During its reveal at the 2014 BlizzCon, Overwatch introduced players to its vibrant and colourful world with the character Tracer announcing that “the cavalry’s here!” (“The Exhibit”). This line now functions as her signature phrase, perhaps reflecting the continuously expanding roster of characters and collection of media that make up Overwatch’s story universe. The expanding transmedial Overwatch universe encompasses a video game, comics, a news site, animated shorts, origin stories, and short prose stories, with each addition seeking to enrich and expand upon the preceding media. Overwatch’s popularity and financial success, with over 40 million players and a billion-dollar franchise (“Developer Update”), stem primarily from its current cast of twenty-nine characters, who all possess unique personalities and abilities, including, of course, the franchise’s mascot: Tracer. Not only is Tracer Overwatch’s mascot and arguably most iconic character, she is also a useful case study for understanding Overwatch’s character-based transmedia storytelling.
With its continuous and systematic growth of media, I argue that Overwatch showcases Henry Jenkins’ definition of transmedia storytelling. In addition, following Rüdiger Heinze’s use of heterarchy, I argue that Tracer can be read as a case study for understanding the structure of Overwatch’s transmedia story. Contextualizing and analysing the different media that illuminate Tracer’s multi-dimensional character offers insight into how Overwatch operates as a transmedia story and how Tracer functions as an example of Paolo Bertetti’s transmedia character. Understanding Overwatch as a transmedia story offers scholars and consumers a rare example of Jenkins’ ideal transmedia storytelling and highlights the importance of individual characters in developing story universes.
Shadow of the Mothership
Transmedia storytelling is a phenomenon that embodies both media convergence and the ways in which we interact with and consume stories across multiple media platforms. According to Henry Jenkins, transmedia storytelling is a “process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, transmedia narrative has each medium making its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story” (“Transmedia Storytelling 101”). Though Jenkins’ definition has remained stable for more than a decade, critics have been skeptical of its idealistic approach to storytelling because examples of transmedia storytelling that exemplify the full definition are lacking at best and obscured at worst. Jan-Noël Thon acknowledges that the definition is largely unattainable and argues “that current industry practices continue to regularly fail in their attempts to realize that ideal” (22). Indeed, there are countless transmedia franchises but few that exemplify Jenkins’ vision.
“[C]onveyed through three live action films, a series of animated shorts, two collections of comic book stories, and several video games” (Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling 101”), The Matrix franchise is arguably the most famous attempt at creating an ideal vision of transmedia storytelling. With a diverse collection of media telling the story, there is “no one single source or ur-text where one can turn to gain all of the information needed to comprehend The Matrix universe” (“Transmedia Storytelling 101”). However, as Jenkins notes, “The Matrix was a flawed experiment, an interesting failure, but […] its flaws did not detract from the significance of what it tried to accomplish” (Convergence Culture 97). A major reason for the transmedial failings of The Matrix, Jenkins argues, is that creators and consumers lack “very good aesthetic criteria” for transmedia storytelling because “[t]here have been far too few fully transmedia stories” (97). While The Matrix attempted to avoid a ur-text, its films nevertheless offered the primary channel of narrative, reducing the need for consumers to seek out the story in other media. The films became the franchise’s most recognized medium, or what Jenkins calls the “‘mothership,’ the primary work which anchors the franchise” (“The Revenge of the Origami Unicorn”). The Matrix was indeed commercially successful but it was not realized as a transmedia hit because its mothership overshadowed the importance of its other media.
Media developer Brian Clark further questions the idealism of Jenkins’ fully transmedia story, arguing that “[s]ometimes people make things that really do require attention across multiple media to make sense of: those projects are shambling Frankenstein monsters, novelty acts or inaccessible conceptual art. That’s why there’s never been a big ‘transmedia hit’” (“Transmedia is a Lie”). Marie-Laure Ryan clarifies Clark’s notion of a commercially successful transmedia story, noting “there are certainly many hits that became transmedia […] but Clark is saying that there are no projects conceived as transmedia from the very beginning, no native transmedia projects that became great successes” (“Industry Buzzword” 17, original emphasis). Following The Matrix, there have been countless franchises that have become transmedia, though still relying on their mothership for meaning. Contemporary, wide-scale, and successful transmedia stories often rely on a single medium—often the original—despite expanding into various media. For example, Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and The Matrix are anchored to their films; Doctor Who, Lost, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are anchored to their television series; and Halo, Assassin’s Creed, and even Blizzard Entertainment’s own World of WarCraft are all anchored to their video games. These are hits that became transmedia but cannot escape the shadow of their motherships. The mothership is easily recognizable and familiar, doing much of the work of other media in less time and money, leading Ryan to reason that “[t]he difficulty of justifying the distribution of narrative information over many delivery systems could explain why […] there are no great transmedia hits” (17).
