Very few game developers have created such a stir around character releases as Blizzard has for its new Latina hacker Sombra. In fact, they’ve gone so far as to create an alternate reality game, or an ARG, around her, weaving her story throughout websites, videos, audio files and cryptic code. It only seems fitting—after all, a tech-savvy character would warrant a tech-driven introduction.
But I, among many other players, have been left disappointed, unrewarded, and unsatisfied. To explain why, I believe it’s good to look through the lens of the very genre that this scavenger hunt is meant to replicate.
Early ARGs were explorations into new media that spanned from big budget films like the Matrix to MMOs like The Secret World. Now, the genre and style are often educational or promotional in nature, almost always temporary.
A good ARG rewards its players emotionally and intellectually
ARGs lace together the shadows of the media and reality we think we know, driven by puzzles that require ingenuity and atypical knowledge. Morse code could be hidden in the borders of a photo; source code for one site could lead to another; a real WWI battle could be part of a password. And upon finding each answer, the players find themselves deeper into the rabbit hole, finding plot and satisfaction along the way.
So the circumstances were right for a Sombra ARG: the potential of a new hero, lore that hadn’t been touched since Ana, and the upcoming BlizzCon stage for a big reveal. For a hacking hero, it would only be fitting to do a style of puzzle that exists mostly on the Internet. Right?
Blizzard set the wheels in motion. They laid out the pieces: hidden sound “glitches” in trailers, fake forum posts on their official sites, constructed strange puzzles in styles foreign to all but a few. They had the ideal ingredients in the ARG recipe, except they focused on the components, without understanding how to bring it all together.
A good ARG rewards its players emotionally and intellectually when it reaches the end of each step, and it immerses them in the world that they inserted themselves into. Even when they know there’s going to be a wait, at the very least, the developers have left a thought to play with.
Blizzard’s attempt just feels like a trail of easter eggs
For Sombra, where players expected more light on the story, they usually found yet another shadowy corridor, leaving them upset and unsatisfied. Only vague congratulatory messages, with even more vague—and somewhat inconclusive—bits of lore, greeted the fans who slaved for hours to reach these points.
Then there’s the lack of immersion. It feels like players only really rippled the force fields of the Overwatch world; the “Sombra collective” hints feel like a poor last-second excuse for the players’ presence. There was no real impact the players could make on the world, a key concept in an ARG.
In most other ARGs, success or failure matters. The plot changes, which grounds players in the world and motivates them to hang on for the rest of the ride. Without any obvious mechanics like this, Blizzard’s attempt just feels like a trail of easter eggs. What does each step in the puzzle have to do with the game and its theme? And what have the players accomplished but access emails and fiddle with a site, which our hacker in charge probably could have figured out anyway?
Finally, the “Lumérico press releases” feel terribly canned, thrown into the Overwatch official blog alongside the Overwatch Cup and Pumpkin Contest winners; frankly, this “news bite” feels as if it’s been sitting in Drafts for six months. Lumérico’s press site is still “hacked,” but couldn’t they have used a Lumérico social media account instead of Blizzard to at least report the CEO’s resignation? For one, it would have compensated for the lack of real world-building throughout the rest of the developers’ interactive PR. More importantly, it would have stayed true to the ARG style, where fictional characters come to life in—wait for it—an alternate reality.
Players are sick of the chase, expressing disdain both on Twitter and Reddit for Blizzard’s short, intermittent trails and the lack of any solid answers, especially after the quick release schedule of Ana. They’re left feeling like they wasted hours they could have spent grinding Ranked Mode solving inconclusive puzzles instead.
And so I have very little to congratulate about the Sombra ARG, besides the intelligence and creativity of the players that solved Blizzard’s fiendish puzzles. It’s a failed mini-game by developers and writers who should perhaps either do more research on the genre they wished to replicate or hire externally—and stick to the hype tactics that worked.