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Overwatch and Blizzard's efforts to tell stories in a multiplayer shooter

In a recent chat with Rock Paper Shotgun, Overwatch designer Michael Chu speaks to how the game's writers are learning to work with the community in a sort of "cat-and-mouse" game of storytelling.
We thought it might be interesting – and in some ways this is a bit of a variation on how we’ve developed stories in the past – if we provided more context and threw some ideas out there and put some hints of things and we didn’t specifically do a big lore document...to explain the characters."

- Overwatch senior game designer Michael Chu.

Blizzard debuts its first new IP in more than a decade this week in the form of Overwatch, a team-based multiplayer shooter that foregoes loadouts or classes and instead asks players to play as one of 21 unique named characters.

Up front, each of those characters is little more than a name, a character model and an ability set. But over time, Blizzard has been gradually disseminating character backstories to fans via indirect means: think animated shorts, comics and in-game clues.

This is a bit of a departure from the way Blizzard's writers traditionally produce narrative, according to Overwatch developer Michael Chu, and in a recent interview with Rock Paper Shotgun he sheds some light on how the game's writers are learning to work with the community in a sort of "cat-and-mouse" game.

"It’s something that’s been really interesting because it’s afforded us space to build the universe as we go," Chu said, noting that Overwatch's cast of playable characters grew from 12 to 21 since it was first announced in late 2014. "I know that sounds like we have no idea where we’re going and what we’re doing and we’re just making it up – and to an extent that’s true! But it leaves us space to create connections between the characters and develop a plot as we find out more about it."

Creating plot arcs, relationships and other narrative elements for your game's characters on the fly isn't a new practice -- Blizzard itself probably did a fair bit of this sort of dynamic storytelling in World of Warcraft. Still, Chu's comments are interesting because he both delinates Overwatch's narrative design process as being much more contextual and less direct than many of Blizzard's prior works, and hopes it can have a very practical effect on how people play the game.

"I absolutely hope that people will watch an animated short or read a comic and maybe that insight into the character is enough to convince them to try out a character that maybe they hadn’t been interested in in the past," said Chu. "I hope these external fictional expressions of the game do that."

For more of Chu's comments on how Blizzard is trying to tell stories within the context of a multiplayer shooter, check out the full interview over on RPS.

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