Starcraft’s American Frontier in the Cosmos
I will admit that when I first started playing Starcraft, a real time strategy game in which you command the forces of one of three space “races” against the other two, I wasn’t all that impressed. It felt like an inferior, space-based cousin of Blizzard’s other real-time strategy world of Warcraft, with none of the charm, depth, or majesty of the latter.
Having now completed the game, its expansion pack Brood War, and Starcraft II, I am happy to report that I was wrong. Like the worlds of Warcraft and Diablo, this is a series that probes deeper questions about humanity through the world of semi-realistic fantasy action, this time based in space rather than semi-medieval settings. Far from a knock-off of the other series, the messages and vision of Starcraft are unique and worth delving into in full.
Terrans, i.e. Humanity
The first thing that strikes you when you start out as the “Terrans” or humans is just how American it is. It’s not just that everyone speaks English. All the main characters have American accents, and the values and concepts they use – freedom, liberty, revolution, the style of TV, even the pop music – are recognizably made in the USA. Gone is the broad cultural diversity of Warcraft and Diablo, where humanity was divided into people who viewed the world through profoundly different lenses of fate, duty, and morality (superficial “diversity” is apparent in a number of characters of color, but very little of the “thicker” kind). At least in terms of the people you encounter and deal with, this is a world where American cultural hegemony reigns supreme, on all sides.
Another distinctly American aspect is how much the world of Starcraft represents a vision and reimagining of the old American frontier. This is a world with former criminal marshals and marines, mercenary prospectors and just plain mercenaries, and colonists of varying descriptions. Scrappy rebels are its heroes, with names like “Raynor’s Raiders” and “Sons of Korhal” claiming to fight the good fight.
It is also a realm with no fixed abode or “homeworld.” There are “fringe worlds” and “core worlds,” and the whole area of space in which the game is set is called the “Koprulu sector” – all technical, dry terminology unlikely to inspire loyalty or a sense of belonging. Like the imagined frontier in the nineteenth century, this is a place where one flees something or chases something, but never remains all that attached to anything. “We are who we choose to be” – the motto of Jim Raynor, one of the Terran protagonists – best captures this ethos.
Also like the frontier, there is little love for any kind of central government. Planet Earth is not even mentioned except as a tyrannical Starship Troopers-like military directorate trying to enslave the colonists in the Brood War segment. In the sector itself, whether it be the ironically named Confederacy (“rebels” in their own minds and tyrannical in actuality) or the later Dominion created by insurgent Mengsk, government is something to be destroyed or overthrown in the game.
The only real purpose which central government – even the relatively benevolent government of Mengsk’s son at the end of Starcraft II – is to ensure a rough sort of law and order and to defend the sprawling Terran frontier against space-based threats against humanity.
Zergs, i.e. Nature
The main such threat is the Zerg. An amalgam or “swarm” of constantly mutating and evolving creatures, the Zerg represent nature in all its raw violence and terror. The in-game video images of them converging on a planet or even just moving through space evoke images of Biblical plagues, mystical apocalyptic visions, or science fiction films of the sort meant to terrify rather than inspire.
Reliant solely on their own biological capacities and limitless numbers, the Zerg operate by a simple imperative: Wipe out all non-Zerg life in their way. When they take hold of a planet, the only realistic solution is usually to incinerate all life on the planet or blow it up. The very reality of the Zerg, let alone their potential threat, not only gives human government its only realistic reason for being but also makes a mockery of modern scientific conceptions of conquering nature outright as opposed to keeping it at bay or at least hoping it passes you by.
The game puts paid to any pretense that there was ever a time that the Zerg were not driven by these imperatives or any Eden of peaceful Zerg. Sarah Kerrigan, a psychically gifted human who is betrayed by her human comrades and captured and transformed by the Zerg, learns this during her own journey. After having been “cured” of the Zerg corruption and then returning to the Zerg’s planet of origin to help fight human tyranny, we see that even those Zerg not manipulated by outside forces believe in Darwinism in its crudest form: Kill or be killed, extract the other’s “essence” and biological information or have it be done to you.
Dangerous enough in “feral” form, the Zerg are used often throughout the game as a truly destructive force by others for their own ends. Both the original “Confederacy” and the rebelling Arcturus Mengsk alternately use the threat of the Zerg to justify their rule or unleash them on their enemies. But while human beings, with their lack of attachment to any particular abode or homeworld, are able to recover pretty quickly in the game, the third race in the Koprulu Sector, the Protoss, are not so fortunate.
