Why It Worked: Wing Commander II

Will I drive off my newly forming audience by waxing nostalgic and overanalyzing a twenty-year-old game? Or are there insights to be gleaned here about the simple interactions between story and gameplay? Consider this a beginner-level essay on game narratives.

At the start of his 1991 review of Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi, Alan Emrich wrote in Computer Gaming World #88:

For several months now, Wing Commander has reigned as the number-one game, as rated by this magazine’s readers. Clearly, there must be a lot “right” with this game. Even though Wing Commander is, at least at its most basic level, something of a glorified arcade game, there is also something that sets it apart. Perhaps it is the inclusion of a believable, evolving storyline, full of sympathetic comrade characters and vain, vile villains that bring a certain je ne sais pas.

He was absolutely right. Wing Commander was a fantastic game by any measure, but it was an attention to narrative that propelled it into its position as a multimedia franchise. The game would spawn numerous sequels, expansion packs, spinoffs, novels, an animated series, a feature film… some better than others, admittedly, but the quality of the core series started high and remained so.

In 1991, Origin Systems (shortly before the company’s acquisition by Electronic Arts) published Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi, which would prove to be one of the franchise’s high points. With the exception of adding then-rare voiceover content in a limited number of places and the sheer quantity of cinematic sequences, it is not an especially innovative game from a standpoint of storytelling mechanics. The dialogue, while more than acceptable for its time, reads as less-than-stellar today. But it is a game that excelled at the execution of its story, particularly in how its narrative elements supported and bolstered the game’s mechanics–and how the mechanics and mission design, in turn, supported its story.

It is, in short, worth examining as a case study. Let’s talk about why it worked.

In Wing Commander II, the player takes on the role of a space fighter pilot in a war against an aggressive alien race called the Kilrathi. Nearly all actual gameplay takes place in space, with the player dogfighting enemies while assisted by one of about a dozen AI-controlled wingmen. The missions can involve a variety of enemies and a bit of travel–there are escort missions, missions targeting capital ships or space stations, battles against enemy aces, defense missions, etc.–but the core dogfighting mechanic remains the same.

The wingmen (mostly) fade into the background during fights, but they’re relevant nonetheless. Each has a particular combat style suited to his or her personality along with numerous one-liners during flight. They can be given orders, and some will follow through better than others. There are somber professionals, brilliant fighters who will happily clip you if you pass through their cone of fire, inexperienced and awkward newbies, and so on.

Each mission begins and ends with a cinematic sequence, usually depicting a mission briefing and debriefing (though occasionally diverging from the form if the story didn’t allow for a proper debriefing due to an emergency aboard the ship, etc.) Cinematic sequences during the missions themselves are used extremely sparingly. When not in a cinematic sequence or in space, the player is stationed in a small hub that serves as a control panel (the player can save the game, check the scoreboard, etc.) and interface to begin the next mission or access an optional in-between mission cinematic sequence.

Two points are notable about the hub: the “control panel” elements are depicted as thematically appropriate objects (quitting the game involves selecting the airlock–though note that all elements are labeled with their functions when moused-over) and the hub itself is redesigned several times as the player transfers from ship to ship throughout the game. These could be seen as gimmicks, perhaps, but they suggest that the designers were committed to maintaining a certain atmosphere throughout.

Nonetheless, despite a great deal of attention to mood and atmosphere, the story is driven by non-interactive cutscenes. It’s very easy to see how the story would go wrong: Lots of scenes discussing the overall course of the war, how important each and every mission is, talking heads giving some personal background and setting information, and so on.

But the effectiveness of Wing Commander II‘s narrative comes from the choice to tell a simple story supported by the game mechanics. The focus of the story is on three elements:

The career and reputation of the player character. Wrongly accused of betrayal or, at best, gross negligence as part of the game’s backstory, the player’s reputation is at stake from the start and plays an important role in all his interactions with colleagues and superior officers. But the story isn’t a mystery plot–the player isn’t trying to dig up secrets (and in fact, somewhat stumbles upon the final solution); it’s simply a way of giving emotional color to the story and giving the player motivation to succeed.

The relationship between the player character and the wingmen. Virtually every cinematic sequence in the game uses the same limited set of characters–the player, the wingmen, and a scattered few supporting cast members (superior officers, etc.) The number of characters in the cast is kept small, villains are kept to bit parts, and everything is about growing relationships, watching the other characters change over the course of the war, romances blooming, etc. One of the larger subplots running through the story is the element of a potential traitor–which, again, just further colors the player’s relationship with the supporting cast.

The tone of the war. Not the strategy of the war–there are strategic reasons for the action, but they’re usually background. I don’t remember anything about the details, frankly–but what I do remember is the discussions of the Kilrathi as a foe that won’t surrender, the despair of the crew, the moral question of how to define victory against a race that will fight to its death. In the end of the game, victories are won but the war isn’t over–and aside from the necessity of setting up sequels and expansions, this feels right as a tonal choice.

What this boils down to is a moody story centered on the player character and his relationships–perfect for a game looking to emotionally involve the player. Players don’t (without a lot of work) care about the fate of Earth; it’s big, it’s abstract, and it’s not particularly relatable in any real-world way. But they care about themselves and how others view them.

So these are smart elements to focus on. But more than that, they’re all elements that are mechanically supported by the gameplay. Let’s consider each again.

The career and reputation of the player character are mechanically tracked in minor ways–for example, a “kill board” listing the player’s total kills in comparison to those of the rest of the crew (who are, of course, just AIs)–and in major ways, such as the player’s gradual, growing access to better ships and weaponry. These are, of course, standard mechanics–but they become more meaningful when paired with the story, and vice-versa.

The relationship between the player character and the wingmen is, as described above, a persistent part of the dogfighting game. Giving commands and bantering with the wingmen in-flight, as well as their support and unique flying styles, are all aspects that make the cinematic sequences focused on interpersonal relationships meaningful. These characters aren’t irrelevant to the gameplay–they’re always there and who they are matters.

As a “glorified arcade game,” there’s not much in the way of complex mechanics when it comes to enemy interaction. The player shoots down enemy ships and has the option to engage in short chatter during dogfights (mostly insulting enemies to gain their attention). Still, the chatter puts a face on the foe while the unrelenting violence and inability to accept surrender nicely fits the tone of the war. Again, this is hardly a revelatory set of mechanics, but imagine a story that focused on the enemy’s honor and desire for peace instead of unrelenting ferocity. The choice of tone fits the game as designed, builds on it, and enhances the end effect.

Ultimately, Wing Commander II works on a narrative level because it keeps the story about the player, not external events; it supports its narrative with game mechanics, and vice versa; and it keeps its gameplay and story tonally consistent.

Simple things. But they mean a lot–and how many games, even twenty years later, succeed so admirably?

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