Monday, April 17, 2017

Relationships in Overwatch

People love people. People love to learn about the complex interactions that happen between other people. When it comes to video games, a very quick way to grab your audience’s attention is to give them characters to invest their mental energy into, and leaving them blanks to fill in will keep them invested into the long term.

Overwatch is a multiplayer FPS title that has risen to popularity based on its excellent use of relationships, both narratively and in game design. In this article, I want to examine how Overwatch represents its relationships in a minimalist fashion while still giving its audience enough meat that they don’t go hungry. Let’s dive in!

To start, I want to look at Ana and Pharah. Ana is a former leader of Overwatch who earned the respect of her peers through years of working together. She is the type of person who will defend what is right, even if it means breaking a few rules along the way. Pharah is a scrappy young fighter who aspires to join Overwatch and defend justice with a rigid strength learned from her powerful mother. She is a cop through-and-through. No nonsense power and strength that will fight for what is right at all costs. While Ana will bend any rules to defend what she believes is right, Pharah is much more rigid and direct, like a blunt instrument version of Ana.

Their relationship is one of mother and daughter. Ana has tried to keep her daughter out of Overwatch to keep Pharah safe, but must now work side-by-side with her instead. Their relationship is strained due to Ana having faked her death some time ago, as well as Ana’s strict parenting style that left Pharah feeling a bit cold and unloved.

So I’ve gone quite in-depth with these characters already, but how do I know all this information? Voice lines. When you join a match in Overwatch, the character you choose will say a few words that gives you a brief impression of who they are and what motivates them. So let’s take a quick look at the two we’ve been examining thus far using a small selection of lines from each:

Ana’s Voice Lines:
Never stop fighting for what you believe in.”
There's nothing I haven't seen before. Stick together. We will complete our mission.”
“Stick to the plan, and if you get into trouble, I'll bail you out.

Pharah’s Voice Lines:

I will protect the innocent.”
All systems checked out, ready for combat maneuvers.”
“Remember your training, and we'll get through this just fine.”

Here we can see the relationship I described above. The last lines I quoted for each are basically the same sentence, just phrased differently based on each woman’s personality. Pharah speaks with the same team-focused mentality as her mother, but with less of the subtlety.

When two characters are on the field in Overwatch, they will sometimes banter back and forth with quick voice clips. While the voice lines spoken by the character in isolation will tell us a bit about who they are, these multi-character voice lines tell us about their relationships. For instance, here are two of the voice lines Pharah says when talking to other characters.

Winston: Pharah. Your mother was a hero to me. To all of us.

Pharah: You probably knew her better than me.

Soldier: 76: Your mother would've been proud of you.
Pharah: You didn't know my mother very well, then.

We learn, from these, that Pharah’s relationship with her mother is tense and difficult. We get the sense that Ana was always too busy with her job to give Pharah the love and attention a child needs. From these, we might assume that Pharah hates her mother, but let’s look at what happens when mother and daughter speak directly:

Pharah: Mum, I know why you didn't want me to join Overwatch; but it's still what I want.
Ana: I didn't want that life for you, but I know that it's your decision, and I will support it.

Pharah: I always dreamed of the day we would fight together.
Ana: Wanting a better life for you is all I ever dreamed of.

Here, we see a slightly different dynamic. The two actually get along quite well, they love each other, but there is tension based on Ana’s career choice and the difficulties inherent in that. That tension is caused by Pharah’s desire to walk in her mother’s shoes and join Overwatch. What’s interesting is that this relationship is represented in the gameplay between these two as well!

Basically a sniper!

Ana is a sniper character who fires bullets capable of hitting both enemies and allies. Allies get healed when hit by a bullet, enemies take damage. While other characters have skillsets that emphasize mobility or control, Ana’s skillset is built around emphasizing her sniper fire. She has a grenade that does healing in a wide radius (or prevents healing for enemies in that radius), and a sleep dart that allows her to stop anyone who gets in too close. All together, her skills make her a very nuanced fighter capable of dealing plentiful damage to enemy lines, controlling the field with her sleep dart, and keeping her own team healed all at the same time. She’s very subtle and capable, and has earned herself a prime position in competitive matches.

