Why Overwatch: Uprising is Important
Basically anyone who’s talked to me about game design is aware that one of my greatest passions is narrative design in competitive multiplayer games. I think it’s a really underutilized space - a lot of people seem to believe lore in something like a MOBA would be pointless, that no one really cares enough for it to matter, or that it would distract too much from gameplay.
I’d argue that people definitely care about lore in competitive games. Just look at how fervent League of Legends cosplayers are, or ask any League player what their opinion of Teemo is. It’s basically impossible to not have an opinion on Teemo. The vast majority of the community either loves him or loathes him - and that’s because of who he is, visually and mechanically and personally. Whenever League teases new characters, its fans go crazy combing over every scrap of detail, searching for hidden meanings and connections to other characters. Those things wouldn’t happen if they didn’t care.
At this point, Teemo hate has become a meme- Riot even released his deaths per second as a statistic in an infographic.
The same is true in Overwatch- I’d even say especially in Overwatch. For the most part, Overwatch’s level of polish in terms of character design is divine. Not only do they have one of the most diverse casts of characters in a competitive game, but these characters have been polished until they shine. Their voice lines and actors are top notch; they interact with each other, and react to things that are happening in your match. As a player, it feels really freaking cool to have a game play off of something you’ve done- it’s hard not to laugh if you’re lucky enough to hear Tracer mocking Reaper when she kills him, or to smile when you hear Ana and Reinhardt reuniting.
To be fair, some of those lines - particularly those at the beginning of a match - can get kind of repetitive, but it hasn’t bothered me much, and Blizzard seems to be adding more as time passes. Every line, every interaction, is an opportunity to get your audience more attached to and invested in your characters. I don’t play Junkrat just because his skills are fun, I play him because he’s endearing as hell (since, as we all know, he has a sensitive side)! That opportunity to invest extends beyond a character’s voice as well - it’s in their appearance, their animations, and the way that characters can combo skills together, among other things. (For a fantastic examination of the animation in Overwatch, check out this video by Extra Credits!)
All of this detail is handled in such a way that it adds to the gameplay. Can you imagine playing through a match as a character who didn’t have any VO? What if every character just had the same set of generic lines, read by a different voice actor? If everyone sounded the same, if no one had any discernible personality, Overwatch would lose a lot of the flair that makes it great. This is the sort of thing I mean when I talk about narrative design in a competitive space- it includes things you might not consider at first, like VO, but it does also include overall story, and I firmly believe there are ways to include story in a competitive game without detracting from gameplay.
Now, I’ll admit, I’ve been a bit disappointed with Overwatch’s story not translating into gameplay. For as much as they build up the world in teasers and backstory, I’ve never felt like I’m really in the world of Overwatch. Don’t get me wrong: I love comics, cinematics, and short stories - peripheral narrative content is definitely a tool designers and writers should be using in games like these, as it helps players continue to engage with the game world even when they can’t or aren’t playing - but for me, Overwatch loses all its overarching story drama when you actually play it. It goes from feeling like this intense world with a lot of depth and story to hanging out with and/or beating up your friends. I really enjoy playing the game, but personally I’d love it more if the story was just a little more present in the gameplay. Uprising is a great example of one way to make that happen.
“But Uprising was just another event, right? I mean sure it had some story mode thing or whatever but they already did that with Junkenstein’s Revenge.”
Yeeee… sort of.
Cover Art for the Junkenstein's Revenge comic.
Junkenstein’s Revenge was fine for a short event, but it didn’t hook me. For one, it wasn’t canon. It was fantastical, just a story that Reinhardt was telling. It was difficult to get into the story of it because it didn’t feel like my actions really mattered. Two, it wasn’t especially fun. It was on a very small map, and your team comp was kinda just okay. I didn’t really know why it had to be Hanzo, Mccree, Ana, and Soldier (other than the practical- ‘well that’s who they made lines for’)- it didn’t feel like that story had to be about them specifically. It was mildly engaging to try to beat at higher difficulties, but to me it wasn’t anything too noteworthy - if anything, it just felt like a skin showcase. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it just means that, narratively, it wasn’t especially intriguing. I imagine Junkenstein’s Revenge was an experiment (pun intended?) that led to Uprising, as Uprising is much more effective and engaging than its predecessor.
In Uprising, the stakes feel a bit more real, especially the first few times you play through it. It’s still canned, it’s in the past, it’s linear… but it’s a thing that actually happened. My stake in the fight is already a lot higher because I basically understand the effects that this mission had on the world, and because I understand and care about the relationships that these characters have with each other. Part of this was due to the lead-up with the comic, which is a fantastic example of how you can use transmedia to make your experiences more engaging.
The spatial design is also a lot better than the previous event. It’s a familiar map with a few differences, and even though you ping pong from place to place, that progression mostly feels natural. You get to move from objective to objective, so you feel like you’re making progress in a more visceral way than in Junkenstein’s Revenge.