Without consistent examples or criteria with which native transmedia stories can be evaluated, critics largely hesitate to identify Overwatch as transmedia storytelling. They tend to view the game as either the core experience of Overwatch while dismissing its other media, or criticize the game for lacking narrative. Benjamin Villarreal argues “the game itself has no real narrative beyond the lore of the world established in transmedia sources” (“‘The World Could Always Use More Heroes’”), while Joleen Blom considers Overwatch a “shared universe,” rather than a transmedia story, where the game only connects with the other media on “a representational level” with varying degrees of contradiction (“Overwatch as a Shared Universe” 9). I contend that Overwatch offers an interesting perspective regarding transmedia storytelling precisely because it does not offer its video game as the “mothership” for its narrative and instead relies on all its media to convey a full story.
Without a narrative mothership, Overwatch challenges previous criteria of transmedia stories. Caty McCarthy argues, “[i]n separating the narrative from the game itself, Blizzard’s exercising a new kind of transmedia approach to storytelling” (“Pleasure of Transmedia Narratives”). Yet Overwatch is not attempting a new kind of transmedia storytelling; rather, its approach is one that reifies the idealism of Jenkins’ definition. Perhaps critics fail to make this connection because we are simply not familiar with what a truly transmedia story looks like. Furthermore, critics who centralize the game as Overwatch’s primary medium often only examine its competitive game modes, ignoring the in-game “Overwatch Archives” story mode events (including both “Uprising” and “Retribution”). These story modes are complete in-game narrative instances, building directly and coherently upon the stories in other media without contradiction. Critics focusing on the game without its transmedial context therefore wrongly dismiss Overwatch as not fitting Jenkins’ definition. Again, this failure to identify Overwatch as a transmedia story is perhaps because there are so few examples of fully transmedia stories to which it can be compared.
Transmedia Character(s) and Media Heterarchy
Overwatch’s popularity arises from its (currently) twenty-nine diverse characters, all with unique personalities and backstories (Villarreal; Cullen, Ringland, and Wolf). Overwatch gathers together these diverse characters through various media to build a multi-modal narrative. The story universe thus relies on its array of characters to overcome what Ryan considers “the difficulty of justifying the distribution of narrative information over many delivery systems” (“Industry Buzzword” 17). No single story, or mothership, offers a complete picture of these characters as each new narrative revolves around a particular character or set of characters, connecting them into the story universe. The place, time, and event may be different for each addition but the characters are constant: first and foremost, Overwatch is about the team. Thus, Tracer and her fellow characters follow Paolo Bertetti’s definition of a “transmedia character” as “a fictional hero whose adventures are told across different media platforms, each one giving more details on the life of that character” (2345). Furthermore, the media that build these characters are not released sequentially, rather they systematically expand the story in different directions that require consumers to not only hunt down and gather them (Jenkins, Convergence Culture 21), but also organize them accordingly.
Applying Rüdiger Heinze’s use of heterarchy to Overwatch helps illuminate how it functions as a transmedia story. While Warren McCulloch originally introduced the concept, Carole Crumley describes heterarchy as “the relation of elements to one another when they are unranked or when they possess the potential for being ranked in a number of different ways” (“Heterarchy and the Analysis of Complex Societies” 3). Heinze employs it to describe a constantly shifting system of media where stories “may be continually re-ranked” (“‘This Makes No Sense At All’” 84). Indeed, Heinze considers heterarchy to be one of the defining features of franchises, as it allows us to understand how consumers must constantly reimagine a universe as it expands with each new entry. As he states, heterarchy “perfectly describes the relation and dynamics of storyworlds and storyworld constituents within fictional universes such as constituted by a franchise/transmedial world” (84). With Overwatch constantly releasing new media, “the question of the ‘value’ of each constituent of the fictional universe—not only of the latest addition—as well as the heterarchical constellation of the entire universe arises anew” (Heinze 85). Each new short or comic can potentially alter our interpretation of the Overwatch story, pushing the narrative further into the past or further into the future. I argue heterarchy can be also applied to characters: just as Overwatch shifts forward and backwards through its media heterarchy, Tracer’s backstory reveals that after an accident, she is no longer tethered to the universe’s temporal reality. She blinks in and out of time, unpredictably, until she is able to wear a device that anchors her to reality. Overwatch’s story can then be understood through Tracer’s instability: these shifting media establish a clearer sense of Tracer as a character, albeit in a non-linear, non-hierarchical way. While Overwatch’s media constantly shift the heterarchy of its story universe, they nevertheless unify to reveal Tracer as a multi-dimensional character.
