Game Review: Homeworld, and epic storytelling.

Homeworld, the video game series I loved long before I ever played or even finished it.

I first saw a friend play Homeworld 2 soon after its release. I was smitten — piloting a spaceship and flying through space is my fantasy dream — and shortly after bought both HW1 and HW2. I much prefer to do things in chronological order, so of course I had to play through HW1 completely before getting to HW2.

So I tried… for 10 years. I don’t play a lot of RTS and prefer turn-based tactics, so there was the RTS learning curve as well as the HW1 learning curve. Suffice to say that playing HW1 was an exercise in frustration, something to grit my teeth through, and not at all fun. So I’d try a little bit, get stressed and vexed, ragequit, then come back again in a year or so to try again. While the gameplay was my bane, the rest of it was fabulous. A SF lover’s dream. That’s what kept me coming back, but without much success.  Until 2015.

I don’t like walkthroughs, I like to figure things out for myself in video games.  But earlier this year I decided to actually watch (instead of just read) some walkthroughs on YouTube to see how others did it. And finally I got my breakthrough in conquering HW1. Learning how to properly execute one simple strategy made all the difference to successfully play, and thus enjoy, the game. That strategy was stealing ships with salvage corvettes. I’d read about it, but never realized the trick was to make many corvettes and set them onto enemy ships all at once.  (Duh, but I’m a RTS newbie.)  Once I learned this, progressing on missions became significantly easier.  Stealing ships early in the game bulks up my fleet, which makes subsequent missions easier, which frees up resource units to build more salvagers to steal more enemy ships… Yes, it’s an overpowered strategy, but boy does it make life easier to not be strapped for ships and resource units!

Previously, the farthest I ever got through HW1 was Mission 9 (Sea of Lost Souls), but this time I blazed through the game to the end of Mission 15 (Chapel Perilous).  It so happens that I’ve stalled at the final Mission 16 to Hiigara — got wiped out within the first minute of starting it, ragequit, and haven’t been back since. Meep.

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Anyway, let me tell you the reasons why I adore Homeworld, and most of them are embedded in its storytelling.

The sense of scale and depth.  Everything in the game is designed to give a sense of vast yawning space and loneliness.  No other game does it as well, and to this magnitude.

I read a critique in a review elsewhere that Homeworld is a “cold” game.  Indeed, human presence is almost non-existent.  The avatars that appear in dialogues are not human headshots, but symbols or images of ships.  All the voices are likewise disembodied, with a digitized and mechanical tone. Even the cutscenes have no human presence, leaving the ships as the protagonists and antagonists.  The only remotely human form that appears at all is Karan S’jet, who herself is a transhuman become the avatar of a ship.  But I think this portrayal of Karan as the only human in a ship-dominated universe is strategic.  We attach ourselves to her, so that her story becomes ours.  And Karan is more than merely human, or a ship: she’s the Mothership, and thus the figurehead for the entire Kharakian race.

This is how Homeworld achieves its scale.  It’s more than a story about humans, but an epic on the scale of worlds, races, and ships. Everything in the game, right down to the sound effects and music, is meant to evoke immensity.  And the setting of space scales up accordingly.  Just as the ships are vaster than humans, space is vaster than planets.  Worlds and planets are not even part of the story: they are too small!  Only space is wide enough to contain ships that themselves contain an entire race.

 

A profound and epic story.  The storytelling power of Homeworld is in its restraint.  Some video game stories are epic because they contain a complex and multi-faceted story amidst a complex and vast setting.  Such stories that come to mind are Final Fantasy VII and Mass Effect: epics told in many words.

Homeworld does epic in a different way.  Its story is very simple — a people on a journey to reclaim their heritage — but told more in silence than in revelations.  The story sinks into the background and is only revealed in taciturn cutscenes and images.  Thus the spoken lines (revelations) become even more weighty… but even they just hint at the worlds.

In the face of the numerous images uninterpreted with words, the player fills in the rest of the story, and part of this “filling in the blanks” is through the gameplay.  The mission objectives are quite versatile: you can achieve them however you want. Blast your way through, steal your way through, avoid fights, use ships however you want… the story of the missions is told however the player plays.  The game developers have envisioned the saga of Homeworld through the cutscenes, and that forms the framework for the player to craft his own unique saga.

This is kind of storytelling in video games that is most powerful.  I’ve observed that games can either be author-driven or player-driven.  Typical RPGs tend to be author-driven, where the player’s “choice” is a matter of picking options on a list that’s entirely dictated by the author-developers.  That’s just the nature of RPGs.  But games like Homeworld are player-driven: the developers provide the skeletal, overarching plotline, and the players craft their own scenes, and fill in the story gaps as much or as little as they want. This is a kind of storytelling that’s more compelling, because here the player is an active participant in crafting the details which are uniquely their own.  All video game stories have boundaries, but Homeworld‘s story boundaries feel wide and open, because the way I play the missions dictates how the story unfolds for the Kharakians.  This is a different kind of storytelling compared to, say, Mass Effect, where Commander Shepard’s choice is limited to these few options on the dialogue wheel.

That’s why I loved Homeworld long before I (almost) finished the game.  It stimulated my imagination, and made me wonder.  The fact that I can’t “discover” more of the story from the game itself makes it endlessly wondrous and new.  Every playthrough changes the story for the Kharakians.  It is always a new story.

One day I’ll get back to Homeworld and properly finish it… and finally commence Homeworld 2.  (Especially now that Gearbox has revived the games through the remasters and their upcoming Deserts of Kharak prequel.)  I’m glad I managed to play through HW1, and properly experience its immersive and moving story.

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