Mechanical storytelling: How Overwatch creates character through mechanics

Overwatch’s roster of characters is one of the most memorable in the history of shooters, and for good reason. They all have incredible designs and interesting backstories. While most of the game’s lore is kept to fan websites, Overwatch’s roster is strong and memorable because it doesn’t necessarily need lore dumps to get players acquainted with the personalities of the cast. Instead, it uses mechanical storytelling to show us who these people are.

Mechanical storytelling is when you express a narrative concept through a mechanical one. You might not think this factors into games much, but every player has an instinctive positive reaction toward characters that use mechanical storytelling well, and a negative reaction toward those who use it poorly. Think about it this way – would Mercy really feel right if she used a mini-gun? Would Reinhardt feel right if he used a pistol? Should Junkrat fly? Should Mei use a knife? All of these situations just seem wrong, don’t they?

When mechanical storytelling is done well, the player is able to operate their character in the way the character would operate absent the player. Reckless maniacs are rewarded for spraying and praying, while cunning assassins are rewarded for waiting, watching, and calculating. It makes players more naturally fall into the role of the character they are playing. This is also why Overwatch’s competitors sometimes struggle. Incongruous character design leads to faults in mechanical storytelling, which then leads to a natural aversion to characters in the roster. Case in point, why does Battleborn’s vampire use katanas?

As an introduction to the concept, we have gone through the entire Overwatch roster and highlighted some interesting bits of mechanical storytelling for each character. Check them out and let us know if you’ve noticed any interesting tidbits of narrative tucked away in the mechanics of Blizzard’s popular shooter.

Tracer

Tracer is an experimental test pilot, not a soldier. She has an adventurous personality that comes with a similar degree of recklessness. This is expressed through her targeting reticle, which is wider than most characters. Her aim is not great, so she has to run right into the heat of battle in order to land hits. The player has to play her recklessly, using her time powers to rewind her mistakes. Her ultimate creates a huge AOE explosion – once again, something that largely targets an area instead of a precise target. This gives her a “shoot first, shoot second, shoot third and see what works” style of play, which fits her somewhat reckless and upbeat personality.

Sombra

Sombra is similarly not a soldier, she is a hacker. She uses information as a weapon, not force. As such, she has the lowest damage output of any offensive hero in the game. While her health isn’t horrible, she won’t survive a straightforward assault. So the player has to use her camo ability to flank the opponent. Doing so naturally gives her information about where the opponent is going and how they are fighting, allowing her to relay this information to the team. Her opportunistic passive ability similarly gives her info. Sombra’s effectiveness in battle is directly related to how often she can go undetected, which fits her underground lifestyle.

Soldier: 76

Many players joke about how Soldier: 76 feels like he’s straight out of a Call of Duty game, but this was done on purpose. His assault rifle forces him to play at mid-range. His ability to self-heal makes him take advantage of cover in order to regenerate health. His ability to sprint feels exactly like the ability to sprint in COD – a burst of speed in exchange for temporary vulnerability, which comes through in the inability to raise his gun. That’s exactly what 76’s personality is, a soldier, and so he plays like one.

Reaper

The first thing that stands out about Reaper is the way he reloads. He tosses his guns aside, which conveys a certain attitude toward the resources he has available to him. The guns, just like people, are expendable. Reaper is also a former black ops soldier, and his power-set forces you to teleport, flank, and ambush opponents. His ability to turn into a ghost also gives him a feeling of being “unfair” as he is unable to be hit while using this ability. He breaks the rules, which characterizes him as a villain.

Pharah

Pharah is a security officer, which makes her a natural protector. By giving her the ability to hover, she effectively gains more information than most members of her team. From a high vantage point, Pharah can cut off an enemy’s approach with her rockets, which hit with such force that they will knock the enemy off their path. She has to lead them though, due to the rocket’s travel time, which forces her to predict where the opponent will be. She also has to aim for terrain in order to hit her opponents with splash damage. Her ability to target the areas she wants to push the opponent away from gives her a guardian feel.

McCree

McCree is a cowboy and a former outlaw. It goes without saying that his Six Shooter and Fan the Hammer abilities easily fit that characterization. High Noon also effectively recreates the feeling of a standoff in an old Western movie. All of this is rather self-explanatory and easy to see, but what isn’t as easy to see is the subtle way Blizzard stresses McCree’s redemptive story arc. McCree’s single shots do 20-70 damage, not a whole lot, but enough to be at the high end of per-bullet damage. This makes it difficult for him to go shot for shot at mid-range with other characters, especially if they start from a full health bar. However, it makes it easy for him to pick off low-health characters from a relatively safe distance. This forces him to engage with characters that other players are already engaged with, pushing him to be a productive member of the team, which is exactly what his character arc is all about: joining Overwatch to atone for his past crimes.