Protoss, i.e. Traditional Yet Advanced “Aliens”
This fate comes because the Protoss are in many ways the antithesis of the humans. A more technologically advanced society, they lack anything like the human desire to expand endlessly into the universe. They have a homeworld, Aiur, and a society deeply rooted in ancient traditions and heritage, structured by caste and with a proud sense of purpose. This rootedness and structure has already created at least three dissident Protoss groups – the Tal’Darim, the Dark Templar, and the Purifiers – who rebelled or were cast out by this stable but stratified society.
As opposed to Raynor’s “We are who we choose to be” ethos, with its detached and radical individualism, the Protoss are tied to past generations not just through history and archival “preservers” but even a physical and mental connection to the living and the dead known as the “khala,” a hive mind reminiscent of the Zerg hivemind thinking – but this time benevolent. They even have a religion of sorts, including prophecies and reverence for the Cthulhu-looking benevolent beings who created them and the Zerg (as well as humans and countless others) known as the Xel’naga, an outlook which meshes neatly with their scientific prowess.
Yet it is precisely the Xel’naga who end up grounding the Protoss edifice to dust – specifically a Devil-type “fallen” Xel’naga named Amon, jealous and hateful of the work of creation of his brothers (most of whom he kills during the game). First through an Overmind meant to unite all Zerg to assimilate the Protoss into a more “perfect” being and then much more directly, Amon declares all-out war on the Protoss and creation itself.
This war comes at a terrifying cost. Aiur is destroyed not once, but twice. The khala itself becomes corrupted with his evil presence, and the very traditional and technological skills which once made the Protoss a marvel are now used with the same purpose as the hated Zerg. The Protoss eventually win out, but they are forced to compromise, reuniting or at least working with those they once cast out and revamping their old societal structures into something more inclusive and open.
But the greatest break happens in the end, when in order to finally send Amon back into “the Void” – this world’s version of Hell or the beyond – the khala itself needs to be eliminated and the living connection to the past viscerally severed in a scene reminiscent of the cutting of the Chinese cues upon the fall of the Empire in the twentieth century. They have been saved and even mended vital fences – but a terrible price has been paid.
Is Freedom Enough?
The series ends with an Epilogue in which all three races combine to launch into the Void and kill Amon once and for all. The final living benevolent Xel’Naga imbues Kerrigan with his power, and she uses it to not only slay the Devil but to declare a complete break with gods and life cycles, declaring creation “free” of any further manipulation.
It is a fitting end to a series entirely enmeshed in American thinking and conceptions, but one which leaves me with many questions and doubts. As I hinted at the beginning of this article, space has often served as a literary template for exploring the purpose and destiny of humanity and creation as a whole, whether in the present or future – in more benevolent form such as in the worlds of Star Trek, or in more threatening or controversial form such as Starship Troopers or the many horror movies set beyond our current planet.
The vision Starcraft lays out of space and our place in it feels bleak and spare, one in which the idea of a cosmological frontier as a place where we truly ascend or at least strive to remake ourselves into something greater clashes with the reality that not much has changed – people and governments are still greedy and power-hungry, the unsettling of old verities and attachments begun in the modern era is now complete with no sense of localism or community that lasts all that long (let alone traditions even wonder at the universe’s majesty), the wrestling with questions of purpose and meaning wrestled with in, say, Diablo III are not even on anyone’s radar.
The only two things worth fighting and dying for now are mere existence and freedom (and sotto voce, making money). But as important as these values are – is that really enough? The same imperative of existence drives the murderous Zerg. All or almost all of the evil characters in this world were “free” – free will is no guarantee of anything good coming of it.
The Protoss, which might have served as a model of how to create and preserve a traditional AND technologically advanced society in space end by becoming more human and breaking with the past; old prejudices are largely gone, and that is good, but so is a major source of that society’s vitality in its connection with its past. They rebuild on Aiur, sure, but I wonder how long that will last, and whether they will develop the same kind of wanderlust, the same kind of escaping into space which drove the Terrans to flee Earth.
Whether intentionally or not, Starcraft is a game that pours a bucket of ice water on our often grandiose visions of space as some sort of automatic solution to the modern human condition. Nature in all its violence will still be there, we are reminded, and as much as we try to flee or delude ourselves that conquering or colonizing new worlds is some kind of panacea, in the end no new world can change who we are or solve the questions that haunt our minds.
As John Candy’s Irv Blitzer told Olympic bobsledder Derice in a crucial scene in the movie Cold Runnings, “A gold medal can be a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.” If Starcraft’s vision is correct, the same may be true of space.