Everything is changing and I suppose that’s life: change. For the past few months I’ve been working 6 days a week at my job, which has been rewarding but exhausting. I’m also going to dance classes three days a week after work, and on Friday nights I play Dungeons and Dragons with some great friends of mine (which I need to write a post about, because it’s amazing.) And I’m in the home stretch of finishing the second-draft of my first book (well, first book written to completion anyway). Strangely enough, despite being so busy, I’ve never been writing more consistently than I have now.
When I was totally unemployed with tons of free time I barely wrote anything aside from the occasional post here. Now with so much going on my in my life, I feel like there’s a momentum to everything I do. The constant challenges of my work, learning to dance, and the remarkable storytelling I take part in every Friday at D&D have sharpened my focus on writing. I feel like I’ve done more writing these past few weeks than I have in years. If I could have been writing like this years ago, I could have finished this book far sooner.
All that being said, my time to play video games and watch all the shows and movies I need to has been considerably cut down. God of War, the remake of a favorite game of mine, has come out but I still don’t own a Playstation 4. The irony is that even though I can now afford to buy one, I still don’t know when I’d find the time to play it. The new Pillars of Eternity comes out next month, and I’m incredibly excited to play that. Even though I hated the ending of the first one, I loved the potential I saw for the setting they created. Plus I said in my review that I wished I could be a sailor in the game, and now the sequel is going to let us sail a ship, so I’m sold.
But again, with only an hour or two of free time every day, who knows how long that will take to finish. I love writing this blog though, and I love writing about games. So until my work starts hiring more people and I’m not covering every shift, I think I’ll try writing about old games. Ones that have stuck in my mind so clearly, that I don’t need to replay them to write a review of them.
So let’s talk about Homeworld. The late 90’s were truly the golden age of science fiction gaming, most of the titles released in that period have yet to be equaled even today. 1999 was an especially good year, since it saw the release of two of my all time favorite games: Freespace 2 and Homeworld. I’ll be talking about Freespace 2 in the next article, but right now I want to talk about Homeworld. The first to prove that even a Real-Time-Strategy game could tell an emotional story.
Homeworld is undoubtedly a masterpiece, and not just because it innovated true 3D warfare and introduced all kinds of game mechanics that are still in use today, but because it told a truly moving story about finding home. What’s even more remarkable is that the majority of Homeworld’s story is told through its gameplay, its art direction, its music, and most importantly, the performance of its voice actors.
For the uninitiated, Homeworld told the story of how the Kushan return to their original Homeworld, but then you might have guessed that from the title. After discovering an ancient ship in the deserts of Kharak, the planet they’re living on, they discover the “guide-stone” that reveals that they are not indigenous to Kharak and that their original home is actually halfway across the galaxy. So they set off to find it.
That alone was enough to hook me on the story, and yet that wasn’t enough for Relic, who decided to up the ante. After a brief tutorial, the Mothership tests its new Hyperdrive and rendezvous with a support ship that’s been using conventional engines to travel to the outskirts of the system. Unfortunately the Mothership arrives to find the support ship destroyed by strange aliens. The Mothership and its complement of fighters easily dispatch what they assume is the first wave of an invasion and return home to fortify their world.
Only to find it burning.
When Karen says “Kharak is burning, everything’s gone,” it definitely hits you right in the feels, but I think the most masterful line is the one spoken by the strategic officer:
Kharak is being consumed by a firestorm, the scaffold has been destroyed, all orbital facilities destroyed, significant debris ring in low Kharak orbit. Receiving no communication from anywhere in the system… not even beacons.
I absolutely love this line because it says so much about the character of a man whose name we never even learn. Everything this man has known, his family, his home, and most of his civilization has been reduced to ashes. Yet in the face of this horrific event the man falls back on his training and immediately begins giving you a strategic analysis of the situation.
Yet it’s those last three words that hit hardest, because the actor’s voice wavers just ever so slightly. The gravity of the situation begins to dawn on him and he struggles to maintain his composure. It’s a brilliant reading of a terrific script that knows to convey profound emotion. The dialogue adds so much depth and drama to the story, such as in the next sequence when they interrogate the Taiidan captain.
The subject did not survive interrogation.
This is a gold mine of emotion and adds to the pervading sense of tragedy that these early missions create. The makers of Homeworld could have taken the easy way out and made the Kushan a saintlike race so that we continue to sympathize with them. Having the Taiidan captain die during interrogation might have alienated us from the Kushan, but the information is conveyed in such a way that it only deepened my connection them, because now I could empathize with them. Yes, it sucks Kharak was destroyed, but since I’ve never seen Earth destroyed before my very eyes, I had no emotional foundation to draw from.
