Master Chief. Kratos. Mario. Samus. Comstock. SHODAN. You know it, and I know it, I could keep going, for a long time. Gaming has brought us some memorable characters. The RTS genre, not so much. Not to say that the genre is devoid of character, but proportionally, RTS games are light on names and faces that jump out at you, and stories that capture the imagination. What’s more, the majority of the most well-known characters from RTS come from a couple of major IPs that are also fairly old, relatively speaking.
Who are the most iconic characters in the real-time strategy genre? Many of the most memorable names, what’s more, come from older games like WarCraft 2 and 3, and the Command and Conquer games. Sarah Kerrigan, Arthas, Kane. These are some of the giants of the genre. Other games may be known for the features they implemented or popularized… look at the devotion many fans have to Total Annihilation, or to Company of Heroes, but there’s just something about a good character that can inspire devotion to a franchise in a unique way.
Let’s face it, there’s not really too many ways people tend to take the stories in RTS games. Total Annihilation is the story of an endless war between two different ways of life. WarCraft is, essentially, a story about 2 different peoples fighting over land. Command and Conquer is an example of what might be the most hackneyed RTS plotline of all, the story of different groups fighting over a magical resource.
What makes these games stand out from the crowd of other titles with similar plots are the characters. For instance, look at the mysterious leader Kane, played by Joe Kucan, who gave the brotherhood of Nod life in a way that their scorpion logo and iconic weaponry just didn’t. See the mysterious mystic Medivh, who both allowed the Orcs through the Dark Portal to assault the humans in the first WarCraft game, and then so memorably returned in the third WarCraft game. Or Arthas, the Lich King, in his memorable return to Lordaeron.
Blizzard has always been excellent at crafting characters. Arthas, Thrall, Kerrigan, Raynor, Fenix, Tassadar, Abathur… these are characters that stick with you. Blizzard’s games are always full of personality: from unit quotes to art style, and their games tell the stories of people involved in epic conflicts, and not just a story of talking heads and super weapons that so many RTS games fall victim to.
The Command and Conquer games likewise have some good characters. Kane, of course is the outstanding one, but Yuri from Red Alert 2 brought some entertaining cutscenes, and in the expansion, an excellently interesting third faction. Likewise, Tanya and Natasha, the commandos, are memorable. Excluding the (pardon, fans) somewhat pandering nature of Command and Conquer Red Alert 3, and the entirely farcical nature of Command and Conquer 4’s acting and storyline, the Red Alert and core C&C games are rife with an over the top zaniness that ends up working quite well.
I’d also like to address 2 other Westwood franchises, Dune and Generals.
The Dune franchise is based, loosely, on Frank Herbert’s science fiction book series, which begin with what is perhaps his seminal novel. Dune, of course. They’re more directly based on a movie which aired in the 1980s, and featured some true sci fi camp, including ‘elite’ troops which look, vaguely, like they’re wearing trash bags. But the characters, including one played by Sting (Feyd Rautha, for those familiar with the novel), translate amusingly into Westwood’s several RTS forays into the desert planet of Arrakis. The antics and perpetual doublecrossing of Harkonnen Baron Rakan (a virtual renaming of the much more intimidating Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, and his children, Gunseng and Copec (Feyd Rautha and Rabban from the novel, down to Gunseng’s homage to Sting’s costume from the old movie).
Characters drive stories. Their interactions provide context, emotional impact, and well, they’re just plain cool. Talking about the narrative of Raynor and Kerrigan and Zeratul, and the futures of the people around them, is meaningful. The story of whoever were involved in the events that made up the Supreme Commander campaign? Let’s face it, I barely remember the name of the super weapon the UEF was using to end the war (Black Sun, by the way), let alone the names of any of the participants.
I didn’t forget about Generals, I just needed to work my way around to the point. Command and Conquer Generals is a prime example of a game that can be excellent without iconic, or even compelling, characters. In many cases, mechanics and gameplay alone can compel player loyalty. Or, the factions themselves can be unique or interesting enough to be, in their own way, iconic.
In Dawn of War and Dawn of War 2, the faction design (thanks partially to Games Workshop for their work on the Warhammer 40,000 franchise, and partially to Relic for realizing it so well) alone is enough to inspire. The Blood Ravens and their members aren’t bad characters, but unfortunately, their personalities and interactions just aren’t that memorable. The moral choice mechanic in Chaos Rising, and the pirate ork boyz in Retribution are a nice touch, but the truly memorable parts of these games, along with Total Annihilation, Supreme Commander, C&C Generals, and more are the faction designs and mechanics, and not the personalities of those involved in the fictional wars players fight (or fought) on a daily basis.
Without the cohesion of a good story, it’s very easy for a game to feel a bit schizophrenic. The faction design in Total Annihilation Kingdoms might make sense to some, but the Talos and Zhon design, to me, lacked focus or consistency. In Earth 2160, the characters and plot are bland to and beyond the point of being forgettable, and the alien faction’s mechanics are obtuse beyond the point of acceptability.
StarCraft’s units, in contrast, are informed in part by the vagaries of the campaign, and vice versa. In the second iteration of StarCraft, unique, campaign-only units help flesh out the universe in meaningful ways. Look at the mercenaries in the Terran campaign, or the rogue broods and unique mutations in the Zerg story. Look at Kerrigan’s struggle, or Raynor’s moral ambiguities, against the bland zeal of the Space Marines in Dawn of War 2.
Ultimately, characters are only part of the picture. A game cannot succeed just on the chops of its story. If its faction design is uninspired and its mechanics and balance faulty, it will be consigned to the dustbin of history alongside many more worthy titles. But a well delivered story, memorable people and interactions, can frame a title in meaningful ways. The Nod might not have been so memorable had they not had Kane at their helm.
There is no magic bullet in this, or any genre. There’s no way to assure that a character will become the next Kane or Arthas or Kerrigan. It’s incredibly unlikely to happen. But all too often, personality is shucked in RTS games in favor of mechanics or (and I shudder here) “streamlining” in a wrongheaded attempt to lure Farmville players into one of the most competitive genres out there.