Every now and then I’ve noticed that on the internet, or in the internet, when someone mentions the game Halo/Starcraft someone else mentions how it stole it’s faction ideas from Starcraft/Halo. Then super-nerds show up and bring in Warhammer 40k. Thank you for always adding extra bullet points to an internet argument, super nerds. Anyway, it’s a totally obvious parallel I think that everyone has noticed and it’s hard to imagine that one development team wasn’t influenced by the other to some degree, but what surprises me is that no one jumps in to point out that the factions in those franchises are just drawing from an archetype much older than even video games themselves.
This three faction archetype seems to appear throughout fantasy and science fiction, but I haven’t found any mention of it. Checking the most obvious place for this, tvtropes.com, I found nothing relating to this specifically. So I decided to write about it. Because of some dominant features in each faction I’ve called the three-faction-archetype the Celestial, the Terrestrial, and the Diabolic.
And here we go!
In fictional universes the Terrestrial Faction is the one that the audience (which is usually composed of humans or marketing analysts) is meant to identify with the most. That’s why they’re usually portrayed as humans or something very similar in terms of culture, religion, and society.
If you visit the Terrestrials then you’ll have an easy time navigating their cities, cultures, and social institutions. You won’t have trouble understanding their technology because they rely on tech that isn’t too far fetched from historical or modern standards in the real world. They might be in some ways less powerful than the other two factions (discussed later) but what they lack in tangible strength or numbers they make up for in hope, determination, loyalty, courage, and any other sappy, intangible, non-material trait they can muster. They might have a variety of sub-factions that are all competing with one another, and these sub-factions are usually analogous to some form of real world ideology or government.
There’s not much else to say about these guys. They’re pretty straight forward and if you bring them some beer or wine (depending on their subfaction) then they will be pretty friendly toward you.
Summary of the Terrestrial: Regular down to earth guys, usually from Earth
Strengths: Pluck, moxy, and true grit
Weaknesses: Soft, easily punctured
Distinguishing features: Human
Examples of Terrestrials:
Human Resistance (Half-life 2, ’04)
Outer Planets (Firefly, ’02)
Humans and Orcs (Warcraft 3, ’02)
Humans (Halo, ’01)
Humans (Aliens vs. Predators)
Terrans (Starcraft, ’98)
Humans & the Necropolis (Fallout, ’97)
Imperial Guard & Space Marines (Warhammer 40k, ’87)
Humans and Klingons (ST: The Next Generation, ’87)
Humans (Ringworld/Known Space, ’70)
Humans (Star Trek, ’66)
Humans & hobbits & dwarves (Lord of the Rings, ’54)
The Celestials are like the ideal dudes. They’re wise, technologically advanced, spiritually advanced, magically advanced, imperially advanced, and are in general considered to be tough customers. They tend to be fewer in number than the Terrestrials but also tend to be more powerful. They usually have a long standing empire and often wear really spiffy, stylish outfits. If you bump into these guys and they aren’t using magic then they’re probably using technology that’s so advanced that it’s like magic. They’re kind of like a civilization of techno-wizards with good hygiene.
They’ve usually been around for a really long time, so don’t embarrass yourself trying to impress them with your theories on who killed JFK, because they did, and they did it for the good of the universe. Sometimes they’ve been around for such long time that they’re powerful empire is decaying and collapsing under its own weight. And sometimes they’re so ancient that they’re extinct. They usually make prophecies or maybe they follow ancient prophecies, I don’t know, but maaan, there are prophecies and these guys love ’em. Mmmm-mmm, PROPHECIES! Other things the Celestials might like: the colors blue and gold, glowy stuff, shiny things, cloaking technology, using bladed weapons in an age of laser guns, long hair or hair-like tendrils, robes, and being mysterious.
Despite being an advanced civilization they still have a thing for tribal customs, ancient honor systems, and hand-to-hand combat. They’re usually going to look down on you because you’re not as sophisticated as they are, or because you’re in their way, or because you’re tryin’ to earn a buck while they’re trying to steer the course of galactic history.
