Game Pile: Starcraft, the Original

No, no, not the remaster.

Starcraft was a real time strategy game that launched in 1998, and which I primarily knew for quite some time after that as ‘the thing my cousin had, that we played at his place.’ It was the way I engaged with most of the really good real-time strategy games, really; he was very good at the genre —

A detail I cannot corroborate at all, and which serves no purpose at all for me to express, but it pads out the story and only briefly strays back into the realisation that I have no idea why I think he was good at them beyond that he kept getting them and he could beat me at them, and I was a pretty stupid kid who didn’t understand much of the combat elements of real time strategy games, meaning that I just kept wanting to make bases and economies and watch enemies die as they approached my walls, even if I just got overly focused on one thing and really, it doesn’t matter but the point isn’t relevant to the story beyond the further consideration of how this is a game with a deliberate vision of good and bad play and I never, ever played it well no matter what it imagined I should be doing —

and that meant we got to play a lot of them, in the period where there were a lot of them going. I got to play the different Command & Conquers, Warcraft 1 and 2, and in 1998, when we all had computers that could run Windows 95 (or heaven forfend, windows 98), an appropriate set of pirated discs later meant that I got to take Starcraft home and play it on my home computer, in the corner of my room the furthest from the door, with the screen facing the wall, behind a closet, so I could, for a while, imagine myself off on my own, in my own little world.

I cheated a lot.

The cheat codes, you know, just used them all the way to try and play the game. I played on easy, I’m sure, but I have strong memories of building in skirmish mode a lot to make every unit, and see what an army composed entirely of say, hydralisks or zerglings looked like, or behaved like. Like a toybox, I played this game with a plot and a challenge curve and a multiplayer experience as if it was there to give me a set of tools for seeing how they interacted with one another, bouncing one to another.

What’s really interesting to think about is how, in a timeline, this… is older than I thought I’d be at this point. I was at least fifteen when this game came out, and I had memories at this time of playing competitive games on the internet — Quake and Team Fortress mostly — and yet I can very clearly tell that I never played Starcraft that way.

Maybe I didn’t have a head for it, maybe it was like all the other real-time strategy games I played, where I liked the building stage of things but actually making good strategic choices was beyond me. Or rather, it wasn’t like it was beyond me, it was orthogonal to my entire experience. I wanted to know how the units interacted, I wanted to know how you got to build them (so I could build all of them) and I wanted to make, which meant the strategy element of everything wasn’t meaningfully interesting to me at all.

I had no idea how to play Starcraft. Kinda still don’t. When Starcraft 2 came out, a friend bought it for me and we played it a bit, including cooperating against the hardest AI options we could handle, which I remembered really enjoying (if feeling very stressed doing). Starcraft 2 was a really good game for feeling the way I (at the time) remembered Starcraft feeling, but the thing is… the overwhelming time I spent in Starcraft wasn’t in a gameplay view that looked like a general’s.

(And I should write about Starcraft 2 at some point, I am very fond of that game.)

Starcraft had a scenario editor.

The scenario editor let you build levels, and then link those levels to one another. It let you set up briefings, which had scrolling text in them, which could be used to show characters talking to one another. In fact, if you wanted, you could even have text timers contradict one another, which means you’d have scrolling text from one character as they animated talking, then another character would start talking and it would cut off the other text and animation, like they were interjecting!

And this…

This is where I spent most of my time in Starcraft.

I think part of what got me making things were goal numbers. A campaign was this many missions long, so if I wanted to make a campaign, I had to make that many missions. The missions at the end of a campaign were different, they had a big battle at the end, and it was usually about fighting multiple factions. But I needed to build up to that, I needed to make sure there was some kind of an onramp.

If you’re familiar at all, you’ll know the tools for Starcraft were quite flexible and strong. People were making alternate game modes using the way Starcraft tracked information, and I never got into that place. Instead, I, as an industrious little kid, made a whole campaign set in the Starcraft universe, using existing characters and inventing new ones using portraits the games didn’t use and then giving them reasons to care about each other and fight each other and…

at some point, I stopped.

And put it away.

And something else got my attention.

I guess what I’m saying is that I completely understand the kind of kids who were playing with dolls and I just happened to need a very expensive interpreter device to play with my dolls. I needed the concept of a conflict that – by the way, I was absolutely not setting up good AI with good strategies – would justify what I was doing, but through it all, in all my time with Starcraft

Time which absolutely gave me opinions on units and their relationships and which ones I like and which strategies I think should work!

— I was just playing barbie dolls with bullets. I didn’t even make the campaign to share. It was the making, the playing, the experience of it that interested me.