Feature Article

Blizzard's Secrets of Storytelling in StarCraft 2: Legacy of the Void

Leaving a legacy.

The end is nigh.

Well, the end of the story that began with the original StarCraft, anyway. When StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void is released later this year, we will know the fates of Jim Raynor and Kerrigan, along with Artanis, the Protoss leader desperately trying to unite his race in the face of Amon’s threat. Before then, however, we will also get a taste of what’s to come: Blizzard will be releasing a free standalone trio of missions called Whispers of Oblivion, which will focus on Zeratul, the Dark Templar who was last seen giving a piece of The Prophecy to Kerrigan. Expect to hear more about Whispers of Oblivion sometime in July.

At E3 2015, I sat down with a quartet of Blizzard talent: Matt Morris, Lead Story Designer; Jason Huck, Lead Designer; Tim Ismay, Design Producer; and Tim Morten, Lead Producer. It takes a village to birth a story as big as StarCraft II’s, of course, and I asked the team a number of questions about Blizzard’s storytelling approach.

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GAMESPOT: What's the story development process like for this? How much does mission design lead where the story goes, and how much does story lead what kind of mission you create?

ISMAY: I would say there's a lot of back and forth on that. You know, when we announced that we're going to take StarCraft II and make two or three games out of it, we still had a concept or an idea as to how the whole story would end. Even across all the games, we've always had, “Here's the big moments that we want to show, here's the big moments.” Working with Jason [Huck], working with Chris Metzen and the lead writer, James Waugh, we sat in the room and just kind of hashed out the big story. And then we take those story points and we come back to the design team. Jason and I work with all the designers, and we sit in a room and say, “Hey, here's some big pieces. How do we want to create that journey?” And sometimes along the journey we'll come up to a point where we’re like, “This really is not going to work for the game change,” and we'll go back to the writer and say, “Hey, can we get some changes here,” and sometimes they'll look at the story and say, “Hey, I need to make a change.” So it's very collaborative in that sense.

One of my favorite missions in Wings of Liberty is the one where the supernova is coming across the planet and you have to work really hard to finish fast. How does something like that come about?

MORTEN: Lucky for you, the designer that built that map is right here!

HUCK: That's a good case of us saying we really want this awesome mechanic, and so in regards to the story with that then, it wasn't really a critical story moment in there. I mean, you were getting a piece of the artifact. It's kind of critical, but how you got it was left up to the designers to come up with the game plan. The most important story point there was that Claire must get another piece of the artifact, so we're like, “Cool. What are we naming this mission?” And so this falls right in there. Get the piece of the artifact before we are destroyed by the wall of fire.

With the prologue and with Legacy of the Void in general, how do you match the excitement levels of the story with the excitement levels of the mission? What have you done on Legacy of the Void to make these pieces more or less match as they move along?

MORRIS: The team that built Wings of Liberty is for the most part still the team that's building Legacy of the Void, so we've got a lot of practice. We've been doing this for a while now, and so when we came across these story points, we were able to look at a lot of mistakes that we might have done in the past. We’re able to refine this moment and say, “Hey, here's a good mechanic that really matches those story points. Why don't we give this a try?” We're very aware of making sure that the story is on point with the game designers, but we're always wanting to make sure that the gameplay is something that drives the story. So I would just say at this point, because we've been doing this for so long, we've got a really good knack, and so a lot of the missions you'll see in Legacy and in Whispers of Oblivion are going to show good story and good gameplay, merging them together.

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MORTEN: And I'll say because I observed this from the production side: There's a feedback loop that happens, so Jason described how to add those story objectives that get set up around a mission. The mission will get implemented and the writers will go back and look at it and think about, “What's the dialog that should happen around this,” and that might have some influence on the finer points of how this story plays out. After that, they keep going back and forth until it all gels.

ISMAY: Like Matt was talking about, they kind of lay out these tempos of what we want to hit. We want the player to be feeling like, “I'm really winning right now,” or losing, or things are really desperate right here. Sometimes even people that have never played the campaign before will grab someone else and ask them, “How is this vision to you? How do you feel from the audience?” We actually get feedback that says, “I feel like I'm just getting destroyed right now. You know, I won, but I feel like it's really desperate and I didn't actually accomplish that much.” Then we'll talk to the writers and we'll actually ask, “Is that where we should be in the story, should we be winning right now? Should things be a little dark right now?”

