Overwatch Analysis – On Storytelling

I like Overwatch. I think I’ve mentioned that in the past. It’s the first multiplayer first person shooter I’ve genuinely loved and I’m waiting for the launch next week on the 24th, the same day I return to streaming. Coincidence? Maaaaybe…

But that’s not what I’m going to talk about today. This time I want to focus on the story, characters and the storytelling—or lack thereof to be honest—of this new Blizzard Entertainment IP.

We’re used to seeing the big epic stories in Diablo, Warcraft and Starcraft happen in-game, with the heroes and setting evolving as we play. Yes, there have short stories, comics, manga and more in these universes, but the core storytelling has always been in the games we play. Overwatch changes this, by giving us a continuity and story not represented in the game but outside it. This approach will remind many of Destiny, how it lacked story but had plenty of lore hidden in its online cards. So too does Overwatch give you online sources of lore, including short stories, comics and videos.

In part this is due to the nature of the game as it would restrict the team-compositions if they kept things in line with their universe, if the enmity between Reaper and Winston and Tracer and Widowmaker made it impossible for them to be on the same team. This isn’t an MMO so these story elements wouldn’t enhance the experience but hinder it. For Overwatch, Blizzard went with gameplay as the first priority, though being who they are, they couldn’t resist building this great universe around it.

But the question is, if the story isn’t important in the game and in-universe events don’t affect your experience in any meaningful way…then what’s the point? That is perhaps the most difficult question. These beautifully crafted video shorts and comics, what are they for?

The point, for me, is World Building. These shorts give us characters we like beyond their skills. These stories and the lore give them personalities we can relate to, they ground the over the top action in very human characters.

Beyond that, Overwatch’s character design is lore-driven. Take the recent controversy regarding Tracer’s victory pose. The major gripe people had was not the over-sexualisation but the fact that it didn’t match Tracer’s characterisation. It didn’t go with her personality. Widowmaker has the same pose, but it does match her femme-fatale vibe. Unlike other games where the mechanics drive the design of each character and the story comes in later, in Overwatch that personal story can be the starting point. Overwatch Designer Jeffrey Kaplan explained in an interview with PCGames N: “We have a couple of ways where the ideas come from. So we have our creative director, Chris Metzen, who is like, ‘This is a character I’ve been dreaming of for years, and I can’t wait to bring it to the life in Overwatch.’ We’ve got guys like the concept artist, Arnold Tsang, who one day will draw, say, Hanzo, and say, ‘Well, I don’t know what he does, but we’re gonna make that’. And then we have guys like our lead hero designer, Jeff Goodman, who will purely mechanically come up with a hero. He’ll say ‘I want a hero who can teleport short distances, and can recall later. I don’t know who this hero is, who they look like or their backstory.”

But it’s not just the heroes. The environments we play in, he mission maps, they all come from the stories we see on their site. Take Hanamura, one of the Assault maps I most often saw in the beta tests, and recently featured in the short “Dragons.” This beautiful Japanese location was once the home of Hanzo and Genji’s family, and was shows in the short, every year Hanzo breaks in to honour his brother. Watchpoint Gibraltar is home to Winston’s lab and made an appearance in the first of the video shorts. These places have meaning in the overall world of Overwatch and as the game moves along, I am confident that these story events we see outside the game will continue to influence the content, with new locations, characters and mission objectives.

Finally, Overwatch lore is there for people like me, the diehard Blizzard fans, the ones that want to know everything about this new world, the ones who’ll pick up those tiny details in the maps and geek out. We’re the ones who care about Widowmaker’s story and how poignant her monologue is in her animated short. Though I’m sure I’m the only one complaining that Hanzo and Genji spoke English during this latest short instead of Japanese—which would’ve made sense for two Japanese characters meeting in Japan.

And even for ‘regular’ players, the optional stories are the for them to find. Much like in From Software games, it’s up to each player how much they want to dive into the universe. Will they read all the character bios and the different origin stories, follow the universe’s events, or will they just play and have a good time without worrying too much about the overarching plot? It’s up to them.

What do you think about Blizzard keeping the lore and stories of Overwatch outside of the game? Is it a Destiny-level mistake to keep the lore outside the game, or do you think they can pull this off successfully? Do we trust Blizzard?

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I love everything readable, writeable, playable and of course, edible! I search for happiness, or Pizza, because it's pretty much the same thing! I write and ramble on The Mental Attic and broadcast on my Twitch channel, TheLawfulGeek

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