Characters in History (and also Starcraft)

There was a fascinating article put up on Gamasutra today which deals with the process of storytelling in a real-time strategy game (RTS). Brian Kindregan, the lead write of Starcraft II, gave some fascinating insight into the narrative process at Blizzard. Two great points were made.

1. Storytelling is about the characters, even, or maybe, especially in an RTS.

2. The medium of games is evolving rapidly and with it, our understanding of how to tell stories.

First, the characters. I’ve especially been thinking lately about the way characters are created. There is theory that tries to understand how we create imaginary people out of text (especially Possible-Worlds theory), but what I really want to know is the ins and outs of creating those characters. What are the pieces of them that we need in order to be engaged? As Brian says, engaging the reader is always the goal no matter what medium you’re working in.

…engaging the reader is always the goal.

I think I tend to think of the classroom in the same way. I’m telling a story, either one written by Homer or Vergil, or one lived by people in the past. My goal is to engage my readers, my players, my participants – my students.

Is there something that lets us create these alternate worlds in our mind and populate them with people and physics? I know that when I play a Warcraft game, even World of Warcraft, I feel like I’m in Azeroth. It has a geography, a culture, a history, etc. It’s a real place in my mind. Jaina and Thrall and Arthas are characters I recognize and feel for. In my case, I have a soft spot for Arthas and killing him was one of the most problematic things I’ve done in a game. But back to the topic at hand – why do I care?

Kindregan says that we need characters to differentiate between the parts of the world that don’t matter, the disposables, and the parts that do. Sometimes I think history is the same way. There’s a judgment made about what matters. Caesar. Nero. Constantine. These matter. Joe Roman… ? In our modern culture of equality, such statements probably elicit a bit of horror. “Gasp, how can you say one person matters more than another?” Somehow, these characters in the story of history make it meaningful and relevant. And they are characters. One of the big paper topics of a class I TA’d for last year was – “How do we find out who Caesar really was?”. What we have left from history are character sketches of a person larger than life. What does it even mean to know what someone really was? Everyone is a character, maybe nothing more.

I was talking to my students the last day of class this term about the Nike revolt. The emperor made a decision to slaughter 35,000 people in order to end chaos and affirm his role in power. My students didn’t engage with that story until Justinian became a character. Why did he decide this? What were his motivations? What were the consequences? It was when they were able to enter into a world of Justinian that they started to actually think about that event and what it means. It took a character to teach them history.

Look for another post about Arthas and his role as a character in the story of Warcraft. Now I can’t stop thinking about him.