“I don’t give a wooden nickel about your legacy! You call them off! Alex? You call them off!”
When Russia invades the United States in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, it is sombre, bleak and very serious. The tragic orchestral tones of Han Zimmer’s Invasion fades in as you see Russian paratroopers descend from the skies and have to take cover from a BTR APC. You fight your way from home to home, trying to reclaim your homeland from the Russians, desperately trying to push back and survive.
As I played through RA2 for our podcast I couldn’t stop thinking about the story. And for me, that's unusual. I’m generally all about the ‘moment to moment’ gameplay and how it feels, far above ‘petty’ concerns like aesthetics, characters or music. I realised as I played through the game though that I was far more concerned and feeling rewarded by the next silly cutscene rather than anything intrinsic to the gameplay experience.
The obvious reason for this seems simple - Red Alert 2’s gameplay is terrible but it has a great story. While this does have some credibility, it doesn’t quite ring true for me. The gameplay, while often repetitive in its base building missions, has some truly outstanding squad ones with my favourite being The Fox and the Hound. Watching all the story cutscenes I had a grin plastered on my face as every actor hams it more than Tim Curry ever has. But it's nothing brilliant or extensive, and is ultimately just short cutscenes of someone talking at you while explaining the premise of the next mission.
So why then did I keep coming back to the story?
The answer is not immediately apparent, especially because its not unique to RA2. The truth is that RTS games are more abstract than games belonging to pretty much any other genre.
Of course, exceptions must be made for games that are deliberately abstract. A game like Super Hexagon is a purely arcade-like epilepsy inducer and The Binding of Isaac is framed as a descent not only into your basement, but into utter madness and eventual death - good luck replicating that in a non-abstract way. But even something like the faux alchemy in Opus Magnum has more in common with the truth than Red Alert 2’s ‘strategy’ does.
We’ll go back to Call of Duty for a reference point. These games are clearly not meant to be realistic - all the attributes of the guns are made up, you’re able to slaughter hundreds and hundreds of soldiers by your lonesome and clicking your mouse being the equivalent of firing a gun is straight ridiculous. But. You play as a person and can control them directly. The guns are appropriately lethal. And it's not too far a stretch of your imagination to put yourself in this person’s shoes as they run around killing dirty commies, or whatever the baddie of the week happens to be.
In Red Alert 2, you’re told that you’re a commander in charge of an army. But what you do as that commander has nothing to do with reality. You gather minerals (whatever they are) directly from the battlefield (which of course was famously done at Waterloo and the Battle of Gettysburg) which immediately translates to money in your bank account (the wonders of modern commerce!). You spend that money on something called a ‘War Factory’, which plops out crewed tanks, spider drones and even Zeppelins of Death, within seconds of you deciding that you’d like to purchase them (what an efficient production line!). I could go on - this is only the tip of the Hindenburg.
The trick that lets us suspend our disbelief; that lets us convince ourselves that these absurd actions have some correlation to reality is the story. Complexity aside, if we take out the story this may as well be Angry Birds: Comrade Edition. The story lets us believe that the battlefield is a representation of reality. When we send that seal team to capture or destroy stolen Prism technology, we don’t ask questions on whether our actions on the battlefield make sense because we already believe they make sense - it's already been contextualised.
The most memorable RTS games are ones that blend story and gameplay until we forget the absurd abstraction of the genre. When you play Warcraft 3, you’re concerned with Arthas ordering the culling of Stratholme or with the eventual corruption of Illidan Stormrage. In Warhammer: Dawn of War, you grow to love the stoic banter that exists between your cultish Space Marines. Most recently, Starcraft 2 does its very best to integrate exciting story driven gimmicks into each mission, like a flame wave consuming the planet, or a giant laser drill that can be turned on enemy units.
It's no wonder that RTS games started to die off as Starcraft 2 began to define the genre as a multiplayer venture. When people today talk of micromanagement and economies, their eyes roll back in their heads at the complexity, as they cry for either the Apex/League/ Elder-Scrolls of Legends. This is a failure of the industry to not realise the value and absolute necessity of story for the genre. Your game can be the most well-balanced and complex game in the world and no-one will care if the units don’t crackle with personality or the factions don’t have a reason to fight.
The single player RTS is nearly an extinct species, because it forgot this lesson. Balance? Whatever. Asynchronous gameplay? I can take or leave it. Give me the narrative motivation to fully charge the Eiffel Tower with electricity, turning into a terrifying weapon of death? I’m all yours, comrade.