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Thread: Why the zerg are a wasted opportunity for literature as a whole

  1. #1

    Default Why the zerg are a wasted opportunity for literature as a whole

    Swarms of alien locusts rarely feature as protagonists in fiction and even rarer are they given any personality. A species which exists to consume and is incapable of diplomacy, mercy or peace, yet capable of complex thought and expression offers whole new realms of storytelling never explored.

    To date, no one has explored it beyond a dozen lines of text.

    The tyranids of Warhammer 40k are a mindless swarm of eating machines. They have no personality or any kind of uniqueness whatsoever. Their one campaign in DoW is bland and boring: it depicts them saying nothing but “nom nom nom” in their briefings.

    The necrophages of Endless Legend are only given personality in an optional quest with only a dozen lines of text. This is written from the perspective of a leader creature who desires to, unsurprisingly, eat everyone else. (For reference, necrophages are incapable of diplomacy in the game mechanics.)

    The zerg in Starcraft were initially written in a manner similar to the necrophages. Then they were immediately turned into the puppets of an angsty teenage girl, then finally became space hippies. All their storytelling potential as intelligent monsters went to shit.
    I think Starcraft needs rebooting. See "Enumerate" for details (links: timeline, full document, original forum thread).

  2. #2

    Default Re: Why the zerg are a wasted opportunity for literature as a whole

    Reason is simple. On one hand, the niche appeal of the "swarm of alien locusts" concept is that it's not not supposed to be relatable or recognisably human (no-one can relate to a swarm of locusts, afterall, let alone an alien one!). The other hand, is that stories are generally more memorable to people when they can relate to what's going on in that story. These two just don't mix since attempts to personalise them further/get more of latter, lessens the conceit of them being alien/reduces the former. I'm not saying it can't be done but that attempts would be at cross-purpose to each other and runs the risk of them being just faux alien/idealised human analogues (where we already have the Protoss for this purpose).

    The Zerg characters that we do have are purposefully narrow since they are defined by their innate script/role (they're essentially robots) and are only really interesting on an intellectual/esoteric level. The Overmind may have some personality in its manner of speech (though that's more of a conceit to telegraph how ancient it is without resorting to overt exposition) but it's pretty boring and one-note in the traditional sense of story-telling and character building. I'm pretty sure that for the majority, people don't find the Overmind relatable or, alternatively, don't understand its motivations and yet this was the "best" Zerg character in terms of representing of what they're all about.
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  3. #3

    Default Re: Why the zerg are a wasted opportunity for literature as a whole

    Quote Originally Posted by Turalyon View Post
    Reason is simple. On one hand, the niche appeal of the "swarm of alien locusts" concept is that it's not not supposed to be relatable or recognisably human (no-one can relate to a swarm of locusts, afterall, let alone an alien one!). The other hand, is that stories are generally more memorable to people when they can relate to what's going on in that story. These two just don't mix since attempts to personalise them further/get more of latter, lessens the conceit of them being alien/reduces the former. I'm not saying it can't be done but that attempts would be at cross-purpose to each other and runs the risk of them being just faux alien/idealised human analogues (where we already have the Protoss for this purpose).
    I disagree and I think your assertion groundless considering, out of all fiction ever written, we have a grand total of two data points. Out those two attempts, the zerg were horribly botched and the necrophages are barely a short story. Devouring swarms are boring unless you give them characters, but any writer with basic competence and an open mind could write one with personality.

    Unhappy Anchovy over at spacebattles provides some commentary and advice in this regard:


    The Overmind soon realised that it needed more agents to help direct the burgeoning swarm, so it created a tier of lesser intelligences that could facilitate its desires. These were called Cerebrates, and they took the form of immense psychically powerful worm-like creatures, resembling nothing so much as the original zerg grub, only far larger. The Cerebrates developed personalities, names, and their own unique thoughts, but all stayed loyal, as they had been designed to be genetically incapable of ignoring or rebelling against the Overmind. The Cerebrates themselves created further leadership tiers, such as queens and overlords, but only the Overmind and the Cerebrates were truly sapient.​

    A few general thoughts on the zerg backstory: it's really interesting how they set this up so that the zerg swarm contains actual characters. It's obvious to compare the zerg to the Tyranids of Warhammer 40,000, or the titular aliens of the Alien franchise, or perhaps the Bugs of Starship Troopers or whatever else you like. The bug race is a science fiction cliché. What the zerg add is a whole layer of sapient individuals who, while genetically bound together, have personalities, friendships, rivalries, and even internal politics. For me, the characters are what make the zerg stand out and make them memorable.​

    I emphasise them particularly because the rest of the zerg background is pretty uninspired. Generic creator race, experiment run amok, blah blah you know the drill.​
    Well, I don't know about Dehaka personally, but the zerg in general do seem to think the protoss lack something. Presumably this is the zerg purity of essence. (Completely different use of the word 'essence' to what Dehaka means when he says it, to be clear.) I suspect that only the most advanced and intelligent zerg - the Overmind, the cerebrates, etc. - would be capable of comprehending this. The protoss are not united in a singular, perfect will. The zerg Swarm is a single organism: many forms, but one mind, one will, one essence. From the zerg perspective, the protoss have sort of started groping their way towards purity of essence, through the Khala, but the Khala is insufficient. Individual protoss can still disagree, rebel, and so on. That weakens them.

