Blizzard released yet another in a long line of charming, emotional animated shorts for Overwatch this week. Part of me wishes they hadn't. Every time we get a better look at the Overwatch universe through outside media, the act of playing the game itself feels that much more hollow and inconsequential.
Taken by itself, the gameplay remains impeccable. But though it is supported by a skeleton of rock-solid mechanics and approachable presentation, the beating heart of Overwatch belongs to its characters. Anyone who sits down to a match with a particular playstyle in mind will find a well-crafted, imminently likable avatar with which to spend the next dozen minutes. These strong personalities encourage players to experiment outside of their well-worn comfort zones. A diehard sniper may well find themselves drawn to Tracer thanks to her bubbly persona, rather than the technical team role of a serial harasser. Supplementary material in the form of comics and the aforementioned animated shorts flesh out the roster to the point where just about every character has their own admirable traits. Even Reaper holds down his own "middle school bathroom wall" brand of charm.
That Blizzard managed to bundle these eclectic misfits together in one cohesive product is impressive. The feat is diminished considerably when this ragtag group of international do-gooders and do-badders assemble to... stand in a large square and make sure the other guys don't stand in that large square.
Shooters are rarely as thrilling or addicting as Overwatch, but at the same time, this wonderful stable of souls feels wasted on chores like "Guide this floating car 500 yards down a road." In the case of the King's Row map, the arbitrary task at hand becomes an existential shitshow. Any attacking team who succeeds in escorting the payload to the end of the path does so literally -- the hovering vehicle carries with it an EMP meant to kill the local population of robots called omnics. The backstory of Overwatch centers around a human-omnic conflict, and while the two sides have since reconciled, tensions are still high. Meaning that every time the offense triumphs, they do so via a heinous terrorist act.
It's not your fault if you didn't realize what you were doing. Aside from one of Junkrat's pre-match lines, the game obscures your deeds using nonspecific terms like "payload" and "objective." Putting the truth together requires plumbing the lore in media stashed outside the software. Of course, the path is lit with plenty of official material carefully arranged to maximize player investment. But when the omnic monk Zenyatta agrees to tag along on a mission to sow dissent by obliterating his own people, all that fine character work is torn apart in pursuit of mechanical balance and player freedom. Blizzard created a universe with dazzling heroes and despicable villains, and then made a game where good and evil don't matter.
Decades of gaming has conditioned us to believe that when it comes to narrative, multiplayer "doesn't count." These ancillary modes are essentially toy boxes, and we are the Master Hand, bashing their cold plastic faces together until one doll is dead and broken. Back on the Nintendo 64, nobody flinched when James Bond teamed up with Oddjob to take down Natalia and Baron Samedi. Logic and personal motivations were best left to the single-player missions, allowing multiplayer to flourish in its own anarchic splitscreen paradise.
That outlook might seem primitive by today's standards, but consider what's happened now that Blizzard has ditched the pretense of a story mode altogether. This is a cast that begs for a core narrative experience, but we never get to see these sparkling champions -- Overwatch's most prominent, endlessly cosplayable selling point -- in their own element.
The one exception was the Uprising event, which offered a playable flashback in the form of a Horde Mode style mission. The bona-fide story level came complete with pre-selected characters and unique voice-acting that highlighted situation-specific dialogue, a first for the series. But when Blizzard launched Uprising, they did so with an optional mode that allowed players to skip the plot and select any number of characters. Just as Overwatch took a step towards recognizing the importance of having a reference point for its world and history, it took another step back and admitted that gameplay freedom is more important than anchoring its fiction in a concrete event.
Outside of Uprising, the sole frame of reference comes the in form of some digital comics and a handful of remarkable animated shorts like Mei's "Rise and Shine." Each piece offers engaging well-made additions to the lore, but that's the problem. Overwatch begs you to learn more about its characters, but obliging only pushes you further away. Learning that McCree ditched a gig with a shady gang of outlaws adds a welcome dimension to a walking meme mostly known for belting "It's High Noon." Yet, in-game, the cyborg cowboy has no reservations about joining forces with terrorists like Reaper or Widowmaker.
Mei's even worse off, thanks to her new cinematic tear-jerker. After awakening from a prolonged cryosleep, the climatologist finds that her co-workers are all dead and the weather system much worse off than she left it. How does Mei go about solving the climate crisis and making sure her team didn't perish in vain? Well, in the game, the solution seems to mostly involve freezing Genji and lining up a headshot with an icicle gun.
Overwatch teases players with references to a canonical universe that the game itself almost never depicts. These hints often materialize in pre-match dialogue, cuing us into a shared history that would enrich the world if it weren't instantly invalidated by the gameplay. This is especially jarring when it comes to Soldier 76 and Reaper. The lore tells us the pair fought together on the battlefield before 76 was selected for a promotion over his glum chum, causing a rift that eventually turned deadly. A "final" battle disfigured them both and began a bitter, decades-long rivalry. Should both of the angsty gun uncles be selected on the same team, a special verbal exchange may trigger. "One of these days someone's going to put an end to you," Soldier 76 growls. "I'd like to see them try," Reaper shoots back.
Blizzard goes out of their way to showcase dozens of similar small moments. While it feels appropriate to address the significance of these larger-than-life figures sharing a room, the gesture highlights the fact that guys like Reaper and Soldier 76 would rather punch holes in each other than work towards a common goal.
Unique one-liners have been used in other games with large rosters, but the feature plays better in something like Marvel Vs. Capcom 3. It makes sense to fans that Wolverine and Jean Grey would have something to say to each other before beginning a match on opposing sides. This sort of callback works in MvC3 because we've seen the pair's relationship develop in comics and films that are considered to be "higher canon" than a silly video game mashup. Overwatch doesn't have the benefit of prior material to work from, however. The game that Blizzard released in May 2016 is for all intents and purposes the Overwatch product. Since the definitive form of Blizzard's newest universe remains entirely non-canonical, every character ends up feeling like a guest star in their own game.
As it happens, Blizzard also has a game designed around actual guest characters: The MOBA Heroes of the Storm. During the tutorial, HotS begs players not to think too hard about why heroes and villains from franchises like Warcraft and Diablo are pitted against one other. Tracer has joined the HotS ranks alongside a few other Overwatch representatives, but the novelty of her presence is muted next to Starcraft's Raynor, who boasts a tangible, playable backstory with a complete arc in another game. There's nothing exciting about controlling an Overwatch character in a new context because we hardly have any baseline experience for comparison. The Heroes of the Storm version of Tracer is a copy of a copy, a doppelganger of nothing.
Judging by the reliable calendar of special themed events, Overwatch will continue to muzzle its own charm with a self-made screen of incongruity. Tracer should seem like the perfect candidate for a special track and field-themed skin. But it's hard to enjoy a fresh take on the zippy heroine when we've rarely seen her act like she belongs in her own universe.
Blizzard has left Overwatch in a tough place. Every rad new costume set dilutes the definition of these characters, which are already built on a dodgy foundation of outside media. But when one of these excellent shorts hits YouTube, it serves as a reminder that the hero you play and the hero of canon are completely different entities.
This nega-narrative dissonance will persist and grow as long as Blizzard keeps increasing the size of the roster and building out the lore everywhere except inside the main product. When Pharah's mother Ana was patched into the game, she launched alongside an origin story video and a brief digital comic. While it's heartening to see an older female hero treated with the same respect as her grizzled male peers, Ana's presence added yet another variable to the unstable mass of inconsistencies simmering below every match. For now, fans will have to come up with their own reasons why Pharah just used a concussive blast to knock her mom off a cliff.