Overwatch: What It Means To Tell A Story Without a Narrative

The byline says Tom, but in fact this is the second post by Special Guest Jess, who you might have heard on the recent Overwatch episode of the podcast! Read her previous guest blog, on Gone Home, over here. It’s real good, and so is this.

Storytelling is not something you usually think is high on the priority list with first-person shooter games without a single-player campaign or concrete plotline, but Blizzard’s 2016 title Overwatch is a lesson in showing, not telling. The game’s primary modes do not move along a plot, nor do they reveal the story through unlocked cutscenes. Nearly all the storytelling elements are littered throughout as rewards for levelling up: unlocked items, maps, visuals and voice lines of the characters, as well as a whole stack of tangential media including comics and animated shorts. The type of gameplay does not lend itself to storytelling, nor do games of this genre usually tell stories (without a single player campaign) to the extent that Overwatch does. You get the feeling that it comes with a backpack full of lore, a sense of history and time, without ever progressing time or narrative with your player actions.

The most basic and effective storytelling method Blizzard utilises when it comes to the cast of Overwatch is the visual. We learn more about these characters from what they wear (ie what different skins they are given), what kind of body shape they have, their accent, as well as the in-built mechanics like sprays, emotes and highlight intros. You can learn that Mei is Chinese from her sprays, and her placement as the face of the seasonal event for the Lunar New Year.

mei

You can learn that Soldier 76 was a member of the original Overwatch team when he was a much younger man with the Strike-Commander Morrison skin that comes with the Origins or Collector’s Editions of the game

Strike-commander.jpg

This has since been broadened to include the other original Overwatch members who have their own uniform skins (Mercy, Reinhardt, Tracer, Ana and Torbjorn during the Uprising event, as well as the Blackwatch members Reaper [as Gabriel Reyes], Genji and McCree). These skins give the player lots of new information about the characters: Ana didn’t always have an eyepatch, Reaper was once a human and has not always been a semi-corporeal gothic nightmare. This reveal is particularly pertinent as very little of the tangential media refers to Gabriel Reyes and Reaper as the same person, this is entirely connected by this skin being available for Reaper. Reaper’s bio on the official Blizzard site refers to him only to the “ghostly member of Talon who is hunting for Overwatch members.”

We can also gather different things about different characters’ personalities from victory poses, not to mention body types and outfits. Widowmaker is mysterious and threatening, Tracer is spirited and light, Symmetra focused and serious.

mei

Acknowledging the controversy around one of Tracer’s original victory poses, I think the problem was mainly that the original pose was not only exploitative of Tracer’s… assets but also that it was exploitative for no narrative payoff. Her new pose is not much more demure but does express much more personality. It’s a pose that gives the player information about this character, more than just showing off her perfectly rendered ass crack (quick note: Widowmaker has a pose that is eerily similar to Tracer’s original one but evokes a “sultry seductress” vibe that fits her personality much better).

There is a problem that runs through the women of Overwatch, as will be evident from the examples above, which is that most of them are incredibly similar body types. Out of a total cast of 24, eleven are women. Of that eleven, eight are slim and nine are young (leaving aside Orisa, who is not slim, but I have no idea how age would come into play when judging a robot). There is slight variation in terms of heights and build but you have to be looking really, really closely. The male characters have much more variety. Where the characters do have variations is important, though: Zarya’s size and strength is concurrent with her status as a tank (the other female tanks, D.Va and Orisa get their tank status from other things, namely a mech and… being a big robot), Tracer is shorter and more agile for flanking, Mei’s chubbier figure for keeping warm in her Antarctic research outpost. These things make sense visually to the characters’ statuses and roles within the game. The problem is treating the slim/tall body that everything else is a variation of as a neutral starting point.

When we have male omnics and male cyborgs and male ghost/spirit things (or whatever the fuck Reaper is), it’s a shame we didn’t get to see this variety in the female characters at the beginning, but is starting to be addressed by the addition of Orisa. A new female tank introduced in March of this year, Orisa is a welcome addition to the roster not only as a female robot, but a female robot with an intimidating stature, a centaur-esque body and an African accent.

Character skins are some of the players’ favourite things to get as prizes in loot boxes. Lots of them are beautifully intricate and come with accompanying voice lines for added dramatic effect. Many of the skins can give you extra information about the characters that give them reference points within our own world. Lots of the Summer Games skins signify the character’s country of origin (until this event I had assumed Mercy was German but she is, in fact, Swiss!) for example. We have the Lunar New Year skins which include two skins for Mei, displaying traditional Chinese New Year themes and symbols (red/gold colours, etc) and a skin for D.Va where her mech is decorated in traditional New Year decorations, as well as a dress accurate to those worn by actual teenagers in Korea.