Pharah is a rocketeer character who shoots ballistics that do area effect damage. She has a jump jet system that allows her to fly into the air, and maintain her flight for some time before hitting the ground. Pharah’s kit is built around her rocket, with her only other ability being a concussive shot that scatters enemies in a large area. Like her mother, Pharah’s best served by being at range. However, while Ana is a character of great nuance who can fill many roles, Pharah is very direct in her attacking role.

What’s interesting about the dynamic here is that Pharah clearly learned from her mother’s fighting style, but replaced sniper for rocket launcher and healing grenade for concussive rocket. Still, Pharah retains the linear, ranged primary attack, the area effect secondary crowd control ability, and the slow forward movement speed. As with her voice lines, Pharah very much plays like the blunt instrument version of her mother. While Ana is a knife in the dark, Pharah is a Sword of Divine Retribution, striking down anything in her path.

Overwatch doesn’t stop there, however. Along with specific voice lines and clever gameplay interactions, each character also has a series of customization options that players can carry with them into battle. The ones most relevant to this discussion are the stickers.

As with many FPS titles, Overwatch allows players to spray imagery onto the walls of the game world. This gives players a fun little communication tool to claim an area as their own or to declare their dominance in a moment of skillful display. However, these stickers also give the player further information about the character they’ve chosen. Thus far I’ve discussed Pharah and Ana and how their relationship has been handled by the Blizzard team, but I’ve left out a rather important bit of information in my discussion. Who is Pharah’s father?

Pharah’s dad is not specifically mentioned in the game by voice lines or any other interaction. What we DO hear in a voice line is a bit of flirting between Ana and the tank character, Reinhardt.

Ana: Reinhardt, I must say you are looking quite well. This life must agree with you.
Reinhardt: And you are looking as lovely as ever.

Which is innocent enough, but then we also got a glimpse at their relationship when they were given these two matching sprays:


Fan speculation ignited with people theorizing that Reinhardt was, in fact, Pharah’s father. The lack of information presented to players allowed them to fill in the gaps on their own and begin lengthy discussions based on what was available to them. This speculation lasted right up until a recent patch included the following spray:

This one clearly shows Pharah’s family at her birth, strongly implying that the man present in the image is her father. While there’s no direct confirmation anywhere, the implication is fairly clear and fans have largely taken that to heart.

What’s interesting here is that Blizzard has very effectively taken what should be a completely inconsequential mechanic for their game, and turned it into an effective storytelling tool. While most games are happy to let their players use their sprays as markers for their team, or to convey some message to an opponent, Blizzard takes it a step further and also tosses in a little more personality into the game. It wasn’t essential, in a multiplayer FPS title, but it’s this type of small detail that elevates a good game into a great game. By giving players just a little bit more information about the characters they are playing, Blizzard makes those players invest that much more into the title. This investment keeps them interested, and that interest drives loot box sales, and recommendations to friends, benefiting the company on a business level.

Overwatch truly uses every moment in the game in order to convey the personalities of its characters. From the intro screen that shows a random character animating over a background, to the tiniest little spray that a player can choose to put into the world, not a single moment is wasted. Despite the fact that Overwatch is not a genre that usually gets associated with storytelling, it does a better job of conveying a story than most games that are. I strongly believe it’s this narrative that has helped to push Overwatch above other, similar games that have been released recently, and will keep the title at the top of the charts for some time to come.

Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Introducing Owlboy

Today I would like to discuss the introduction sequence in D Pad Studio’s Owl Boy. Obviously this will involve some spoilers for the first few minutes of the game (and I wrap the article up with a set of spoilers for the rest of the game, but I'll warn you again before we come to that part)

I believe a lot can be learned from the way a game introduces its story, characters, and core mechanics. I also find Owl Boy to be an interesting summary of a few of my favorite techniques, so I’d like to discuss the ways in which it succeeds, and the ways it does not. So strap in, and let’s get rolling!