If you meet some Celestials and you want to be friends, like if they’re sexy elf babes or something, then it’s best to prove your valor in battle or your youthful yet applicable wisdom. Also it helps if both of you are being attacked by the same enemy, such as the Diabolic.
Summary of the Celestial: Tribal-Wizard-Warrior-Poet-Scientists
Strengths: Honor; powers; wisdom; kinda sexy
Weaknesses: Honor; fewer numbers; might be extinct; occasionally pacifists
Distinguishing features: Superior technology and/or magic; sophisticated culture and society; often represented as an ideal that has passed its prime
Examples of Celestials:
[arguably] the three Citadel races (Mass Effect, ’07)
[arguably] the Vortigaunts || the Combine (Half-life 2, ’04)
Night Elves (Warcraft 3, ’02)
the Alliance (Firefly, ’02)
Covenant (Halo, ’01)
Protoss (Starcraft, ’98)
Brotherhood of Steel (Fallout, ’97)
Tau & Eldar (Warhammer 40k, ’87)
Predators (Predator/Aliens vs. Predators, ’87)
[arguably] Pierson’s Puppeteers (Ringworld/Known Space, ’70)
Vulcans (Star Trek, ’66)
Elves (LotR, ’54)
Eloi (Time Machine, H. G. Wells, 1895)
DO NOT hang out with these guys! Partly because they’re ugly, but mainly because they will kill you and there is no question as to the legality of eating you in their justice system. And they often don’t have a justice system because they’re mindless, genocidal hordes of murderous monsters. When they’re not a mindless, bloodthirsty swarm, they are a savage bloodthirsty civilization that looks down on other civilizations for being weak due to an affliction of chronic love and mercy. Mercy is for pussies, unless you’re actually having sex and then NO MERCY! Women in Diabolic civilizations are usually just as violent and bloodthirsty as the men, and are just as derisive of kindness so try not to be born to one of them because there is no word for child abuse in Klingon. Often the Diabolic factions have a much higher population than the other factions in the three faction archetype and, as I mentioned earlier, often exist in a hive-mind swarm-society similar to ants or college students. When they are part of a hive-mind they tend to be governed by a single central intelligence.
The Diabolic often have a great love of assimilating Terrestrials into their ranks, although the process may vary depending on what race you’re looking at. Rarely does the Diabolic faction successfully assimilate or convert members of the Celestial faction. While the Terrestrial faction might have a little magic, the Diabolic almost never use magic nor high-technology. If the Diabolic are ever caught using magic it’s usually some sort of necromantic magic.
And while they might exist in a clan society like Celestials, the primary difference is that Diabolic clans have a lack of, or perversion of, morality. The Diabolic have no scruples and even when they do their scruples are usually portrayed as bestial, self serving, and immoral. If you ask these guys to watch your dog while you’re on vacation they will kill your dog and then try to destroy the universe. Don’t even bother complaining to them about this because they will kill you for being soft and edible.
Summary of Diabolic: Bloodthirsty Hordes of Destruction
Strengths: Superior numbers; lack of morals; brutality; sometimes can assimilate other species
Weaknesses: Usually antagonists so they’re destined to lose; usually not very smart; often don’t wear clothes; often ugly
Distinguishing features: Bestial behavior; Perverted or absent morals
Examples of Diabolisms:
robots (the distant yet inevitable future, 3xxx)
zombies & cannibal mutants (the not so distant future, 2xxx)
Necromorphs (Dead Space, ’08)
Geth & Krogans & Rachni & Collectors (Mass Effect, ’07/’10)
[arguably] The Combine (Half-life 2, ’04)
Undead (Warcraft 3, ’02)
Reavers (Firefly, ’02)
Flood (Halo, ’01)
insectoid aliens (Pitch Black, ’00)
Zerg (Starcraft, ’98)
Xen’s armies (Half-life, ’98)
Super Mutants (Fallout, ’97)
the Goa’uld (Stargate, ’94/’97)
Orcs (Warcraft 1&2, ’94/’95)
Necrons & Tyranids & Daemons (Warhammer 40k, ’87)
Borg (ST: The Next Generation, ’87)
Xenomorph Aliens (Aliens/Aliens vs. Predators, ’86)
[arguably] The Kzinti (Ringworld/Known Space, ’70)
the living dead (Night of the Living Dead, ’68)
Klingons (Star Trek (original series), ’66)
various bad guys (Dr. Who, ’63)
Bugs (Starship Troopers, ’59/’97)
Orcs & Goblins (LotR, ’54)
Morlocks (Time Machine, H. G. Wells, 1895)
Next Section: Fewer Pictures, More Analysis!!!!!!!!!!!!
