overwatch-characters-short-stories-ACMI.jpeg
A still from Overwatch (Activision Blizzard International BV, USA, 2015) featuring the characters audiences have come to love through online world building.
Stories & Ideas

Fri 04 Sep 2020

Making the world care about the characters in Overwatch

AnimationInternet culturePop cultureVideogames
Maria Lewis
Maria Lewis

Assistant Film Curator

Multiplatform storytelling, inspired fandoms and world-class world building gives Overwatch the edge over others videogames.

Few games have managed to infiltrate the pop lexicon quicker than Overwatch, with the first-person shooter seemingly becoming an overnight sensation. It was the global hit news anchors were bringing up on breakfast television and an entire conversation could be sparked just by muttering the word ‘Overwatch’. Pop culture conventions were dominated with cosplayers recreating their favourite characters like D.Va and Tracer in real-life, while the internet was populated with fanart featuring OTPs (one true pairings) and aspirational ships (short for relationships). That kind of dedicated, obsessive following is what most properties can only dream off. For the game’s developer Blizzard Entertainment, it was the realisation of a carefully implemented and creative strategy executed through a series of animated short films, which represents a unique multiplatform approach to publicising the game. With limited space for narrative inside the mechanics of a first-person shooter, players became invested in the colourful cast of characters through the shorts, which were released as bonus content. From tragic backstories to star-crossed romances, Blizzard made sure their millions of users weren’t just invested in playable avatars, they were invested in characters.

Thanks to the popularity of their franchises Warcraft, Diablo and StarCraft, Blizzard had established themselves as one of the most successful videogame developers in the business. Those games all had complex, detailed worlds which were fleshed out with in-game storytelling. With Overwatch, however, the company took a different approach. At BlizzCon – a convention dedicated to all things Blizzard – in 2015, the game’s cinematic trailer director Jeff Chamberlain spoke about how they were intending to flesh out the extended universe of the game through other forms of media like the animated shorts and graphic novels.

“A long time ago we realised it doesn’t have a linear storyline, like other games we do,” he said on stage at the event. “So recently Blizz has been doing storytelling outside of the game, for Draenor and Legacy of the Void, so we have a precedent for short animations outside the game.” The first of these was placed on their YouTube channel in March 2016 in the lead up to the release of the game to the wider public in May of that same year. Titled Recall, it followed the origin story of Winston, a baby gorilla who believes in a better world. Scientifically engineered, he’s one of the game’s playable characters – which all the shorts would focus on – and had been used heavily in marketing by the company up to that point.

Overwatch Animated Short | "Recall" via the PlayOverwatch YouTube channel

Although the games released by Blizzard had always been of the highest level, the shorts represented a new level for the company: one that immediately drew comparisons to Pixar for the quality of animation and storytelling demonstrated. In the course of eight minutes, Winston went from being a bad-ass looking gorilla soldier on the surface to a complex character full of nuance, heart and pain. Four shorts were released in the first year of the game’s life, with each one taking up to eight months from initial storyboards to polished product. With two to three in development simultaneously, storylines would intersect with other characters and often shorts would feature Easter eggs that helped colour in other parts of the Overwatch universe in the form of newspaper articles, cameos, radio and television reports. Garnering millions of views with each short, they were categorised into seasons and had the two-pronged appeal of giving fans more of a particularly beloved character while also helping attract a fanbase for those characters that weren’t as obviously popular. For instance, one of the most memorable was the seventh short to be released, Rise and Shine, which premiered in 2017 and told the tragic backstory of Mei. From the death of all her colleagues in a freak cryosleep accident to the introduction of her robotic assistant Snowball, it added texture to unseen parts of her journey and character design.

“Overwatch doesn’t really have a story,” wrote IGN’s Lucy O’Brien in 2017. “Not while you’re playing it, anyway … It is, for all intents and purposes, utter nonsense, but it’s video game nonsense, which we forgive. Outside of play, Overwatch has a million stories. There its delightfully unruly headcanon, where unlikely couples end up in bed and the space and time continuum can be bent into any shape fans want. But there’s also its official lore, born from stunning Pixar-esque standalone shorts, that have informed the way we view these characters and their relationships, and moved us in the process.”

The shorts continue to shade-in details for playable avatars that could be as simple as just ‘bad guy’, ‘good guy’ and ‘humanoid animal guy’. Widowmaker, for example, should be the archetype cold-blooded femme fatale and Tracer the overzealous do-gooder if not for the shorts Alive and Infiltration. The internet’s Oscars – the Webby Awards - named the first season of animated shorts as an Honoree in the Animation in 2016, with Blizzard engaging with their millions of fans by releasing hero style guides to assist in the creation of fanart. The shorts have also continued to connect, with the third season concluding in 2019 with Baptiste and Sigma’s origin stories as the upcycle for Overwatch 2 begins. The thought Blizzard put into what isn’t seen during gameplay helped enhance the experience of players, so much so it has set the standard for what other game companies can do with worldbuilding in the age of the internet.

-Maria Lewis

Overwatch Animated Short | “Alive” via the PlayOverwatch YouTube channel

Overwatch doesn’t really have a story,” wrote IGN’s Lucy O’Brien in 2017. “Not while you’re playing it, anyway … It is, for all intents and purposes, utter nonsense, but it’s video game nonsense, which we forgive. Outside of play, Overwatch has a million stories. There its delightfully unruly headcanon, where unlikely couples end up in bed and the space and time continuum can be bent into any shape fans want. But there’s also its official lore, born from stunning Pixar-esque standalone shorts, that have informed the way we view these characters and their relationships, and moved us in the process.”

The shorts continue to shade-in details for playable avatars that could be as simple as just ‘bad guy’, ‘good guy’ and ‘humanoid animal guy’. Widowmaker, for example, should be the archetype cold-blooded femme fatale and Tracer the overzealous do-gooder if not for the shorts Alive and Infiltration. The internet’s Oscars – the Webby Awards - named the first season of animated shorts as an Honoree in the Animation in 2016, with Blizzard engaging with their millions of fans by releasing hero style guides to assist in the creation of fanart. The shorts have also continued to connect, with the third season concluding in 2019 with Baptiste and Sigma’s origin stories as the upcycle for Overwatch 2 begins. The thought Blizzard put into what isn’t seen during gameplay helped enhance the experience of players, so much so it has set the standard for what other game companies can do with worldbuilding in the age of the internet.

-Maria Lewis

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