not excuse its deeds in the present, but it did make me understand, even empathise, with why they chose the path they did. SC2’s writing proves that it doesn’t matter if someone else has used a concept before; the important thing is execution.
Beyond the writing, SC2’s gameplay also helped flesh out its alien species. Each species used a unique spacecraft in combat, with its own speed, defences, firepower, and special abilities. And these designs usually reflected the personalities established through dialogue. For example, the Spathi weren’t just cowards when you spoke to them. Their spacecraft’s most powerful weapon points backwards, so taking a Spathi ship into battle requires that you think and act as a Spathi would, in other words, that you run away. The slave-trading Druuge reveal the depths of their wickedness in battle, where their special ability allows them to recharge energy by throwing slaves into their ships’ furnaces.
But as good as Star Control II’s writing, dialogue and alien design were, ultimately it stands out for the gameplay-driven way in which its story unfolded. Most games that I’ve played will give you a clear objective and tell you what to do. Even in open-world games such as Brutal Legend, Fallout 3 and Oblivion, the main quest is clearly marked: Go to such-and-such a place and talk to such-and-such a person, who will tell you what to do next. Star Control II, however, gives you a scattering of clues and then makes you play detective. For example, you might be told:
1. Strange signals were detected coming from the direction of Rigel;
2. Humanity’s old allies discovered something interesting in a certain direction from Procyon;
3. One species’ homeworld is in the Gruis constellation.
Following up each of these clues would lead you, in turn, to a few more hints. What might you discover at the source of the strange signal? What would the aliens at Gruis tell you? And then there’s what you’d discover from exploring worlds along the way, A warlord might give you a device you need, if you retrieve something whose location he can’t pinpoint with any more precision than “near a yellow star in a constellation shaped like a long, thin beast”. A trader might offer to sell you information about the history of the galaxy, which you’d then use to make sense of some of the other facts you’d learned. At each step along the process, you would take notes (this game was from the days before quest journals!). Ultimately, while you would start with a few pieces to a jigsaw puzzle, it was your responsibility to look for the rest, and once you’d found them, work out how to put them together. In other words, you would do the things that a space captain would have to do in-world: exploring, interviewing, recording and then analysing data. And with that, SC2 conveyed what it would be like to be the main character.
When all is said and done, Star Control II offers one of the most unique storytelling experiences I’ve seen in a game. And it provides a lesson to all game designers caught between the two sides of an old argument: is it better for a game to be well-written and packed with snappy dialogue, or to provide gameplay mechanics that allow you to feel as though you’re telling a story of your own? By excelling in both areas, Star Control II shows what a false choice this is.
I hope you enjoyed this post! If you’d like to play Star Control 2 for yourself, you can obtain its free remake, The Ur-Quan Masters, here. There are install files available for Windows, MacOS X, and Linux.
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