Symbolism and Resonance:
I think the fantastical worlds that resonate the most with audiences are the ones that present the three faction archetype. I feel like touching on what some reasons for this might be. Undoubtedly there is much more analysis and interpretation to be done than what I’ve written here.
While the Celestial and Diabolic represent our hopes and fears, the Terrestrial represent how we see ourselves now. They are usually a slight exaggeration of what the writers or creators consider to be “normal human beings”. Sometimes they exemplify the positive or negative qualities of humans. And they often display some intangible aspect of humanity like luck, kindness, loyalty, adaptiveness, or some other trait that gives them symbolic superiority over. If the Terrestrials weren’t superior in some way to the other factions then the audience might not feel good about themselves, which isn’t bad writing but it usually is bad business.
Something I find interesting is that the Celestial and the Diabolic factions are the antithesis to each other and represent two possible outcomes of a human culture. The Celestial represents a humanity that has evolved into something admirable, while the Diabolic represents a humanity that has degenerated into something despicable. While the Celestial is meant to illicit awe, the Diabolic is meant to illicit some sort of revulsion.
Despite all that, audiences are intrigued and attracted to the Diabolic faction in the same way girls can become attracted to youths with no sense of responsibility, nor self-preservation, nor proper chord progression. They are powerful and people are attracted to power even when it’s infernal. The Diabolic are free from morality and rules and this freedom is what makes them terrifying and attractive.
The ability for many Diabolic factions to assimilate the Terrestrials is symbolic of our fear of not only mob mentality and group think, but also our fear of socially losing those around us. We see this fear manifest itself everywhere and all the time: parents unnerved by how their children are adopting the culture and language of another ethnic group or abandoning the values of their elders; a person watching his friends slowly abandon who they truly are and adopting false personalities to fit in with certain social expectations; a person watching those around him become consumed by political movements that are composed more of passion than of logic; a teacher sees as a student gets picked on by more and more students who instinctively know to gang up on him otherwise the mockery might turn to them; political and academic fears that globalization is homogenizing the world’s cultures into one indistinguishable mass. It’s sad stuff, but the Celestial represent the opposite.
You know how when you’re young you keep hearing older folk talkin’ about how us young folk just don’t have any respect for tradition and manners, and society is falling apart due to our apathy? And then you know how when you get older and you see all those young folk runnin’ around with no manners and no respect for our traditions, and society is falling apart due to their apathy? The Celestials don’t have that problem. The Celestials symbolize our hope that no matter what happens in the future, no matter how much our society changes, we will retain our culture beliefs, remember those that came before us, and continue practicing our valued traditions. We want people to fight fair even though cheating will get better results; we want people to take care of their family even when they can just put their parents into a retirement home; we want to believe that even though we might learn that Santa Claus isn’t real this won’t diminish the fun and magic of pretending that he is; we want our traditions to live; we want to be remembered; we want to believe that even when things get tough we will help each other and not devour each other like rabid dogs.
The Celestials have accomplished the impossible task of balancing traditional values with the inevitable pressure to change. They are able to use cloaking technology and lasers while still valuing the bladed weapons of their ancestors; they have advanced their spiritual powers to the point of magic, but have done so through the practice of traditional religious beliefs passed down through their prophets; they often have libraries or Scholar castes whose sole job is to maintain knowledge, so we never have to worry about anything or anyone ever being forgotten. They have acquired great power and have avoided the corruption of that power, and we look at them with the shining hope that we will have the same strength. Or at least that’s their deal when they’re not villains, but I’m not going to get into that.