Tracer’s non-linear, non-hierarchical character development across media is a useful example of how Overwatch operates as a fully transmedia story. Tracer’s narrative, like Overwatch’s universe, appears fragmented, skipping back and forth by minutes or years along a timeline depicted through its media. Of the forty-eight media objects released, Tracer stars in the cinematic trailer, her origin story (along with Doomfist’s origin story), the Overwatch news site, two animated shorts, the video game (and an in-game story mode event), and two comics. In the game’s “Uprising” story mode, Tracer is an Overwatch cadet on her first mission, occupying the damage class role with two pulse pistols, a pulse bomb, and the ability to jump in and out of combat; in the animated shorts, she is a champion for good who continuously attempts to thwart evil forces and is a close friend to the gorilla scientist Winston; the comics range from “Uprising” showing her as an eager new Overwatch agent on her first mission to balancing her life as a vigilante operative with Christmas shopping for her partner Emily in “Reflections.” In the “Uprising” comic we discover that Tracer takes her now famous catchphrase “The cavalry’s here” from a sarcastic Torbjörn (“Uprising”). Before an in-game match on the King’s Row map, following the “Reflections” comic, Tracer muses aloud: “Wonder if I have time to visit Emily? No, better stay focused…” (Overwatch). Each media references or builds upon preceding media. While she may appear as a stereotypical hero in a single story, Tracer in the game is more interesting because of her appearance in the comics, and Tracer in the comics is more interesting because of her appearance in the animated shorts. The game offers her dynamic movement and combat prowess, the animations show that her slick, calculated moves are matched by her charm and silliness, and the comics allow for freeze frames of Tracer that are swept up in the other media. As part of a “unified” and “coordinated” experience, each media object offers, and builds upon, a common denominator: Tracer is a spunky, British woman with sharp, pixie-style hair and the power to zip through small gaps in space and time. This development follows Jenkins’ notion that “each extension adds something we did not know before and thus deepens our emotional connection to the material” (“Transmedia What?”). Indeed, each instance adds a crucial medium-specific layer that gives life to her character in ways that a single-medium story could not. In this sense, Overwatch’s transmedia story offers more depth to both Tracer’s development and to its universe as a whole.
Overwatch’s ostensible lack of narrative in its video game rejects the “mothership” hierarchy of many contemporary, successful transmedia franchises. Nevertheless, Overwatch is not doing something new; it is simply following Jenkins’ ideal concept of transmedia storytelling, offering a “unified and coordinated entertainment experience” through a systematic dispersal of its fiction “across multiple delivery channels” (“Transmedia Storytelling 101”). Transmedia storytelling offers the opportunity to explore character development in a multi-faceted, nuanced way through engagement with various media over time. In applying Heinze’s use of heterarchy to Overwatch, I have argued that its characters like Tracer are developed through a systematic, non-hierarchical distribution of content, offering exemplars of transmedia characters and transmedia storytelling. Following Jenkins’ definition of a transmedia story, Overwatch has no single media object or narrative that fully reveals its universe and relies instead on an interconnected constellation of media. As transmedia characters, Tracer and her fellow heroes stretch across these narratives and where they go, Overwatch grows, expanding with new characters and stories in non-linear and non-hierarchical directions.
Overwatch’s carefully curated structure balances twenty-nine characters across forty-eight narratives within six different types of media. Importantly, by expressing its transmedia story through unique and developed characters like Tracer, Overwatch avoids becoming one of Clark’s “shambling Frankenstein monsters” (“Transmedia is a Lie”). We follow Tracer through these media in hopes of catching up to her, gaining a better understanding of who she is as a character. As she blinks between these media without linearity, she simultaneously disrupts and enriches the narrative. Through its character-driven media heterarchy Overwatch offers a justification for “the distribution of narrative information over many delivery systems,” and with its billion-dollar franchise and 40 million players it challenges Ryan’s stance that “there are no great transmedia hits” (“Industry Buzzword” 17). Overwatch is indeed a hit and, as I have demonstrated, by rejecting a mothership and a media hierarchy, it offers important aesthetic criteria for transmedia storytelling that contributes to the growing body of transmedia scholarship.
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