Opinion – Don't Make Me Work For Your Story
As I enter Overwatch’s Route 66 on defense as Soldier: 76, he remarks, “Reyes should've cleaned up the Deadlock Gang a long time ago.” I run through a small town and past an abandoned gas station before turning a corner and seeing a derailed train dangling off a cliff that serves as the first stage of combat for the map. Aside from how cool the stage looks, I’m left with more questions than answers… and Overwatch doesn’t answer any of them – at least not in the game.
Overwatch is noteworthy for having a ton of extended story content – most notably, the animated shorts and the mini comics. However, in the game itself, the story is all but absent; you don’t learn about Bastion’s violent past or D.Va’s competitive gaming background. Instead, you’re left with hints about the characters you spend so many hours with, as well as the circumstances surrounding their history with the Overwatch organization.
The awesome gameplay and addictive unlockables are what have kept me coming back to Overwatch for the better part of 300 hours, but the characters are what I think about long after I turn the game off. Blizzard’s commitment to expanding the stories of these characters outside of the game is unshakable. The animated shorts are awesome on the rare occasion they release one, and I love reading the comics to learn more about the heroes, but why not include some form of a narrative in the game itself?
We get a taste of Overwatch’s backstory in-game through the annual Uprising event, and as I wrote back then, I loved it. It was a great in-game window to the lore many players have yet to explore due to the extra effort that must be put into finding these stories either on the internet or in comics or shorts.
While Overwatch is certainly guilty of making players work for the story, it isn’t the only example, nor is it the most egregious. Overwatch is strictly a competitive shooter, so it can get away with not having rich lore included in-game. However, titles like the original Destiny also tell their stories in abstract ways. Destiny included a Grimoire, which took much of the backstory out of the game, forcing story-focused players to hit the virtual books and study up. This approach left many cold on Destiny, as longtime Bungie fans bemoaned the contrasting approaches to narrative exploration found in Destiny and the studio’s previous story-heavy series, Halo. The fan reaction was so strong that Destiny 2 course-corrected after the first game’s vague narrative approach, while the upcoming expansion, Forsaken, is selling how impactful its story is.
However, there are positives to obscuring the story. By expanding on a narrative in abstract ways, communities form to crack the code and learn the lore of the franchise. Full, thriving communities have formed on networks like Reddit devoted to uncovering secrets in games. Spending hours dredging up clues to get a deeper understanding of the story can result in a rewarding experience. Unfortunately, some series send players on scavenger hunts across multiple media for even basic details surrounding the story.
It’s of utmost importance to strike a fine balance between what is provided in-game, and what is outside for the player to discover. The original Mass Effect, Gears of War, and Halo trilogies are fine examples of franchises that have extended universes through media like novels, but are completely sustainable on their own. At the peak of my interest in those franchises, I reveled in scouring the franchises’ respective Wiki pages, absorbing every peripheral, seemingly inconsequential piece of information I could to round out my knowledge about those universes.
Unfortunately, franchises have relied on that style of transmedia storytelling more and more. Getting the full picture of your favorite franchise’s story, whether it be Assassin’s Creed with its branching narrative that includes games, novels, comics, short films, and even a feature film, or Overwatch, which still hasn’t told the full backstories of some characters in the game outside of bios on Blizzard’s website, has become more and more of a chore. Pushing me outside of that game is an acknowledgement that I’m not getting the full experience when I launch that game.
Of course, players enjoy games for different reasons. A large portion of the Overwatch fan base enjoys the game as the competitive shooter that it is and doesn’t need any additional details, just as hardcore Destiny players embraced this approach to understanding the narrative because of its awesome gameplay and addictive loop. However, I play games more than I read comics or watch movies because that’s how I prefer to consume my entertainment. When a game I love takes this approach to storytelling, I don’t enjoy it – I simply tolerate it.