Storytelling That Doesn’t Exist: Starcraft Demo Palette Swap

Pizza Conversation.

Recently I wrote a post about how I played a different demo of Starcraft than anyone else. To verify a few memories I played the Starcraft demo once again. During replay I noticed a storytelling device that was brilliant. It was so subtly wonderful that I decided to save its discussion for a later post. This is that post.

In the demo a Zerg infestation occurs on a Terran planet but this is the first time it has happened so no one knows what the aliens are. The appearance of this unknown, pretty gross looking alien species that wants to bite people happens right in the middle of your attempts to take down a group of rebels that is eerily geared with weapons identical to that of your own troops (this isn’t actually eery, I’m just cheekily pointing out the incongruities between the narrative and the visual representation caused by the limits of data storage on Compact Discs with Read Only Memory back then). After dealing with the rebellion against the government you turn to deal with the rebellion against mother nature (by which I am referring to the Zerg). A mysterious Recon Squad called Cerberus Unit (Cerberus being the three headed dog (which doesn’t actually have anything to do with the game) which guarded the entrance to the land of the dead in ancient Greek mythology (and there was only one of them despite the claims of one Kratos of Sparta (citation needed, Kratos))) shows up to help you and your boss Mr. Magistrate with the elimination of the Zerg. In the demo, soldiers belonging to Cerberus Unit  are designated with an ugly teal color palette (this is important for later) as though their unfashionable color scheme was a counter attack to the Zerg’s unfashionable taste in music (there was a really complicated joke here with nested parenthesis involving Picts, nudity, shaving, and the Zerg but I cut it out during editing). It is reported that the Zerg (although the Terran characters, not having access to Blizzard’s Starcraft website or wikipedia entries about Starcraft, don’t know they’re called the Zerg and instead call them xenomorphs) have taken over a science facility. It is agreed that the Cerberus Firebats should be punished for combining pastel teal with deep crimson and are sent into the science facility without backup.

Don’t make fun of our outfits!!!


Here’s an excerpt from the mission briefing right before entering the science facility. It is important for where I’m going with this.

“Cerberus Commander: Lieutenant [ed.-that’s you], we have accessed the installation’s primary bio-scanners [ed.-not an actual science-thing] and have ascertained that there is still a number of Confederate scientists inside.

Magistrate Collins [ed.-this is your boss and all around busy body who sticks his bushy nose into other people’s business (although I’m kind of making all that up)]: What? I’m the only one who has the installation’s access codes! How did you override my security clearance? [ed.-because your security pass codes are all names of cabbage patch kids]

Cerberus Commander: I told you before, Magistrate, we don’t answer to you. We are to infiltrate the installation and evacuate any remaining Confederate personnel. Now let’s move, gentlemen. We’re on a tight schedule.”

See how he says “we don’t answer to you” and that “we’re on a tight schedule”? That means he’s serious; Cerberus Commander is the real deal, he’s a business man, he’s ready to take it all the way to the bay, José. Not like that amateur, pastry eating Mr. Magistrate who undoubtedly earned his post through some sort of nepotism that makes a ritual of rewarding aristocratic inbreeding among the upper classes [sic] by placing their unqualified runts in charge of much more competent, better educated, and overall cool guy Lieutenants, although that has nothing to do with why I’m writing this, really.

I was writing about storytelling devices. In particular one device I saw on this level in the demo. The demo to Starcraft, if you’ve forgotten what I’ve been talking about this whole time.

I’m tempted to just stop writing, post this on the blog, and then write the actual article I intended to write, tomorrow.

But, no, I’m sojourning on.

Here we are. Trudging forward, never looking back (my head feels like it’s filled with water).

All right electrolyte, you take your teal colored Cerberus Firebats through the science facility, finding marines along the way to help you.

You fight Zerg and hear a funny line (a marine hiding in the corner of a room reacts to your discovery of him by saying, with a guilty tone of voice, “Oh! Ah… room secure, sir.”(Heh, get’s me every time.)) and eventually find the scientists.