The fact the Taiidan captain dies while being tortured shows just how angry the Kushan are, and I could relate to that because it made me realize that’s exactly how I’d be feeling in their shoes. Torturing a man to death is a reprehensible crime, an atrocity, and yet in this circumstance their crime is understandable. Yet the matter-of-fact way that the Taiidan’s death is relayed tells us that his death brought no satisfaction, did nothing to ease their pain.
There is so little dialogue in this game that if I wrote it all down I wonder if it would even break two thousand words, and yet that dialogue tells volumes. And what its dialogue could not tell, its music told instead. Homeworld features one of the most truly beautiful soundtracks in gaming history, and in many ways the Battlestar Galactica remake took a lot of notes from Homeworld. From the rapid drumbeat that heralded the arrival of the Turanic raider to the haunting sadness of the chorus as Kharak burns, the music always drew you into the emotion of the scenes.
Of course one of the most revolutionary ways Homeworld told its story, was in its gameplay. The Mothership is alone with no support and no reinforcements, trying to survive in a hostile universe it doesn’t fully understand, and I could feel that while I was playing. After every level I greedily sucked up every natural resource because I never had enough to build everything I needed. I cautiously probed enemy defenses when I could, feinting and flanking the Taiidan rather than risk a frontal attack. I felt a pang of regret for every ship I lost because it meant one less ship to retake my homeworld with. One of my favorite tactics was stealing my enemy’s ships using salvage corvettes and by the final mission to retake my Homeworld I had a hodgepodge fleet of ships from every race I’d encountered.
This is the core of what made the story of Homeworld feel so authentic. Even with all its wonderful dialogue, music, and art direction, Homeworld would have felt hollow if the gameplay hadn’t reflected the story’s reality. If it had played like all the other RTS games at the time, pumping out a nigh endless stream of units, I would no longer have felt the struggle of the Kushan.
I know this for a fact because that’s exactly how I felt playing the Remastered edition of Homeworld. It looks much prettier, but with Homeworld 2’s questionable mechanics, much of the struggle that was such a defining point of the original game is lost. If you’ve never played Homeworld before, I highly recommend you play the Classic version before trying the remastered version.
And speaking of classic games…
To my knowledge, Homeworld: Cataclysm is the only example of a Real-Time-Strategy/Horror game (or at least the only one that succeeded in horrifying me). Horror often relies on making the audience feel afraid for their own life, but how can you do that in an RTS when you’re perspective is one of an overseer not directly involved in the story. As the player, we’re never in danger while playing an RTS. Again the answer is in how the script is written, how the actors deliver it, and how the story is reflected in the gameplay.
The story of Cataclysm is set some years after the Mothership returns to Hiigara, and instead of leading the last of your people to salvation, the player is tasked with helping a bunch of miners try to survive another day. After an introductory mission against Imperial Taiidan forces, the miners aboard the Kun-Laan, the mothership in Catacylsm, finds a strange beacon in space. This beacon proves to be a carrier for a horrific space-borne plague that becomes known as The Beast.
One of the most unnerving cutscenes is the one where an engineer gives you a briefing on the Beast. The actor really sells it here, and you can practically hear him wipe the terror sweat from his brow as he haltingly describes the horror of the Beast’s abilities. It’s truly a skin-crawling moment in the game that drives home the horror this particular space zombie.
Again, this is reflected in the gameplay as well. Watching an entire strike force of fighters and corvettes being turned against me was truly horrifying, especially when accompanied by the screams of the pilots as they’re infected. For the first few missions, until you come up with a defense against the infection beam, all you can do is desperately run from The Beast.
The horror element does wear off as the game progresses, but this also serves the narrative the game is telling. The first mission with your mining ship, the Kuun-Lan, is to help fend off a raid by Imperial Taiidan forces. When you arrive, this is what the commander says:
We’ll send everything we’ve got, but be advised this is a mining vessel. It would be best if we don’t have to move directly into the main battle.
This is perfectly reasonable, as the Kuun-Lan is a gigantic floating target with only the most rudimentary of defenses. However, 15 missions later, after building a fleet and installing a massive siege cannon on the Kuun-Lan, this is how the commander speaks when he arrives to save Republic Taiidan forces:
Try to hang on Republican fleet! This is the Kith Somtaaw Warship Kuun-Lan, we’ll send reinforcements while you regroup.
