The original Starcraft is the perfect example of the three faction archetype. The Terrans are down to earth humans, the Zerg are a mindless swarm of destruction, and the Protoss are ancient beings with immense spiritual and technological power. The factions are balanced in terms of gameplay and narrative. Each race has its own unique qualities, style, and atmosphere which distinguishes it from the other races.
However, that is changing in the Starcraft 2 series. Both the Zerg and the Protoss are having their most powerful qualities erased and the worst offense is done to the Protoss who in Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty have become weaklings making half hearted attempts at being relevant.
The epitome of this is Zeratul. In the original Starcraft the Protoss’ protagonist-hero was Tassadar, a powerful warrior-priest of impeccable honor who was able to destroy the Zerg Overmind when no one else could. After his sacrifice Tassadar became a prophet-like legend to the Protoss. And the warrior who mentored Tassadar and helped him become the savior of the Protoss was Zeratul. You’d think that the mentor who trained one of the most powerful Protoss legends would be a badass himself, the same way Pei Mei and Bill were badasses in Kill Bill, and you’d be right in thinking so in Starcraft 1. In the first game, Zeratul was tough, competent, assertive, invisible, and capable of leading his people to victory; even when the Overmind discovered the location of the Protoss homeworld Zeratul didn’t panic and just turned on his psi-blade while calmly pointing out that shit just got real.
In Starcraft 2 that all changes, Zeratul is a completely different individual, and his character takes a sharp decline into sissiness. During one mission he is escaping from Queen Kerrigan and he says, “I better hurry before she changes her mind about letting me live.” Letting you live? You’re supposed to be one of the most powerful Protoss warrior. You’ve gone toe to toe with swarms of Zerg and their Cerebrate masters. You’ve fought against your own Protoss species and come out victorious. People don’t let you live, you let them kill you when you’ve decided to die. But, in a Starcraft 2 cutscene, right after he kills some obligatory Zerg, Kerrigan uses her powers to physically and mentally toy with Zeratul like a paper doll. Finally he escapes and is forced to flee. We see him awkwardly climbing up a cave wall towards a light above which is probably meant to symbolize hope, especially since that’s when he says “There is always hope,” which is some really good symbolism if you’re a Freshman film student.
Let me repeat something I’ve mentioned in my Celestial, Terrestrial, Diabolic article. “Hope” is usually a quality and philosophy that is pushed upon the Terrestrial Faction (in Starcraft that would be the Terrans, while the Protoss would be the Celestial Faction); they’re tangibly weaker than the other factions so they need intangible qualities like love, hope, faith, or luck to give them the edge over their opponents. Remember how in the Lord of the Rings films Elrond, the elf lord, basically says that despite the power of the elves he has no hope for anyone anymore. That’s because the Celestial Faction doesn’t rely on hope as their saving grace. Later in LotR it is diminutive Samwise who makes a speech about hope which gives strength to himself and to Frodo. Zeratul has been relegated to the role of Samwise Gamgee in Starcraft 2.
One last note: Zeratul is so weak that he can’t deal with basic injuries. When we first see him in the story of SC2: Wings of Liberty, he’s infiltrated Jim Raynor’s battlecruiser and he’s clutching one of his arms as though it was injured, like a small child who has just fallen off the monkey bars. Later we learn that he injured his arm in the fight with Kerrigan, never mind the fact that we see him clearly using both arms to climb the cave wall. So, to get from Kerrigan to Jim Raynor’s ship Zeratul would have to get into a spaceship of his own, fly across light years of space, find Raynor, and infiltrate the ship in secret, and during this entire time his arm was injured. Even if the trip wasn’t long enough for him to heal naturally why doesn’t he do anything for his injured arm during that entire time? The writers of SC2 have made Zeratul so incompetent that he can’t even figure out to put his arm in a sling.
The point is Zeratul is constantly shown as weak, worried, and frightened. He’s quaking at prophecies and is barely capable of insuring his own personal survival let alone the survival of anyone else.
This is all important because Zeratul acts as synecdoche for the Protoss faction. They were once wise, powerful, and experienced in the ways of the universe but are now doddering wanna-bes, unable to do anything effectively which makes them essentially pointless. Why are you still here Protoss? I mean, aside from multiplayer.
The Zerg also have moved away from what made them cool and unique in the original game, although they don’t take as big a hit as the Protoss. In Starcraft the Overmind was merciless and hungry, sending the Zerg on a quasi-religious quest to exterminate or assimilate all life and evolve the Zerg into perfect beings. In SC2 it is revealed that none of that genocidal motivation was the Overmind’s fault; the Overmind was enslaved and controlled by an even more evil power. So, it’s retconned that the Overmind set things in motion in Starcraft to try to save the universe and free his people (the Zerg). Suddenly the Zerg are becoming more “relatable” and more humanized. The story in the upcoming Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm makes this symbolic change literal. Infested Kerrigan is turned back into a human at the end of SC:Wings of Liberty and in HotS she goes back to take control of the Zerg. So literally, the Zerg are becoming more human because their leader has become human and her human beliefs will shape their species as a whole. The problem is that the Zerg weren’t cool because they evoked humanity. They were cool because they were remorseless destroyers that obliterated anything that got in their way. They didn’t need human traits for the audience to identify with them. The audience was able to identify with the Zerg because in an RTS you can embrace the destructive part of yourself guilt free.
The attempt to add humanity to the Zerg creates a contradictory faction as represented by some of Kerrigan’s dialogue. Take a look at this preview video of Heart of the Swarm‘s story.
Maybe this is just my take based on the voice acting, but Kerrigan sounds guilt ridden when she says stuff like, “I remember doing… terrible things. I remember blood… and darkness.” It’s like she regrets the violence and destruction she caused,which represents her humanity. She has empathy for the people she’s hurt and she’s not mindlessly violent. Then literally ten seconds later she becomes mindlessly violent when her subordinate explains that the Zerg will follow someone else if Kerrigan dies, which makes sense because what else would you do when your leader dies. Kerrigan ignores that obvious logic and responds with, “I’ll kill all of you before I let that happen.” That’s the monstrous part of her, brutal and vicious and irrational. That combination of humanity and monstrosity so close together makes Kerrigan a contradiction of herself. One second she regrets her past violence against her enemies and the next second she’s threatening mindless violence on her own followers.
It looks like Starcraft 2’s story is just becoming a mess. The entire narrative and atmospheric balance of the races is being shifted, and the resonant aesthetic of the Zerg and Protoss is slowly being white washed while the characters become contradictions of themselves. The writers are ignoring the archetypal qualities that make each race strong in favor of trying to make each race express every quality or none at all.