The Omnic View: The Pros and Cons of Character-Centric Storytelling
A few weeks ago, Overwatch lead writer Michael Chu gave an interview in which he said that Blizzard is “definitely interested” in exploring stories that occur during the game’s present. While discussing what kinds of lore they like to create, he mentioned that “we like to focus on the stories we think are the most interesting, excite us, and reveal something about a character.” This is representative of what I believe to be “character-centric storytelling,” a mode of writing that focuses more on characters than the worlds they inhabit. While Blizzard has most certainly created some lively and intriguing worlds, they are always populated with strong, memorable characters that steal the scene. This philosophy has guided most, if not all, of their games–including Overwatch–and it is perhaps in Overwatch that the method is most visible. Like any story development method, character-centric storytelling is strong in some areas and falters in others. Here, we’ll discuss some of its most prominent pros and cons.
Pro: Very recognizable characters
If I say the name “Tracer,” a certain character immediately pops into your head, right? How about “Lucio”? “D.Va”? When you hear those names, there’s no question as to what character you think of. One of the strongest parts of character-centric storytelling is strong, recognizable characters, and Overwatch excels in this. Each character has lore, art, voice acting, and more that is unique to them and fleshes them out completely. This makes the game’s cast much more human, even though it contains characters with outlandish abilities and non-human profiles (think Winston).
Winston is a good example here. A large gorilla could have easily become the game’s mascot, similar to Pikachu in Pokemon: something cute and fluffy that players remember mostly because it’s not human. (Pachimari, who’s not really a character, has that area covered.) Winston has extremely human-like character development; this helps move the emphasis away from him as an animal to him as a character that stands with the rest of the human cast. His backstory is strong, describing his intelligence and his “childhood” in Horizon Lunar Colony that led to his decision to become a scientist. As such, we as players treat him the same way that we treat human (and the humanlike omnic) members of the Overwatch team. When you hear “Winston,” you know exactly who he is, what his motivations are, and how he acts. The same holds true for the entire cast, and the game’s thorough lore development for each the characters allows them to stand alone as well as fit in with the rest of the cast (which Blizzard has done by creating a group where everyone is an outcast). As previously mentioned, the game’s art, voice acting, and animation contribute to strong character recognition, ensuring that we’ll be thinking of these characters for a very long time.
Con: The world itself can sometimes be forgotten
With all this focus on characters, sometimes the worlds they inhabit can be forgotten. Think about how much you know about a character like Ana or Soldier: 76 versus how much you know about the city of Numbani. While we know a little bit about how each of the game’s stages and how they’re involved with different characters, we don’t know much about them other than that. We also know almost nothing about the space that connects each of these stages. While it’s not necessary to see or read about every little corner of the world, a universe that has produced such interesting characters must also be capable of intriguing stories outside of those characters. Michael Chu’s desire to focus on stories that “reveal something about a character” means that world reveals are often tied to a character–for example, the introduction of Ecopoint Antarctica was tied to Mei’s tragic backstory, and Eichenwalde was featured in an animated short about Reinhardt. It’s unlikely that we’ll hear about a part of the world that isn’t connected to a character somehow. This makes sense in terms of keeping the game tight, but its characters form such a large spectrum in terms of appearance, personality, and actions that I can’t help but hope for a more expansive world that feels the same way.
Pro: Lends itself well to hero-based gameplay
Mechanically, character-centric storytelling lends itself well to Overwatch in terms of design and mechanics. Overwatch is often called a “hero-based shooter,” so what would it be without actual heroes? The game Lawbreakers fell victim to this: while the gameplay was fast and engaging, its characters all blended together, resulting in almost no characterization and bland heroes. In Overwatch, characters’ abilities and mechanics complement their lore and personalities. Lucio’s design and mechanics are a good example of this. We know through lore that he was an internationally-renowned DJ who wanted to use music to help people; in the game itself, he plays music that heals and boosts those around him. He was known for his love for roller skating; in the game, his skates allow him extra mobility through wall-riding. His in-game abilities make sense based on his lore, creating a feeling of cohesiveness between his character in external lore (comics, etc.) and his playable character. All of the characters are built in this manner, which results in very unique mechanics for each hero and the idea that you are actually playing as the hero you read about or watched in a short. The difficulty after this becomes balancing all of these abilities so that no one is over- or underpowered, but during creative development, a character-centric philosophy is a big help during the development of mechanics.
