This might belong in the gaming and sports section, but as it's more of a concept rather than a specific game, thought it might be better to go here. So, in the spirit of "user x posting on topic y that should really go in blog z, but screw it," there's a certain topic I'd be interested on listening to people's feedback on. It's actually the nature of player characters.
The reason I bring this up now is that, among other things, I've been browsing the forums of Command and Conquer: Generals 2-kind of one of those things that could go either way for me. I don't really gravitate towards modern/historical warfare that much in RTS's, but with Bioware Victory behind it...well, that seems promising storywise, but then I'm reminded of the ending of Mass Effect 3 recently...anyway, that's not the point. What is the point is that I came across a recent experience of deja vu in regards to the nature of said story, specifically, the nature of player characters in RTS. Assuming that the posters on the topic represent the Command and Conquer franchise as a whole, it seems that Tiberian Sun is a bit of a black sheep storywise, in that you weren't "commander x" viewing things from a first person, but rather playing "as" a commander in both campaigns-a formula most people dislike(d). This surprised me, as I consider Tiberian Sun the strongest C&C game storywise for that very reason, but was reminded of similar reactions to Wings of Liberty. One of the complaints I've seen raised about StarCraft II is how the nature of the player characters. In StarCraft and its expansions, you were always "magistrate"/"cerebrate"/"executor," etc. whereas in WoL, HotS and LotV, our characters are Raynor, Kerrigan and Zeratul respectively. I'd cite this as a strength, in that we're no longer a nameless character, but I've seen it cited as a weakness because of just that. That we're no longer "a" character, but playing "as" a character.
Of course, player characters aren't confined to the RTS genre. And since I've got the time, I'd like to share some thoughts and get feedback. Granted, I'm not a guru of any one media who can speak for all notable games of said media, but hopefully the references I draw won't be too obscure.
I can name about three different approaches in the RTS. What, is it wrong to start with a media that's tradionally considered to be one of the weakest game medias in regards to storytelling? Maybe. Still, in all honesty, I can name worse medias out there, and I feel that the RTS genre has come quite some way in that regard. I don't think we're going to get an in-depth racing game in regards to story any time soon, nor am I going to be praising the story of lightgun games in the near future either. Anyway, back to the approaches:
The first approach I'd say, is "being" the character, as mentioned above. Dune is regarded as the forerunner, if not the progenitor of the genre (as in the game, not novel series on which it was based) and among other things, set you up as "the" character of your house. Given a mission, kill people from other houses, repeat, etc. The early Warcraft games are another example. There was at least some progression in this, in that "you" as the character of the orc campaign in Orcs and Humans would go on to be Orgrim Doomhammer, while "you" as the Alliance commander in Tides of Darkness is implied to be Turalyon (who appears in Beyond the Dark Portal, but essentially the format remained the same. And of course, StarCraft and its expansions are another case, and I probably don't need to explain why. All in all, the position of you "as" the character is the first mechanic used in the RTS, yet apart from Command and Conquer in those above medias, is no longer used.
Quite frankly, I see that as an improvement. Playing as "the" character has its strengths, but I don't think the RTS is a good medium to show it. You don't do anything that even hints at your character. You can't feel like a character because there's never any hint of your responses to other characters. The only time this format was ever used remotely succesfully IMO was in Tiberian Twilight, and only then for the in-universe choice you have to make in regards to allegiance. And that I'm using a game like Tiberian "letdown" Twilight as an example should...anyway, that's just me. Has the RTS evolved as a storytelling medium over the years? I'd say yes, and the shift away from this kind of storytelling is one of the reasons IMO.
The second, and most rare approach I've seen is where you're playing "as" a character, rather than being "the" character. This seems to be the rarest one of all. The StarCraft II games are an example, as is Tiberian Sun, but outside that...I can't really think of that many. Dawn of War might qualify in some respects, in that Gabriel's log is made between missions, where you playing "as" him narrates, but...anyway, this approach isn't that common. Yet I'd still cite it at the strongest. I feel it comes off as being more realistic when we watch our characters perform, and with the lack of suspension of disbelief in regards to us being "commander x who never talks," we're able to appreciate the characters more.
Except Westwood. Who killed the concept immediately after Tiberian Sun and tried to kill McNeil off as well. While Tiberium Wars (the novel) is very much an average one, I still give thanks to DeCandido for resurrecting Commander Badass.
The third means is the one I think has become the most common. You're not playing "as" the character, or being "the" character, but are simply observing a story with characters in it, whereas you, the player, don't really exist. You're basically "God" if you will, directing events as they unfold. The Warcraft III games are an example-you as the player are never referred to. You're simply playing a story with characters in it, and this rings true bar the Horde campaign of Reign of Chaos, where Rexaar is your character. The early Dawn of War games, Universe at War, Supreme Commander and Halo Wars are other examples I can name of this approach.
So how effective is it? In my mind, certainly better than "commander x and his silent camera shot." But is it better than form 2? I'm...not really sure. Thing is, Raynor had 12 years worth of material to back him up, but if he'd been thrown right out in front of us? I'd probably still like the approach, but still...
Still, in the end, I think form 2 can work regardless, citing Tiberian Sun as an example. Form 3 is definately good also, whereas form 1...well, sorry, but I think it's really just outdated, back from the days where games as a whole were finding their feet in the telling of stories (outside the RPG genre I guess) and when technology was more limited as well.
So yes. Question for the RTS section would be, of the three 'forms' I've mentioned, what are your thoughts? And if there's another form you can identify, I'd be all ears. I had more genres to talk about, but it was taking too long, and it's pointless to write at length if no-one's going to talk about it. If it's a subject people want to discuss, I'll be happy to, er, vent my spleen more. If not, sorry for wasting your time.
Edit: There's also "form 4" to consider, I just remembered, whereas characters are pretty much non-existant completely. Total War, Age of Empires, Empire Earth...think these could be called examples of this area, but I'm afraid that of the RTS games I've played over the years, the realm of "form 4" isn't one I can speak on too extensively. Feel free to do so though.