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Overwatch has the worst writing

I had a really hard time coming up with a title that didn’t just sound like I was being an asshole, but it’s kind of the truth, and it sums up my thesis nicely, so I decided to go with it.

Overwatch is probably the best example of how torpedo a good premise with bad writing in video games.  It actually is a pretty good case study of how bad writing can get with franchises and tie ins, but also how bad storytelling can actually get when the writers are more interested in their setting than their story.  That’s a slight bit of a simplification, because the writing issues with Overwatch are myriad, but it’s the easiest to point to.   It’s not that Overwatch doesn’t have a lot of good story stuff going for it, and in fact it has a whole lot of potential, but unfortunately, almost none of it is well executed and worse, the way information on the story, lore and setting is doled out, it makes it hard to get away, because it always seems like things will improve, or the next revelation will make everything come together.


Copyright Blizzard Entertainment

One of the best parts of Overwatch are the characters.  Most of them are really cool, and all of them are very distinctive.  It’s the thing that makes the game so successful.  Each character is unique and has a distincitve style, and almost no one is a generic soldier or space marine.  Even the edgelord and Call of Duty guy are fun to play, have an interesting enough design that they still seem kind of cool, and they have enough alternate costumes, sprays and voice lines that show that Blizzard can have a bit of fun with them.  When Blizzard’s character game is on, they’re really on, and Overwatch proves it.  I can’t think of a character I actively dislike or think is bad or uninteresting.  Moira, maybe, but the Blackwatch stuff has made me open to the idea she might have something going on for her.  The next coolest thing about it is the setting.  It’s a sort of almost post-cyberpunk setting where the world really looks like it’s getting better.  It’s not there yet, and there are criminal organizations and super villains who are out to make sure it doesn’t get any better, but it really seems like maybe things will work out.  That’s cool, and there’s an optimism here that just hasn’t been seen in big games for the most of the past decade.  Even World of Warcraft, which started as “get a bunch of dudes to kill gods” has just gotten darker and more bloodthirsty over the past few years.

What’s really cool about the setting though is that it’s perhaps the most modern take on super heroes we have, other than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and even that is playing with nearly 60 years of existing stories and concepts.  Overwatch is completely unique in that it’s a super hero setting, but coming in from a completely modern standpoint.  One way I’ve described it to people is that Overwatch is what super heroes would look like if they were invented in 2016 instead of 1938.  Yes, I know this ignores the huge, if weirdly invisible, impact super heroes, especially Superman, has had on popular western culture over the past 100 years, but whatever, that’s not materiel to this discussion.  It’s a very cool idea, and it’s separated super heroes from tights, or their modern kevlar, but kept the heroics and colorful, individualistic costumes that make super heroes so cool.  I like that.

Unfortunately, it’s also sort of the major problem.  Most of the biggest questions about Overwatch come from its setting, and despite the game existing for nearly two years, we know almost nothing about the world, and that’s all that’s been focused on.  There’s a comic series that’s detailing the supposed plot of the game, but issues seem to come out about once every 3 or 4 months, and all of them have been half of a story and a cliff hanger, which is terrible to do for comics anyway.  It seems like terrible web comics from the mid-2000s, not a multimedia franchise made by a giant company that has made almost a billion dollars.  That comic series is pretty bad about not releasing information, but the biggest issue is that there are no revelations for the characters, they know all this shit, it’s only the viewers that are in the dark.

Here’s the thing about stories, they’re about people.  Humans like to write about humans, and so we make stories that are about people.  The thing that makes mystery stories interesting is that the detective doesn’t know what’s going on at the beginning of the story, and they have revelations throughout the story.  Sure, there may be some thrilling moments, but that’s not what it’s about, and we all know it.  Other than cape comics, the closest analogue Overwatch has are espionage books, and sometimes it’s cool for Nick Fury to have all the answers, but he’s rarely the main character, and when he is, he’s going to be thrown through enough loops that even when he knows what’s up, he’s never quite sure.  Espionage and mystery utilize mysteries and their revelations for both the character and the audience to make them interesting.  Can you cheat or change with the formula?  Sure, but you still need to make the reveals to and for the characters within the fiction.  That’s not going to be a big thing here.  Jack has a pretty good idea of what Gabe is up to, and the only thing that’s thrown him through a loop is that Ana is actually alive, and I’m falling asleep while I’m writing this.


Copyright White Wolf Studios

This is the same thing White Wolf did in the 90s.  There were tons of mysteries and hidden lore spread throughout the books, but they wouldn’t tell anyone.  A bunch of characters knew, including characters the DM (sorry, “the Storyteller”) could conceivable play as, but they didn’t release anything until they got to it on their schedule.  Until it was revealed as part of the “metaplot,” which is a controversial enough topic as is, no one at the table, even the Storyteller, would have all of the answers.  Overwatch may not have the same specific issue, but it falls into the same problems.  The “storytelling” isn’t about building the interesting characters or giving them something to do, it’s about doling out more and more information about “lore” or the “setting” while the actual story, of what little there is, can spin its wheels  forever.

