In the months and weeks leading up to its release, Blizzard Entertainment teased Overwatch as a multiplayer shooter that, while lacking a traditional campaign mode, still featured a cohesive story. A number of fantastic computer-animated short films and digital comics helped bolster that expectation. They offered insight into popular characters such as Tracer and Winston, and gave prospective players a taste of what to expect from the universe of the game itself.
But somehow, that story didn’t actually make into the game. While Overwatch succeeds as an energetic shooter with a cast of great characters, it seems to have forgotten much of its own story in the process.
Can’t we all just be enemies?
“The conflict between Omnics and humans has now claimed over 15,000 lives,” a news anchor says in Overwatch’s first short film, “Recall.” Gorilla scientist Winston watches in anger before eventually initiating an Overwatch recall: His allies are going back into action to put a stop to the war. An attack by the merciless Reaper further validates his decision.
Elsewhere, Talon-assassin Widowmaker sends the world back into all-out war by shooting an Omnic official dead, with Overwatch agent Tracer powerless to stop her. The stage is set for an intense multiplayer shooter where the Overwatch team is called back into action to fight Widowmaker, Reaper, and anyone else who might threaten the peace of planet Earth.
Which is why it’s so weird that Blizzard just has them all fighting each other.
Winston fighting Tracer. Overwatch founder Soldier: 76 fighting the noble Genji. Widowmaker fighting Reaper. Winston fighting another Winston. None of it makes any sense, and while the characterization is definitely welcome in a genre that can boil down to “gruff guy versus gruff guy,” Blizzard has invalidated most of its storytelling by not offering a real explanation for why supposed allies are shooting each other — other than it, of course, being a ridiculous amount of fun.
Blizzard didn’t totally ignore these inconsistencies; it tried to offer a narrative explanation. In an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun, Blizzard designer Michael Chu emphasized that Blizzard has always held a “gameplay first” development philosophy. People should think of Overwatch’s in-game actions as something similar to Captain America: Civil War, he suggested.
They’re all fighting each other. We don’t know why, and it doesn’t really matter.
Had Blizzard only focused on the individual characters’ personalities and abilities in the pre-release materials, this would have been a fine narrative conceit. They’re all fighting each other. We don’t know why, and it doesn’t really matter. But by showing in great detail why Overwatch was recalled and who the team’s enemies are, it feels anti-climactic and a little bit surreal to see these heroes at each other’s throats.
In any event, I strongly disagree that Blizzard has always emphasized gameplay over story. An incomplete list of just Warcraft books includes more than 30 titles. That chance to finally come face to face with Arthas in World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King was a huge draw for the expansion. An enormous film based on the license suggests that Blizzard knows how much people care about its stories. The backlash and negative reviews should help them learn that even more.
An easy way out
I’m fully aware that a large portion of Overwatch players could not care less about the ongoing narrative. Blizzard’s choice to tell the story outside the confines of the game acknowledges this: Just let people get into a match and start shooting without worrying about why they have to do it.
But there’s a way to reconcile the two sides without undermining gameplay or storytelling. If Overwatch (the game) was written as a training simulation to keep agents ready for any impending threat, including the risk of betrayal by a fellow agent or some cloning accident gone horribly wrong, it would account for duplicate characters and the non-canonical battles we’ve seen. This would free up Blizzard to continue telling the ongoing “outside the simulation” story of Overwatch through short films, comics, and long-form media.
It’s been done in multiplayer shooters before. Halo 4, which saw teams of Spartans fighting against each other in massive battles, confined its entire competitive experience to a simulation inside the UNSC Infinity ship. Soldiers were simply keeping their reflexes quick and their shots accurate as they waited for the next attack from the Forerunners or the Covenant. None of it made a canonical impact. The campaign was for the story fans, multiplayer was for the competitive players, and there was never a conflict between the two.
In contrast, Rainbow Six Siege, which, like Overwatch, lacked a traditional campaign, fell into the same narrative trap. Trailers, pre-release videos, and even the game’s opening cinematic got players pumped to take down the mysterious White Mask threat — Ubisoft even hired veteran actress Angela Bassett to lead the team, and she appeared onstage at E3 to discuss the challenges of playing the character. But aside from the tutorial missions and the Terrorist Hunt mode, the game simply matched Rainbow Six operators against each other. Even a simple re-skin of enemies would have saved it from the narrative inconsistencies.
Perhaps my concern is all for naught. Blizzard could be planning an incredible twist that leaves players questioning everything they thought they knew about the Overwatch universe and the characters in it. The Overwatch organization itself could be a lie fabricated by its “members” — a figment of the imagination that plays out in their heads over and over again. Maybe it is a computer simulation, and the developer hasn’t revealed it yet, hoping for players (like me) to question the nature of the game universe first. But given the amount of effort the team has already put into setting up a new world, this seems very unlikely.
Unfortunately, that leaves us with a great game, a great story, and no way to reconcile the two.