Know Your Lore: The Sombra ARG and story in Overwatch
Was Sombra a bust? While I was initially going to talk about more Old Gods and WoW this week, a recent post by Jeff Kaplan on the Overwatch forums caught my attention.
The reason we don’t talk about new hero development more is we took the community feedback regarding the Sombra ARG to heart.
I’m not sure why feedback surrounding an ARG would cause the team to suddenly stop releasing any new hero development information. But it’s true, the Sombra ARG, intriguing as it was, left a lot of players feeling frustrated and annoyed. We haven’t really spent a lot of time speaking about the ARG directly. But given the post by Kaplan, it’s worth a closer look — and a little explanation on the side, for people not familiar with Sombra’s extended origin story.
She who has the information
An ARG, or Alternate Reality Game, is an interactive networked narrative – essentially, a story told through a series of connected events or puzzles. Sombra’s ARG began all the way back in July of last year, when a series of hexadecimal numbers were discovered at a particular moment in the origins video for Overwatch’s newest hero at the time, Ana.
Clever players immediately took the numbers, converted them to ASCII, and used an XOR Cipher to decode the message: “…la que tiene la información; tiene el poder…somb” Translated to English, the phrase was “She who has the information, has the power…somb” A second frame from the same video was found and decoded with the same message, only with the letters “ra” at the start. Together, they spelled “Sombra” – an as-yet unannounced hero that had only been hinted at in newspapers and files scattered around the Dorado map.
A few days later, another puzzle was discovered, in a developer update video. The end of the video contained a series of vertical barcodes that revealed a QR code when unscrambled. Scanning the code revealed another Spanish phrase, this one translating to “Was that easy? Well, now that I have your attention, allow me to make things much more difficult.”
Ciphers and puzzles
As the months went on, every video released by the Overwatch team underwent intense scrutiny for more potential clues. And they were there, cleverly tucked and hidden away for anyone that wanted to try their hand at solving Sombra’s puzzles. All of this was carefully catalogued and voluntarily kept track of by players — completely interactive. In a way, the ARG was a game within a game – optional to play, but entertaining for those who chose to take part.
But as time went on, interest in Sombra’s puzzles eventually petered out. On August 23, a post was made to the Overwatch forums by a user named Skycoder. The post included a 23 hour countdown, and once the countdown concluded on August 24, more puzzles were unlocked – puzzles that led players to amomentincrime.com, a (now defunct) site used to promote Roadhog and Junkrat when they were revealed. The website had been replaced with a countdown timer.
It took almost two months for that countdown timer to run out, and the story to continue. That was the crux of the problem with Sombra’s ARG. By the time people hit that countdown wall, they simply didn’t want to play anymore, and lost interest. Once the timer hit zero and the ARG started up again, people still tried to solve it, but it was almost too little too late at that point. Sombra herself was revealed at BlizzCon in November – almost four months after the original cipher was found.
On the one hand, people grew far too impatient with the ARG, and for good reason. Playing ARG games only works when the people solving puzzles are rewarded for the solutions. A nearly two-month long countdown timer didn’t feel like a reward – it felt like a punishment. A stalling tactic. On the other hand, Blizzard had never tried their hand at this kind of a game before. The ARG was, in its way, an experiment of sorts.
And it suited Sombra perfectly. Her character is a hacker and an information specialist. Puzzles and ciphers hidden away in videos and websites were a natural fit – of course the hacker would hide things for people to find. Of course she’d play those kinds of games with us. Maybe it got a little frustrating, but it was also a new kind of narrative for Blizzard, and the story, as always, was captivating. It was the wait that wasn’t as well received.
But that kind of introduction wouldn’t have worked for someone like Soldier: 76, or Mei, or Mercy, or any of the other heroes in Overwatch’s vast array. It wouldn’t have suited them in quite the same way that it suited Sombra. And while the ARG might have been viewed as a frustrating disappointment by some, it was still a pretty good attempt at a unique way to introduce a new character.
Which is why it’s kind of disappointing to read what Kaplan said on the forums. It’s not immediately clear what kind of feedback they took from the Sombra ARG, but if the end result of that feedback is that we don’t really hear anything else about new hero development, that’s a substantial loss for the community. What Sombra presented wasn’t just a series of sometimes maddening puzzles; it was also a new twist on Overwatch’s ongoing narrative, an interactive way to slowly introduce a new hero to the game.
In that aspect, it totally worked. There may not be a lot of story in Overwatch’s gameplay, but there’s still story to be had in animated shorts, comics, faux news articles on the site, and elsewhere. Part of the fun of Overwatch’s story is simply the process of figuring it all out. It’s a narrative that we kind of have to construct ourselves – the lines aren’t clearly drawn from point A to point B, it’s up to us to put the pieces together and figure out where that story lies.
So I’m curious to see exactly what this means for the future of hero reveals in the game. I don’t think the frustration surrounding Sombra should have been an indicator that we didn’t want to hear about new heroes. I don’t really feel like the notion of an ARG should be completely scrapped, either. It was a unique new way to present that narrative that sits outside of the game – and while it might have dragged on a little too long to keep people happy, there’s no denying that it was an imaginative first attempt at something new.
Overwatch is wildly popular, as much for the vast cast of captivating characters as the game itself. We haven’t heard much from a narrative standpoint since the last holiday comic back in December – which was incredibly well received. People are still digging for clues for new heroes – Doomfist seems like a potential new prospect in some circles – but the well is almost inexplicably dry. Is this because of Sombra’s reception?
And I have to admit, I’m kind of curious, now that the Sombra ARG is well behind us, how people feel about it in retrospect. Was it too much? Was it simply a matter of timing? Would players respond to another ARG, if given a second one that was paced more appropriately? I don’t know if the answer is a simple yes or no – but I hope we’re given the chance to find out.
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