Battle-hardened and armed with weapons specifically designed to kill The Beast, Kuun-Lan dives headlong into the conflict without hesitation. It was a confidence that perfectly matched the bold tactics needed to win the battle. And it was the perfect ending to the story of how a bunch of marginalized miners saved the galaxy from destruction.
So after two amazing games the wheels came off this franchise like some kind of wheeled… mothership that… lost its… wheels? Damn, I swore I had something for this.
To this day I still don’t understand how a company that told such well written stories ended up with such a jumbled and confused story for its long anticipated sequel. The story of Homeworld 2 is so strangely disjointed and badly written that I can’t even think of a way to write a decent synopsis, which is why I’ll just post the crappy synopsis Relic wrote for it:
Long ago you returned from exile, but now fate will not be so kind. Your enemies thirst for victory. Your struggle is only just begun. […]
That’s the blurb from the back of the Homeworld 2 box and it should have set off red flags immediately, because this blurb doesn’t actually say anything about the story. I can’t say I blame the writer of the blurb either, because even I can’t figure out how to describe this story.
The trouble starts with the opening monologue; it begins by telling us of the three mystical hyperspace cores. Now I don’t have a problem with retroactively adding more mystical elements to the Homeworld universe because the original game had its own aura of mysticism throughout. However, Homeworld 2 doesn’t create the lore necessary to make us care about these mystical elements. Not to mention it contradicts itself almost immediately by saying the second core is discovered on Kharak. Well, no it can’t have been, because the Hiigarans took it with them when they fled their homeworld. You could say it was rediscovered, but that obviously wasn’t the original discovery.
The bigger problem though, comes a few sentences later.
This is the end time. We know this, because the Third Core has been found. Under the dark influence of this core, the Taiidan have risen under a new leader, a Vaygr Warlord named Makaan. He calls himself the Sajuuk-Khan: The Chosen One.
So, what’s a Vaygr? Is that a different kind of species? Why are the Taiidan following him? Why is the third core a dark influence, is it like some kind of Sith holocron type deal? Why is he called the chosen one?
We do learn the answer to some of these questions, but often the answers come too late for us to care or raise even more questions. Eventually two or three missions before the end of the game Makaan calls the Vaygr “warriors of the outer reaches” but by that time I was long past caring. It also still doesn’t answer why the Taiidan follow him. What happened to the Taiidan Republic?
We do find out that the old Kith clans worshipped Sajuuk as a god. However why do the Vaygr share the same belief? Could it be that the Vaygr are also Hiigaran, much like the denizens of the Gardens of Kadesh in the first Homeworld? Is so, that would have been a good story. Unfortunately no one ever says so.
Then there’s a lot of talk about the Great Progenitors? Who the hell were they? And, which I found much more fascinating, what destroyed them? Who knows, because the game sure as hell doesn’t.
When I first met the Great Harborship of Bentus, Karen S’jet called it the last of the Bentusi. But the game never explains what happened to the rest of them, did they all leave during the events of Cataclysm? Did the Vaygr hunt them down? If so, why?
So many questions left unanswered meant the game didn’t end up saying anything about its story, its characters, or about the lore of Homeworld.
The saddest part is that at the end of the game, after all this mystical build up, Sajuuk is just some derelict ship floating dead in space. It doesn’t even look that impressive, it’s about the same size as the Mothership if not smaller, and looks like a malnourished Gooey Duck. It has a more powerful cannon than the dreadnought, but you only get to use it for one mission before the credits roll.
The whole premise of Homeworld 2 is built on some prophesy or some such that’s never elaborated on and thus made the whole story suck., however Homeworld 2 did end up prophesying something successfully. It prophesied the rise of multiplayer games with tacked-on single player campaigns. Homeworld came out in the Golden Age of 1999, but by 2003 when Homeworld 2 was released and internet connections were growing faster and faster, multiplayer games were becoming more popular. So Relic sacrificed its story, wasted all the magnificent world-building from the first two games, in order to try and make more money with its multiplayer component.
And nearly 20 years later, we’ve arrived where we’re at today: with only a smattering of worthwhile single-player games being released every year, buried beneath a mountain of multiplayer-driven garbage. Maybe one day we’ll get a Homeworld 3 that will pretend Homeworld 2 never happened, but will it tell a story worth the telling?
Somehow, I doubt it.