I played through Homeworld last week.
This is something I’ve been doing pretty much every year since Relic’s flagship game wowed audiences at the 1999 E3 awards. I can usually feel the beginnings of the urge by the end of summer; by October the mothership is launched into low Kharak orbit and exiles are once again on their way to reclaim Hiigara, their ancient homeworld.
Clearly there’s something here that keeps drawing me back to the game, over and over and over again. But what is it?
With the upcoming HD re-releases of the original games and the promising-looking Homeworld: Shipbreakers under development, I think that it’s time to see if I can put my finger on what exactly that magic is.
I’m breaking it into three parts:
- The Use of Grief
- Storytelling via Naval Architecture
(Um, spoiler warning? I guess? For a game that’s nearly 15 years old?)
It’s a rare thing to come across these days, but the original Homeworld came with a nice thick hardcopy manual. It covered all of the basic stuff (ship types, basic commands) but what I loved best was the ~70 page historical and technical brief (downloadable here). It was chock-full of the history of Kharak and its people, detailed cultural breakdowns of the different clans (“Kiithid”) that made up Kharakid culture, discussion of the different technologies that were employed in traveling through deep space, and more.
Little did I know that this was all setup for one of the more memorable bait-and-switches of my young adulthood . . . but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Homeworld’s story revolves around the inhabitants of Kharak. The historical brief details 3,000 years of survival on a harsh desert world; it chronicles countless lives spent in endless combat with each other and with the encroaching sands.
Everything changed when a survey satellite discovered an ancient starship buried beneath the sands of Kharak’s endless desert. This wreck housed an artifact called the Guidestone, a single piece of black lunar rock with a crude stellar map and a set of coordinates deep in the galactic core. The coordinates were labeled with a single word: “Hiigara,” or “our home.”
The Guidestone united the Kiithid in pursuit of a common goal: returning to their rightful home. A massive colony ship was designed and built to reclaim the Kharaki ven with the combined effort of everyone on Kharak, it took over 60 years to construct. It is the mothership, and it’s your home throughout the campaign.
Sure, you could skip all of this if you wanted. You didn’t have to read the Historical and Technical Briefing if you didn’t want to. There’s enough covered in the Homeworld Intro to get you started.
But I did read it. I gobbled it up, before even setting CD to disk tray, and I loved every word of it.
Can you imagine that now? A game that expects the player to read more than 70 pages of information before even starting to play? Corporate leadership would laugh such a game developer out of their offices . . . and yet this is one of my favorite parts of the game.
Anyway, upon completion of the mothership, you’re instructed to take it on a shakedown cruise to test the hyperspace core. Somewhat predictably . . .
Everything Goes Horribly Wrong
The Mothership survives the jump, but their support ship has been destroyed by pirates. Fortunately the pirates have bitten off more than they can chew with the mothership and are sent running (for the time being).
The narrator tells you to head home and complete the mothership’s construction. The briefing outlines what should be another slight increase in the game’s tension, and you’re ready for something slightly more difficult than before . . .
Then this happens:
Everything Goes Even More Horribly Wrong
Kharak is burning.
The planet is gone, consumed in a nuclear firestorm.
Why? And how? Who could have–
But there’s no time to explain. There are hostile alien ships in orbit, and they’re targeting the remaining survivors. As you deal with the chaos of fighting a technologically-superior, alien foe, the story is fed to you bit by bit.
This is the answer to the question:
How Do You Make The Player Grieve?
Games typically appeal to a narrow subset of emotions, and grief is not usually among them. When they succeed at inspiring grief, though, it can be devastating (think of Aeris’s death in Final Fantasy VII, for example). The burning of Kharak is one of the few moments that I’ve heard multiple gamers describe as “heartbreaking.” Why? Why is it so powerful?
It certainly isn’t in the portrayal of this near-genocide–all we see is an expanding black splotch on the surface of a tan disc followed by a pair of chilling still images in the following cutscreen. There are no faces contorted in terror, there is no Aeris getting stabbed by Sephiroth . . . there is no representation of the human form at all, actually.
So why do we grieve? And what are we grieving for?
The real destruction is invisible; it happens inside the player, where carefully-constructed systems of history and politics are erased with a single phrase: “Kharak is burning.” They don’t come crashing down, they don’t slowly erode; they simply cease to exist. Everything that we were getting comfortable with, everything that we were internalizing in preparation for the story to get rolling–suddenly it’s gone. Things are taken from us that were just starting to become “ours.”
And that’s the point of grief.
As players, we aren’t really TOO upset about losing someone that we’ve just met. Honestly, do you remember getting teary-eyed at the burned corpses of Uncle Own and Aunt Beru in “A New Hope?” Neither do I. But Relic was craftier than that; they created a deep, interesting, compelling world with just enough backstory to really whet our narrative appetite. And just as we thought we knew what to expect–just when we thought this was all going to go down in typical vanilla sci-fi fashion–BAM! They took everything we were comfortable with away from us. It’s designed to emotionally tie us to the story.
And it works.
It’s not just the surviving exiles who have sworn revenge against the Taiidan Empire. We, as players, have had something that we cared about taken from us. And now we want blood.
Part 2 to come: Characterization via Naval Architecture. Don’t forget to subscribe! (Up and to the right . . .)