Overwatch’s Story Is a Failure

This year’s Gamescom saw the release of some more of Overwatch’s animated clips. This has provided an opportune moment to voice a thought that has been growing in my mind for some time.

As much as it pains me to say it, Blizzard’s attempts to tell the story of Overwatch are a complete failure.

A shot from the Overwatch short Rise and ShineI have wanted to like Overwatch from the moment it was announced. I am and always have been the eternal Blizzard fanboy. I love their art style and their personality and their larger than life flair. More than that, Overwatch’s idealism and diversity speaks to my ideals and beliefs in a very powerful way.

I have been frustrated from the start by Blizzard’s refusal to include any in-game story content in Overwatch. It’s the reason I still haven’t bought the game, despite my usual “shut up and take my money” attitude to most everything Blizzard does.

I have instead dutifully consumed Overwatch’s out of game story, its online comics and animated shorts. For a time, I thought maybe it was for the best that all of the story took the form of tie-in media, as it allowed me to get all that I wanted from Overwatch without having to spend a dime.

But as time has gone on, I’ve realized that none of this — not the comics or the shorts — has really proven satisfying. They’ve only left me wanting more — much more.

The thing is, a ten minute video clip once a year and a ten page digital comic every six months aren’t a story. They’re marketing.

A shot from Overwatch's The Last Bastion shortDon’t get me wrong. Some of those shorts have been good. Very good. The Bastion one is a bloody masterpiece. But there just isn’t enough content here to tell a meaningful story. There is no space for true character development, or anything resembling a story arc.

We’re well over a year past Overwatch’s launch, and we’re still awaiting answers to some incredibly basic questions about the characters and the world. Why doesn’t Mercy age? Who was Pharah’s dad? What is Talon actually trying to achieve?

Nor has there been any forward momentum to the story. We’re still just hovering, frozen in time, at the moment Winston  reactivated Overwatch. If this were a movie, we’d still be in the first five minutes.

It’s time to face facts. Blizzard is trying to sell all this as some bold new experiment in multimedia story-telling, but it’s not. It’s a half-assed attempt at a story that is accomplishing nothing of any value.

Maybe one day Blizzard will put out an Overwatch game with an actual story, or some meaty novels, or a movie, or anything. On that day, I will rejoice.

But unless and until that happens, Overwatch’s half-hearted attempts at story-telling are just a waste of time, at least from an artistic perspective.  I’m sure they’ve very successful as marketing, but again, that’s all they are. Marketing.

Overwatch's latest character, DoomfistI’m disappointed that all the massive potential of Overwatch’s universe is being left to rot on the vine, but what really worries me is that Blizzard as a whole may become enamored of this low-effort style of “story.” Already we’ve seen StarCraft abandon in-game story in favour of some incredibly brief digital comics, and Diablo seems to have thrown in the towel on story altogether, without even bothering to finish the current arc.

Only World of Warcraft, for all its flaws, still gives me hope. While I have some mixed feelings on the specific story-telling decisions of Legion, I can’t deny it’s by far and away the most story-driven expansion to date.

I hope this is just a lull and that Blizzard will start putting out more story-heavy games again soon, as they have for the last twenty years. Because if Overwatch is a sign of what is to come for the company, us Blizzard fans who are also story fans won’t be Blizzard fans much longer.

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The Strange Kinship of StarCraft and Mass Effect

From the time I first began learning about the Mass Effect franchise, I’ve seen a strange degree of overlap between it and another beloved sci-fi gaming franchise, StarCraft. At times I’ve dismissed it as the result of an over-active imagination, but they just keep borrowing from each other.

Nova in her titular Covert Ops DLC in StarCraft III thought it’d be interesting to look at the bizarre relationship of these two franchises that increasingly seem to have been separated at birth.

This post will contain spoilers for Mass Effect: Andromeda up to and including the mission Journey to Meridian.

Your StarCraft in my Mass Effect:

It began with my reading a plot synopsis for Mass Effect 1. I couldn’t help but notice that it sounded eerily like the cancelled StarCraft: Ghost game, which was also a third person shooter.

An elite human operative goes on an intergalactic journey to track down and stop a renegade Spectre.

Which game did I just describe?

Of course, once you get into Mass Effect, the two games divulge quite a bit, but by then the connection between StarCraft and Mass Effect had wormed its way into my thoughts, and I kept seeing small similarities here and there.

My favourite sniper rifle in Mass Effect 3The Protheans and the Reapers both bear some vague resemblance to the Xel’naga in their role in the story. Turians look like Protoss with hydralisk mouths. Alliance military uniforms look a fair bit like Dominion naval uniforms. Biotics are not unlike the telekinetics wielded by some of the more powerful ghosts.