The game starts with a black screen, and white text. The first bit of information the game decides to give us is this word. “Revered”. This establishes quite a lot about the tone of the game. Revered is a descriptive word that is infrequently used to refer to oneself. That tells us this game is about someone other than our main character, someone that perhaps we are going to be interacting with, and perhaps about our perception of that person, because the word revered also implies things about that perception. We get a couple more words and then “This is what we owls aspire to be”, which tells us who we are in this game, and how the world perceives us. This also settles the idea that this game is about living up to outside perceptions. The screen changes and we are shown Otus, our avatar, for the first time. At the same time, the text on screen changes tone and refers to us directly, rather than speaking abstractly about the whole race. Another person on screen refers to us as their student, and explains that it will be our duty to live up to the public perception of owls. The takeaway from this segment is that our mentor is actually enthusiastic about his teaching, and confident that young Otus will grow to be a rousing success, a belief that will be challenged in the very next sequence. The screen fades and we are jumped briefly forward in time to see ourselves in another lesson, on another day, but this time our teacher’s attitude has changed. He says that we have been struggling so far, but that today he wants to try something new. A physical challenge, rather than a mental one, and one he hopes Otus will excel in.

Not much to show...

The game moves into a tutorial sequence where we are introduced to the movement mechanic, flight. In this tutorial, we are told to fly to the platform above us. As we are given control for the first time, an icon appears above our heads telling us what button we must now press. Upon pressing the button, more dialogue rips control away from us to explain that our goal is the only other island visible on the screen. The game does not trust its players to understand its controls, or its goals, but despite the ham-fisted design of this tutorial area, we are treated to an interesting narrative moment when it is revealed, through gameplay, that Otus actually can’t fly as high as the goal platform. We are tasked with moving upward, but fail to complete the task, and are reprimanded.

Once we have failed in flying, we are treated to another sequence, one where we are being tutorialized in throwing objects. A platform appears, and we are asked to place the object down upon it. What’s interesting about this segment is that we are asked to place the object, but the gameplay is only tutorializing the throw mechanic. We aren’t given the usual option to place an object, in favor of forcing us to throw that object, breaking it. This implies that Otus, up to this point in his life, was not overly concerned with carefulness, and teaches us a bit more about our player character. After this event, during the normal gameplay, we always have the ability to place things down. Apparently, Otus learns this lesson quite well!

I mean. It's down, right?

The screen fades again, and this time we come back to a slightly darkened world around us. Our teacher now speaks to us with a crueler tone, having given up all hope that we will ever be useful. We walk (not fly, which itself acts as yet another introduction of a mechanic) away from our mentor and the world turns black as evil eyes begin to stare at us. As we walk, the ground around us falls away and we are haunted by the literal spectres of our self-loathing. They take the form of townspeople, but with shadowy, evil features who stay with us for the duration of this sequence, even as we progress forward. This entire sequence is fairly uninteresting from a game design perspective, you simply move from one side of the screen to the other with no attempt at introducing any further mechanics into the mix, focusing instead on conveying a narrative moment. 

Trembling with self-hatred!

At the end of this, the screen goes black once again, until it is revealed that we have been sleeping. Turns out this was all just a dream! But dreams are about learning, so what have we? We are an owl. The owls are a proud race that the world reveres. We have not been doing a good job of living up to that reputation, and have become a nuisance to those around us. We are insecure about our place in the world, and insecure about our own abilities. Basically, this appears to be setting up a typical coming-of-age story where our young hero goes off on an adventure to prove himself! But is that where it goes? Let’s use what we’ve learned from the introduction as a lens to examine the rest of the game much more loosely.

