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volume 1, issue 33

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Pixel Obscura :
Break of Day in the Trenches

 

 

 

 

 

By Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez

StarCraft's vision of war.

tarCraft: Brood War begins in blackness with only the sound of a man's labored breathing. In a flash the landscape unfolds, and the viewer realizes that it is the panicked sound of a soldier caught in the middle of a battle. Flying attack ships race by in the background as the man, encased in an armored suit, fires at "the enemy," an insectoid monstrosity which stands above him screeching and waving its claws in the air, bursts of light glancing off of its shell from the random explosions popping in the sky like fireworks. The creature attacks, jumping down into the fray only to be set aflame, along with the man, by another soldier's flamethrower. We watch as the creature rears up cloaked in fire. At its feet, caught within the "safety" of his armor, the man burns a bright yellow, a momentary flash of color in this otherwise muddy green/black world.

StarCraft: Brood War, developed and published by Blizzard, is a combat game. The player takes the god-view, making game play decisions like shifting chess pieces and watching the action unfold from above. One of the most interesting things about Brood War’s intro movie that it lets the players view the results of the moves they will be making later in the game. The distance is shattered, if but for a moment. The battlefield is a muddy underworld honeycombed with trenches, a nightmare borrowed from the red velocity of World War I. Above the plains, a massive ship ponders the scene, silent and heavy, a giant sweeping the carnage with lights. The narrative itself is well paced.

Opening in the heart of the battle, the creators proceed to develop the action on two planes: the trenches and the elite domain of the starship. The soldiers are clearly being overrun, any organization having fallen apart long ago in the face of the relentless attack. It's just a matter of time before the creatures overwhelm the meager defenses. The sense of confusion and chaos is well conveyed. The "camera" shakes in time to the explosions, the images "stumbling" over the muddy, uneven earth. The film has an intriguing documentary feel, an air of "seeing it for the first time." This "live" battle footage technique works to put the viewer at the scene's mercy, a claustrophobic exercise in manipulation. If it's possible to "feel" the desperation of animated characters, the creators of Brood War manage to pull it off. The dead are not the carelessly battered corpses strewn throughout the slaughterhouse of most action games. After witnessing the fear in the "mens'" eyes, their haphazard violence induced by desperation, the bodies scattered along the trench, which are momentarily highlighted from the lights of the constant explosions, have an added weight to them. Rather than being exciting or getting the adrenaline flowing, this carnage is actually somewhat disturbing. If nothing else, the viewer is made aware of the price.

During a crucial shift in the narrative, one soldier asks another "who's in charge here," only to be given a blank look, tinny rock music in the background providing an eerie sonic blanket to the scene. Actually, this is the one flaw in the game's intro. This awkward reference to Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now only clutters an otherwise very effective beginning. It makes its point though, and when the silent soldier points towards the tormented sky at the hovering starship, the viewer can almost feel the glacial indifference radiating from the craft.

The scene shifts to the luxurious interior of the ship's command quarters. Two men stand watching the battle, staring down behind the safety and comfort of tall, elegant windows, surrounded by the decadent architecture of the ruling class. The men discuss the war like it's a science experiment. The scene is very expressionistic and, for once, quite justifiably so. The shadows melting into the rich colors of the room are merely extensions of the darkness within these men. The "camera" repeatedly focuses on the burning tip of the cigar one of the men continually puffs. The glowing red/orange glare recalls the explosions rocking the planet beneath them, its colored fire replacing that of the burning man in the earlier sequence. In this domain, violence has become abstracted to a coded language of hints and secret agreements. Then, in a stunning moment of realization of just who suffers the price of these games, the narrative returns us to the planet. Having been told that the aliens are going to overrun the soldiers at any moment, the general of the ship simply gives the order to return to orbit. In a flash, we watch as the soldier who inquired about the ship earlier stares up at us. There is an empty look on his face, the look of someone betrayed. The "camera" pulls back to reveal the rapidly approaching aliens and, just as they reach the trench, all goes black. What is so haunting is that the man's eyes continue staring at us the entire time, an accusatory last glimpse into the heart of this war.

The intro movie of StarCraft: Brood War are remarkable not only for the quality of its animation and the fine suspense level of its action, but for its ability to step out of itself and turn back around to comment on its own contents. Since the game is viewed from above, is not the player identified with the cold-hearted commanders tucked safely away in the ship, making moves that may condemn thousands to their death? It may be impossible to ever return that soldier's stare.

 

- Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez is a regular contributor to loonygames. The title of the article was taken from the title of a poem written by Isaac Rosenberg, a soldier who fought in World War I.

 

Credits: Pixel Obscura logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 1999 Josh Vasquez. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited...we know where you live.