Genji

Genji is half man, half machine, a being stuck between two worlds and still adjusting to his own existence. So Blizzard tried to make his skills all feel somewhat incongruous. His throwing stars don’t quite act like a gun or a thrown projectile, but something in between. While they are useful from afar, his swift strike is only useful up close. Alongside these offensive powers, his deflect skill is a purely defensive power, requiring him to get directly into the line of fire to be useful. His abilities all feel, for lack of a better term, patchworked, much like his body, though they all seem to be based on speed and precision, which fits his ninja-like character.

Widowmaker

Once again, Widowmaker’s flavor is very obvious. She’s an assassin, so she uses a sniper rifle, poison, a grappling hook, and so on. Her cold blooded nature is reflected in her ability to wait out a shot, line it up, and fire, doing an incredible amount of damage. Unfortunately, not much of her backstory in being a sleeper agent is expressed in her mechanics. While an interesting character, she is one of the weaker examples of mechanical storytelling.

Torbjorn

Torbjorn is an engineer. He is a planner, not a fighter. Obviously, this is translated through his turret-based gameplay, which rewards him for understanding map layout. However, his personality is also translated to his rivet shooter. It’s a non-hitscan projectile that fires forward and in an arc. It’s one of the most powerful guns in the game, but it’s also the hardest to aim. This means that Torbjorn has to plan every shot. He isn’t like Widowmaker, a calculating planner that sits and waits, but rather someone who plans on the fly, lining up each shot as best he can. While his armor comes from scrap gathered from enemies, the enemies are usually killed by his teammates. This translates to a feeling of picking up the spoils of war and converting them into tools for your teammates.

Mei

Mei is a pacifist and an environmentalist. She is one of the characters that is as far away from being a soldier as possible, and it shows in that she isn’t very effective at killing people. Her most damaging shot takes an incredibly long time to charge up. But her slowing abilities enable her to participate in battle in a more passive way. In general, she is most useful when she freezes an enemy or area and runs away. This reinforces the idea that she really doesn’t want to be in the heart of battle. Her wall ability further keeps the battle from coming to her. In a sense, Blizzard didn’t outfit her with different ways to fight, but rather with different ways to make the enemy not fight, fitting her pacifist motif.

Junkrat

Junkrat is wild, unpredictable, and insane, and thus his weapons are all wild, unpredictable, and insane. His bouncing grenades are hard to predict but have a large AOE, which encourages the player to fire them wildly around an area. His mine requires a bit of planning, but can also be used on himself to enhance his mobility, making him one of the few characters in the game that benefits from targeting themselves with their own damage dealing weapons. His tire forces him to stay still, but it’s unwieldy, unable to stop, and has stiff turning controls. Using it is more of a rush for the player than his opponents, as he has to steer the tire past enemy fire and into a position to do AOE damage in a matter of seconds.

Hanzo

Hanzo is atoning for beating his brother nearly to death and, to express this, Overwatch keeps him out of melee range at all times. One of the “snipers” of the game, Hanzo does best from a distance. However, since he doesn’t have a scope he can’t simply sit and wait like Widowmaker can, which would translate the wrong personality to the player. Instead, he has to play at mid to long range and is constantly firing off arrows at his targets, which makes him an active battle participant and never allows him to take the coward’s way out. His role as a sniper also leads him to protect others as he lands headshots on near-dead opponents who are in other skirmishes, something else that serves to make him feel like a protector, not a brute. Contrast his abilities to Widowmaker’s, which are all about getting the kill on a single target. Hanzo’s abilities, such as his bouncing arrow and his ultimate, are all about area denial, conveying the idea that he is giving up an offensive lifestyle for a more honorable defensive one.

Bastion

Bastion is a relic from an age long past, a battle robot that fought in a long lost war. Compared to the other Omnic characters, Bastion is an inferior piece of technology. This is reflected in the way he moves when out of turret mode. He is slow, clunky, and hard to handle, with a weapon that is just worse than other similar weapons in the game. He is best when in turret mode, and this lends itself to a very robotic and methodical system of gameplay. Move, stop, fire, stop, move, stop, heal, stop, move, and so on. Bastion is all about switching in and out of discrete modes of operation and not multitasking, reflecting Blizzard’s attempt to personify him as an expendable battle robot.

Zarya

Zarya’s motif is strength, both offensively and defensively. She is one of the most offensive tanks in the game, which fits that motif well. She does a lot of damage, and her shields allow her to take a lot of damage and deal more back. Her abilities all hit with oomph, with grenades being her primary method of dealing damage. The fact that her primary health shields regenerate means that she is never too far from the battlefield, making her a constant presence that is willing to throw herself at wave after wave of enemies.

Winston

Winston may be a tank, but he is no fighter. He is a scientist… and an ape. He uses technology to compensate for his own lack of battle skill. His gun auto targets and his shield protects him and his opponents. His other abilities are more related to his super ape strength, rather than his battle acuity. Winston patches together a fighting style with brains and brawn, a style characterized by thoughtful positional planning and spurts of outright aggression.

