It was Tuesday afternoon and a group of co-workers and I are debating the game of the year. I find myself in the odd position of defending Overwatch, when suddenly a co-worker exclaims: "The game doesn't even have a story!"
Hmm. That's not right! #Overwatch's characters are so great! They have vibrant and diverse personalities, each with their own dramatic flair. But then I realized that almost everything I know about the characters comes from out of game content. Maybe there's something to this.
Overwatch's win for Game of the Year at #TheGameAwards isn't especially divisive, its obviously a great game, but many fans claim games like Dishonored 2 or Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (sequels, much?) were more deserving because of their deeper narrative.
I freaking love Overwatch, and think gameplay wise it's not only the best game this year, but one of the best games to come out in several years. But how did we get to the point where a character-driven FPS has no story, no narrative, and no campaign, and yet not only do we love its characters, but decide it's the best game we had all year?
Storytelling and Spectacle Make Games Great
I don't necessarily want to wade in waist deep to the argument for or against video games as art, but I think its pretty clear that there are ways to tell compelling stories through video games that are inherently different than film or TV. Games like Heavy Rain, The Last of Us, Gone Home, and Uncharted have proved this time and time again.
And if we're saying that video games are an art form, doesn't that involve storytelling or at least spectacle on some level? Even a game like #Journey, that didn't have a clear cut narrative as such, was still a visually stunning and emotional journey.
In many ways, the greater world of Overwatch does tell a story. Blizzard supports their game universe with shorts, wiki content, comics, and other experiences. But it's all a few steps removed from the game itself—none of this is actually found once I queue up and start playing.
Why did Blizzard take this approach?
It's Easier To Separate Games From Their Story
I didn't fully comprehend how wide-spread this idea had perforated until I read this outstanding article about why Final Fantasy XV: Kingsglaive should have been part of the core Final Fantasy XV story, and not a standalone product. I have been playing through #FinalFantasyXV over the past week and this quote exemplifies a huge flaw with this particular instance of out of game storytelling:
"Paying more than a game's retail price for a complete experience isn't acceptable."
There are many other subsequent points made in that particular article, and they ring true. The beginning of Final Fantasy XV is really out of place when we consider what's happening in the rest of the kingdom as explored in Kingsglaive, and the separation of the two products really denies us the true depth of the story when playing through FFXV. It's a great point that Cody brings up, but I actually don't think he went far enough.
If a company is marketing a game to me, shouldn't the game itself be a complete experience regardless of price tag?
The reality of the situation is that it's easier for companies to make bite-sized cinematics or even full length feature films, when they aren't restricted by the format of the game they want to make. While it's less troublesome for a game like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XV (RPGs) for a multiplayer competitive shooter like Overwatch, it is a lot harder to find ways to integrate narrative.
But it's odd that the depth and color of Overwatch's characters is part of what draws people to the game, but little of that attachment is done through the game itself.
Episodic Shorts Are Cool, But They Are NOT Video Games
This isn't to say that out-of-game experiences are bad for gaming, or are bad quality—quite the opposite. Companies like #RiotGames and #Blizzard produce out-of-game shorts and lore drops that are simply stunning. Over the past few years they have mastered the art of cinematic storytelling.
But even though this content adds to the gamer experience, these shorts are not video games. When I am playing a new game in 2017, to what extent am I supposed to search for the story outside of my game experience? Is that an expectation? Should I be okay just watching a movie to understand more about the video game I'm playing?
Shouldn't I be playing through that experience?
Video Games Are Best When Interactive
While there are a few exceptions, this type of episodic content isn't interactive in any way—they're more akin to TV or film than video games. And don't get me wrong, that's great! It's only more impressive that these game studios have mastered storytelling in different mediums, but I feel like there's still something to be said for being to tell stories in video games as part of the core experience, and in the genre of the game you've made.
And I'm not sure I'm comfortable with moving away from traditional interactive storytelling in video games.
Think of a game like Titanfall 2. The original game was multiplayer only, but for the sequel, Respawn built out a lengthy campaign telling a story that built attachment to the world and its characters. Yes, it was likely a ton of extra work, but look at the results—the game has been even more critically acclaimed than it's rivals Call of Duty and Battlefield, and much of that is owed to the single-player experience.
Multiplayer And Story Modes Are Not Mutually Exclusive
It's not like Blizzard is foreign to interactive storytelling. Just think back to WarCraft and StarCraft - two franchises that were successful because of their in game storytelling experiences.
Who can forget when Arcturus Mengsk abandoned Sarah Kerrigan to be ripped apart by the Zerg in StarCraft? This scene was even more powerful because it was your base that was getting overrun and Kerrigan was a character you controlled over the course of a half hour mission, and a lengthy Terran campaign.
And this is the missing piece of the puzzle.
Blizzard does get its point across to many players. For instance, I know Hanzo and Genji are brothers now, and there's some deeper incident that caused their rift, but what? And what if I never wandered to the right video to see this incident? I have completely lost out on depth of the game's narrative, and at no fault of my own.
When even primarily multiplayer games like The Division have built deep narratives, it becomes less excusable that other AAA titles don't also have them baked into their gameplay, even if the narrative it isn't the game's primary focus.
Overwatch is still a great game, I'll still play it basically forever, but I still think there's something to be said about the art of storytelling through gameplay. And the game of the year should probably utilize the video game medium in the best ways possible.
What do you think? Do want stories in your multiplayer games? Have games grown beyond story modes? Let us know in the comments below!