I have got a real problem with Overwatch. Do not get me wrong, I love the gameplay. Matches go on a little longer than I would like but the game features the stunningly fast and smooth mechanics I have come to prefer in my first-person shooters. So even in the face of having a problem with Overwatch, I still play it. I just need to get this issue off my chest and then we can all go back to cursing out Bastion for winning Play of the Game again. Okay, here goes…I really dislike how much Overwatch’s gameplay is inconsistent with its lore.
Overwatch does not have a single-player campaign but it still delivers a compelling story told through the web comics, animated shorts, and in-game settings. Prior to the events of the game, a group of heroes come together to form an elite fighting force called Overwatch. They deal with both secret and impossible missions during a robotic uprising called the Omnic Crisis. Post Omnic Crisis, the group is forced to disband. Although several of the heroes go on to secretly continue protecting people whenever and wherever they can (like Tracer and Mercy), others go on to become toughened vigilantes (like Soldier 76), recluses (like Winston), outlaws (like McGree and Reinhardt), or mercenaries (like Reaper).
So when the world reaches a tipping point and is poised to devolve into another Omnic Crisis, the once great heroes of Overwatch are nowhere to be seen. They are broken shells of their former selves, scattered across the globe, and occasionally in bitter conflict with one another. Winston decides to form a new, secret Overwatch that is composed of a mix of old faces and new heroes. It is at this point in the narrative that the game’s “plot” begins. Winston’s new Overwatch is both dealing with the old Overwatch members that are proving to be troublesome and fighting against the rising resentment between Omnics and people whilst Reaper has begun recruiting his own collection of powerful fighters like Widowmaker to take out his former friends.
So I ask you, how can I jump into a game of Overwatch, play as Tracer, and be partnered with Reaper and Widowmaker to take on Winston and Reinhardt? Why would a hero side with two villains to kill two of her oldest friends? Especially Winston, whom Blizzard has done all but say out loud is Tracer’s best friend? Am I supposed to pretend that between the last animated short and this online match, Tracer has fallen to the dark side and now hates Winston enough to strap a mine to him? That Reaper and Widowmaker were double-agents all along and they had a mission to out the true traitors of Overwatch: a murderous ape and a man with a very big hammer? Blizzard has created this rich lore around its newest IP, with backstories, motivations, and moralities for each of their characters that make absolutely no sense in the context of the game. Further conundrums are created when accounting for Overwatch’s lack of mortality. Heroes continuously respawn throughout the match after they have died. Unless someone like Mercy reaches someone in time, none of them should be able to just come back to life again and again and again.
Overwatch may exist in an alternate future reality of Earth but it is still Earth. Overwatch’s world possesses the same universal laws that we have. If Tracer kills Widowmaker and Mercy does not reach her in time, then Widowmaker should be dead for the rest of the battle. Death is a very real part of Overwatch’s world and yet the game does not acknowledge it. We have seen characters die in the animated shorts and web comics and they do not spontaneously resurrect in a couple of seconds so why does the video game get special treatment? Giving all players on both sides infinite respawns for a single match goes against the very type of emotional conflict Blizzard is trying to write and breaks the game’s immersion.
“Stop overanalyzing it, it’s just a game!” I hear you cry. “It doesn’t have to make sense. Even if it did, trying to fit a narrative around a completely multi-player game is too hard.” Well then how come so many other developers have been able to make games in the same genre as Overwatch and still maintain their universe’s lore while giving us fun gameplay? In Team Fortress 2, each of the soldiers are given their own personalities but outside of wearing red or blue, none of them have any specific allegiance. They also don’t have clear-cut backstories, so a Red Heavy and Blue Heavy can be two separate people who happen to look alike. These are just soldiers on a battlefield. Respawning isn’t anyone coming back to life, it is just another soldier making it into that particular battle.
Rainbow Six: Siege fixes the respawning issue by chucking it entirely. Dead characters stay dead until the end of a round. Each character is also given a detailed backstory, allegiance, and animated short (just like in Overwatch), but in Siege each character is written in a way that a player can see how that Operator could be both a prime candidate for Team Rainbow and someone who could be seduced into joining a terrorist organization. So it makes sense when two Operators from the same country are facing each other. One joined the multi-national terrorist organization that has the entire world gripped in fear and the other was recruited onto the team tasked with fighting and stopping this new threat. Overwatch does not do this. Instead they create clear-cut sides and alliances among specific characters before seemingly forgetting about them when the game boots up.
