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How Overwatch still stuffs story into a campaign-less game

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Don’t expect to be able to turn off pre-match voice lines any time soon

Blizzard Entertainment

Overwatch has become notorious for being a game with exhaustive lore — almost all of which exists outside of the game itself. During the first Tribeca Games Festival this weekend, senior game designer Michael Chu told the crowd that Blizzard Entertainment still manages to get plenty of lore hints into the game itself, thanks to all those voice lines.

“We had to be really efficient because there weren’t that many places to get story out inside Overwatch,” he told moderators Ben Lindbergh and Jason Concepcion, co-hosts of the Ringer’s Achievement Oriented podcast. “One of the ways that’s most effective is the pre-game dialogue.”

When a match is loading up, characters talk amongst themselves. It’s an easy way for players to get to know Overwatch’s cast, at least a little bit — and even if we predominantly learn two major things about them through this in-game chatter.

“The thing about these characters is, playing the game, you really only know them through two things,” Chu explained. “You know all about their relationship with the payload and how they feel when they eliminate someone.”

(Cue audience mumblings about how no one ever properly escorts the payload.)

For many Overwatch fans, this amount of story-adjacent content isn’t really fulfilling. That’s in part why the game has such a healthy community of fan artists and fan-fiction writers, of which Chu said the team at Blizzard is supportive.

It’s also why Chu and his fellow designers feel that creating all of that supplementary material is important. Even if fans can choose not to engage with Overwatch’s many comics, animated shorts and the like, the tiny hints of characters’ personalities works to “subliminally” compel them into checking out the expanded Overwatch universe.

“One of our goals was, can the Overwatch story — could we put enough interest in or subliminally make you interested in this character so that you’ll say, ‘Oh there’s a comic, I’ll read that,’” Chu explained. “We were hoping that we could coax people into being interested in the universe.

“We are storytellers in addition to game makers, and we felt like we just wanted to have his big universe that people could interact with.”

That outside universe has begun to bleed more directly into the game in some big ways. Last Halloween, the “Junkenstein’s Revenge” event helped usher in narrative-based content into Overwatch for the first time. Chu said that its success was encouraging for the Overwatch team, who sought further opportunities to get players exposed to the game’s story.

The current “Uprising” campaign is the most obvious example of Overwatch’s story and gameplay becoming intertwined. Preceded by a comic that laid out all of the context, the event follows the original members of the Overwatch team on one of their most defining missions. It’s set seven years before the game’s timeline, and it makes plain its narrative significance in ways that the main game does not.

Although these types of events are well-received, Chu recognized that not everyone will ever really care about Overwatch’s greater plot. In the end, it’s a multiplayer shooter, one without any campaign mode or overt story-based component. There are no plans to change that any time soon.

But even if players would rather choose characters based on feel, not personality, and are happy to ignore the expanded Overwatch narrative while playing, Chu said that there will always be some element of story that players will have to endure, whether they like it or not.

“Fortunately for me, they all have to sit and wait for a match to start, so they have to hear those voice lines,” Chu joked. “There’s no way to turn those off yet.”