Your Mass Effect in my StarCraft:

And it’s not a one-way street. StarCraft II clearly took a lot of inspiration from the Mass Effect franchise.

The basic structures of the games are largely the same. Go to the bridge, pick a location via the galaxy map, play a mission, and come back to your ship to chat with the NPCs before embarking once again.

Wings of Liberty even tried to copy a little bit of Mass Effect’s famous choices by giving the player great control over what order to do missions in, and even some choices on how to direct the story.

This was somewhat of a failed experiment, as Blizzard just isn’t that good at non-linearity. Later games abandoned most (though not all) player choice regarding the story and what order to tackle things in, but the general Mass Effecty structure of missions and conversations remained.

The bridge of the Hyperion in StarCraft IIAnd StarCraft was definitely the richer for it. Every entry in the StarCraft II trilogy has featured some great core characters, and in both SC2 and Mass Effect, the conversations between you and your crew are highlights, whether you’re talking spirituality with Thane or being simultaneously fascinated and chilled by Abathur’s utter inhumanity.

Then there’s the Covert Ops DLC to consider. To match Nova’s high-tech feel, the traditionally guitar-heavy soundtrack given to Terrans was shifted more towards synth sounds, and the end result is very reminiscent of a lot of Mass Effect’s music. One song in particular that plays in the main menus sometimes sounds almost exactly like the main theme from the earlier ME games.

Plus, if you squint, the Griffin has a pretty similar silhouette to the Normandy.

A new phase:

And then came Andromeda, and things just got weirder.

I kind of blinked when I saw Andromeda was going to prominently feature a ship called the Hyperion. But that’s small fries.

You can also see a bit of the Zerg in the Kett. Their modus operandi is pretty similar. Go around assimilating other species and stealing their best genes. Abathur and the Archon would have a grand old time talking shop, I’m sure.

Concept art for Remnant ruins in Mass Effect: Andromeda.

This is concept art for a Remnant Vault in Mass Effect: Andromeda.

There’s still a lot of difference, though. The Kett are still humanoids who rely on technology, and they don’t appear to have any hive mind.

But then there’s the Remnant.

Holy hell.

The Protheans and the Reapers each occasionally reminded me of the Xel’naga in some vague ways, but the Remnant — or, more accurately, their creators — are the Xel’naga. Literally, unequivocally, the Xel’naga.

I remember the first gameplay video of Andromeda I saw. It featured a Remnant ruin, and I was like, “Hey, look, it’s a Xel’naga temple.” Finally playing Andromeda only confirmed the uncanny resemblance between the architecture of the Remnant and the Wanderers from Afar.

Still, that’s just visuals.

But then we learned the Remnant’s creators, the Jaardan, were grand intergalactic biologists who seeded life throughout the cosmos for unknown purposes. Then we learned their civilization was centered around a lost artificial world in deep space. Then we learned they were in the business of creating whole sentient races.

Concept art for a Xel'naga temple in StarCraft II

This is concept art for a Xel’naga temple in StarCraft II.

In other words, they are the Xel’naga.

And now it’s just too weird. An entire core section of the StarCraft universe has basically been transplanted wholesale into Mass Effect. At this point I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we found out the Kett were created by some renegade Jaardan. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if Artanis popped up on the Tempest vidcon.

Not complaining. In a way it’s kind of cool. Damn strange, though. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any work of fiction copy another in such an uncanny way. I like to joke that the Krogan are basically Klingons, but there’s vastly more difference between Krogan and Klingons than there is between the Jaardan and the Xel’naga.

Tinfoil abounds:

I don’t really know what all this means. I freely grant that at least a good chunk of this is my seeing patterns where there are none. Lots of these similarities can easily be dismissed as random happenstance.

And certainly there are plenty of differences between the franchises, too. Mass Effect tends to present a relatively optimistic vision of humanity’s future, whereas StarCraft embraces a more dystopic view.

But some stuff, especially around the Remnant/Jaardan/Xel’naga, is harder to dismiss. I mean, I don’t imagine Bioware is sitting around consciously stealing ideas from StarCraft, but the fact remains that if they were they could hardly do a better job.

The starship Griffin in StarCraft II's Covert Ops DLCI know there has been at least a little cross-pollination between the two development teams. Brian Kindregan has written for both StarCraft and Mass Effect. But beyond that I don’t really know what’s going on here.

I just know it’s weird, and fascinating.