Okay, that’s it I can’t go and finish the point I was making, it will have to wait till the next post. With all this silliness and parenthetical asides there’s no way you’re going to take what I’m about to say seriously. Allright, see you next post.

It’s metaphorical.

Actually, nevermind, I’m going to keep going. Here’s what I’ve been driving at this whole time: When you find the scientists they are all dressed in white except for one who is dressed in teal, the colors of the secretive Cerberus Unit. I guess this means the firebats can chat and bond with this guy over their bad (or progressive(only time (along with complex socio-cultural factors) will tell)) fashion sense.

I think it is safe to assume that none of the other characters are aware of the scientist’s teal allegiances which is good for him (and them as you will see in the second next parenthetical) because if they were (aware) then they would mock him mercilessly for his color choice (and then out of bitterness he would go mad and construct legions of undead death [sic] ray cannons to attack those that once looked down on him (meaning the white clad scientists (and possibly a few others (and maybe some ex girlfriends))) to no end.

Before I go into some deductions from obvious conclusions (that the scientist wears teal like the Cerberus guys) I want to point out some other things. No one reacts to the teal scientist any differently than to any other scientists; the teal scientist doesn’t behave any differently than any other unit; your mission objective is to get one scientist to the start of the level but it doesn’t have to be the teal scientist; and you can kill the teal scientist or allow him to die and it doesn’t change the way the mission unfolds (sure this last part may have been just the limit of the technology of the time but considering everything else, I am sure it was an intentional incorporation of the limitations of technology into the narrative).

Whose turf is this?

So here are the deductions one can make from all this:

1) Since the scientist is color coded the same as Cerberus Unit then he must either be a member of Cerberus or merely working for them. He is either there to gather information or to influence events in the facility (office politics, resonance cascade experiments, etc.).

2) Since Cerberus unit has a man on the inside we can deduce that this is how the Cerberus Commander was able to find out what was happening inside the facility without the say-so of the Magistrate. The Commander would not even have to waste time bypassing any codes (there’s a lot of cabbage patch kids out there), he only needed to communicate directly with his inside man.

3) Since the teal scientist may die he is not crucial to the mission and has already served his purpose by the time you rescue everyone.

3a) It can be deduced that his work was of importance only while he had access to a functional, non-Zergified science facility (which is the exact bullshit reason that I can’t get an espionage job at any of the infested science facilities in my neighborhood (dudes! I am totaling willing to work non-union and among vicious space aliens (and the nearest non-infested science facility is two transfers (bus, green line, bus) away and, seriously, no way))).

This a huge bit of narration. It tells a complex story and does so with nothing more than a palette swap for one unit. Admittedly the importance of this palette swap is only made clear when you have other information from the rest of the demo, but it is still a sublime bit of storytelling (and I am convinced that whoever was responsible probably was berated for it (since this artistic device doesn’t really appear in Starcraft) or transferred to another department such as Blizzard Ukraine (which at the time was like saying walk the plank (not that it would kill you but that it was something letting you know you were doing something wrong))).

The placement of something in a particular context to wordlessly tell stories is a grossly underused narrative technique in video games. When it does occur it is most often in RPGs although most times these moments are ruined because there is a note or a journal immediately available  to provide context rather than allowing the game to set the context (the example comes to mind of the journal of the sorcerer in the beginning of Morrowind who dies after testing super-jump scrolls (to elaborate: his journal was unnecessary; having him fall from the sky and then allowing the player to experiment with the scrolls was enough for the player to infer what had happened)). I wish I could think of more examples of this elegant narrative device being used to express sophisticated ideas with the smallest amount of resources expended, but I cannot right now (there’s a sound in my ears like rushing water).

The ability to say a lot with the minimum of invested resources is a powerful device used in writing, film, music, and painting. Also, et cetera. Ultimately I think developers should be more aware of this technique/device (as well as others (in fact I might start a series of blog posts detailing the different artistic devices used in games that seem to go unnoticed)) and once they are then they will produce better stories in their games. The End.


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