As reference points to in-game narratives, we also see a young Genji, fully human and not the cyborg we know in the game, as well as the above-mentioned Overwatch/Blackwatch skins fleshing out the backstories of the cast. There is also a reference to Symmetra’s narrative background in her Vishkar/Architect skin which, along with some voice lines and a couple of physical references in certain maps, alludes to her allegiance to the fictional Vishkar Corporation. The comic issue that explores this background is a wonderful look into Symmetra’s story, explaining her unblinking faith and focus in achieving her goals. I highly recommend it; all the comics are free to read online. It also poses thematically similar questions as much of the media around the original Overwatch team does: who is good, who is evil, and is there a grey area? If the good guys do bad things, can they still be good guys? Where does accountability enter into talking about superhuman teams that have saved the world?

We see and hear a lot about the Omnic Crisis and yet we know very little about it. A lot of the glimpses we get about the wider discourse around the robotic omnics can be conflicting, evoking an atmosphere of confusion or complication surrounding this big event. In Sombra’s description on the Overwatch website it says that she was orphaned in the aftermath of the Omnic Crisis and goes on to talk about her rise as a prominent hacker against the government and, later, against Volskaya Industries which is known to be anti-omnic. However, on Zarya’s description, it describes a similar upbringing for her amongst the devastation of the Siberian front of the Crisis, and she later goes on to work for Volskaya Industries, vowing to gain strength to help her people recover. These two characters seem to have grown up amidst the same destruction and yet have seemingly differing views on the place of omnics within the world.

Zarya.jpg

The game mechanics ensure that you can have all of these viewpoints on the same team at once. You can have Junkrat and Roadhog, both from a country that was devastated by the Omnic Crisis and who display anti-omnic rhetoric, on the same team as Lucio who, in the waiting room of the Numbani map, will talk about how beautiful it is that humans and omnics can live together peacefully. If you have a Tracer and Widowmaker together in a waiting room, two characters who battle it out in one of the official short animations released at the launch of the game, they will make comments about reluctantly working together. This complex and nuanced look at relations between two different groups of people who were once at odds is expertly peppered throughout the game and the extra media to give enough flavour to enrich the backstory without giving rigid borders for the characters to exist within. Blizzard are aware of their fanbase, and these small moments of story seeping through the cracks are just enough to fan the flames.

The “objectivity” of visual storytelling allows this nuance, these different perspectives to happen simultaneously without a strong narrative to guide you. The lack of a story mode means that you might pick the character you enjoy playing the most before even knowing their backstory or their place within the wider history/lore. The idea of objective storytelling can at its worst present all narratives as equal. In our society, oppression renders this kind of storytelling lazy, inefficient and not reflective of how the world works. However, in the world of Overwatch (a far future quite removed from our reality, with an oppression narrative not easily mapped onto the real world) this “objectivity” presents a sort of historical, top-down view of the world rather than moving the player through the events with a prescribed narrative purpose (it doesn’t tell you who to sympathise with). Characters on either side of the villain/good guy binary get detailed descriptions, lots of unlockables etc (acknowledging here that Tracer, being the agreed-upon mascot of the game, gets many more skins during events, much more than other characters).

mei

Acknowledging the important role that tangential media plays in the storytelling, it can’t be understated how exciting it is to have a queer woman as the mascot of a game as popular as Overwatch. As was revealed in the Christmas comic, Tracer has a girlfriend named Emily who is absolutely definitely her girlfriend and that is not just what women do when they receive gifts. This feels like Blizzard listening to their audience, who have been unrelenting in the creation of queer and erotic fan art of all of your favourites. The lack of direct canonical negation regarding most characters’ sexualities is a hotbed for the production of fan art and fanfiction. Personally, I would recommend checking out any fanworks made by women and absolutely none created by men, as a warning.

Overall, Overwatch has been a refreshing take on the first person shooter with visuals not seen in the genre that often, and a masterclass in non-narrative storytelling. The characters feel so real and detailed in the fantasy-sci fi world that Blizzard have created, the details of which you seem to absorb osmosis-like through the elements delicately and expertly dotted throughout, ultimately creating an immersive experience unrivalled in first-person shooters.

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About Tom

Tom Baker is a freelance culture writer and dog whisperer. More often than not, he's hungry and tired.

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