Friday, June 03, 2016

Longterm Storytelling

Overwatch is a rousing success for Blizzard, and not in the primary ways that everyone expected.  Yes, the game is being praised for its gameplay, style, audio, music, and Blizzard's may-as-well-be-patented "easy to learn but difficult to master" formula.  However, I feel that there's one certain part of Overwatch where Blizzard took a bit of a gamble, and from what I can tell, it seems to be paying off in spades.  It's also got me thinking about the concept of something I like to call "longterm storytelling", which will be the entire basis for this post.

People are fascinated by Overwatch's cast of characters, which is something of a misnomer when it comes to a game such as this.  It's a multi-player only, team-based shooter with MOBA elements.  We're talking about a specific set of genres that are known to have either sparse or completely non-existent story to them.  Let's look at the precedents.  The major behemoth on the field is League of Legends.  Let's have a show of hands.  How many people know the lore behind even one of the characters in that game?  They have lore, sure, but the point I'm making here is that no one really cares about it.  LoL is insanely popular for its gameplay and e-sports scene, not its story.  The same holds true for all the other big multi-player only team based type games out there, like Dota 2, Team Fortress 2, and Counter-Strike.

To take it a step further, even games like Call of Duty or Battlefield have this problem.  These games have single-player campaigns, certainly, but they are usually about four to six hours long and are totally forgettable.  The main draw of those games is the multi-player aspect of them, and within that half of the game there's zero story to be had.  In all of these examples, we're talking about games that really don't try very hard to inject any story into their gameplay.  But using games like Destiny as an example, sometimes even when they do try, it ends up not working at all.  

Enter Overwatch.  Here is a game that has all the formulas listed above.  Multi-player only.  Team based.  MOBA tropes.  No single-player campaign.  And yet, my Tumblr dash is literally overflowing with people talking about Overwatch's characters.  Discussing their backgrounds.  History.  Drawing them.  Shipping them.  Making up silly lists of what they like to eat for breakfast.  Everything that you can imagine.  People are in love with these characters, despite all of the evidence above suggesting that they shouldn't.  So, what has Blizzard done right?  What magic formula have they found here?

I don't think there's a singular answer to this question, but I have some pretty good ideas.  Obviously, Blizzard has created a very interesting foundation for these characters.  They are very colorful and have personality.  A cowboy with a BAMF belt buckle.  A pro-gamer in a mech.  An international pop-star that heals with music.  A gorilla scientist.  These are pretty cool concepts, and lay a foundation for interesting characters and story.  But, League of Legends has interesting character concepts, too.  A living tree that tosses saplings.  A knife-wielding jester.  An Amazonian that can turn into a cat.  These are really cool concepts, too!  What makes Overwatch's characters stand out?

I think the answer is how the story and character information is presented to the players.  This, I feel, is THE defining point that is driving this fascination with the characters in the game.  And now I'm about to make the strangest, most out-of-left-field comparison I have ever made.  The fascination with Overwatch's characters is very much like the fascination with the world of Dark Souls.  Both of these games do something similar with their lore, and I think it really appeals to their playerbase.  They both let the story trickle out to the player slowly, in little tidbits, a lot of which are quite difficult to notice or catch.  This adds a level of mystery to things that really gets people's curiosity.

In this day of hyper-connectivity, I think people crave that sense of discovery and mystery that they once had, back when you couldn't just look up everything on the Internet.  But at the same time, it also feeds that community, because there's no other way to find out every scrap of information that you can without scouring the game for hours and hours yourself.  It's a lot different than a straight-forward game that says, "Right!  You're the protagonist.  That's the antagonist.  You're good, he's bad, you fight, you'll win."  And then the game is over and that's it.  We know some things about Overwatch's characters, but we don't know all the things.  And this makes people hungry for more.  It makes them talk about them, makes them create their own headcanons about them, and makes them search and scour and ask for more.  And all of this contributes to the health of the game's community and playerbase.

I think this concept is one of the reasons why World of Warcraft's story has been failing me lately.  Everyone knows that WoW's peak was during Wrath of the Lich King.  Why?  I think one of the contributing factors was because the Lich King was this character that existed all along, mentioned and referenced at differing points across the game's history until we finally faced off against him.  The feeling that I got when hearing about the Lich King pre-Wrath was the same as the feeling that I get from learning about Overwatch's characters.  That feeling has been absent from WoW for a while now.  Expansions feel more self-contained, even though Warcraft's cast of characters has been expanded upon and grown.

Cataclysm wasn't too bad in this regard, but I think it didn't live up to Wrath's precedent because Deathwing was too much of a cookie-cutter villain.  From there, that overarching sense of bigger and more mysterious things on the horizon has been dulled by the expansions being so isolated from one another.  Blizzard has been trying to link them together in a way, but it hasn't been working for me.  I think that they haven't been doing a good enough job at setting up later storylines within the content that precedes it.  With Legion, the potential is there, but I fear that it's going to be dulled for me because of how grim the story is.  I'm excited for Legion, but in different ways than I have been for previous expansions.

That's enough of a WoW tangent, so let's get back to the topic at hand.  Regarding the longterm storytelling of Overwatch, I hope that Blizzard continues to do this "trickle-down" method of storytelling, because I think it's working.  I think they've found the perfect solution to the problem of applying a story to a game that doesn't really have a good support mechanism for one.  What I would love to see are special events that take place in the game, using those to nudge the story forward a little bit.  Perhaps the Second Omnic Crisis escalates into all-out war, and we get a new map in the game to introduce us to it.  It would also be cool if Blizzard would use quality-of-life adjustments to the game as opportunities to add in a bit of story.  For example, they've recently been talking about nerfing McCree and buffing D.Va.  It would be cool if we'd get story-based tidbids that help to explain why these changes occur in the context of Overwatch's story.  Perhaps McCree had a run-in with his old gang of bandits and was injured in someway, explaining his nerf.  Stuff like that.  There's tons of potential there.

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