I am not trying to pick on Blizzard or Overwatch. There are plenty of other developers and games that also do a poor job when it comes to maintaining the consistency of their world. Both Final Fantasy XV and Dragon Age: Inquisition implemented poorly designed and under-utilized side quests that did not coincide with a world gripped in the looming fear of a growing darkness. Dead Space 3 gave the player too many tools and friendly faces for a world where the player was supposed to be afraid and struggle to survive. And the decision to give Mirror’s Edge Catalyst a skill tree and forego having all abilities unlocked from the start created a feeling of limitation in a story about breaking free and running against the controlling guidelines of an institutional force.
So it is not just Overwatch. This is a theme across many titles. There are hundreds of games where the developer tries to sell a player a certain type of setting or story but then they implement gameplay that goes against that lore. Just because it is done a lot does not make it okay. Developers need to start recognizing this problem. The scriptwriters need to be brought in much earlier in the development process. Too often they are left to try and formulate something cohesive around the mechanics a designer has spent months creating already. The order in which a game’s story and its mechanics are developed does matter. It is both better and easier to create a world and then make a game that fits into that world than to make a game and try to attach a story to it. I know it is easy to just gloss over this process. Gamers usually do not even notice the disconnect between lore and gameplay anyway. Overwatch is fun. Why bend over backwards just to make sure the gameplay and story match up?
Because as both developers and gamers, we have to expect more from our medium. We keep saying that video games are the new kids on the block. Well those kids are teenagers now and they will be sitting at the adults table at Thanksgiving soon enough. We cannot keep pinning our artistic immaturity on inexperience when that really is not the case anymore. Books, films, graphic novels…they have all got their stuff together. When we read a book or watch a movie, we expect a cohesive plot that makes sense and follows all the rules of the particular universe it takes place in. When it does not, we crucify it. We have to hold video games to that same standard or they will never achieve the same artistic standing.
Overwatch almost managed to fit an engaging game into an enthralling narrative. They should have tweaked just a few more things before launching the game. I think something as simple as what Ubisoft does for Assassin’s Creed’s multiplayer or 343 Studios does for Halo’s multiplayer would have sufficed. Making the player an initiate who is using an advanced virtual reality training program in order to enhance their combat effectiveness and skills in the real world fits into Overwatch’s story and futuristic tone. It also explains away why characters die multiple times and keep coming back to life in the same battle. The characters are not really dying, digital avatars are being destroyed. The initiate that the player controls is just spawning another one.
Not only does that make so much more sense (why wouldn’t Winston and Reaper be training possible new recruits to join their respective sides) but it paves the way for Blizzard to then either A) continue Overwatch as as it is now but have the gameplay make sense or B) create a full length movie, book, or Overwatch 2 that focuses on this trainee we are currently in control of. How cool of a story would that be?
Instead Blizzard gives us two conflicting narratives and expects us to believe they both exist in the same world. The animated shorts, web comics, and items scattered throughout Overwatch’s many arenas paint a world on the brink of chaos. People are dying, lines are being drawn, and the friction between machine and man is at a level no one has seen since the Omnic Crisis. A team of heroes and legion of villains are battling it out with neither side gaining any ground. Everyone is racing to both gather resources and recruit the new super-powered individuals that keep appearing before their enemies have a chance to. The game meanwhile decides to showcases an endless battle of hectic quips, repetitive one-liners, and god-like powers where there is no consequence for the heroes’ failure because the characters never die and can switch their allegiances without a care in the world.
It is such a jarring disconnect and one that really holds Overwatch back from being the masterpiece of an expanded universe that I know it can be. Hopefully Blizzard finds a way to somehow explain to us why Overwatch’s multiplayer is designed the way that it is or (even better) they follow Respawn’s example and ignore the inconsistencies with this first installment, improve their already amazing multi-player, and give it a phenomenal single-player experience in a sequel. Designing the mechanics for an actual single-player campaign might help Blizzard realize what they can do to the multi-player to fix it into Overwatch’s overall narrative. But for now, I guess I will just have to sit back and try to puzzle together which story Blizzard is trying to tell.