The quality of a game’s world can be defined by the depth and quality of its dedicated Wiki. The milestone is Wookiepedia. Anyone who’s ever made the mistake of clicking on a link to that veritable tome of largely superfluous knowledge will know what I mean. There’s pages there longer than anything the real wikipedia could boast. You’ll end up spending hours just reading through the damned things even if you’ve got only a passing interest. The point is though, the reason Star Wars is so successful is that the pageantry of its story telling and setting is largely more powerful than its fairly one dimensional characters and their personal stories.
The Top 10 New Worlds is my personal list of settings that have attempted to create similar such powerful backdrops for their narrative. Sure, each game focuses on a particular story for one or a group of characters, but they also develop the environment around them just as much. One simple rule: No pre-existing licenses – all of ’em were created for gaming. That means no Star Wars (including KotOR), no Forgotten Realms (so no Neverwinter Nights, or Balders Gate – Bioware are taking a battering already!) or Battletech. You won’t see the Witcher pacing around moodily. These are games whose worlds capture our fair medium’s strengths on their own merits, being conceived for gaming before anything else.
First off, we have Command and Conquer – specifically the Tiberium universe.
That smirking visage may represent the series, but Kane is just part of gaming’s best loved game worlds. He’s the plot’s Prime Mover, but there’s more to it. GDI, Nod, Tiberium, the Scrin, the Tacitus or the Forgotten, are other players in the field, each vying for a part in the story.
First off, Tiberium. It’s the series lynchpin; the element that underlines everything that makes Command and Conquer, Command and Conquer. Initially conceived purely as a game mechanic and adaptation of the role of Spice in RTS granddaddy, Dune 2, the mysterious bright green death rocks rapidly took on a life of their own as the series has evolved. Command and Conquer’s whole world revolves around it. It defines the economic world, the environmental, the political and above all powers the increasingly absurd death machines you hurl into battle. Baldy seems to like it too. Everything ultimately comes down to it. It’s the perfect example of a stylistic and narrative device effortlessly synthesized with a basic game mechanic; you hoover it, then use the proceeds to spit out angry houses. That could pretty much only come out of gaming. In Tiberian Sun it did more. Narratively, the Tiberium infection was changing Earth, and in game this was reflected by new types of Tiberium, the appearance of the “Forgotten”, and some weird and wonderful hostile wildlife. CNC3 changed tact somewhat, but essentially, Tiberium brought forth a whole new faction to the mix, and totally dictated Kane’s plan for the world. The flora and fauna of Tiberium Sun was genuinely missed (by this writer included) but EA certainly continued the trend of using Tiberium to govern how the series progressed on a narrative and gameplay level.
The two radically different sides – GDI and Nod – were born from gamey roots. Two identical sides battling it out was always going to be a recipe for a stale game, and Westwood brilliantly combined game mechanics with their two political faction’s characterization. It’s quite a simple difference on the surface: GDI are roughly speaking the combined arms masters of frontal assaults, primarily being equipped with equivalents of real world US hardware, and in their characterization take on a quasi-UN/US combination as a result. Nod, on the other hand, are high-tech terrorists, and as a result take on a narrative based on subterfuge, and the acquisition and application of more exotic hardware alongside lightly equipped irregulars. The difference between the two, though perhaps slight at first in Tiberium Dawn have gradually evolved as the games have rolled out, though particularly with Nod, staples such as Stealth or Flame Tanks have made resurgent appearances in every episode.
I guess I have to mention Kane don’t I? He’s pretty much Darth Vader, Jesus and Ozymandias rolled into one. He’s perhaps one of the most iconic characters PC gaming has ever birthed, and, like the factions and the resource they scrap over, provides a common point of reference for the plot. He also gives a mean mission briefing. For all the talent Westwood and EA have brought in over the years, none really has the same presence of character as the iconic director cum-actor. It’s perhaps telling that in the next game, CnC4, EA are ending the current Tiberium arc with what they consider Kane’s actual death – in the same way the Star Wars films are more or less the story of Darth Vader’s rise and fall – all the Tiberium series games thus far have been about Kane and his mysterious plans coming to fruition. Just without the sissy-emo prelude to the cool.
Thoroughly important to how it did all this is the way Westwood and EA have used FMV to augment the plot over the years. With your eye in the sky looking down and prodding little men and tanks into battle, it could have all too easily been a little soulless. Bringing in acted FMV added character, depth and humanity to the equation. You weren’t just completing abstract objectives; you were fighting a war at the behest of your superiors; whether they be Tiberium stricken officers on the front, or Kane’s cronies before the man himself sooner or later executed a violent promotion to order you about directly. Important too were those CGI action scenes (that EA sorely missed in CNC3.) With the absence of graphical fidelity, these scenes added a more ground eye impression of the game in action. The excellent demonstration of the Flame Tank in action in Tiberium Dawn remains a highlight of the series, turning a basic unit into a source of characterization of who Nod were. Plus some of them were just damned cool.
Unfortunately for the series, the application of the game world has not always been consistent, and is certainly what holds it back from making it any further up the list. EA’s re-envisioned version of Tiberium brought about a radical jarring effect between Tiberian Sun and Tiberium Wars. They gave a haphazard explanation – Tiberium had miraculously shed its botanical heritage in favour of the crystalline (though it was arguably a strange juxtaposition in the first place) – but it never felt right. Likewise, the GDI of Wars was a rather different organisation. The righteously cool walkers were palmed off with a footnote, as were Nods cyborgs and subterranean tech, only to be hashed in again for the expansion, Kanes Wrath. EA made an impressive attempt to progress the complicated (if thoroughly B-movie) plot tailing off of Firestorm, but they certainly struggled to keep it all together, and alienated a lot of people. Kanes Wrath helped, but it still felt like a bit of a bodge job.
Regardless, it’s impossible not to rank the CNC universe up there with the best. For all its ups and downs, it remains utterly iconic, and demonstrates a canny synthesis of game mechanics, narrative, and style, maintaining a larger than life sense of presence and exposition episode after episode.
Watch this space. Number 9 in the list will be up in the next few days. Though the imminent arrival of Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising might delay it slightly.