Con: Lore can become crowded
This issue also has to do with the decision to focus on stories that have some connection to a character. Developing a character for every bit of lore can make things crowded and means that some minor characters may be forgotten. Think about Junkertown’s Queen: as soon as her connection to Junkertown was announced, players went wild, doing everything from cosplaying as her (based on only one reference image) to speculating that she would be the next playable hero. Her day in the sun has come and gone, and still we know nothing else about her. It’s likely that she’ll join characters like Mondatta, Emily, and Hammond in the forgotten pile of characters who were used to develop new areas or expand the lore of playable characters. (Hammond may be a bad example here, as many think he may actually be the next playable character, but only time will tell.) These are all fascinating characters that would be interesting to learn about, but Blizzard’s insistence on keeping the spotlight on playable characters means that those that are developed with the purpose of promoting other aspects of the game may never be heard about again.
Pro: Works well for side stories
This past spring, I spent a lot of time analyzing the auxiliary story material in Overwatch Anthology, a collection of comics that details origin and side stories for several of the game’s playable characters. Each short comic focused on either one or two characters, shining a spotlight on a defining aspect of their personality or history. The comics and other auxiliary lore materials, like the game’s animated shorts, are strengthened by their focus on only a few heroes. This tight focus allows for the deep development of the character who is the focus of the material–remember how much we learned about Bastion in the The Last Bastion short? His visions of the omnic crisis made a lot of players look at him differently, even making a few people say he was an excellent example of how PTSD works. Character-centric storytelling means that each comic and each short is filled by the personality of the character it focuses on, which makes for more lively side stories and media that are enjoyable even to those who don’t play the game.
Con: Auxiliary character development results in missing in-game lore
On the flip side, reliance on materials outside of the game to deliver and explain characters’ stories means that those who only play the game are missing a good bit of lore and character rationale. The auxiliary media format works well for hardcore fans: those who love to dive deep into the game’s story and learn every little tidbit about the game relish the opportunity to see such a strong universe spread out through multiple mediums, and those obscure lore tidbits give more meaning to many of the characters’ in-game voice lines and actions. However, for those who simply want to play a fun hero shooter, the significance of a lore Easter egg can quickly be lost. Overwatch is a fun game even without knowing everything about the characters, but the game is certainly made more complete by the inclusion of auxiliary lore, and Blizzard’s act of spreading this across different materials and mediums makes it more difficult for casual fans to keep up with the game’s larger lore moments.
Pro: Everyone has a personality
Though the minor characters mentioned above may be forgotten quickly, they always have immediately apparent personalities, which is unusual for minor characters. Junkertown’s Queen is strong and sassy; Emily is sweet and caring, particularly when juxtaposed against Tracer’s bouncy nature. For another good example, let’s look at another Blizzard property, the MOBA Heroes of the Storm. The maps of Heroes all have announcers, or unseen characters who announce kills, objectives, and other map occurrences. Though these characters are not playable and are not accessible outside of their respective maps, their personalities come through very strongly in their voices. Though this is partly due to excellent voice work, their writing is also designed to bring out their personality without any associated visuals. The Raven Lord of Cursed Hollow sasses you when you die; the woman running Volskaya Foundry encourages you to be resolute in the face of loss. Focusing on the character development of even nonplayable characters gives the sense that everyone in the universe is a fully fleshed out human being (or omnic, or animal).
Con: Difficult to move the story forward
This one has been brought up recently, and I believe it’s why Chu made that statement about wanting to develop more stories focused on Overwatch’s present. As the vast majority of the game’s lore is based on characters and not the world itself, it can be difficult to develop a timeline that allows for forward story progression within this set world; the format lends itself more to past events and explanatory backstories, which is what most of the game’s lore covers. Making this even more difficult is that the game itself is non-canonical, meaning that everything that happens during gameplay doesn’t have any impact on the story. The trouble then becomes finding where “present” is in the game–since the events of the game never occurred in the timeline, how do you define the present? In theory, the writers could create any story in which the characters look and act the same as they do now and call that lore that defines the game’s present. It would be hard to reconcile all of the universe’s existing disparate stories into one timeline, so I doubt they’ll end up doing that. Instead, we’ll likely get more individual tales that are compiled in another work of auxiliary media, such as the highly likely Overwatch Anthology Volume 2. Even if more “present-day” are developed, does that then constitute moving the universe’s story forward? The semi-experimental nature of Overwatch’s lore delivery means that answers to these questions are necessary to allow the game’s lore to function as something resembling a cohesive story.
One big story
It’s undeniable that Blizzard has done something remarkable with Overwatch’s lore and characters, and their creation fits perfectly in with the developer’s history of strong characters. Though I love Overwatch, I would be interested to see what a Blizzard game with a different style of storytelling would look like. What if they focused on the world rather than the characters, or even developed a full, traditional story mode for Overwatch? (As unlikely as that is based on the style of the game, as a lore-lover, I can’t help but dream.) It seems as though they have no intention of straying from this path, as the characters that were added after the game’s release have been just as engaging and memorable as those who were there at launch, but their focus on character-centric storytelling does leave me thinking about what other methods would be like when combined with a little of that Blizzard magic.
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.