When There’s Only Two Factions:
When there’s just two factions it’s usually just the Terrestrial vs. the Diabolic. Sometimes when there are only two factions it’s because the Celestial and the Terrestrial form one faction called Order and are opposed to the Diabolic faction now called Chaos. Which I think is a weird way to synonymize Good and Evil since the Nazis were all about order and they were evil, but that party where I made out with that girl in leather boots was chaotic and it was really really good. Really good.
Sometimes the Celestials are boring. It’s inevitable when dealing with ideal beings who wield powerful wisdom and powerful powers. There’s not much for them to struggle against and that leaves little drama in their story. Since they’ve often reached the peak of their civilization there’s really no narrative arc their society can go through. However, there are a variety of ways to make the Celestial faction more interesting. One of those methods involves having them get attacked by the Diabolic, and another method involves introducing a separate faction called the Dark Celestials. They’re like the Celestials except darker, brooding, and more ninja. In the fictional world’s narrative they were once part of the Celestials till there was some falling out, probably over a lack of shadows and secrets, and they split to form their own faction full of shadows and secrets. The same bad boy elements that can make the Diabolic attractive are used to enhance the Dark Celestials so they tend to be morally ambiguous and less spiritual than their Celestial counterparts. If you’re in High School then you probably think these guys are SO—TOTALLY—COOOOOL!!!.
Some Examples of Dark Celestials: Dark Elves (in various fantasy worlds inspired by LotR), Dark Eldar, Protoss Dark Templar, and while I’m not too familiar with Star Trek lore I’m sure there’s some dark angsty version of the Vulcans as well.
Shifting Factions And New Factions:
Groups, races, or civilizations in serialized fictional worlds don’t always remain in their original faction. Sometimes factions shift and this almost always involves the Celestial or the Diabolic becoming humanized and thus becoming more Terrestrial. This could happen because the creators become more attached to the factions and want the audience to connect with them. Sometimes this happens because a new race is introduced and gentrifies a preexisting race into the Terrestrial faction. When factions shift the explanation for Celestials is usually very simple; we’ve gotten to know them better and they’ve learned to trust the Terrestrial faction(s) so now they’re a Terrestrial faction too. When a Diabolic faction shifts into the Terrestrial there’s usually a narrative excuse for their past bloodshed: they were brainwashed, enslaved, or controlled, possibly by an Even More Diabolic faction that has now moved into the Diabolic neighborhood; or, those violent Diabolic guys were just one sub-faction of a much larger Terrestrial civilization and not representative of everyone; or, it was a simple misunderstanding; or, “we just caught up in the moment, we’ll write you a check for the damages”. Whenever a new Diabolic faction takes up residence this is usually bad news for the Celestials who usually don’t have enough weight to balance out these new enemies. If you’re traveling through a fictional universe and Celestials are freaking out because there’s an Even More Diabolic faction in town then just remind to them to check their ancient texts and/or prophecies and either A) find some super powers left behind by Ancient Celestials, or B) bring back the Ancient Celestials themselves. If ‘B’ happens then the Ancient Celestials will gentrify the Celestials into Terrestrial territory. Somehow the Terrestrial faction is never too crowded.
Factions Within Factions and tvtropes.org:
Even though though there might be three major faction archetypes that doesn’t mean that each one is unified. Any one faction might have conflicting sub-factions. I don’t feel like discussing it all so I’ll just link to some tvtropes pages that cover some subfaction governments and societies. The Empire, the Kingdom, the Republic, and the Federation all can appear as sub-factions of the Terrestial faction which have conflicts with each other as well as with the Diabolic or Celestial factions, who themselves can contain the above sub-factions.
