Overwatch, launched just a month ago, is a new MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) in which teams of six human-controlled players battle six-person teams controlled by humans or the computer, your choice. Each player chooses one of 21 different playable characters, each fitting one of four general categories: offense (killing), defense, support (healing), or tank (absorbing damage). If you play video games at all, you’ve heard of it. Look how completely it’s dominating the sales charts this week!
One obsessed player reached level 100, after that many hours of play, within Overwatch’s first week live. That’s over 13 hours a day and a whole lot of Red Bull.
I want to advance the argument that Overwatch is so popular, and so fiercely loved, not despite but in fact because of its systematic exclusion of any coherent story.
Most of us are pretty well adjusted to the idea that complex, compelling stories can be told in the medium of the video game. Tons of interesting books have been written on the subject of video game storytelling, from both “how to” and analytical angles. The hobby may have begun story-free—why and in what dimension are contestants playing Pong?—but now basically any game universe you can name is rich, deep, old, and filled with lore.
In contrast, this is all Blizzard has to say about Overwatch at the game’s official website:
“Soldiers. Scientists. Adventurers. Oddities.
In a time of global crisis, an international task force of heroes banded together to restore peace to a war-torn world: OVERWATCH.
Overwatch ended the crisis, and helped maintain peace in the decades that followed, inspiring an era of exploration, innovation, and discovery. But, after many years, Overwatch’s influence waned, and it was eventually disbanded.
Now, conflict is rising across the world again, and the call has gone out to heroes old and new. Are you with us?”
So, to attempt the impossible and construct a backstory from this sketchy premise:
1) Okay, we’re in the future, I get that. In this future, a group called Overwatch took on…the whole world? “To restore peace”—by fighting every army/group that was fighting, in the whole world? Killing for peace? And then this group faded into obscurity? There was a multiple-decades-long time of peace after that? It worked? And now there’s not peace again? Why, exactly? “Conflict is rising” why, again? The combat is between individuals—what about weapons of mass destruction? What about good old-fashioned bombs? How does six-on-six combat over artificially created short-term objectives bring peace?
2) “The call has gone out to heroes old and new.” Who sent this call, Overwatch itself? On TV, the internet, movie trailers, what? Now, as a person on our home version of Earth playing Overwatch, I’m pretending to be one of these future heroes “old or new.” In other words, Overwatch isn’t recruiting me, Brian Cowlishaw; it’s recruiting Torbjorn, or Mercy, or Zenyatta. I, Brian, pretend to be that existing character for a while. So I’m not being recruited as a new one. This “heroes old and new” phrasing, then, doesn’t quite cohere. Which playable characters are old, and which ones are new? In other words, when I play as Torbjorn, was he one of the original peacemakers, or is he a new recruit to Overwatch? Does that matter? Gameplay says no: although you gain levels with play, you only earn new costumes and other cosmetic frills as rewards; a level 1 player and a level 100 player of the same character have exactly the same equipment, skills, and statistics. The museum in this game trailer features—both in the exhibits and in the action that breaks out—only “old,” established playable characters.
Now, Kirk McKeand’s article in the Telegraph claims that there is a backstory, told in “free comics, news articles, and…animated videos put out by Blizzard.” “Dragons” does have 8.5 million views on YouTube. But this sort of backstory is clearly retrofitting.
For example, in the case of defense character Mei, the developers said this:
“We knew we wanted an ice character and all these snow and ice-related abilities, because the kit is sort of obvious, really fun and enticing,” recites [Senior Game Designer Michael] Chu. “So I was thinking about her character and thinking about what kind of adventure this character would go on. And at the time she didn’t have any particular personality set, so it seemed like – okay, ice and snow, something like an adventure… climbing in the Himalayas, or whatever. And then we got this sort of weather manipulation stuff and we thought ‘what if she’s a scientist – this plucky, nerdy scientist kind of character’. When [we thought] about Mei having her own story and game, we’d think ‘well, she’s got all these cold abilities, so perhaps she was cryogenically frozen for a while’. So when I think of her, I always think of her in that sense – you imagine her using her ice wall to get to hard-to-reach places, I imagine she’s good at climbing, good in cold environments.”
That’s not a backstory. The answer to the question “Why does Mei have a freeze ray and the ability to create an ice wall?” is not character or plot-related. 1) The developers “wanted an ice character”—an ice character, any, and so “okay, ice and snow, something like an adventure…climbing in the Himalayas, or whatever” (emphasis added). Her milieu doesn’t even matter to her creators because it doesn’t matter, period. 2) The developers needed a character to fit abilities they had already invented—“we got this sort of weather manipulation stuff and [then]…” Even fighting games (Mortal Kombat, Soul Calibur, Tekken, etc.) generally create characters in the other direction: abilities flow logically from the look, motivation, and/or personality of the fighter. Tekken’s Roger, a kangaroo, throws a variety of showy punches and wears boxing gloves. Story matters even in fighting games, too: in Soul Calibur, defeating the full gauntlet of challengers unlocks a video revealing why your champion fights and what happens after s/he wins.
The most persuasive proof that story purposely doesn’t matter is in the gameplay.
1) You can choose any combination of characters you want to. Even a rudimentary “good vs. evil” storyline would set limits here: if you’re playing the good guys, you can only choose good heroes, and so on. Overwatch pits anybody and everybody against anybody and everybody: we’re all killers, all heroes, all fighters. We all want to win, whoever “we” might be. (See #4 below.)
2) You can have multiple instances of characters on one or both sides. You could even have six of the same character on your side if you were feeling goofy. Normally you’d want a balance of character archetypes, and the game will offer suggestions along those lines: “not enough offense,” “no support heroes.” But you’re free to ignore them. A storyline that can accommodate a balanced, carefully chosen team exactly as easily as an all-robot or all-dwarf party, is not a storyline.
3) You can, and indeed tactically speaking sometimes should, switch characters in the middle of a match, as often as you want. We started off without a healer? Whoops, let me switch to Lucio. We have too many snipers? Someone play a tank. If that were a story, it would be awfully confusing, and it would really be a story about the mastermind “coach” making the switches. We’re the players, the team.
4) Every moment of every match focuses on two goals so constantly and insistently that you can’t really think of anything else: win the match, by killing and avoiding being killed; and try to rack up impressive stats so you will be voted “Player of the Game.” In the mid- to long term, you aim to level up, so you can show off a new “spray” (in-game graffito), costume, or winning pose. That’s it. You’re not, as in role-playing game, trying to collect keys, or become a dragon lord, or unravel an ancient mystery. Kill or be killed. Protect this arbitrary corner of the map for five minutes. Take over the enemy team’s stronghold. Don’t worry about why, because that totally doesn’t matter.
These four items illustrate how minute-to-minute gameplay in Overwatch does not depend at all upon story. The items are also the qualities that make Overwatch immersive and addictive. I submit that this is not a coincidence. Overwatch is popular exactly because it is constructed and arranged in such a way as to get players competing on fair and intense terms, not giving one damn about the plot. Prepare to attack!
the many characters of Overwatch