‘Starcraft 2’: War Against Scale and Symbol

When I was young, I was obsessed with what my parents called, “those chit games,” strategy games with hundreds, sometimes thousands of little quarter-inch cardboard squares that represented military units. Some of the more user-friendly games might have a picture of a knight or a tank in silhouette on them, but most of the ones that I was most intrigued by just had simple symbols used by real military types: an oval for armor units, an “x” for infantry. OR was that cavalry? The most complicated ones, like the massive World War 2 wargames from the Europa line had thousands of pieces with scores of arcane symbols on them.

The simplicity of these symbols conjured up immense battles in my imagination, with a single piece of cardboard signifying an entire armored division of Panzers ready to roll into Russia. And when you got two thousand of them all together on one eight foot long map, that looked like one helluva war. I should note here that it took my friends and I a whole day to set up Scorched Earth, a half day to play the first turn, and ten minutes to decide that we’d never finish. Oh, and another ten minutes to scoop all the pieces into the box. I did however successfully play some of the smaller Europa games (with only several hundred pieces per side) on multiple occasions and enjoyed them a great deal. The point was, whether recreating the invasion of Russia or Greece, those little chits really created the illusion that they had something to do with war.

Starcraft 2 doesn’t ever feel like war to me. I like the game a lot. It’s a very well made, fun to play video game, and the multiplayer is both excellent and appropriately daunting. Being thus daunted, I’ve mostly been playing the single player campaign, which is a solid entry in the real time strategy genre that not only doesn’t make many of the mistakes other games of its ilk have in recent years. It also continues to offer up something new and interesting at each turn. It’s a game that I’m happy to be playing.

But it never feels like war to me. I wasn’t sure why at first. The story is epic with (according to the news broadcasts and chatter in-game) billions dying and massive battles being fought across the galaxy. When you’re down in it though, actually fighting those battles, it’s still on the scale of Starcraft — no more than a few score individual units to a side most of the time with small factories pumping out giant-sized soldiers and vehicles. These 3-D models look great, are wonderfully animated, and come with exciting sound effects. They’re a world away from those chits that used to fire my imagination, and I’ll be honest, I’m loving controlling these virtual toy soldiers in Starcraft 2 a whole lot more than I would be enjoying playing Europa today. But it doesn’t feel like war.

The sliding, shifting, inconsistent scale of Starcraft 2 (and its predecessor) keeps me from ever viewing it as more than a terrific, automated board game. It’s all just nifty toys wrapped in a great game engine, which is fun to play but doesn’t ever really engage my imagination. It’s hard for me to feel that anything going on is even representative of something important. The game’s single player campaign only exacerbates the problem for me. In vs. play, it’s easier to take it all as symbolic of armies clashing. In the story-driven campaign, the cut scenes and set up make it clear that these are meant to be individual machines driven by specific people. It becomes especially apparent when you’re controlling a single, named character. Sometimes you’re a giant among buildings, while other times everything seems to scale.

In between missions this scaling and short-cutting also nettles me. The game will cut to very specific moments in time, saying, “23 minutes later,” before dumping you into the ship’s cantina. But at the same time, it gives you no sense of how much time is spent travelling between missions or what the bigger galactic picture of the war might be. Silly scenes play out on the television screen in the bar, giving some general sense of the passing of the war, but these moments provide nothing that I can latch onto to really understand the sides or the stakes or the strategies.

For me, this is where the game fails. Well, it fails in part anyway. I still really enjoy playing it, and it’s already a great hit. It’s a good game. It’s not a good war game. It drapes itself in the trappings of war, but its muddling of signifiers and scales gnaw away at my ability to engage it that way. Like chess, Starcraft 2 is nominally a simulation of war, but the experience seems just as obscure and removed from the actual issues and challenges that a war game can raise.