Games of yore #2: War of the Tribes

Technically, this isn’t a game. It’s a StarCraft custom campaign – and anyone who played those and spent time on StarCraft Legacy in the day should remember it as one of the highest-quality works of StarCraft fan fiction ever realized as a custom campaign. I’ll let its page on Campaign Creations do the talking.

With Legacy of the Void now on the way, its premise of uniting the Protoss tribes got me thinking back to WotT and the exciting possibilities that stood for, in an era when StarCraft II was nothing more than idle conjecture and hilarious hoaxes. (Speaking of hoaxes, I wonder if anybody else remembers the ‘playable Xel’Naga race’ one, or the one about the hybrids being called the ‘Vanix’ – and playable too? Good times.)

Spoilers after the jump.

War of the Tribes was notable (in my eyes anyway) for working primarily with canon figures and lore, downplaying original elements. It continued Brood War‘s main story, building off the then-rampant speculation regarding Samir Duran’s true identity – and went a step further by casting him as only one of two ‘sleeper agents’ of the evil we now know as Amon.

The identity of the second might have made a nice surprise, had it not been revealed in the first few minutes. As I recall, you controlled Zeratul for the majority of the story, doing pretty much the same thing we’ll be doing in LotV – uniting the tribes and preventing a second Aeon of Strife. (The lore event, not the MOBA map, for all you pagans.) This continued up to a point near the end where, faced with the truth of what he really was, he accepted his fate and surrendered to Duran to spare his companions – leaving Artanis to take up the torch and lead the unified Protoss to a final, epic battle at the Xel’Naga temple on Aiur.

It’s a well-told tale, worthy of anything Blizzard has ever done – and the air of familiarity throughout, engendered by the creator’s deft repurposing of characters, locales, and plot elements already seen in the official campaigns, heightens rather than cheapens the gravitas.

I for one won’t be damned if LotV runs along similar lines. Making Artanis the protagonist, instead of Zeratul as was originally rumored, brings to mind WotT’s memorable epilogue, where he became a messianic figure called the ‘Gray Templar’, possessing the powers of both the Khalis and Uraj crystals. The Protoss are the one race in the StarCraft universe suited for the conventional savior role – and the switch to Artanis’s POV was no doubt (at least partly) for continuity’s sake, given that he was retconned into the Protoss player character in the original StarCraft. I would not be surprised if Blizzard gave the Hierarch the Jesus/Neo/J.C Denton treatment here.

StarCraft Lego

It’s good because it’s a proven approach, and gives the fans closure. It may not be good because it misses out on opportunities for fresh and possibly better angles – not to mention that said fans have done similar things before, to objectively high standards at that. Blizzard has become known of late for toying with their established canon, so we can only hold our breath with a certain ambivalence.

Many might say: what’s the big deal? WotT was just another piece of fan fiction, and that means nothing in the big picture. But the thing about these custom campaigns, these labors of love, is that they represent more than creative output. They are timestamps – snapshots of a media franchise as seen in its golden age by its most talented and dedicated fans. And for me, that is enough to give them a spot in said franchise’s history. Because games are ultimately more than the pixels and the devs.

Even without its production values (including its much-lauded intro movie, which was indeed a worthy effort back in 1999), War of the Tribes would still stand out for the scope of its storytelling and ambition. I did not hesitate to name it the unofficial sequel to Brood War – indeed, with further polish, it might even have made a strong contender for StarCraft II.

(I seem to remember I was in touch with its creator, Gabriel Sorrel, at one point, attempting in all my youthful enthusiasm to pick his brain on the creative process – Gabriel, if you’re reading this, happy to pick up where we left off. Microsoft ate all our old emails, though.)

I don’t know how the StarCraft custom campaign scene looks like now, 16 years on, but I reckon it’s going to be quite the task surpassing something like this – especially when you consider how times and expectations have changed. WotT hails from an era when the proverbial blank spaces on the map were, well, blank. Blizzard has filled those in – and in so doing, slain the dragons with all their mystique. Pretending they’re still alive, like children conjuring magic and mystery out of the everyday, is not quite the same as pretending they were never vanquished at all.

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