Roadhog

Roadhog’s main motif is intimidation. He wants his opponents to be scared when he is around. His very presence puts other characters in danger, as his hook followed by a shotgun blast one hit kills most characters who aren’t tanks. He is, essentially, a bully, pulling and pushing other characters around as he likes with his chain and ultimate. He throws his weight around, if you know what I mean. Unfortunately, his story isn’t too deep, and as a result his mechanical motifs aren’t quite as deep either.

Reinhardt

Reinhardt is a knight and a defender, and if his gigantic shield didn’t immediately strike you as the centerpiece of his motif, then you aren’t a very good Reinhardt player. Though Reinhardt has the brawn to spare, the game forces you to play him as a protector. But unlike Hanzo or Pharah, which defend players through area denial, Reinhardt defends them much more directly by telling them to get behind his shield. He has a noble personality, never backing down from a fight, and so the rest of his abilities are all situated to get him on the front lines, dashing into enemies and smashing them with his hammer. His lack of long range capabilities forces you to lead the charge and, in a very real way, Reinhardt sets the pace for the rest of the team, just like a battle commander.

D.Va

D. Va is a gamer and a mech pilot, and so her characterization shares a lot with Bastion. She is meant to feel mechanical, her different abilities not leaking into each other. Dashing, shielding, and shooting cannot be done at the same time. Contrast this to her control scheme while she is on foot and can run, shoot, and strafe with the best of them. These two distinct control schemes give D. Va two distinct personalities, which draws a clear character difference between her mech and her body. As for her cocky personality, her tank shields her from harm but its guns require her to get up close and personal for accuracy, so she is always at the forefront of a battle. In addition, her ultimate is best used after a dash, allowing her to blow up her mech by chucking it into an enemy group. This borderline insane maneuver gives off the feeling of watching a MLG pro highlight reel, a combination of mechanics that would get a commentator clipping the mic with his screams of delight.

Zenyatta

Zenyatta’s theme is balance, specifically of Yin and Yang. While the idea of Yin and Yang is actually rather complex, the popular consensus views them as light and dark, order and chaos, good and evil, violence and peace, so on so forth. This is why Zenyatta is a support character (a “healer”), but is the most offensive healer of the bunch. His two orbs are exact opposites. One attaches to enemies and debuffs them, while another attaches to allies and buffs them. His primary fire fires single projectiles rapidly, allowing him to spray damage at his enemies, while his secondary fire charges up and fires all at once, which requires precise aim. Zenyatta is best played in two different modes, one which goes offensive, sticking by the enemy, another which stays defensive, waiting on the back lines and keeping your party healed.

Symmetra

Symmetra hates disorder and is a bit of a neat freak. Thus, all of her abilities are keyed toward keeping the battlefield orderly. Her close range turrets block out an area of the battlefield where it is relatively safe to fight. Her most damaging projectile has a gigantic charge time and travels across the map slowly, so she, more than anyone, needs to know exactly where the opponent is going to be in order to deal any sort of decent damage. Even her job as an architect is expressed through her abilities. Creating a teleporter essentially builds a new path through the level that didn’t exist there before.

Mercy

Mercy is another character whose personality is very obviously conveyed through mechanical storytelling. She is a doctor, and her abilities are all geared toward healing. She is the most dedicated healer in the entire support cast. All of her abilities force her to stick close to other members of the party. Her resurrection ability even ties into her somewhat dark backstory involving Soldier: 76 and Reaper. While I’d like to go into a deeper analysis of Mercy, there just isn’t much there. She’s a guardian angel who heals people, in game and in narrative.

Lucio

Lucio is another character in the cast without any real battle experience. His backstory is completely centered around his rise to fame and his ability to rally people to a cause. As a leader of a movement, Lucio is more comfortable motivating others to action than taking action himself. This is expressed through his auras. His speed aura lets him get around the map to where he is needed, and his healing aura and ultimate ability empower everyone around him. His offensive abilities are not much compared to other characters in the game; however he does have the ability to push people with his sonic gun. This lets Lucio decide who gets to be a part of the crowd and who doesn’t.

Ana

According to the story, Ana is supposed to be dead. She has been hiding her presence from both allies and enemies since her supposed assassination. To mirror this in the game, Ana is able to affect the battlefield without being on it at all. If she hides on the backlines and uses her sniper rifle, she can deal damage, debuff, and heal her allies. As another guardian-style figure, Ana has a number of abilities that allow her teammates to shine, from her ultimate that increases their stats to her sleep dart which allows characters with powerful one shot attacks to pick off opponents.

What do you think? Did you notice any other examples of mechanical storytelling in Overwatch? How do you think character’s stats and abilities portray their personality? Let us know in the comments.