Thursday, 4 October 2012

Mechanics and Narrative: RTS

As a disclaimer before I start, I don't play many RTS games. I played Star Wars: Empire at War extensively, but only against the AI. I've played Heroes of Might and Magic III. I've tried Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, Starcraft, Achron, and a few Command and Conquer games. That's pretty much it. So this article won't be extremely long or in-depth.

But there's a reason for that. I like games with good stories, and as a genre, RTS games are terrible at telling stories.

RTS games are meant to simulate large-scale war with more units on the field and a wider tactical view than most games. You gather resources, construct defences, and build your offence to take down the enemy in large battles featuring potentially dozens or hundreds of units on each side. And in games that offer multi-battle, back-and-forth campaigns, the focus is even larger.

Think of it in terms of a real-life war. How easy is it to sum up the story of, say, World War II in a concise  yet accurate way? We want our stories to be personal and relatable, but something like a global or galactic war is far too big to include an emotional and personal narrative as well as a full understanding of the scope and scale.

One of the main difficulties with an RTS game, in terms of the story, is defining the narrative role of the player. You're a supreme omniscient commander running an entire war - how do you personalize that? The RTS games I've seen tell their stories primarily through cutscenes and not during actual gameplay, so even if the commander is a character and there's a strong narrative, the story and the gameplay are kept fairly separate from each other and don't interact much, aside from some voiceovers during missions. In that kind of set-up you don't really need to play the game to experience the story, you could just watch it on YouTube.

I'm actually not sure that there's a good way to integrate a strong, personal story into the gameplay of such a large-scale genre. I'm at a bit of a loss, and I may just have to conclude that RTS games aren't really for me. If you have any ideas, though, I'd love to hear them.


  1. The first thought I had was some kind of story revolving around this omnipresent character and how he/she felt about their actions. Maybe the game has a campaign where you have to make the choice between saving a village and saving half your available units (or something).

    Then, jump to a scene where some of the units are reporting to you and you have to hear the complaints and consequences of your actions. Combine RTS with RPG. This could then affect future battles in many ways. Troops may be less loyal to you, and thus less effective, or they be scared into obediance and more effective in some ways. I don't know, I think the average RTS player would hate this idea, but maybe there would be a way to incorporate it somehow.

  2. I certainly think that strategy games struggle to provide as convincing a narrative as an RPG or an FPS, and I'm not sure that it's quite possible to create as personal a connection with the format. However, I've played a bazillion strategy games, and some of them have gotten me very attached to the soldiers I'm ordering around the battlefield.

    Of course, it's all really a matter of scale. The larger the scale, the less the attachment. I love a good game of Age of Kings (best strategy game of all time, along with Civ 2) or Red Alert 3, but the ones that really suck me in are Dawn of War II and XCOM: Enemy Unknown. In DoWII, you have just a few persistent squads throughout the entire game, while the narrative is still presented in a mostly standard fashion, you do learn quite a bit about them and get attached to certain ones over others.

    XCOM just came out, and it really is something. There is an overarching story, but the real narrative comes from the player, because you get incredibly attached to each and every one of your soldiers. They get better as they progress through the ranks, and losing one is *very* painful. Death happens with extreme regularity in XCOM, and it's powerful because of how attached you are to your little soldiers.

    That might be the best way for a strategy game to do it - design the game mechanics to facilitate attachment to characters within a broad narrative framework (along with extensive customization options for your soldiers), and allow you to create your *own* narrative as the game unfolds.

    1. Yeah, XCOM looks very interesting to me, even though I typically don't play many RTS/strategy games. I'm looking forward to playing it in a few months :p