By Alec Meer on August 5th, 2010 at 10:31 am.
As I moaned last week, while I’m entirely digging the game design otherwise, I’m finding StarCraft II’s writing a bit of a chore. At times it seems like it was generated by a machine, or perhaps a horse with a Dictaphone. It can be tricky to demonstrate why I have this distaste for the game’s oft-insipid dialogue and characterisation, outside of quoting the flat, tired lines over and over. So I’m going to try and do it through a character study instead: a breakdown of why I’m not satisfied with the approach the game has taken to its chattiest denizens.
Let’s talk about Gabriel Tosh: spooky Rastafarian psychic soldier dude. That he’s so appropriately called “Tosh” – well, maybe someone was paying attention after all.
Some spoilers follow, and are flagged as such – they’re primarily focused on Tosh, but you’re still advised to steer clear if you’ve not finished the campaign.
Kittens mean spoilers. Bears mean spoilers end.
Tosh appears early in the game, as a shady character offering to help you out, and goes on to provide the narrative backbone of a subset of missions.
As with all of SC2’s thinly-sketched characters, Tosh is described more by his appearance and vocal mannerisms than by what he says or does. He has dreadlocks, he’s a bit mystic, he says “be” instead of “is” – three times within 15 seconds at one point. “This be the moment of truth.” “This be worth a fortune.” Apart from that, the rest of his English is spot on – but apparently he needs a single vocal tic so that we remember he’s Rastafarian.
Ah yes: he’s the only non-white member of StarCraft 2’s main cast. (Admittedly, General Warfield’s importance is stated a few times, but his appearances are very fleeting compared to the rest of the plot-relevant characters). It would be petty and strange to complain about this in itself: plenty of other games (and movies) elect to star an entirely or predominantly white cast, after all. I mean Harry Potter, for goodness’ sakes. What I want to go into instead is how trite Tosh’s characterisation is, and how that could be perceived. I do not prescribe any negative intent to Blizzard, apart from possible thoughtlessness.
Here are some Tosh-facts:
Tosh is presented as sinister, untrustworthy and self-interested – his motives questioned repeatedly by gravel-voiced hero Jim Raynor and all his allies.
He has a drug habit, though this may or may not be necessary for his mystic powers.
A bunch of his friends are in jail. (Though are all white, however.)
He apparently has only two attitudes: stoned-sounding mystic and murderously angry.
Oh yes, and he has a Voodoo doll. A voodoo doll.
He even carries it around his neck, in case he needs to do any emergency voodooing at a moment’s notice. No-one else in the game is carrying a voodoo doll. There isn’t any suggestion that anyone else in the game so much as believes in black magic, in fact.
Are we supposed to think he’s cool, or think he’s quietly villainous? Omar he ain’t. It gets worse. Unfortunately, however…
In Tosh’s last mission, you’re given the choice to help him or bring him down. Do the former and he lives and remains your buddy, albeit with a little bit of threatened knife-crime first. Do the latter and he threatens Raynor with his voodoo doll – but gets it wrong and hurts the wrong guy. What a silly!
Take this path and his narcotics involvement extends to him being a drug-producer and possible dealer.
Take this path and Tosh gets killed. And insulted. Repeatedly. It’s not a noble death – it’s a humiliating death, in which he’s first made to look like both an idiot and a hissing pantomime villain, and then sent out with a cruel, cheap stab to the back of the head, before we’re treated to a lingering close-up of his slack-jawed corpse as Raynor celebrates the kill. This savage treatment completely undermines any sense that he’s a heroic character, a misunderstood freedom fighter – as picking the other path for this mission tries to claim he is. The game decides you shouldn’t feel like you’ve made the wrong decision, so removes almost all moral ambiguity about Tosh if you choose to turn on him.
He is, as per Hollywood cliche, the first major character in the game to die [Edit – this does depend somewhat on the order in which you play some of the climactic missions.]. And suffice it to say this is not game with a great many speaking-role casualties.
So, let’s recap: the game’s only major black character is a witch doctor, is too inept to witch-doctorise properly, is a drug dealer whose friends are in prison, and who (optionally) gets killed. It is hugely important to note that there is a choice as to whether the player treats him as a hero or a villain, but picking the latter means he is then depicted almost unilaterally as thuggish scum who deserves to die.
Again, I’m not prescribing any motive behind Tosh’s or anyone else’s depiction- the problem is that the sheer weight of cliche laden onto this one character alone is crazy. Perhaps more to the point, he’s just one more growly, semi-magic, exposition-spouting cipher in gaming’s great litany of such supporting characters. Maybe he’s a a light-hearted parody of that, but if so I wouldn’t say that comes across. He doesn’t add up to a fun, surprising or even particularly likeable NPC: he adds up to an exceptionally tired dramatic stereotype. Which is my only argument here – that SC2’s characters are nowhere near well-developed enough to escape cliche.
There are (at least) two huge counter-arguments against Tosh being an especially poorly-realised character, and I’m very much aware of both. [Edit – and, as some have correctly observed, a third. Another, hitherto minor black character is promoted from apparent villainhood to much greater importance very, very late in the game.]
1) StarCraft II is far, far, far, far from being the only recent videogame that treats its non-white characters cursorily. I’m not singling it out for that. My point is that big, gloopy spoonfuls of lore and prophecy do not excuse the game’s storytelling weaknesses – of which Tosh is just one example. Given how much time we spend listening to them, I wanted more convincing, more interesting characters.
2) The game willfully embraces stereotype throughout. Its white characters are variously: drunks, criminals, jobsworths, grumpy, nerds or despots…
…while the only two female characters with significant speaking-roles are a helpless scientist who immediately falls for Raynor, and his ex-lover Kerrigan, who’s been turned into the queen of all chitinous evil, but still manages to show off her shapely bottom at all times. Oh, you can also factor in that the medics are all (helpless) women if you want. The age-old nurse stereotype, clad in power armour.
As is so often the case, this videogame doesn’t seem to treat its female characters with a great deal of respect.
So no-one does well out of this, in other words. That may be because the game is shooting for Simpsons-style “if we insult everyone we’re treating them equally” blanket-prejudice, or it may be because aspects of the writing may have not enjoyed as much consideration as they perhaps should have done.
If there was more depth and subtlety to StarCraft II’s characterisation, I wouldn’t have spotted Big Bad Voodoo Daddy Tosh and thought “uh-oh.” It’s as simple as that. I’m aware that the game’s deliberately going for Lucasian breadth in its tale of war amongst the stars, but that isn’t excuse enough for characters this shallow and patronising.
Yes, it’s an overblown tale about lasers, love and larvae: it’s not The Wire. A little thought can make all the difference, however. Surely the world’s richest game developer can do better than this.