Additionally, that playable space and the objectives are super well tuned for the team you have. I’m really glad Blizzard included the opportunity to play the event as any hero, because that was sorely needed in Junkenstein’s Revenge, but… after playing a few games of ‘play anyone’ and a few games of the canonical event, I can really feel how fine-tuned this mode was for the canon team. Winning is achievable, but it’s still difficult, especially as you move up in difficulty. On a technical level, I appreciate how Blizzard must have designed the enemies and pacing specifically with those heroes in mind - and on a narrative level, I appreciate why Morrison sent these heroes to do this job. In contrast, Junkenstein’s Revenge felt like it would have worked with anyone.
In many ways, the Overwatch team took care to make this event to be replayable- for one, there are achievements and lore to unlock by replaying it. Overwatch’s lead writer Michael Chu tweeted that as you win more games of Uprising, more conversations are added in story mode.
That’s brilliant! It helps break up the monotony of playing something over and over; it keeps the player from being completely overwhelmed trying to hear every piece of dialogue on their initial playthroughs while they’re getting used to the gameplay; and for me personally it’s a pretty good motivator to play again, because the writing is so well done. I want to make sure I don’t miss anything! I want to see all the character interactions and get a better grasp of where these characters came from, and how they relate to each other.
The event also has the benefit of being PVE, which makes it accessible to everyone. Not everyone is a super competitive player, which is fine- but regardless of your skill level, you can jump in and experience the event. There’s no barrier to entry there. If content like this became more regular for Overwatch, it could bring in more players who are interested in Overwatch’s world and characters, but aren’t so interested in its competitive gameplay. I can almost guarantee you that if someone was in the game regularly playing story mode, they’d get more comfortable with the characters. So then maybe they’d try some bot matches. And maybe after doing that for a little while, they try out PVP. Bam - you’ve just helped lower the barrier to entry for your competitive game, and you’ve allowed a player to slowly ease their way into your experience, somewhat on their own terms.
And finally - for me, this is a big one - it makes the Overwatch organization feel tangible. I know, that sounds kind of silly, but it’s true. We come into the world of Overwatch after it’s already fallen. We hear characters make references to their old life, but it’s always secondhand, always out of reach. In Uprising, for a brief moment, we get to live it. We get more of a personal understanding of what Overwatch was like. And that’s awesome.
Winston debates whether he should initiate a recall in the Recall cinematic.
In the recent canon timeline, Winston recalled Overwatch’s agents. What if, at some point in the future, Blizzard releases story events that are current? What if, through data analysis, the way that players engage with an event could affect upcoming canon?
For me, that’s the dream. That’s exactly what I want from a competitive game. With a game that’s getting live updates, you have the fantastic opportunity to involve your players directly in influencing story. I’ll give you an example of something that could potentially work: let’s say we have a story event centered around Widowmaker. Ana talks to Winston and Tracer about what happened to Widow, and together they formulate a plot to “cure” her. In gameplay, this translates to an attack/defend map in which players assault a Talon facility - either to get more information about Widowmaker, or to get access to her to try to cure her.
There are a few different ways you could go about this. It could absolutely be another PVE event, where Talon lackeys and Talon hero bots try to prevent you from reaching your objective. Or it could be a PVP event, where players can pick any hero as long as they’re not heavily aligned to one side or the other (so no Ana as Talon, no Reaper as Team Overwatch, and so on), where Team Talon tries to stop Team Overwatch. I’m not sure what team balance would look like in this case, so that might not be viable, but let’s pretend it is. At that point, you could tally up the number of wins for each faction to determine what happened next.
If Team Talon won, Widowmaker would stay with Talon, falling even further into their web. She might have a darker skin to go along with this that had some new voice lines showcasing how she’s now completely lost touch with who she used to be. The greater story implications here would be a win for Talon, which would affect how the storyline continues to play out - maybe an article crops up in the Overwatch world noting that Talon scored a huge victory on one of their operations, which has some effect down the line.
The rivalry between Widowmaker and Tracer was one of the first relationships players were ever exposed to, way back in the original Cinematic Trailer.
If Team Overwatch won, Widowmaker would come back to her senses. Players would unlock a new default skin where she was more or less human again and trying to work with the new Overwatch crew. This new skin wouldn’t replace her original skin, so players who love Widow as-is could continue to use whichever version they prefer. Both of these paths open up a glut of possibilities for new character dialogue - if Widow comes to Overwatch’s side, you could have lines about Tracer being mistrustful of her, which eventually changes to playful team banter over time. If she stays with Talon, Ana can have a new kill line versus Widow where she says that she’ll never hesitate again.
There could potentially be some issues with griefing if you’re counting wins in a PVP environment. Someone could theoretically queue for one side and do their best to make their team lose. This could be handled by throwing out the results of any match where several players reported griefing, but then if you have big groups of people queueing together and reporting griefing every time they lose… it’s a problem that would need to be addressed before launching an event of that scale, but hopefully you get the gist of what I mean by story-influencing events.
In short, I think that games like Overwatch would do well to include more player-driven narrative that presents itself through gameplay. Overwatch: Uprising is an exciting example of this sort of event, and I hope Blizzard continues to push forward with more events like these in the future.