A Fight For Us: Ludonarrative in Overwatch


– Hello, and welcome
back to Why Is It Good? My name is Jon, and my
backlog of games is… well, it’s a little bigger
than I’d care to admit. The reason behind that
has a name: Overwatch. As one of the most popular games on Earth, and arguably one of the best
competitive multiplayer games of the past decade, Overwatch
has a very addictive quality, and it’s due to its combination of story, setting, and rock-solid mechanics. Tens of millions of
players can’t be wrong, so today, we’re going to ask one question, why is it good? (heroic Overwatch music) Let’s get the basics out of the way. Overwatch is a team-based, multiplayer, first-person shooter. Two teams of six players pick from a cast of various characters and complete some sort of objective, whether it’s capturing a
point, pushing a payload, or just killing each other. It’s a formula as old as time. Perhaps that is why Overwatch is often compared to Team Fortress 2, agame so fun it’s still
thriving 10 years after release. This comparison is both
understandable and unfair, because, while they share a common spirit- and very similar aesthetics- Valve and Blizzard’s shooters
differ significantly, in their pacing and mechanics. For one, TF2 is steadier paced. The action is more of a constant stream, whereas Overwatch operates
in frenetic bursts, usually in the form of crowded points, ringing timers, and that
one Lucio on the cart that won’t (beep)-ing die. There is always a fight to be had in TF2, but, in casual play, such fights are usually smaller and quicker than the all-out brawls of
Overwatch’s team fights. Overwatch also emphasizes
gameplay variety, with a cast of 28 characters,
versus TF2’s nine classes, all of whom have multiple abilities and unique movement patterns. The sheer number of different
ways to play Overwatch means there’s always
something new to learn. Overwatch also forbids teammates from playing the same character. This is very important, and it’s something I’m going to explore more in a little bit. Anyway, that diversity means there are few hard counters
for each character, and your best defense is often creativity. If your Soldier can’t
bring down that Pharah, fly up and smack her with D.Va. Or, have Zenyatta weaken
her with a Discord Orb. If that (beep)-ing Lucio is
too fast for your shoot-y boys, try Junkrat, Mei, or another
area-denial specialist. Blizzard is no stranger to this sort of variety
as gameplay balance. Though StarCraft and WarCraft
are the picture of elegance, World of WarCraft is actually
imbalanced, almost perpetually with its constant patches and new content. It feels almost intentional, as if Blizzard never wants
players to get complacent. This can be pretty infuriating
for seasoned players, and for WoW, that is not unjustified. It sucks to build a specialized
class and grind for gear, only to have your carefully laid plans totally wrecked by a new patch. But, because there are
so many ways to play, so many vital strategies, so
much room for experimentation, this imbalance creates
a new sort of balance. It means there’s nearly always a solution, you just have to work harder to find it. TF2’s simpler, more focused cast list encourages you to master the fundamentals, moving, aiming, and game awareness. This is likely because it’s roots are in the glory days of arena shooters, where a Wild West style culture
of player-owned servers, unofficial matchmaking, clans,
and extreme customization trumped the neatness of
Overwatch’s online experience. It’s a spirit of DIY individualism that informs TF2’s gameplay, one where the players themselves
make the game more fun. TF2’s rich culture of
memes, user-created content, and the Steam marketplace
definitely reflect that. But, the third and most
important difference, Overwatch requires far more teamwork, and you role on your team
is likewise more important. Overwatch uses two teams of six. Whereas, standard TF2
uses two teams of 12. A larger team means a few
bad players won’t hurt. Now, remember earlier, when I
said that players in Overwatch can’t play the same character on a team? Well, you see, there
are functionally similar character classes in Overwatch, but the characters within those classes, unlike in TF2, are very different. So, you may have a
primary healer that does, say, 80% of your team’s healing, and one that does 20% of the healing, and also contributes debuffs or damage. If you’re healing as Mercy,
your team depends on you, sometimes just you, for staying power. If you’re a tank like Reinhardt, or Orisa, your barriers might be the only waypoint for your teammates to move forward safely. The result is a game that
feels not only more precarious, but more rewarding. Victory in a tight game