There are times you can have it where all of the characters know, but the audience doesn’t, sure.  Genji and Hanzo are a perfect example, and if they actually got any story time, maybe it would be cool to see revelations as they crossed paths and they got to contemplate what they did to each other.  Each time we got a story beat or a character moment, we could reveal more of the past.  This isn’t what they’re doing.  Instead, we get some things teased, some ideas thrown about, and then nothing for months or years on end.  Genji and Hanzo isn’t even an egregious problem, either.  Most of what Overwatch has done publicly in the setting is still unknown to the player.  The players and fans know less about the world and the character they play as than a random kid on the street.  That was great for the one video, but that was a teaser, it doesn’t work when the game has been out for 24 months.

The latest update, Retribution, is one of the catalyzing events for Overwatch shutting down (another major thing that’s important to the story, but the player still knows little about) and while it’s very cool this scenario is played out in a great PvE format, it’s also kind of shitty that this huge event has more or less been a secret to the players for years.  We’ve known about Blackwatch from the beginning, and it’s understood they had clandestine operations, and we did know that the clandestine ops were one of the things that caused Jack and Gabe to drift apart, but this was something that was out in public and we knew nothing about it.  It’s what caused everything to go bad, and it’s what literally caused some of the tension in last year’s PvE event, but we’ve only ever gotten hints about it.

Also, and this is nitpicking at this point, but this just raises more questions.  I can understand why this is Gabe’s start of darkness, so to speak, but why did he wind up joining Talon?  He and Moira are not great people at the start of this, but they also have no problem gunning down tons of Talon soldiers in the Italian streets.  He killed the bad guy at the beginning of the mission because he hates Talon so much, and what they stand for and how he can’t stop them.  He gets pissed off because his buddy, Gerard nearly dies, except Gerard’s wife, Amelie will later get kindapped and brainwashed by Talon, and then she’ll murder Gerard.  Gabe works with Amelie now, after she killed Gerard.  What the fuck is going on?  Like, I can understand having a falling out because Gerard got pissed Gabe broke international law and assassinated a dude, but why would he switch sides and join his hated enemies?  This is like Snake Eyes joining Cobra levels of weird because he got made at Duke.  Or it would be like, and this is a better example, if in the CGI TMNT movie, Raphael had become a member of the Foot Clan after Leonardo left instead of just becoming a vigilante.  Like, there’s got to be a reason, but we don’t know what it is, but Gabe totally does, so fuck us, right?


How to make the best of the weakest parts: Mass Effect Andromeda


Copyright Bioware and Electronic Arts

Before we begin, I will spoil literally everything about Mass Effect Andromeda here.  If you have not completed it, please do not read any of this article.  I don’t have time to put any other spoiler warning up, so keep that in mind.

So, the Kett were pretty much the weakest part of Mass Effect Andromeda.  The Archon was basically a giant missed opportunity and the rest of the Kett were basically just a redeux of the Reapers, by way of the Borg.  That was actually kind of lame, especially after so much build up and an attempt to give them something of an identity through a pretty good extended side quest.  Here’s the thing though, the Kett might actually be good for Mass Effect in the long term, and would actually be able to fill the exact same niche as the Reapers, while doing it a lot better than they ever did.  It won’t even be that hard.

Before Andromeda, the Reapers were the weakest part of Mass Effect, for a lot of reasons.  The conversation with Sovereign on Virmire is one of the best science fiction scenes I have ever experienced.  “You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it.”  It’s an insane line, one of the best in the series (up there with “Had to be me, someone else might have gotten it wrong.”) and nothing ever lives up to it.  No interaction with the Reapers, through the rest of the next two games, any of the comics or the terrible tie in novels, manage to reach the heights that the discussion with Sovereign manages to do.  After that, the Reapers are pretty much faceless Elder God rip offs, and also manage to contradict all of the cool things Sovereign said.   It would be impossible, actually, to match up with what he said and manage to have a coherent story, but it’s still ultimately disappointing.


Image copyright Bioware/Electronic Arts. Also, the Reapers never manage to be this cool, again, either.