I typically don’t like the opening missions of RTSs. Like, “Here's one unit, lead it around, like you've never played an RTS before.” But with StarCraft II, I love those missions, because they engage in world-building. Can you give me any examples in Legacy of the Void where you teach the player something, but you're actually doing more than just teaching?

MORRIS: [The opening mission of Wings of Liberty] went through a lot of different iterations. This has been a long time since people have been introduced to StarCraft. The fantasy that we were selling from the very first opening cinematic scene, Jim Raynor sitting there at the bar and he's seeing Arcturus Mengsk up on the screen saying, “Jim Raynor, you're a rebel. You're an outcast.” And it put him in a place of motion as to what is this character all about.

He's got a small group of guys. He’s just Jim Raynor. So most of those missions are always developed from the idea that he couldn't go head to head against Arcturus. So that first mission set up that vibe as you went through the whole campaign. He's very strategic in the way he was attacking those missions. The propaganda was another point in selling the fantasy that, “Oh, the big, bad emperor is brainwashing the backwater civilization here,” and saying, “Jim Raynor’s bad,” and [Raynor] is saying, “No, I'm not bad. Look: I'm helping you out.”

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Do you use that same kind of thought process for Legacy of the Void in terms of establishing Protoss characters? There's something more mystical about the Protoss than “space cowboy” or “evil hive mind.”

MORRIS: We're definitely in a different spot now, because in Heart of the Swarm, you had to have Wings of Liberty, so we could start missions differently. But we still had to teach you how to play Zerg. We wanted to make sure that was successful. Now that Legacy of the Void is going to be standalone, we now have to think about how there might be a huge audience coming in that haven't played StarCraft. So there is this thought process of distilling it down to something that's manageable, and it doesn't overwhelm the player, so they can understand what it's like to play Protoss, and what the Protoss want to do. We are taking that path to make sure that it's successful in that sense, and it's a very easy transition to a new race that you might not be familiar with.

MORTEN: There is a story mechanic that may be worth touching on in relation to this. There's one character who’s the engineer on the ship, like the “Scottie.” He's a mechanic through which new technologies and advancements can be spoon-fed to the player in a way that's digestible but hopefully still interesting, because as you're suggesting, it's story relevant. It's not just, “Here, learn this mechanic.”

ISMAY: I think it's something the writers have struggled with as well. We want the characters and the story as a whole to be very relatable, something that you can understand, that you can empathize with these characters. But we actually want it to feel alien, to feel kind of weird. So you don't want to push it too weird because then it becomes unrelatable, but you make it too human and now it doesn't feel cool and alien anymore. So that is actually a line that we ride, and I think we ease you into it pretty well.

Is there a danger in losing the player when you write something in which the stakes are so big? I think of something like, when I watch Star Wars, I don't really feel anything when Alderaan is destroyed, but I do feel something when Luke Skywalker and Vader meet. Is there a danger in losing a personal element?

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MORRIS: I think you absolutely said it right, which is that these big moments can be kind of cool, but how's that impact you as a player being invested in these characters? James Waugh, the writer on this, has done a fantastic job of getting this information to the players pretty quickly without making it too sophisticated. You will be invested in these characters, so when these big galactic moments happen, you're like, “How did this impact this character?”

MORTEN: This is still Raynor and Kerrigan's story, so ultimately that does factor into this. Legacy of the Void focuses on the conflict against Amon and the Protoss as a race, but there is still as a backdrop, Rainer and Kerrigan's story left to resolve.

You're not saying this is the end to StarCraft forever or anything like that, but obviously you're bringing this particular story to a close. I'm curious about the mood of the team in general now that this story is reaching its finale.

MORRIS: It's a good thing for me. I'm actually super excited. Reading reactions to fans as they played Wings of Liberty, and reading the reactions to Hearts of Swarm, there's a lot of questions that the forums and the general fans have been asking that I wish I could just go in there and answer for them, but I can't because we haven't finished the story yet. So I'm really excited to see the story finally come out and people go, “Oh my gosh, that is the story.”

MORTEN: Yeah, I guess it's kind of a bittersweet ending for me. Like working on a game that I've played as a child and now working on it, and being part of the ending, being part of the people to come up with the ending for everything, it's really awesome at the same time. It's like, “Wow,” but sad at the same time. We want to give you a really great final ending to the story, to these characters, because we we’re done with StarCraft II. The game's going to go on, but bringing that closure for everyone is a really good ending.

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Kevin VanOrd

Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play bass in Rock Band.

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