    Yet... it's interesting because by creating Kerrigan, the Overmind seemed to tacitly admit that purity of essence isn't enough. Some diversity of essence can help strengthen the Swarm as a whole. Kerrigan's broodmothers have a similar philosophy: they were supposed to fight each other, and explore different tactical approaches. What the Overmind must have wanted to do was find some way to combine all the strengths of diversity (different ideas, creativity, etc.) with all the strengths of unity (no rebellion, perfect coordination, etc.).

    That might just have been an impossible task. And it's the central theme of Starcraft again! Order versus individualism.
    The zerg are more than just an incomprehensible force aiming to consume everything: they have leaders, those leaders have personalities and rivalries, and they also have proximate goals that they can work towards. It would be wrong to say they're humanised as such, since the Overmind and the cerebrates are still very much non-human, but I feel like there's more to work with. If I collect a Tyranid army in 40k, my opportunities for storytelling are very limited, since no Tyranids have personalities, and the Tyranids in general don't have coherent short-term agendas. With the zerg, it feels more possible to create a distinctive sub-faction, in the form of a brood with its own leader (whether cerebrate or broodmother), with its own style and with its own goals.

    On top of that, I feel like the zerg can be used for more interesting stories even from external, non-zerg perspectives. The fact that zerg can be controlled by non-zerg enables some new and dramatic types of campaigns (Brood War, both Enslavers campaigns) that you just can't imagine with Tyranids. But you don't have to focus on those stories if you don't want. The zerg can still be the mysterious force of utter consumption that cannot be manipulated or reasoned with if that's what you need.

  4. #4
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    Default Re: Why the zerg are a wasted opportunity for literature as a whole

    Waiting on Mags’s story where the Zerg aren’t botched.

  5. #5

    Default Re: Why the zerg are a wasted opportunity for literature as a whole

    Quote Originally Posted by Gradius View Post
    Waiting on Mags’s story where the Zerg aren’t botched.
    I have a ff.net account. However, I have switched to posting on alternatehistory.com because their community seems a lot more lively and positively inclined towards the sort of fiction I try to write.

  6. #6

    Default Re: Why the zerg are a wasted opportunity for literature as a whole

    Quote Originally Posted by Mislagnissa View Post
    I have a ff.net account. However, I have switched to posting on alternatehistory.com because their community seems a lot more lively and positively inclined towards the sort of fiction I try to write.
    What about archive of our own? Have you tried that site?

  7. #7

    Default Re: Why the zerg are a wasted opportunity for literature as a whole

    Quote Originally Posted by Mislagnissa View Post
    out of all fiction ever written, we have a grand total of two data points.​
    Gee, I wonder why?

    Could it be because alien hivemind swarms are niche in their appeal and that people specifically wanting personalities in those alien hivemind swarms are even more niche in appeal than that or is it that it's maybe just too hard, limiting and not really worth it/needed to write personalities for an alien hivemind swarm?

    Quote Originally Posted by Mislagnissa View Post
    Devouring swarms are boring unless you give them characters, but any writer with basic competence and an open mind could write one with personality.
    The Zerg had one in the Overmind but it's really just a boring, impersonal and unrelatable character up front (a god-like being that pontificates and makes proclamations rather than hold conversations in antiquated speech) unless you analyse it in the way I do and discover things about it that aren't overtly present (like how the Overmind runs on hubris and how that is its weakness/the possible cause of its ultimate defeat). Much as I like the Overmind "character", I like it more as the concept and ideals it represents than because of any affect about it as a character.

    The cerebrates as characters are subsumed by the Overmind while it is present, so any tension, passions, rivalries between them are rendered moot and meaningless because they all ultimately serve a singular cause and can't be "outside" of it. Each cerebrate is just running along on the program they've been given and while this may lead to differing actions and "conflict" with another cerebrates main drive and actions, it's just a faux conflict/not really meaningful because the Overmind is behind it all. Course, that's not to say BW would've been a ripe opportunity to explore cerebrates post-Overmind but to say they were going to be great characters in and of themselves in Sc1 is a stretch given their limitations by the lore setup and how all we got in the manual are just descriptions/archetypes of what they were as characters.
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  8. #8

    Default Re: Why the zerg are a wasted opportunity for literature as a whole

    Having them be tools of no less than four Humyot leaders does tend to get old.

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