The game, from then on, becomes entirely about the Reapers, and they take over the narrative, but they’re not very interesting.  They also contradict themselves a lot, never living up to their promised potential, but what’s really boring about them is that they have no identity.  In a series where the “humanization,” for literally lacking a better term, of the alien is a major theme in the story, the Reapers stand apart.  While that was probably the thematic point of the Reapers, it doesn’t work for them.  Sovereign, and to a much lesser extent, Harbinger, try to act as the “face” or identity of the Reapers, nothing gives them any sense of character.  Even the Geth, who are also synthetic beings with a gestalt mind, get a lot more personality.  They’re given goals, identities and characters, as well as an engaging backstory, that allows them to grow beyond being simple death machines that ran the cute engineer girl’s people off of their home planet.  They exist simply to be an antagonist (and then they burn the setting down as one final “fuck you” to Drew Karpshyn), lacking any nuance or narrative interest.  In short, they’re boring.  Also, they don’t really fit with the rest of the setting.

The Kett are basically the Reapers 2.0.  The Reapers show up, eat everything to make them a part of who they are, are an implacable army of destruction and their power is so much greater, the Council species barely have a fighting chance (and then they don’t because at the end, someone half remembered some of the things Sovereign said in that awesome conversation you had with him on Virmire).  The Kett manage to be exactly that.  However, they have one thing that makes them different from the Reapers.  Also from the Borg, to which they are also quite similar.  See, the Kett are people.  Yeah, they have their old lives stripped of them and there’s this quasi-religious element to their new identity that forces them to live this creepily Spartan lifestyle, but this seems to be cultural, not genetic.  The few Kett we get a chance to interact with have their own unique personalities and are basically people.  Terrible people, sure, but they’re people.

This is where it works.  Since we can actually interact with them, they can fit into the Mass Effect paradigm really well.  If we can get some actual interesting Kett characters, even if they’re bad guys that we have no chance of managing to get on our side, they can be compelling and interesting.  Someone who genuinely sees Ryder as a rival, maybe even like how General Kang was to Captain Kirk, as an example, or maybe take that religious aspect the Archon had and make something with it.  Like a Paladin type character, a crusader, who is convinced it’s her holy duty to destroy the Initiative.  There’s a lot to play with, and that makes them interesting.  By making them people, it does mean that the game is never going to get the epic scene with Sovereign, but if that means we get to have human villains with thoughts, dreams and desires, as well as a way to deal with them that, potentially, isn’t violence (even if one can’t come up in the game), that makes for a better overall experience.  I’m willing to sacrifice that one moment for a longer term goal.

I’m back and I’m rested

I took the past week off to rest a little bit.  Work had become really stressful and while I had some time to update over Thanksgiving break, I decided to take the time off to have a complete brain reboot.  I had just gotten way too tired and I figured that would be the best way to keep myself from going completely mad.  In the meantime, I managed to beat Dragon Age: Origins the first time, so I’ll have a review up on Thursday.  I also saw Boondock Saints 2: All Saints Day, and I’ll have a review of that tomorrow.

In the meantime, I’ve mentioned a few times over the past couple of months that I’m replaying Final Fantasy XII.  Although it’s a controversial game in the series, Final Fantasy XII is my favorite Final Fantasy game.  It’s a bittersweet tale of magic and wonder, weaving dark political intrigue with traditional fantasy, dungeonpunk and some science fiction to tell a truly epic tale of love, revenge and politics.  I’ve mentioned many times that the setting really lets my imagination soar, but what really draws me in is the almost sorrowful way the game tells its story.  It has a happy ending, it is a Final Fantasy game after all, but there is a lot of  sadness in this game, and the characters are forced to sacrifice a lot.

Almost two years ago, a friend of mine once mused that all of the best stories are sad, even if they have happy endings.  I didn’t want to accept it at first, but the truth is, we don’t really accept “…and they lived happily ever after” as a legitimate ending after we’re 3 years old (because that’s the point in life we can start to ask “and then what happens?”).  I think part of the reason for this is because conflict is what makes stories interesting, and conflict will inevitably lead to some undesired outcome for at least one participant, but that’s not the real reason.  As humans, we have to sacrifice a lot to get where we are.  Not just time or money, but sometimes we have to give up things we truly love to get to a better place in our lives.  Sometimes it’s a hobby or something simple, or something important like a loved one.  When a protagonist reaches a better point without ever giving anything up, I think we feel cheated.

One of my favorite game of all time is Final Fantasy VI.  At the end, for reasons I’d rather not get into for spoilers, magic has to fade away from the world in order to save it from the psychotic clown Kefka.  It’s such a haunting and sad ending, but hopeful.  I played it when I was in high school, years and years after it came out, but it had a very profound affect on me, and it made me realize how much a heroic character will have to sacrifice to do what must be done.  After I finished that game, I had a better understanding of fiction, writing and characterization.

My three favorite games of the sixth generation of video game consoles were Jak II, Final Fantasy XII and Radiata Stories.  All of them had the heroes giving up something and sacrificing something they loved more than anything in the multiverse to do the right thing and save the world and help others.  I think that’s one of the many reasons why I loved those games.