Overwatch has won acclaim for its fantastic gameplay, but one writer looks at how the multiplayer shooter's understated storytelling is an important part of the game's brilliance.
At first glance, Overwatch appears to be little more than an absolutely frantic shooter that involves a bunch of mismatched characters going head-to-head for some unknown reason. With virtually the entire backstory of the game being distributed by other forms of media, such as trailers and comics, Overwatch could have very well been all style and no substance. Thankfully, things didn't pan out that way, and Overwatch's lore has been told in-game in such a way that you don't really need to watch those cinematic trailers or read those comic books to understand what's going on (though you really should because they're awesome).
After a couple of hours with the game, you begin to notice that Blizzard has done such a good job at building Overwatch's universe that everything somehow makes sense within its confines. It's a universe where a time-travelling young woman, cyborgs, a genius gorillas, and resurrecting the dead can all co-exist without asking you to unreasonably suspend your disbelief. Digging beyond that and you soon realize that beneath the shooting, the super-intelligent animals, and the anthropomorphic robots, lies a well-fleshed out narrative and universe that's slowly unfolding before your eyes. As awesome as the game's gameplay is, a good portion of Overwatch's success must be attributed to Blizzard's ability to somehow weave in a complex narrative with nary a cutscene or wall of text.
As players rotate through the game's 22 heroes across each of the 12 different maps currently available, each match that's played reveals a tiny piece of what is turning out to be one of the more detailed stories in recent gaming memory. The storytelling is subtle, unobtrusive, and will most likely be missed the first time around, but it is part of what makes Overwatch such a brilliant game, and why I think it is easily one of the best games of 2016 so far – if not the best.
Given that cutscenes just won't work in a game like Overwatch, Blizzard has had to get creative with what tools it has at its disposal – the characters and the stages. When one takes the time to actually do some proper exploring of each map during the skirmish rounds between competitive play matches, you start to notice Easter eggs and other little details pertaining to a larger narrative.
The burnt arrows and bloodied murals of Hanamura hint at a past feud of some sort (a feud that's explored deeper in Hanzo and Genji's "Dragons" cinematic trailer); the operating machinery in the otherwise snow-swept and partially-abandoned Volskaya Industries suggest that something sinister is coming; and the now-empty dormitories of Watchpoint: Gibraltar, complete with faded photographs, peeling name tags, and leftover belongings, tell of Overwatch's fall from glory and Winston's struggle to bring the group back to its heyday.
Proving that "showing, not telling" is still the strongest form of storytelling, each Overwatch map is like a visual novel full of secrets, and not just mere stages where players push the payload from point A to point B. But while the stages offer up intriguing snippets of the overarching narrative and backstory, it's the characters that help fill in leftover story gaps while simultaneously fleshing out Overwatch's current roster of characters. Blizzard have clearly put a lot of work into developing each Overwatch hero, and every character has a distinct enough personality that you're not going to be mistaking Tracer for Mercy anytime soon.
A large part of what makes each Overwatch character distinct are their wide and varied range of abilities, all of which reflect their temperament. Tracer's time-shifting abilities highlight her easy-going disposition; Lucio's music-centric healing abilities demonstrates his everlasting optimism and his goal of enlivening everyone he meets; and Torbjorn's slightly-unsettling love for his turrets reveals that he is someone with an open-minded approach when it comes to human-robot relationships, something that's rare in Overwatch's universe.
But it's not just character-revealing abilities that Blizzard has excelled at in developing Overwatch's roster of heroes. The developer has also managed to convey the complex web of relationships and dynamics with simple subtext-laced voice lines rather than resorting to cutscenes or walls of exposition.
Not only are partnerships and relationships uncovered naturally in the game's ready-to-battle context - such as Reaper's quip of "Looks like we're working together again" to Widowmaker, which is immediately met by the sniper's equally droll "Let's hope it goes better than the time at the museum" - but this understated approach means that certain character interactions carry more weight than others. Sure it's heartwarming to see old friendships unfold, like when Tracer drops a "Winston! You're an animal!" and for Winston to reply with a deadpan "Empirical evidence suggests I'm a real animal", but it's absolutely intriguing to witness the interactions between enemies.
When Genji utters "I have the upper hand this time, master" after defeating his mentor, Zenyatta, not only do those eight words reveal the dynamic between robot and human-turned-cyborg, but it draws players into Genji's mysterious tragic past. Equally compelling is when you have Genji and Hanzo on the same team and the two brothers have one of a number of brief, but tragic exchanges:
"What's wrong, Hanzo? Don't you recognize me?"
"You may call yourself my brother, but you are not the Genji I knew."
From humorous exchanges between Tracer and, well, everyone, to Soldier 76's frosty yet regretful exchanges with his former best friend Reaper, Blizzard manages to unintrusively deepen each of the game's characters while gently prodding players into uncovering more of Overwatch's world. This is one big reason why earning character skins carry more weight than usual, as a number skins offer up a further glimpse into certain characters' backstory. Some skins offer up a look at a certain ninja before he became a cyborg under the tutelage of Zenyatta, and others show the faces behind the masks of two soldiers and former best friends before their falling out.
This understated way of fleshing out each of the game's characters is also why Overwatch's newest hero, Ana, is able to seamlessly slot into the current roster of heroes.
From what we know, Ana is the mother of Pharah who was presumed dead after a near-fatal encounter with Widowmaker, and is someone who will do what it takes to protect those she loves. But pit mother against daughter in a match, and we get a funny and revealing exchange. When Pharah uses her Barrage ultimate ability, she cries out "Justice rains from above", but for those who have had the chance to cancel out Pharah's Barrage with Ana's own Sleep Dart ultimate ability, the rocketeer's cry is met with her mother's zing of "I think justice could use a little nap". That simple exchange speaks volumes about Ana and Pharah's relationship as mother and daughter, and as individual characters: Pharah is headstrong and overzealous, while Ana more pragmatic and seeks to pacify rather than seek direct confrontations.
All this is to say that Overwatch's narrative isn't brilliant because of the depth of content – though that deserves an honorable mention – but through how it is told. Players who are hooked have the option of digging deeper into Overwatch's lore by reading all the available story material Blizzard has put online. However, players who eschew all supplementary materials will still be able to grasp at what exactly is going on in the game, all without halting Overwatch's unrelenting barrage of fun.
I'm sure that Overwatch isn't the first game to do something like this, but Blizzard's way of blending art design, character abilities, and dialogue is probably the best demonstration of subtle storytelling that I've had the pleasure of experiencing. One thing's for sure, I'm definitely keeping my eye out for all the post-launch Overwatch maps and characters, less so because of the new environments and heroes available to master, but more because I'm eager to see where Overwatch's story and characters will ultimately end up.
Overwatch is now available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.