Let's go exploring!
Fair warning, this will involve some major spoilers for the Owl Boy story. The story begins as the town is invaded by pirates. You try, and fail, to protect the town and are then moved towards another city in need of defense. This city falls and you must journey to the home of the ancient owls to find a way to protect your civilization as a whole from the attack of these pirates. You find out that the other owls succumbed to their hubris and brought this situation down upon themselves. You find that the pirates are a plague that the owls created, and which came back to haunt them. The qualities that you aspired towards have turned out to be a facade that has rotted in time, leaving the reality of the Owls’ arrogance exposed to the world. Meanwhile your own lacking self-esteem has led you to try to become what you had idealized. You became what you wanted to believe all other owls already were, and in doing so surpassed those whom you had held up as role models. In the beginning of the game, we are asked to walk through town and be given judgement from our peers, the spectral wraiths of hatred itself. At the end of the game, the townsfolk come to us to express their thanks. The game sets up the story as if it were a coming-of-age story of a young person entering adult life, being given new responsibilities, and struggling to live up to those. That’s more or less exactly the story we are given, as Otus comes to lead a scrappy band on an adventure to save the world as he knows it (and eventually does so quite literally). In conclusion, OwlBoy succeeds in setting up a tone in an efficient manner with its introductory sequence. While the gameplay tutorialization remains a little ham-fisted, the story fills in the gaps by offering the player unique narrative moments during those tutorials. From forcing the player to fail in their assigned tasks, to creating a pseudo-cutscene around the player as they progress through a dream. Overall, the introduction of OwlBoy is a solid use of narrative design techniques that I felt was worthy of a closer look. Hopefully you’ve found some value in this examination, I know I have. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Narrative Analysis: Mob Psycho 100

So I'd like to start writing more. I also want more narrative design to study. In light of those two things, I'm going to branch out a bit and take a look at some things outside of gaming, when they strike me as being particularly interesting or relevant in some way.

My first foray into those lands comes in the form of an anime: Mob Psycho 100.

Mob Psycho is the story of a middle schooler who has incredible psychic power. His mentor, Reigen, takes him around the city to exorcize ghosts that the locals are complaining about. Reigen, however, is a fraud and is using Mob's legitimate abilities to help him make a profit. That's the general overview of the story established in the first episode, but we're here to dive in to what the story is really about (and to spoil the entire plot, so if you haven't watched it yet, do so first and then come back). Mob Psycho 100 is not about ghosts. It is also not about psychics. Mob Psycho 100 is, in fact, about living with depression.

Mob is depressed. Mob is horrifically depressed. The most depressed person anywhere nearby. Mob is so depressed that it affects his everyday life, and even prevents him from eating. The show uses Mob's psychic powers to represent Mob's depression, and in the case of his being unable to eat, we are shown that Mob bends his spoons before they reach his mouth. His parents love him, and even accept his depression as just being a part of who he is. They never condemn him for bending spoons, they just acknowledge it and kind of wish that he would stop, because they have to replace so much cutlery.

Mob's brother, Ritsu, is not depressed. Ritsu is a model student who goes out of his way to succeed in all aspects of life. He does a great job of being a model student, but he forever has to live in the shadow of his brother's depression. Everything in Ritsu's life becomes about caring for his brother, and even Ritsu's accomplishments end up taking a back seat to the care his brother requires.

Reigen, or "Master" as Mob calls him, is Mob's psychiatrist. Reigen has never suffered from depression, but he goes out of his way to make Mob feel like he is normal. He wants Mob to feel like he belongs, and so Reigen pretends to be 'psychic' so that he can be Mob's friend. Mob never questions this because doing so would destroy the illusion that has helped him come as far as he has.

That's the main cast covered, let's look at the overall plot. Mob is suffering from extreme depression. He and Reigen go out into the world to 'exorcize demons' from their area. While doing so, Mob is recruited by a club of slackers who waste their after school time with video games and snacks. He befriends this group, but sides against them in order to officially join the body improvement club, showing a subconscious desire to better himself despite his situation.

The plot starts to take off when we meet another person who suffers from depression, a 'psychic' Teruki Hanazawa. Hanazawa is a kid who has taken advantage of his condition in order to control the people around him. He uses his 'psychic power' to gather people to him so that he can prove to himself how truly special he is. When he and Mob face off against each other, we see Reigen's teachings for the first time. While Hanazawa believes that he is special and deserves to be treated as such, Mob has been taught that he should not allow his depression to affect his interactions with other people. Mob believes that he is no different from anyone else, and that he should learn to be a functional member of society despite his shortcomings. When confronted with this ideology, Hanazawa has a breakdown. In the end, Hanazawa acknowledges Mob's strength, and changes his ways.

