How Overwatch’s Gameplay Breaks (or Complicates) Its Narrative

Let’s start this off on the right foot: Blizzard’s lore—even when it’s bad—is kind of really great.

I came to Overwatch after spending some time away from my last bright, colorful sci-fi FPS in the form of Destiny, and wasn’t expecting a ton to grapple with story-wise when I picked it up at my local Fred Myers. Don’t get me wrong, I love Destiny, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hear the phrase “We’ve woken the Hive!” without giggling. Going into Overwatch, I was expecting a similar level of depth.

Maybe they have similar levels of depth, but between five phenomenal short films to introduce major characters and themes, and a collection of characters with genuinely interesting backstories, Overwatch has managed to have more nuance.

Maintaining narrative consistency across multiple outlets is difficult, and Overwatch has done a good job. The creators have been tonally constant, smart, and have even used alternate reality game techniques to tease new hero launches and encourage people to become involved with their lore wherever it may pop up.

The narrative itself goes like this: 30 years before the beginning of the game, a robot uprising called the Omnic Crisis threatened to wipe out humanity. A special task force consisting of people with fantastic abilities to combat the Omnics, and this was the beginning of the team that would later be known as Overwatch. For the most part, this is where most of the heroes in the game come from. There was a power struggle within Overwatch between Jack Morrison, Overwatch’s then-leader and poster boy, and Gabriel Reyes, leader of the covert operations division Blackwatch. Shortly afterwards, Overwatch was disbanded. This is where the beginning of the game finds our heroes: scattered, leaderless, and still trying to do good (or, in the case of Reaper and Widowmaker, maybe not so much good).

If it sounds like a fairly standard story, with a fairly standard conflict, well—it is. However, I enjoy Blizzard’s take on these tropes so much that I don’t particularly care. Almost everything about how Blizzard has handled the narrative of Overwatch is clever—giving just enough information and in-universe flavor for a story-focused gamer like myself to feel engaged, but not so much that a hardcore FPS player can’t skip over and go straight to the game.

The story is there if you want it, and for the most part, it’s pretty enjoyable. I always leave a new scrap of lore info wanting more and ready to queue into my next game while I ponder what it all means.

That leads me to my one major query: if Overwatch is about heroes, many of whom have a similar background and motivations, it’s never actually explained why they’re fighting each other in-game.

There’s never really any context for the purpose behind the in-game matches, but what information is out there is very deliberate. Hints have been dropped here and there in the lore: with payloads implied to be as benign as moving a satellite module on Gibraltar, to the horrific King’s Row payload, which is believed to be an EMP bomb that will wipe out all every Omnic in the neighborhood.

My first instinct was to look at this fairly straightforwardly—the gameplay isn’t canon, which is why you can have two Winstons or three Hanzos in Quick Play. I’m aware that I’m addicted to flavor text. I also know and am okay with not everyone feeling that way! One of the special things about Overwatch is that it’s a great game you can dive into without needing to read a Wheel of Time-length story bible to understand what’s going on—this helps keep the game playable and approachable for the wide audience it currently has.

However, in a game like Overwatch, with lore that is so strongly defined by its characters, and from a company like Blizzard, it does seem like an oversight to have gameplay that isn’t even a little connected to the main story, or, as it is in some cases, actually contradicts the main story.

But does that break the narrative, like I thought when I first started playing, or does it just complicate it?

Taking it at face value: the former heroes of Overwatch are scattered. Winston’s intro video ends with him sending out the signal to re-activate his former teammates from around the globe, but there’s no telling how alliances have shifted since the group was disbanded. At the start of the game, there could be a huge Captain America: Civil War-style conflict going on. We don’t really know why Widowmaker killed Mondatta, or what Reaper’s end-game was when he sought to get the locations of all ex-Overwatch members, and when there’s so much we don’t know, the possibilities are pretty limitless.

When I started asking myself what could move Tracer or even Zenyatta to be part of the attacking team on the King’s Row map (reminder: where players are moving a payload with an EM bomb that will destroy hundreds of Omnics—a blatant act of war), I wasn’t as disappointed with the possibilities as I thought I would be. Maybe Tracer’s being coerced or blackmailed. Maybe Zenyatta is aware that those Omnics are going to stage a massive uprising and kill a bunch of humans the next day. Maybe a rich world for players to examine—or not—is the best story for Overwatch to have because every player is coming up with the motivation that will mean the most to them.

There’s a theory that art isn’t complete until it’s viewed, and perhaps that’s especially true here. Maybe Overwatch isn’t meant to have a complete story until a player picks up a controller and asks, “Why?”

Now, this is all guesswork until we see more from Blizzard about what they consider their canon, but in the meantime, I actually see the immense, quiet value in letting players tell their own stories.

Cora Walker
Cora Walker is a Seattle area editor, writer, MFA student, and canon bisexual. She is currently tormenting her neighbors as she learns to play the violin.

Cora Walker
Cora Walker is a Seattle area editor, writer, MFA student, and canon bisexual. She is currently tormenting her neighbors as she learns to play the violin.

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