1996. Enter WarCraft II. Or… more specifically, WarCraft II‘s map editor. Or even more specifically, the map editor for WarCraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal — the expansion to the original game, which was the version of it that I owned. Beyond the Dark Portal came out in 1996, a year after OG WarCraft II, which conveniently allows me to sneak it onto this list!
I’ve told this story a little out of order. The journey that started as a taste of creation in the early 1990s with SimCity — and ultimately led to creating full game mods in the 2000s with Doom — was helped along considerably in the intervening years by the one-two punch of Stonekeep and WarCraft II.
Stonekeep had just taught me to love fantastical, fictional worlds — when all of a sudden WarCraft II came on the scene and gave me the tools, however limited, to create them! The editor included with the game was simplistic at best; it allowed you to create maps, place buildings and soldiers, and assign them to factions. Aaand that was about it. Briefings can’t be written, victory conditions can’t be set, and the AI can’t be given any direction.
The map editor allowed me to create little glimpses of my world, but it wouldn’t let me tell the stories about that world that I wanted to. So I had to improvise — and I turned… to Microsoft Word.
Every map I ever made for WarCraft II was accompanied by a Word document briefing, explaining the setting, the situation, the characters, and objectives aside from “kill everything” which players would have to complete before I’d let them end the map. And by “players” I mean the one or two friends I subjected these maps to whenever they came over to my house.
I must have ended up with a story that took place over the course of at least 30 maps and their companion Word docs. It was a story about a war, not surprisingly, but to dream up that story I had to flex my world-building chops maybe for the first time. I had to think of reasons why this war was happening, who the major players were, what the world had looked like before the war and what it would look like afterward.
It’s not the path most storytellers take, I’m sure: learning some of the key skills of the trade while making maps for an RTS. But through WarCraft II is how I learned to think about the bigger picture in a fictional setting. It’s how I came to understand that the backdrop, the history, the reasons behind a story are just as important as the story itself.