I think it’s also fair to point out that many of the things I talk about are touched upon by other people in the land of tvtropes. Horde Of Alien Locusts and The Horde both touch upon major elements of the Diabolic. Proud Warrior Race touches on aspects of both Celestial and Diabolic. Even the five fantasy races have the Mundane and the Fairy which are the Terrestrial and Celestial respectively. But what I can’t find anywhere is the clear definition of the Celestial, Terrestrial, and the Diabolic.
Every now and then someone, somewhere, looks at some fictional world and thinks, “Those Celestial guys are cool. And those Diabolic guys are cool. What if I smush them together? That would be twice as cool right!!” This same person probably has, at some point in his life, also thought to himself, “This beer is pretty awesome… and computers are pretty awesome… what if I pour beer on my computer? That would be twice as awesome!!” Unfortunately it’s not. It ruins everything.
Sometimes Celestial-diabolic hybrids happen. They shouldn’t, but they do. If there’s a chance you might run into hybrids just try your best to avoid them.
Sources of This Reoccurring Archetype:
So where does this archetype trinity come from. It’s possible that each generation is influenced by the ones that came before it and this trinity is essentially like a meme spanning across centuries. But I think it’s interesting that similar elements of the Celestial, Terrestrial, and Diabolic can be found in other areas other than fantasy fiction. Let’s take a look!
Ancient Empires, Rome:
How Crazy must it have been for the first tribal Europeans to see a legion coming their way. It must have been surreal. “Wait. They’re all completely identical? Each one has the exact same armor and weapons? Who does that?? And they’re all walking the exact same way, at the exact same speed, and all in perfect rows and columns, are these guys even human? And how the hell is every single one of them RIGHT HANDED??”
The very tactics and discipline of the Romans were like an advanced technology compared to how the rest of Europe fought, and this led to them being capable of winning with far inferior numbers.
While Julius Caesar himself was governing Gaul, a gallic chieftain named Vercingetorix united the tribes and tried to take back the homeland. After several victories and defeats on both sides everything came down to the Battle of Alesia, 52 BC. Caesar had cornered Vercingetorix in the city of Alesia with 60,000 men. Vercingetorix had 80,000 men within the city and up to 250,000 reinforcements that came from the surrounding area and were on the other side of Caesar’s army. Being split off like that probably didn’t help the Gauls but it still doesn’t diminish that Caesar won with his inferior numbers. The final push that helped the Romans win was led by Caesar himself. After the defeat Vercingetorix surrendered and European history changed forever.
In 60/61 AD Boudica, a tribal queen, gathered together some of the native tribes of Britain to revolt against the Roman occupation. The final battle involved around 230,000 warriors led by Boudica against the 10,000 Roman soldiers led by Roman governor Suetonius. And the Romans won.
Aside from some supernatural military prowess the Romans did other ridiculous things, and I don’t just mean doing math with Roman numerals (try it sometime). Their construction projects alone must have been crazy. They built and maintained paved roads that spread across all of Europe and which were so well built that they were still used hundreds, some of them thousands, of years later. The Romans cut through hills and filled in ravines in order to build these roads. They CUT through hills. They even built roads for their rivers in the form of aqueducts. WTF, these guys built roads for everything. And they kept insanely ridiculous detailed accounts of everything. But that’s enough details about the Romans.
There have been plenty of ancient civilizations, both before and after the Romans, that spark wonder even in modern humans and must have at first elicited even more wonder from the humans of the times. I’m just going to move on before I keep rambling about how cool history is.
The Gothic Barbarians:
In the 300s and 400s the German barbarians were being pushed out of their native territories by the Huns and pushed into the territory of the East Roman Empire. And through a series of events, including several sieges and negotiations, this ultimately led to the sacking of Rome by Visigoths led by Alaric I. And although Rome wasn’t the real capital anymore and the Empire was in decline, it was still pretty significant when the hordes of German barbarians stormed through and sacked the city. The looting lasted for three days straight, things were burnt, people were killed, important buildings were destroyed, and the ashes from mausoleums were scattered across the city. Then the Visigoths just left.
