How Overwatch made competitive gamers care about story

When you think shooters you probably think less story and more just doming guys in the head. This should be especially true for multiplayer shooters; however, Overwatch is one of the shining exceptions to that rule. The game is filled with a rich cast of characters with intricate relationships and deep backstories that are still mysterious to players.

On the heels of Overwatch’s first lore-based event, Uprising, we got a chance to sit down and chat with the game’s lead writer Michael Chu about the game’s nuanced storytelling – which extends far beyond in-game elements, with comics and video shorts.

TechRadar: First off, we have to commend you guys on the latest event, we all love it in the office. Previous events have always revolved around real-life circumstances, what precipitated Overwatch's first story-driven event?

Michael Chu: Thanks! It's awesome to hear that you're enjoying the event. We received a lot of feedback that people wanted to see an event that was based on the Overwatch universe, rather than a real-world seasonal celebration. We'd also been looking for an opportunity to try another Player vs Environment brawl, like last year's Junkenstein's Revenge, so the combination of the two seemed like a great fit.

TR: How long has Uprising been in the works, and what was the process like?

MC: It's hard for me to remember exactly, but I believe it was sometime after the new year, when most of the team had wrapped up working on the Year of the Rooster event. There's a lot of different things that go into each event, so there was a lot of work being done on the skins and unlocks, but the majority of the team was focused on creating the tech, the art, and then the design of the PvE mission.

TR: The Uprising story really plays out when you have four specific characters, but there are basically no new interactions when playing it with All Heroes. Will future story missions follow the same model, or will there be brawls in the future with more dialogue when you swap in different characters?

MC: For this event it made the most sense to focus the story around the four characters in the strike team. Because one of the goals of the mission was to provide a specific story, it didn't make as much sense to add conversation options for heroes that, storyline-wise, weren't involved in the event.

TR: As a quick follow-up, with 24 characters and 24 voice actors for those said Heroes, does it make it that much more difficult to go with the latter?

MC: The more potential heroes, the number of combinations just goes up and up, so it definitely makes it more challenging. That said, we did actually record some VO to cover different common situations for all 24 heroes, but not to the level of the four mission heroes.

TR: Switching gears to the game's larger story, you guys have established a spanning arc of eras with the Omnic crisis, Overwatch's golden era and downfall, and the looming second Omnic crisis. What made you guys decide to go with placing players in this point of the timeline rather than earlier?

MC: One of the original inspirations for the event was the idea of origin stories. If you look at some of the other content for the event, you'll see that it touches on the origins and backstories of other heroes.

When we approached the mission we thought it was a great opportunity to tell a very specific origin story: a significant event in the complicated relationship between omnics and humans in the Overwatch universe.

As we developed it further, we realized we had the opportunity to also touch on two other origin stories: King's Row, and how the human/omnic relations deteriorated to the point at which we see them in the 'present', and Tracer, who's on her first mission.

Also, as you see in the Uprising comic, it was an opportunity to show what Overwatch was like before the organization was disbanded, and to show the dynamic between the different heroes and some of the challenges they faced.  

TR: Despite the potentially apocalyptic circumstances of the story, if feels like the story overall puts a greater emphasis on the relationships between the characters, are we right about this?

MC: Overwatch, at its core, is a game that revolves around its heroes, and the story is the same way. While the overall story of the brawl is important, it is equally important to us to show how these characters relate to and interact with each other. Showing these relationships is a great way to show different aspects of the heroes that you might not have seen before.

TR: We've seen short trailers to introduce new Heroes like The Heavy in TF2 or Borderland's new character expansions. When a new Overwatch character is introduced we're treated to something that's longer than a Pixar short; what made you guys decide to go with this along with the comics?

MC: The shorts that Blizzard Animation creates are absolutely amazing and bring the world to life at a level of detail that you just don't get through any other storytelling medium. 

Because we didn't have a traditional narrative within the game itself, we thought using these animated shorts would be a great way to convey a sense of world and story.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

TR: Between the comics, video shorts and the game itself, do you feel one medium over another lends itself to better tell a story?

MC: Different storytelling media have different strengths. With the animated shorts, detail, emotional character moments, and action come to life in a way the other storytelling devices can't match. With comics, we can get more characters and locations into a story that would be impractical to do in an animated short. They're very flexible in the kinds of stories we can tell.

We also have the origin stories, where you hear the heroes describe themselves in their own words. They're a great way to learn more about the heroes and what makes them tick.

TR: Do you feel players need to consume all the different media to fully understand the narrative?

MC: To get the fullest picture of what's going on with Overwatch, checking out as many of the different stories as possible definitely gives you the best idea. That said, we hope that if you're only lightly interested in the story and the world, you get just enough to get you by.

TR: Who is your favorite Hero?

MC: I couldn't possibly choose. When I'm playing, I'll usually pick whatever the team needs, but I end up playing Reinhardt, Soldier: 76, Mercy or Lucio the most. I also really enjoyed writing Tracer, Reinhardt, Mercy, and Torbjorn for the Uprising event.

TR: What are some of your biggest inspirations?

MC: The incredibly talented people I get to work with on a daily basis! Collaboration is a tremendous source of ideas, and I feel absolutely blessed to work with them and develop these stories with them. 

And, as Overwatch is based upon Earth, we take a tremendous amount of inspiration from the world we see around us, and the incredible diversity, history, and stories from around the world.

TR: Some of the series' biggest mysteries have still yet to be revealed, including what Talon's ultimate goal is, and Sombra's introduction revealed that yet another someone or something is at the center of the conflict. Intrigue is all well and good, but how soon can players expect to start getting some answers?

MC: We know there's a tremendous appetite for more story, and we're definitely planning to move the story forward, and start providing answers for the many questions that are out there now, and also just to explore some of the other heroes' stories that haven't gotten as much attention.

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Kevin Lee

Kevin Lee was a former computing reporter at TechRadar. Kevin is now the SEO Updates Editor at IGN based in New York. He handles all of the best of tech buying guides while also dipping his hand in the entertainment and games evergreen content. Kevin has over eight years of experience in the tech and games publications with previous bylines at Polygon, PC World, and more. Outside of work, Kevin is major movie buff of cult and bad films. He also regularly plays flight & space sim and racing games. IRL he's a fan of archery, axe throwing, and board games.