A visual novel is the most fun way to enjoy competitive StarCraft

Early in SC2VN, a free visual novel about trying to become a pro StarCraft 2 player in the game's early days in Korea, a character named Jett poses the question that SC2VN will spend most of its length trying to answer.

"Why do you want to be better at StarCraft?"

Jett is the resident hardass-with-a-heart-of-gold in SC2VN, which tends to paint its characters in broad strokes. She wants the main character, Mach, to have an answer to this question before she agrees to help Mach practice.

It's a question that most serious StarCraft fans have probably asked themselves at one point or another. Because despite being an affectionate and somewhat idealized portrait of the early days of the Wings of Liberty progaming scene, SC2VN does not pull any punches when it comes to the emotional toll of playing StarCraft at a high competitive level. It might also be one of the most insightful critiques of the game and the subculture that grew up around it, a story that's as much about StarCraft's eventual decline as it is about its rise.

SC2VN is about an aspiring western pro player, Mach, who is trying to make a name for himself or herself during the early days of Wings of Liberty. The game opens as Mach fails to qualify for VSL, a fictionalized version of the premier StarCraft 2 league in Korea, and confronts the very real possibility of returning home a failure to a chorus of I-told-you-sos.

But Mach's life is changed forever after meeting a friendly Korean Terran player named Accel, who immediately recognizes Mach's talent and offers mentoring. In no time at all, Mach has been pulled into the highest echelons of the StarCraft 2 scene, helping big-name players form a new team and recruiting up-and-coming stars from around the Korean ladder. Eventually, Mach is pulled into a grudge match against an arrogant Brood War legend, with the fate of Mach's new team riding on the outcome.

The real conflict, however, is inside Mach's head. Mach is scared of failure, alienated from friends and family back home, and plagued by doubts. Most importantly, even as the game begins, Mach has moved beyond the point where StarCraft 2 is fun.

"SC2VN does not pull any punches when it comes to the emotional toll of playing StarCraft at a high competitive level."

Jett's question, why do you want to be better at StarCraft, only gets more resonant as the game continues. It's revealing that the smartest and perhaps most talented character in the story, a reclusive amateur named Reva, eventually reveals that she doesn't actually enjoy playing StarCraft. It's just the only way she sees of becoming a progamer, which seems better than more conventional options, even if she's not sure why.

It's revealing to compare SC2VN with another masterpiece of eSports interactive fiction, Owen Hill's CS Story. CS Story, admittedly, has levity that SC2VN lacks. But it also reflects a different kind of fandom. CS Story is about requited love, where the correct answer is to give in and just play the game you really know you want to play, with all of your friends. SC2VN, on the other hand, is a fundamentally a game of agonizing, lonely self-doubt.

I've spent a good portion of the last two years following professional StarCraft and talking to players, and while SC2VN is certainly full of broad, archetypal characters, a lot of the words that come out of their mouths are not so very far from the things I've heard in countless interviews. Even among its greatest practitioners, StarCraft is a game to be loved, but not necessarily enjoyed.

SC2VN has a fairy-tale ending, if you are a virtuous progamer and only play standard macro games rather than resorting to dishonorable, exploitative ‘cheese’ plays. Spoilers: Mach defeats the villain and joins a new team with all of Mach's new StarCraft friends.

But what's really remarkable about SC2VN is the fact that it paints a loving-yet-unsparing portrait of StarCraft 2 at its highest levels. SC2VN tells us that StarCraft is a beautiful, demanding game whose victories are some of the sweetest you can imagine… when it's not busy making you hate yourself.

When Jett asks, "Why do you want to be better at StarCraft?" she's not just asking a question, but also answering why so many people eventually quit.