Overwatch, a multiplayer shooter, has a story. And with last week’s release of another animated short to remind the masses that Overwatch is a multiplayer shooter with a story comes the familiar drone of those wondering why Overwatch has a story when it is a multiplayer shooter.
It can be confusing at a glance. You take part in endless battles where shifting character rosters and alliances fight over. And over. And over. Forever. Each match returns the game to zero. How can you create a story around that?
The short answer? You can. Quite successfully.
Overwatch is a character-shooter with an emphasis on the “character” part. It’s the Disney Land methodology -creating spaces of character and story even in the areas that don’t functionally need them- applied to a multiplayer shooter. Everything from the heroes to the maps have their own personality and backstories. That’s arguably what elevated the game from just a fun shooter to the phenomenon that it is. People enjoy the characters and setting, so naturally they want to learn more about the world of Overwatch.
Some would argue that an ongoing story is at odds with the temporary and narratively inconsistent gameplay that is core to Overwatch. What’s the point of a plot when in a casual match Roadhog can die at the hands of another Roadhog and then respawn seconds later? These people would argue that the illogical and impermanent nature of the game doesn’t mesh with a logical and canonical story, thus justifying the belief that Overwatch shouldn’t have a story or that the story detracts from the game. These people would also throw around big words like “ludonarrative dissonance” that they don’t quite understand.
Overwatch isn’t the first game to have a story or characters that exist outside of it’s multiplayer mode. It’s why the Empire can win on Endor in Star Wars Battlefront or how Superman can fight Superman in Injustice. It isn’t the first multiplayer-only game to have a plot either. Games like Team Fortress 2, League of Legends, and DOTA 2 all have narratives -and in some cases pseudonarratives!- that extend beyond the actual game. The main difference with the multiplayer-only games is that the story exists mostly in external sources from the game rather than an internal campaign or some other Story Mode.
It’s pretty much a universally accepted rule that what happens in multiplayer does not effect the larger canon. It’s one of the many little contracts players make with a game to suspend our disbelief. We know that dying and having to restart at a checkpoint doesn’t make any sense from a story perspective. We know that that a bullet in a cutscene shouldn’t hurt more than the hundreds we took in gameplay. We know there are hundreds of other Chosen Ones are undertaking the same quest to save the town in an MMORPG. Be we -most of us on a subconscious level- also accept that these things are necessary for the game to function as a game as well as piece of fiction. It’s part of the understood price to to pay when entering the game. And as long as the game follows a consistent enough internal logic, we agree that it it makes sense. There isn’t really a point to these comments or arguments outside of sounding smarter than you actually are for forgetting storytelling basics.
Some would also argue that the story for Overwatch would have been better if placed in a different game. These arguments are a kind offshoot of the Ludonarrative Dissonance argument - that the multiplayer template for the game devalues the story of the game that a game with a more classically composed structure. The problem I have with this argument is that it is largely preferential and speculative in nature.
The idea presented is that comics, animated shorts, and alternative storytelling means (such as character files and in-universe news stories) are no replacement for a Real Game Story. It assumes that good stories or lore are a finite resource that can be squandered on a game or genre that isn’t worthy enough. It’s like saying Warcraft’s story would be better a third-person action game or as an animated series. It’s an argument that doesn’t explain why Warcraft’s current storytelling is lacking, it’s just saying I’d rather be playing a third-person action game or watching a Netflix original series. Not only is is comparing apples to oranges, it doesn’t even address the current method of storytelling in favor of building an alternate universe where the game is something else entirely.
I find that this “What If?” form of critique focuses more on the intangible idea of things that aren’t rather than focusing on a real criticism of what is.
But what I can argue is that the story, characterization, and background has only made Overwatch stronger. I’ve grown to love riding the pickup truck into the party square in Dorado and the oddly organic map design of Route 66. I look forward to new animated shorts and comics not just because they’re entertaining but also for what content they might bring to the game. And I think Sombra and Doomfist are some of the most brilliant fusions of characterization and playstyle I’ve seen out of a game. And outside of a few missteps (that goddamn Sombra ARG, not leaving in a permanent Uprising mode (please Bizzard, do this!)), I can’t think of a reason how Blizzard’s unconventional multimedia approach to storytelling is a detriment to the game. The fact that I and a huge audience of players can enjoy the game outside of just playing it is just plain incredible!
So why does Overwatch have a story? Because it informs the game and is informed by the game. Because it makes the game better. Because even though Overwatch is a multiplayer shooter, it still can have a story.
But most importantly and most simply, Overwatch has a story because people enjoy it.
Zachary Long ocasionally writes things between that hard life as a support main. You can hear all his complains about Hanzo mains on Twitter @invadingduck. And if you want to use the phrase “ludonarrative dissonance,” please use it in the comments, but only when addressing Mercy the pistol-toting pacifistic medic.