In honor of the 10th anniversary of the computer game Homeworld, I am reposting an essay I wrote on December 27, 2006. Enjoy!
Released in 1999, it is still probably the best 3D real-time strategy game set in space ever made. Others have come and gone, but I always go back to Homeworld. Aside from being a good game in general, its story and atmosphere really sell it. I would dare say that without its intriguing, mystical ambiance, it would not be nearly as interesting a game.
As someone who creates worlds and cultures for fun, I appreciate the hard work that goes into the process. People who don’t do world-building (also called geofiction and subcreation) might assume it doesn’t involve much more than assembling a patchwork of cultural traits and drawing a crude map or two. While some projects never get past that stage, many go much further. A world with any amount of effort put into it won’t be a poorly-constructed synthesis of disparate elements, but a consistent, believable place.
That brings me to Homeworld’s universe. Some say it exhibits “aesthetic completion,” meaning its various parts, though abstract, fit together into a consistent whole. Homeworld achieves this by portraying all its graphics in an abstract fashion: battles are fought from a third-person perspective, where you view the ships participating. Because the ships are deliberately alien, there is no “right” way for them to look–as time goes on, they do not appear dated, because they have no real-world counterparts to make a valid comparison.
Naturally, most games also include cutscenes, which are either rendered in the game engine (a la Half-Life) or show up as interstitial CGI sequences. The problem with CGI is that it is expensive and dates quickly. If you don’t believe me, look at the opening sequences for any game made around 2000, and compare it with a new game. Chances are, even the in-game graphics look better than the 5-year-old cutscenes.
Homeworld avoids this issue, again, through abstraction. Instead of expensive and quickly-outdated CGI cutscenes, animatics were used. An animatic is essentially a storyboard that uses simple techniques to illustrate motion: panning over an image, or moving parts of it. Homeworld’s animatics are black-and-white, adding to the epic, historical feel of the game itself. Like the rest of the game, they do not illustrate people (with one understandable exception), but ships, cities, and technological artifacts. Once again, because everything illustrated is intentionally alien, the images never appear dated or incomplete.
The aesthetic cohesion doesn’t stop with the graphics. The sound also refuses to recall a particular era. Ships sounds are fairly generic–bullets, beams, explosions. Radio chatter is calm and serene. The music is ambient, often with a Celtic or Middle Eastern motif. Wordless vocals enhance several of the tracks. In fact, my favorite is the song played when the Kadeshi confront your fleet. It’s hard to explain how a song with a man humming can actually be ominous, but it is.
The developers of Homeworld originally wanted to make a Battlestar Galactica game. When they failed to secure that license, they came up with Homeworld, which has a similar story, but a completely different tone. The music and imagery, as well as some of the missions, conspire to lend a mystical feel to the proceedings–a sense of history being fulfilled. One of the designers discussed how the mysticism implied in the Homeworld games helps give them their timeless feel, and I am inclined to agree.
Even with all this talk of aesthetics and artistic themes, we’re still talking about what is a really good game. If the story doesn’t intrigue you at all, you would do well the pick up the game anyway, especially if you’re an RTS fan. There are copies you can find via Froogle, or you can try Homeworld: Cataclysm (which is a “standalone expansion”) or Homeworld 2, which is a lot like the original. If you can appreciate a game more because of its gameplay and story than because of its graphics, you should give this one a shot. And hey, it’s a bargain title these days…