Overwatch: The Future of Storytelling?

OverwatchCharacters

If you’re one of the estimated 150 million Americans who calls themselves a gamer then chances are good you’re aware that Blizzard’s first new IP in over seventeen years, Overwatch, was released last month. If that prior sentence is completely baffling to you, all you need to know is that a hugely successful video game company released a new game that people have been frothing at the mouth for ever since it was announced.

I was one of those aforementioned frothees which is odd because, on the surface, Overwatch is not the type of game I typically enjoy. I won’t get hyper nerdy on you but the very basic concept around Overwatch is that a team of six players fight another team of six players. Video games are where I usually go to escape the world so I typically avoid any gaming experience that requires me to interact with other people (even on a digital level).

But, Overwatch got its hooks into me. Yes, the gameplay is incredibly fun but not the only, or even main, thing that drew me in. With Overwatch, Blizzard has created a deeply immersive world that audiences are able to engage across multiple types of media…independently or as part of a larger narrative. In my opinion, it’s one of the first times that cross media storytelling has been done on a masterful level.

So how did they do it?

The first key component is the overarching plot. It isn’t a hugely complicated world full of twists and turns, bizarre races or complicated ideas. It’s fantastical but identifiable and, in a lot of ways, just another take on a story audiences have seen before. Good guys fight bad guys and save the day.

The closing shot from the announcement trailer.

There’s plenty of flavor and fun to make the story interesting but the premise is basic. There’s something genius about that simplicity…everyone wants to believe they could be a hero if they needed to be. It appeals to all of us. People naturally want to place themselves in the Overwatch story and Blizzard plays this to great effect. The announcement trailer ends with one of the main characters telling two young boys that, “…the world could always use more heroes.” The last image shows the two boys standing heroically in front of a backdrop showcasing the heroes of the past.

The drive to connect the audience to the story of Overwatch continues to play out in the characters that Blizzard has developed. They’re a group that could have easily been nothing more than basic stereotypes; the soldier, the ninja, the cowboy, etc. It’s apparent though that Blizzard took great pains to create characters that are more than flashy pixels on a monitor and have something more substantial for players to connect with.

To start, the nationalities of the characters is extremely diverse, something fairly rare in the video game world. Of the twenty-one playable characters, fourteen countries are represented: America, Australia, Brazil, China, Egypt, England, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Sweden and Switzerland. (Plus an ape named Winston who is based out of Gibraltar but was born on the moon…and a robot named Bastion who has no home.)

Beyond the global makeup of the characters, Blizzard has made the bold decision to tackle real world issues with their pantheon of heroes. Zarya, a Russian soldier with bright pink hair, is a physically imposing female character that was created specifically because of players’ requests for greater diversity in female body types. She’s a far cry from your average hourglass shaped fantasy heroine. Blizzard has also confirmed that there would be several gay characters in the game…including possibly current characters which suggests we won’t just see a stereotypical, over the top, sitcom-esque caricature.

Zarya, the physically imposing Russian soldier.

For myself, one of the most touching inclusions in the game is the character Symmetra. It was recently implied that the brilliant, Indian born architect may be autistic after a story was released in which she questioned where she fit on the spectrum. It’s real world portrayals like these that make Overwatch’s story even more powerful and feel more personal.

Appealing plot, strong world building and relatable characters are key but they alone aren’t what give Overwatch the potential it I believe it has to grow into a multi-medium juggernaut. Currently, Blizzard seems to have built these separate story components in a way that stand alone but amplify each other…a feat that past cross media endeavors have failed to achieve.

With Overwatch, there’s a beautiful interconnectedness that occurs with how Blizzard weaves its story. The game itself has no traditional plot…most of the narrative has been delivered in animated shorts or comics. You can easily watch one of the shorts, enjoy watching Widowmaker and Reaper try to pull off a museum heist, and get a full experience. However, if you also play the game, you’ll also get to see that story expand when the two characters encounter each other and comment on their failed heist.

Character interactions in the game constantly reference backstory and history that shorts / comics expand on…you don’t need the history to enjoy the game and you don’t need the game to enjoy the shorts / comics but both amplify each other to create an even more immersive world. Blizzard has even gone as far as hinting at future characters in the game itself. During the Beta, wanted posters started appearing in game for two Australian criminals. Then Blizzard released a news broadcast online detailing the mayhem caused by them before announcing the new characters (Junkrat and Roadhog). Their story later continued in an online comic.

A news report detailing the crimes of Junkrat and Roadhog.

The possibilities for expanding the world of Overwatch are endless and I think Blizzard is just getting started. There’s a rich world and I’d love to see more of it, even beyond the main characters themselves, so here’s my pitch for one of the next Overwatch lore projects…Blizzard, I’m absolutely available if you’d like to develop this further.

I would develop something that can be truly cross media that ties together to tell an overall story. Start with a narrator, maybe it’s one of the boys from the announcement trailer, and they’re piecing together stories and reports of a movement that begun in the wake of Overwatch’s reappearance. This group isn’t made up of warriors or fighters but kids who were inspired by the Overwatch heroes and have decide to make it their mission to those who have to live with the fall out of these epic battles.

Then members start disappearing and it’s a race to discover why.

I’d tell the story over time, revealing documents and clues as the narrator “discovers” them. Transcripts of interviews, social media posts, witness videos, hacked personal journals, news reports, military briefings, crime scene reports, etc… Let it unfold and let the Overwatch audience play a part…let them find clues online or in the game that help the narrator solve the mystery.

Maybe, in the end, it leads to a new hero reveal (a member of the movement perhaps) or teases a new map. The end to the mystery could be reward enough with little in-game easter eggs being the extra bonus for those who play along.

What I find exciting is the chance to tell the stories of regular people, the everyday heroes.

Seriously Blizzard, if that sounds too complicated I’d also be totally down to do some short stories…or a novel…I’d even write some flavor text for Overwatch email blasts...I just want to dip my toe into your new world while you change the future of storytelling for the better.