Watching the first trailer for Overwatch in 2014, I was instantly enthralled by the story it promised. What was this shooter with a bright, hopeful aesthetic, in which a sentient gorilla fights alongside a quick-witted teleporting Brit? It was hard not to be excited about something so refreshingly new – especially as the trailer hinted Overwatch would have all the narrative depth and detail Blizzard is famous for.
I wasn’t the only one fascinated by this story; an eight-year-old approached one Blizzard developer right after the trailer aired at BlizzCon, wanting to know what the deal was with Winston and Reaper, simply because of how angry the giant gorilla got when Reaper stood on his glasses.
In the two years since launch, Blizzard has demonstrated through CGI trailers, comics, and the game itself that its FPS does indeed have an incredibly elaborate backstory, the complex web of relationships, factions, and world events of which stretch back at least 60 in-game years.
However, though this story exists, it only seems to be properly digested by those dedicated to trawling through online forums. In fact, there are 35 million people playing this game, and I would bet only a fraction of them could adequately describe the central story of Overwatch, let alone the deeper backstories of the characters and places.
This isn’t necessarily a failing of the game. Rather, Blizzard’s stealth roll-out of and continued work on the Overwatch story could be seen as one of its many successes. I believe the subtle and flexible storytelling approach of the development team has contributed greatly to the success of the game, for several reasons.
Firstly, it has removed story as a barrier to entry for new players. You can jump straight into the game without knowing a single thing about it, and not feel alienated by your unfamiliarity with the finer points of the world lore and character stories. But you still feel like you are engaging in a world rich with both, even if you don’t know what they are. This intrigue possibly even compels you to stay engaged with the game in a way it having all the blanks filled by cutscenes or text screens would not.
The development team has done a great job of laying out just enough information to engage players and keep them invested, but without drowning them in details all at once. The CGI trailers are a great example of this, each a well-crafted and illuminating wedge of story. Alongside information gleaned from within the game, these trailers allow players to understand a few key parts of the game’s lore, even if they can’t piece it all together. For example, anyone who has watched Bastion’s cinematic trailer understands that there was a massive war in which the heroes of the game fought against armies of Bastion-style robots, yet they may not understand why.
But for those players who want to fill in these blanks, it is possible to dive deep into comics, wikis and forums. There are countless sites dedicated to compiling and understanding the endless lore of World of Warcraft, and now we are seeing this same culture emerge around Overwatch. Blizzard specialises in interconnected narratives, and loves presenting key story elements for fans to piece together.
What is special about this approach is that it offers fans a sense of ownership and control over the direction the story takes and, to a degree, the characters and lore itself. For instance, just after the launch of Overwatch, Blizzard cancelled a series of comics it was developing because the fans had interpreted the game’s characters in a way it hadn’t expected, and the studio wanted the game’s storytelling to match the fans’ interpretation instead of its own.
Though this approach to narrative has been successful in bringing in new players and engaging more dedicated fans, Blizzard recognizes that there is room for improvement, and believes more can be done without upsetting the current equilibrium of gameplay and narrative.
The spearhead of this narrative push is the newly announced Overwatch Archives mode. Last year, Blizzard introduced us to the game’s first piece of PvE story content with Uprising. Now, that event has been placed into Archives, a mode through which players can experience key stories from the Overwatch lore. And alongside the launch of Archives comes the second of these stories, Retribution.
Like the game’s CGI trailers, these Archive missions highlight a key wedge of the Overwatch story, but still require players to search further afield to understand how that story fits into the larger narrative. However, a cool feature of these missions is that more dialogue lines are unlocked the more you play them, and the better you will understand the mission and characters involved in it.
At the announcement of Retribution last week, Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan said that his development team is “very curious about PvE”, and is working on learning how to do it better. They have already learnt a lot about interactive storytelling from Uprising, and that knowledge has shaped Retribution. For instance, he doesn’t think players fully understood the moment in Uprising where standing on a switch shut down anti-aircraft guns. As a result, Retribution leans more into more effective avenues of storytelling – primarily, dialogue between characters.
Kaplan also admitted he thinks Blizzard failed to make some aspects of the storytelling clear enough, especially in articulating where trailers and maps sit on the game’s timeline. He points out that the “Rise & Shine” and “Honor and Glory” cinematics both flesh out the present-day events of the game, but that many viewers did realise. Likewise, he thinks many players don’t know that when playing the game’s Watchpoint: Gibraltar map, they are experiencing the moment in which Overwatch communications are brought back online. This leads immediately to the game’s opening cinematic in which Winston puts out a call to the scattered members of Overwatch to reunite and make a difference. “Sorry if we haven’t done a good enough job of making that clear,” Kaplan said.
Ultimately, I believe the rollout and execution of the Overwatch story has been very successful, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways of making it even more so. Specifically, the divide between the players who know nothing about the story and those that know it intimately needs to be bridged, but Archives mode coupled with clearer story beats in the game’s maps will address this. Even so, I recommend diving down the rabbit hole that are the Overwatch comics, wikis and forums, because the depth they add – even to quickplay matches – is remarkable.
◆ Baz travelled to Los Angeles courtesy of Blizzard.