of Overwatch feels earned. You spend 10 or 15 minutes as a cog in a hastily assembled, delicate machine, that somehow managed to
fire on all cylinders and clutch victory from your opponents. During the post-game, you receive significant
emotional validation for your hard work, whether
it’s through performance medals, endorsements from other players, or the coveted Play of the Game, where everyone gets to see you kick ass… that is, if you did. While other team-based
games have similar moments, Overwatch might be the only one with that celebratory mechanic literally baked into the game. Players get actual rewards for sportsmanship and cooperation, in the form of loot boxes
and a visible ranking. But, despite those mechanics, what really makes Overwatch interesting is its focus on narrative
in a multiplayer game. Specifically, a part of it called the ludonarrative. Let’s dive in. John Carmack is one of
the guys who made DOOM… so, yeah, he knows a thing or two about first-person shooters. He once said that stories in games are like stories in pornography. You expect them to be
there, but we all know what you came for (and what you will.) He’s not wrong. Games are
interactive experiences, and they fail if the player
merely watches a story unfold. But, he’s also not entirely right. Stories in most games matter, insofar as they complement
the player’s own story, one they write as they play the game. The intersection of these two elements, when it’s pulled off, creates immersion, and a more cohesive player experience. That intersection is
called the ludonarrative. The word is a combination of
ludology, the study of games, and narrative, which is the
English word for narrative. The most famous example of
ludonarrative is in Uncharted, where you play cool, handsome, and all-around nice dude Nathan Drake, international treasure hunter. But, as Uncharted shows
this heroic American boy going on his roguish adventures, they also have you,
the player, control him as you systematically slaughter hundreds or even thousands of enemies. That Nathan never seems truly
haunted by this experience creates a humorous, tonal inconsistency, one the developers themselves parried with the achievement
Ludonarrative Dissonance. A positive example is Into The Breach, a strategy games that’s
basically 4D chess with mechs. It uses Rogue-like elements, repetition, randomly generated levels,
chance, to create situations where the player fails, often. Starting over is part of the game. The game’s story mirrors that. You are time travelers who venture to the past to save humanity, and when you fail, that
timeline becomes abandoned. You just watched humanity
die for the hundredth time, but you persevere for the next timeline, and the dim hope of victory. The game part of Into The Breach plays out like a deconstructed version of its story. It’s a metaphor that you helped write. It makes you feel emotional
investment in your choices. But, anyway, let’s get back to Overwatch. So, the story in Overwatch doesn’t matter, in the traditional sense. It’s not the backbone of
your character’s journey, like in a role-playing game, or an excuse for set
pieces, as in Uncharted, or you know, the literal point of a game in a visual novel like VA-11 HALL-A. When you play Overwatch, you
aren’t moving its story along. Instead, its narrative is a setting in which to set player stories. But, that backstory still matters here, so let’s talk about it. All right, stop me if
you’ve heard this before. Overwatch is set in the near future, in a world ravaged by
war, climate disasters, and political instability. Now, let’s talk about
the part that’s science fiction. (laugh track,
Mad World by Gary Jules) The main conflict begins
with a robot uprising of mechanical beings called the Omnics. Originally created to serve humans in construction, manufacturing,
and military service, they became bit of a
problem after the creators, the Omnica Corporation, shut down. After re-awakening their
abandoned factories, the Omnics gained
sentience…and resentment. The ensuing war between them and humanity became known as the Omnic Crisis. The United Nations realized
they needed to get creative to solve this problem, so a small force of
talented people was formed. Top scientists, military experts, and extraordinary inventors. A team of all ethnicities, countries, and economic backgrounds. The world, together as one. It was called Overwatch. At first, Overwatch was effective. They subdued the worst
of the Omnic Crisis, and despite lingering tensions, many Omnics befriended humans, but there were obviously problems. Who’s laws does Overwatch follow? Who holds them accountable? What power do they really have? So, as you might expect from a mysterious international
body of ungoverned elites, Overwatch eventually faced
corruption and mismanagement. They were dissolved by
