There’s a shot in the League of Legends “Awaken“ cinematic that does more than you’d expect. A door is kicked in to reveal a smoky hallway cramped with armored soldiers passing by the frame. It’s dark, it’s metallic, and it’s cold. The shield-bearing men pour past the camera and their leader — at half their speed and in formal attire — steps in. Camille is here. The percussion of the men’s footsteps and the sirens in the video’s titular song illustrate the power behind this mysterious, dangerous woman as she fills the screen.
In three seconds, Camille’s form and intentions are made clear. You don’t argue with her posture and unblinking blue eyes. She has a mission and she’s going to execute it. Even if you don’t follow League of Legends lore, or even if you have played the champion herself in the game, Camille is succinctly characterized.
Camille’s story is one of three brief vignettes that make up “Awaken,” which itself is a primer for the game’s 2019 competitive mode season. It’s not lore — nor is it canon or factual storytelling. “Awaken” is world- and character-building for an online multiplayer game that functions separately from its plot. That’s always the catch when it comes to games where you face other players; Narrative is secondary to the game systems. Camille’s mission in a five-versus-five game of League of Legends is to destroy the enemy team’s crystalline Nexus at the far end of the map, not to lead a siege of soldiers. “Awaken” isn’t actually selling the MOBA. It’s selling the idea of what characters like Camille are capable of and why you might want to play as them.
Beats of a Different Drum
When Widowmaker springs onto the screen in Overwatch’s original announcement cinematic, it’s the same scheme. She, like Camille, has a plan that would break the calculated rules and verbs of what you can actually perform as the sniper in Blizzard’s multiplayer shooter. You’ll never see Widowmaker escort a payload or grapple herself to a large health pack in cinematic, widescreen format. But when you play her on the map where she assassinates the robot monk in her own animated short, she remarks on it fondly: “Ah, the site of one of my finest kills.”
Except her comment isn’t necessarily canon, or even real. Nothing inside the game of Overwatch is factual in the story until Lead Writer Michael Chu writes it elsewhere — be it in comics, short stories, animated shorts, or even miscellaneous tweets and forum posts. Widowmaker might be proud of what she’s done, or she might not be, but you’ll never know until it’s “officially” confirmed.
Combine that with Blizzard’s infrequent canonical lore dumps. You’ll see the erratic work it is to be a fan of Overwatch’s fiction. Its animated shorts, while beautifully rendered and clearly expensive, always feel pressured to fill in obvious gaps in the lore and to explain character traits we’re already comfortable with — ones more deftly written in the hero information page on the game’s website. If it’s not detailing a new hero release like the latest Ashe-focused “Reunion” short, it’s clarifying background info that’s already heavily implied in the game. Even Overwatch’s most recent short story, Bastet, finally focused on two underwritten characters… But spent most of its 11 pages repeating simple facts in fancier words.
“His wounds could heal themselves — a legacy of his past as a test subject and an enhanced soldier in the American armed forces,” it dryly explained.
Pop Star Social
Meanwhile, Riot keeps League of Legends’ scope smaller and fundamental. The studio writes the characters (in cheaper ways) and uses those broad palettes to paint something bigger and not necessarily canon. Of course Evelynn, Akali, Kai’Sa, and Ahri aren’t actually a pop star group named K/DA in the fantasy world of League of Legends. The “Pop/Stars“ music video, with all its exaggerated, modern style, is Riot acknowledging that the pulse of any good story, canon or otherwise, is interesting characters.
Similar to Camille in “Awaken,”the alternate universe Evelynn in “Pop/Stars” maintains the same menace and threat she brings to the game. If anything, you learn more about her. She would obviously wear expensive clothes and drive a Lamborghini. The core of her character transcends the context and, in turn, becomes something more important than company-issued “canon.”
Because canon is an abyss, as Mike Rugnetta recently wrote. “Like a museum adding to its collection, each new piece changes how we view the whole, and opens up a perspective on the previously commonplace that may cause unease.” True or not, official or pseudo-official, the veil of canon is thin. To accept the “unease” is to understand the allure of storytelling in the first place. All we ever want from a story are pathways to connect with its characters and the worlds they inhabit. Those paths can be as brief as a music video, or as long as entire series of novels.
Riot embraces what Blizzard hasn’t yet: that the fear of misshaping your story’s characters stymies creativity. While Riot produces comic books, novels, and short stories, Blizzard labors endlessly over what story points make strategic sense to deploy next. Blizzard wouldn’t ever dare suggest that Widowmaker could be a vampire huntress in a gothic setting, but the skin is there if you want to write that yourself. Riot skips that step and turns its women into Sailor Moon characters in its Star Guardian alternate universe. It sells the skins to fans that not only understand the canonical disconnect, but celebrate it! It’s not just smart advertising, it’s an awareness of why many people play the game at all.
Blizzard’s canonical releases for Overwatch devote themselves to contextualizing a world we’ve barely seen at all in the two years since the game came out. The League of Legends “Awaken” cinematic acknowledges that those types of questions aren’t even a priority when the characters themselves already offer so much to talk about. Instead, it works to enrich the cast with whatever’s exciting in the moment. Camille’s raid, Riven’s Gladiator-style arena fight, and Irelia’s magical defense against an undead giant are visual enough, thrilling enough, to propel the game forward and buy time for lore-building elsewhere.
The Core of a Character
It’s okay if Blizzard hasn’t figured that all out yet. Even Riot retcons story from time to time. But the way Overwatch neglects its striking cast of heroes, instead focusing on canonizing minutiae, stains its updates with unnecessary frustration while everyone waits for the next morsel of information.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Multiplayer games like League of Legends and Overwatch are inherently messy. It’s a genre where the reality of a commercial product is laid bare. You play for as long as you want, but agree to be sold on tertiary things like skins and voice lines to fund its ongoing development. But that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of artistry or worth in the way they pitch the game to you. Overwatch still has one of the most diverse casts in games, even if it could do a lot more. There are characters and stories here that you simply don’t see anywhere else.
Canon is murky, but characters aren’t. Fans take them and create art, stories, and videos because they want to know more. That “more” doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars or adhere to a story bible. It could be three powerful seconds of your main leading a squad on a mission that never really happened — and will never happen. Because it’s never been about what’s true; it’s about what’s compelling.