In 1258, after bringing China to its knees, the Mongol Empire turned their attention to the scientifically and artistically advanced Abbasid Caliphate. During the siege of Baghdad, the Mongols killed between 100,000 and 1,000,000 people, destroyed every major building, and spread horror through the city. The House of Wisdom, one of the most important libraries in human history, was ransacked and burned, and the books from this and other libraries in the city were thrown into the Tigris River to make a bridge so the Mongols could cross. It is said that the Tigris’ water ran black from all the ink. The destruction to the city was so great that this marked the end of the Golden Islamic Era, and no one knows how different human history would be if the knowledge and cultural influence of Baghdad had been left intact. Years later the Mongols introduced the Black Plague to Europe by launching their own disease ridden corpses over the walls of defended cities. Terrified merchants and citizens fled, carrying the disease with them to other parts of Europe. Also, one of their military tactics was to force an army of captured slaves to march in front of their army to act as arrow fodder. I seriously don’t understand how these guys didn’t take over the entire world. Maybe they got bored.
The Diabolic, Terrestrial, and Celestial in some ways parallel the id, ego, and super-ego respectively. A refresher: the id represents the unrepressed pleasure seeking aspect of our minds; the ego tries to regulate and control the id and tries to accomplish the id’s desire while still adhering to the rules of the super-ego; and the super-ego contains our mind’s morals, socially acquired ideals, and rules for appropriate and inappropriate behavior. You can definitely see some parallels, and what I think is most interesting is how the attempts of the ego to regulate and control the id parallels the recurring narrative of a Terrestrial sub-faction trying to capture and control the Diabolic. Of course the Terrestrial sub-faction usually does this for the purpose of creating a biological weapon, and it has nothing to do with the Celestial faction, but still the parallel is interesting. I’m not saying this is the source of the Archetype Trinity, especially since I don’t think much stock is placed in Freud’s theories these days.
There are obvious connections between Biblical mythology and the Archetype Trinity. Even my naming scheme is taken from the biblical concept of Heaven, Earth, and Hell, and if I tell you anything different than that then I’m an impostor and you have to find the real me before it’s too late.
So, I don’t know much about Christianity and the mythology contained in the bible, but from what I understand the forces of Hell are able to convert or win over humans to become sinners and thus minions of the devil, while God and the Angels don’t really try to convert anybody. Ironically this makes certain Christians more similar in behavior to the minions of Hell than it does to the seneschals of Heaven.
The angels of heaven sometimes come down to Earth to challenge humans intellectually or to pass on messages and prophecies from god. They are kind to the meek but have no problem punishing the enemies of God. Do you know of any Celestial race that has no problem smiting murderers and soldiers, but who is merciful to an innocent human, like let’s say a weaponless, helpless female Guatemalan hostage, and then challenges a man to one on one combat similarly to how an Angel wrestled with Jacob?
As I mentioned in a previous section, the Celestials represent the human ideal, as do Angels. As James Madison once wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Of course the fictional Celestial factions do have governments, but whatever, you get my point. And despite the common pop culture image of angels as beautiful winged humans, the Biblical angels have inhuman, bizarre, or even frightening appearances. This includes emitting light so brilliant that it cannot be looked upon by humans; having the head of an eagle; having four faces, each one of a different creature; having wings covered in eyes; and having various other animal parts, such as the legs of oxen. One type of biblical angel appears as “rings within rings”, which I imagine to be like a gyroscope, that are also covered in eyes. Those descriptions aren’t really meant to draw a parallel to the archetypal Celestial faction, but I think they’re cool visual images.
Aristotle’s Pathos, Ethos, and Logos:
I don’t know much about ancient Greek writers and philosophers, but I do remember Aristotle’s three rhetoric appeals which in fact parallel the three faction archetype.
The appeals, methods of convincing an audience, are Logos, Ethos, and Pathos. Logos is convincing an audience through logic, and logic is often held in great regard by the Celestial faction. Ethos is convincing an audience through one’s character, which is sort of the strength of the Terrestrials; they might not be tough but they’ve got character. Pathos is the appeal of passion, and the Diabolic faction is just passion at the exclusion of everything else.