The fight with Hanazawa causes an uproar around town as people begin to investigate more into 'psychic phenomena'. This causes a reporter to begin harassing Ritsu, Mob's brother, about Mob's power. As if Ritsu didn't already have to live in his brother's shadow at home, now his school life would be taken over as well. This causes Ritsu to sink into his baser instincts. He pulls awful pranks on other members of his class in an effort to 'clean up' the school. This weighs heavily on him, and eventually the combination of all of these elements causes Ritsu to 'awaken' to his 'psychic power'. Ritsu begins to use his power to take advantage of those around him (much as Hanazawa was doing), but Mob finds out what is happening very quickly and the two face off. Mob, having been cared for throughout his life, meets Ritsu's depression with open arms, showing absolutely nothing but love and admiration for a brother that he has always believed to be better than himself. This forces Ritsu out of his fugue before he can descend any further.

At this point in the story, we are introduced to an organization known as "Claw". Claw is an organization of adults who have allowed their lives to be controlled by their mental illness, which they refuse to properly address. In one episode Claw is referenced as "children who failed to grow up" because they are stuck in the depression that developed when they were kids, causing them to feel like they were robbed of their youth. This organization collects other people who suffer from depression, indoctrinating them into their system of self-loathing. As part of this effort, Ritsu is stolen away and Mob must save his brother.

This series of events unfolds in your typical shonen fashion, featuring giant fights with psychic powers being thrown around at every opportunity. At the climax of the show we are given a typical flashback sequence that gives us more of the information that we need in order to understand Mob. We see that Mob found Reigen as a child. At the time, Mob was unable to talk to other adults about his problem, but Reigen makes him feel like he is a perfectly normal little boy, and that is all Mob has ever wanted to hear. Reigen emphasizes that being depressed is no different from any other personality quirk, and that it's all about how you let it affect your life.

Throughout this show, Reigen is presented as a fraud. He is the one person pretending to be psychic when he has absolutely no power. In reality, he is just pretending so that Mob can feel as if he has a friend. Reigen's true power, however, shows when he appears at the Claw base pretending to be their boss. Reigen cannot battle Claw with 'psychic power' because he has none. Instead, Reigen uses his own skill: his words. Reigen boasts that he has never lost an argumement, and that "the power of one's words are unfathomable". He goes on to say "One's heart can find a resolution just by being offered a helping hand", which is exactly what we see with Mob (who, by this point in the series, has made several friends, and shown several others that there is a better way to live with a mental disorder). At this climactic battle, Reigen is shown to have the ultimate power. In the show it is represented by Mob accidentally giving his power to Reigen, but the reality is that he defeats Claw with his words. He shows them all that they are clinging onto the childhood they believe they have lost, rather than just accepting reality as it is and learning to overcome their problems. The boss of Claw is revealed to be a wizened old man who acts more like an infant. Reigen tells them that they are not special, that they do not deserve any special treatment, and that we all deserve to be treated as equals. No matter what our pasts have done to us.

Mob stands as a testament to this ideology, and in the face of this, Claw crumbles. Their base is destroyed, and their minions flee.

The series ends with a final scene showing Mob and Reigen out to find more ghosts to exorcize. This shows us that life goes on, and the fight never stops. It also shows us that you can go about your life despite it all.

I also wanted to mention one more arc I found to be particularly interesting. When Ritsu first became depressed, he did some awful things to his classmates. In particular, Onigawara, whom he planted false evidence upon. Onigawara was kicked out of school as a result. He never stopped attending class, however, and even joined the Body Improvement Club in order to better himself. Onigawara's plight was actually worse than Ritsu's by far, but Onigawara was not afflicted with depression. Onigawara acts as a foil to show us that those people who don't suffer from mental illness can still have terrible things to deal with in their lives, but that they simply don't react in the same ways. He also, perhaps, shows us that we don't have to react poorly even when something awful happens to us. He shows us that we can choose a better way.

And that, dear readers, is Mob Psycho 100. If you disagree on any of my interpretations, or want to expand on any of them, feel free to comment below!

Thanks for reading!