the UN, and suddenly, the world’s superheroes
became legends and outlaws. In the ensuing years, many
of them went into hiding, and unfortunately, the
world just got worse. Nations found themselves
defenseless against new threats. Society teetered on the brink. Climate change created new disasters. Who could come to rescue them? Who were the heroes, now that
the old ones were all gone? Winston, this ape gentleman here, realized that the world
might always need heroes. He defied the world and
summoned Overwatch back to duty, so that humanity might
rally together once again, because the world is worth fighting for. There are questions in this
plot that are well charted, but still interesting territory. What is the nature of humanity,
and can it be manufactured? What are the consequences
of globalization, and at what point do your
roots lie with humanity itself, rather than your nationality? How do you govern a world
that is both more unified and more divided than ever before? What the hell are we gonna
do about climate change?! But, despite these decades of conflict, the world of Overwatch is
awash in vibrant color. Ruined gas stations glow orange and yellow in the baking sun. The ancient streets of inner London sulk in mossy greens and streetlamp blues, and the peaks of Tibet are
dotted with golden statues under a clear winter sky. The characters are vivacious, and diverse, and extremely expressive. There’s humor and scenery details. The world of the future doesn’t seem like much
of a dystopia at all. The world building is important because Overwatch rarely
tells its story explicitly. Instead, you’re fed it
with care, piece by piece. Character skins hint at
backstories you never play through, and those environmental details hint at past victories and defeats. Levels show once-troubled
countries thriving, and vice versa. For a world that’s been
through as much as it has, there’s an overwhelming sense of hope. The possibility of a brighter future. That Blizzard has you
experience this world, as part of a coordinated team, the same team that once saved
the world, is no accident. The most important parts of this backstory are its themes of teamwork, unity, and rallying behind a cause. That story is the hulking mass underneath the tip of Overwatch’s iceberg: the ludonarrative. There is a sense of
importance in this story, one that makes Overwatch
so much fun to play. Even if your teammates suck at the game, even if they’re annoying, or
toxic, or refuse to listen, your potential success
in spite of division or power struggles can
be even more rewarding. Despite your different goals,
playstyles, backgrounds, and real-life identities,
you all have a part to play. Yeah, other team-based games
share Overwatch’s mechanics and many of those celebratory moments. Remember your first squad victory in PUBG? Or late night WoW raids
with your best friends? Or building the ultimate
tree house in Minecraft? (no girls allowed.) Those games have the same moments of glory but Overwatch paints them all with the colorful brush
of an optimistic world, one where you have a role
no one else can play, one where everyone has
a place on the team. All of Blizzard’s creation, its artwork, its mechanic,
its player feedback, its music, its characters, all of it, celebrates the best aspect
of humanity, cooperation. They capture the joyful exuberance of finding allies and
hope in a difficult world, then cram that feeling into a game that you play in 10-minute rounds. Your own short superhero story, set in the world of Overwatch. And, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes, it’s
frustrating and unbalanced. Sometimes, Blizzard’s
policies against toxicity are muddy and ineffective. Sometimes, the ranking
system is unpredictable. Sometimes, the endless parade of cosplays, and merchandise, and comic
tie-ins make the whole thing feel a little bit manufactured, shiny, like a Disney theme park,
or a remodeled Taco Bell. Sometimes, that thrill
of victory is elusive, but despite all of that,
it’s worth waiting for, because like the world it
depicts, and our world, when Overwatch works,
it is god damn amazing. You can buy Overwatch now, on the PC, Xbox One, and Playstation 4. If we’re lucky, one day,
it’ll be on the Switch. If you’d like to see more from me, make sure you like this
video, and subscribe, and ring the bell above
for new notifications. You can also follow me
on Twitter @tybasedjon, or visit my blog at whyitsgood.tumblr.com. As always, thanks for watching, and until next time,
remember what you love.

2 thoughts on “A Fight For Us: Ludonarrative in Overwatch

  1. So I actually stumbled upon your channel idly browsing through Twitter, of all places! Couldn't be more impressed with the quality; keep it up! ^^

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