Why Overwatch Doesn't Need A Story Mode

by Suriel Vazquez on Dec 28, 2016 at 04:00 AM

“All right, listen up!” says the echoing voice of Soldier 76, Overwatch’s anointed dad character. As part of the intro to the new seasonal mode, “Mei’s Snowball Offensive,” the camera pans over a view of the Ecopoint: Antarctica map, as if this were an action film. ”We brought you here because you represent the best, strongest, most effective warriors we...” The camera swoops down to a shot of Mei, copping a coy smile and hiding a snowball. With a chuckle, she launches it at the screen. “You can’t be serious,” a resigned Solider 76 says. His heart-pounding action flick has been ruined.

The intro’s a little long for something players are supposed to watch every time they want to play a match of Mei’s Snowball Offensive, but it works. It’s cheeky in just the right way, like a comedy skit, and it injects some personality into the mode.

It also offers some direct storytelling, something Overwatch currently lacks. That lack of narrative is one of the few knocks fans have against it. In editorials, social media, and Blizzard’s own forums, diehards have been asking for (and bemoaning the lack of) a proper story mode for the game since its release. But as much as fans are dying to know more about Overwatch’s world by playing the game itself, I don’t think the game should get that story mode any time soon.  

Mei’s Snowball Offensive is one of three seasonal modes Blizzard has dropped into Overwatch throughout the year. The other two modes have similar high-concept setups: In “The Summer Games,” the characters dress up as Olympic athletes to celebrate sportsmanship, although Lúcio is the only one who gets to play a new mode. In “Junkenstein’s Revenge,” they play out what could be the final act of a cheesy horror flick.

These modes, all distinct “what-if” scenarios, cement Overwatch’s cast less as characters in a typical story and more the way Shigeru Miyamoto views the cast of the Mario games, as “a troupe of actors,” who can work different roles depending on the situation. How else can we explain how Jamison “Junkrat” Fawkes goes from being a Junker who builds explosives out of scraps to a mad scientist hellbent on creating an army of Zomnics? We aren’t meant to see these modes as part of the same timeline, but rather as a collection of stories featuring the cast of Overwatch.

This doesn’t mean Overwatch lacks any kind of consistent world-building or lore. One of the biggest draws of the game is how we can find out about Soldier 76, Mei, or Junkrat even without the presence of a story mode. Combing through Blizzard’s official comicswiki pages, and animated shorts, can paint just as good picture of who you’re playing as when you hop into a match of the non-seasonal modes. These stories turn Overwatch’s maps into parts of a world, its cast into interesting archetypes players are drawn to. But, since you won’t find any of it in the game’s menus, you can choose to disengage from that world entirely if you just want to dress up as Witch Mercy for the night.

Players being able to divorce themselves from that world is important, because it’s part of what has allowed the fan art and fiction community for Overwatch thrive so prominently. With Overwatch’s world as a guide but not a mandate, they have created new scenarios where these characters fight each other, or far more interesting scenarios that put them in a much more mundane light. Fans frequently play matchmaker for their favorite characters, and many popular couplings (like “PharMercy”) have proliferated; they’ve given characters new (often more endearing) backstories. The way Overwatch puts its plot in the background lets anyone use the characters Blizzard has created in the same way they do, as “a troupe of actors” taking part in myriad one-off shorts that don’t adhere to a strict timeline.

That’s the world of any multiplayer game: a deluge of conflicting narratives, overlapping in messy and glorious ways. So far, Blizzard has embraced that. They’ve made the community fiction a part of their game by putting a nod to the “Gremlin” version of D.Va that began in fan art in the game. The game’s wider fiction is there if you want to dig deep, but you can forget it and have the game’s “story” be your matches, your Play of the Game, your favorite outfits, your favorite seasonal mode, or your own fan-fiction, and the game abides.

A full-blown story mode fleshing out the characters and lore of Overwatch would make these colliding fictions less fun. It would bring the “main” story Blizzard has crafted for these characters to the center in a way that would make the fan art and seasonal one-offs feel like they are no longer as “important” as whatever official plot Blizzard puts forth. I don’t think it would mean the end of these modes, or fan-stories, or fan-oriented Easter eggs. But as soon as the game has a “real” story mode, it becomes the main event, and everything else is a little curiosity, thrown to the side. Though there’s a lot of details to learn about the world of Overwatch, it still exists in an ambiguous state, which lets both Blizzard and fans fill in the gaps however they want.

This isn’t to say that if Blizzard were to add a story mode, it would quash the output of fan art and fiction. These communities spring up for any piece of fiction with the potential to explore different character relationships (such as Mass Effect). But what’s notable about Overwatch is that in its case, the tangential stories share as much prominence in people’s minds as the officially-sanctioned story. When there isn’t much evidence to say that the PharMercy relationship, for example, isn’t canon, it can fill in a gap in people’s minds left behind by the ambiguous nature of Blizzard’s world-building thus far.

I have little doubt that if Blizzard actually did try their hand at a single-player mode for Overwatch, they’d knock it out of the park. And I get why fans would want a story mode to flesh out several of the plotlines teased in the animated shorts. The world they’ve built is ripe for exploring, and many of their characters would shine in the spotlight. But once that world is explored, once there’s an in-depth “official” version of these characters, fans will have less room to fill in the gaps themselves, and fun seasonal modes like Mei’s Snowball Offensive will lose some of their appeal. So I hope Blizzard sticks to the “troupe” approach, and continues to let us tell our own stories in its world.