Many game universes include stories that aren’t considered canon, but what happens when those stories directly oppose the canon universe?
The stories in games can reach just as far into our souls as books, movies, music, and television shows. We expect these kinds of experiences in photo-realistic thrillers like The Last of Us or playing games based on established franchises like The Walking Dead, but the short films coming out of Activision-Blizzard’s multiplayer shooter Overwatch show that deep characters and introspection can come from games of any kind. The most recent short, “The Last Bastion,” tackles themes of post-traumatic stress while detailing the backstory of Bastion, a sentient sentry turret presented with a choice between peace and war. It’s a gripping short and tells a great story borne from the Overwatch universe, but it also begs questions about a game’s responsibility to its own lore.
(I’d recommend watching the short above if possible before continuing. If you can’t, the following paragraph recaps.)
“The Last Bastion” tells the story of Bastion E-54 as it awakens in a forest years after falling dormant. The war between humanity and sentient robots called Omnics in the Omnic Crisis is over, but still in recent memory for many. Disconnected from the network that provided its programming, Bastion explores the natural world for clues about its own existence. It even befriends a passing bird, and embarks on a near Snow While-level forest journey…until the sound of a woodpecker in the distance reactivates the Bastion’s old defensive protocols with devastating effects.
The Last Bastion’s story is one of a robot trying to find itself in a world no longer the way it left it, but it reaches beyond the game and into the effects of trauma and triggers. Sure, Bastion is happy in the forest and isolated from war, but even the innocent pecking of a woodpecker unexpectedly submerges Bastion back into its trauma. It runs from the forest because, even though it values the space, it can’t trust itself to be there without hurting what it cares about. These are some of the consequences of post-traumatic stress disorder in reality, a condition we generally think of for war-torn veterans struggling to reintegrate with society, but reaches much further than just those who’ve been on the battlefield.
The struggle to overcome pains from our past is something we all identify with even without PTSD, which is part of what makes this short so powerful. It’s what makes all the Overwatch shorts so powerful: though they’re full of nods to the game that seasoned players appreciate, they are first and foremost stories about our own cores, telling tales in ways such that even people oblivious to the game could still appreciate them. I’m just not sure how to appreciate them when I’m not oblivious to the game.
Truth be told, I’ve started playing Overwatch again since The Last Bastion’s release, which I’m sure was part of the game team’s plan. Watching the short reignited my interest in the franchise and got me to play a match, which got me to play another match, and so on. Still, there’s something that feels wrong about the idea of learning that a character has war-induced PTSD, then subjecting it to kill after kill after death after kill in multiple deathmatches.
Overwatch’s gameplay doesn’t technically exist in the same realm as the lore. Much like League of Legends and other multiplayer-focused titles, the multiplayer combat isn’t considered canon and exists in a bubble separate from the developing story. Still, does it make sense as a creator of a game universe to take even just an avatar of a character trying to recover from the traumas of war and subject it to a life of eternal war? I love The Last Bastion and all the other Overwatch shorts as prime examples of the stories that can come out of the world of video games, but this feels too much like a case of Overwatch having its cake and eating it too.
By the end of the short, E-54 is left with a choice: return to its old programming and seek war, or move on to a new and different life in the forest. Bastion retreats to the forest, which doesn’t really create a space where it then enters into multiple escort and territory capture missions, gunning down the opposition in the world of multiplayer. The other Overwatch films provide justification for each character’s participation in combat, which at least subtly reinforces the possibility of the haphazard roughhousing in the core game…Bastion’s tale, on the other hand, works directly against it.
Each of the Overwatch short films feel like a mini Pixar movie, bite-sized flicks made to hit like Toy Story or Inside Out. Pixar’s messages, however (and Disney’s, for that matter), profit by reinforcing their universes: theme park attractions immerse attendees in the worlds of each intellectual property, creating a continuity between the participant’s experience and the world they explore. Disney and Pixar video games do the same, creating new experiences within each IP, but adhering to the rules set by each universe.
The player’s experience within Overwatch, on the other hand, directly contradicts the rules set up in the animated shorts: no matter how many times a character dies, they get back up and keep fighting. This combat leaves no scars mentally or physically, and the character’s beliefs and goals won’t prevent them from working alongside anyone else, no matter how “good” or “bad” they are. There’s no opportunity for players to immerse themselves in a world where the Omnic Crisis is anything more than an in-joke for devoted players, where Tracer and Widowmaker’s rivalry is more than window dressing, or where Hanzo’s brotherhood with Genji leads him to redemption or demise. With so many players who find value in the themes set by those conflicts, and with Blizzard setting those themes front-and-center with each film, it seems all the worse that those themes vanish in the actual game.
I love Overwatch and the characters and world it brings to the table, but it feels somehow unfair that it tugs at my heartstrings with stories of trauma and potential loss, then tugs at my pocketbook and energy with hours of repeated killing and death. This isn’t an ask to make all canon game stories correlate directly with their gameplay, but asking players to live in a realm of direct contradiction feels irresponsible. The Last Bastion is a great piece of cinema, but it feels sad that we tell a story where Bastion returns to a forest of peace, then still trap it in a world of war.