Hot Drop: Apex Legends’ Story Shouldn’t Be About Its Heroes

Hot Drop is GameSpot’s weekly Apex Legends column, in which Jordan Ramée takes a closer look at Respawn’s battle royale to provide additional insight into the game’s evolution, as well as dive deeper into its episodic storytelling and characters.

As more and more developers cleverly adopt the episodic storytelling of TV to create interesting storylines for their service games, it’s becoming ever more clear that the differing media don’t quite translate when it comes to hero shooters. As this is an Apex Legends column, I’m going to be talking about this topic within the context of Respawn’s battle royale game, but it’s important to note that this issue persists in pretty much every service game that uses hero characters.

Now Playing: Apex Legends: Defiance Launch Trailer

The issue in question is the inherent immortality of the main characters for hero-focused service games. The structure of a service game is designed with longevity in mind–these are experiences that are meant to be played for years after release. As such, the stories for these games need to be written in a way that allows them to continue for years without drastic changes that would change how the games play.

That also means that the main characters of these stories typically have to exist in some sort of narrative rut. This structure would work if Apex Legends was a comedy–comedy-focused television series can get away with this structure, as it creates an established starting point for setting up skits or jokes in future episodes–but it falters when it comes to something more story-driven like a drama. Because in Apex Legends, that means that whatever situation has caused these characters to engage in the game’s plot at launch needs to remain so that the character will too. And so there’s less forward momentum to these characters’ growth.

For example, Respawn can’t write that Loba gives up on fighting Revenant to focus on building the type of family that was taken from her with her girlfriend, nor can the studio come up with a way for Horizon to successfully travel back in time and be together with her son again. These outcomes would narratively lead to these characters leaving the Apex Games.

On paper, seeing a few characters leave the Apex Games might sound fine. In fact, it would be an incredible way of injecting a dramatic shake-up to the story. But these are characters that people have paid money for and then possibly bought dozens of cosmetics for. To remove them from the game would be foolish–there would be vocal outcry from the community if they lost access to a character they’ve potentially poured hundreds of hours and real money into.

If Respawn ever killed Octane, and I lost access to playing a character I’ve enjoyed using since October 2019 and spent a good $300 USD on, I’d be pissed. I don’t think I’d play Apex Legends anymore.

And could Respawn just kill off Octane and keep him around as part of the game? Sure. But if he’s dead, suddenly you have a character who isn’t a part of Quest anymore and doesn’t have unique in-match reactive voice lines that evolve depending on the on-goings of Quest and the story at large, and suddenly he’s not as exciting a character to play.

This has always been the largest problem that Apex Legends’ story faces, and it’s recently popped up again with The Williams Sendoff, which combines in-game challenges, radio plays, and a brief single-player segment to tell a Bangalore-focused story.

The Williams Sendoff is excellent–probably my favorite addition to Apex Legends’ storytelling since the introduction of Quest in Season 5: Fortune’s Favor. Erica Luttrell absolutely kills in her performance of Bangalore, who slowly begins to spiral as her world falls apart.

But as good as The Williams Sendoff is, it also suffers from the one major issue that Apex Legends’ storytelling has always had: the knowledge that no storyline is going to end with one of the playable characters dying or leaving the Apex Games.

This fact doesn’t detract from the storytelling chops on display for the majority of The Williams Sendoff. Seeing Wraith gently squeeze Bangalore’s hand as she cries over the news that Jackson is dead is heartbreaking. Witnessing Jackson’s vain attempts to make his sister love the Outlands as much as he does adds an extra twinge of tragedy to Bangalore being stranded there alone. Watching Loba aggressively tell off Bangalore, the woman she loves, while both women are clearly hurting is compellingly frustrating–especially since the misunderstanding between the two has been exacerbated by Revenant’s cruel meddling.

But that final moment, in which Bangalore agrees to take Revenant’s money in order to return back to Gridiron and see her family, loses impact because we all know that there’s no way in hell Bangalore and Revenant get on that ship to head back to the Core Systems. Respawn will not write a story that has two playable characters suddenly no longer be playable, so Bangalore and Revenant have to stay in the Apex Games.

It takes out some of the narrative bite of The Williams Sendoff–the realization that, in the end, very little of this development is going to lead to meaningful change. Something is going to happen so that Bangalore and Revenant stay in the Apex Games, and so Loba will continue wrestling with her feelings for Bangalore and hatred for Revenant. Not away from the two, of course, in a healthy manner–she has to stay in the Apex Games, too, as a playable character.

The big issue is that all of the most compelling storylines in Apex Legends center around at least one of the playable legends. The ongoing situation with Salvo involves Fuse and Mad Maggie. Hammond Industries’ continued colonization of the Outer Worlds is important to Bloodhound. Duardo Silva’s efforts to take over the Syndicate are important to Octane and Lifeline, and just anything to do with the Syndicate in general typically involves Crypto, Wattson, Caustic, and Revenant. And every legend has their own personal quest, a reason for being in the Apex Games in the first place. Their stories are Apex Legends’ stories.

I think the easiest way to address this issue would be for Apex Legends to no longer be a hero shooter. Not in the literal sense–the battle royale’s gameplay is centered around hero shooter mechanics. But instead of being a shooter about heroes, it should just be a shooter about people. Respawn needs to promote the importance of characters who are not the legends.

Characters like Blisk, Mystik, Lisa Stone, Newton, “Big Sister,” Jaime, Frances, Mila, Grace Rasheed, and Maldera all have the potential for being protagonists or antagonists–I’d mention Bangalore’s brother, Jackson, but I’m pretty sure he’s Newcastle. But that’s what Apex Legends needs; protagonists and antagonists who can die or triumph or move on. And these characters don’t need to always be in Apex Legends, so they have actual potential in where their stories can go.

Making heroes and villains of the legends ensures that Apex Legends’ conflicts will never have meaningful conclusions–the legends will remain in the Apex Games until Respawn shutters Apex Legends and abandons its servers (which will sadly happen one day). The legends can (and should!) be a part of the story but they shouldn’t be the focus.

Just look at service games like Final Fantasy XIV or Destiny 2, where players are a part of the ongoing narrative but they are not the actual heroes of the story. Players love their Guardians and their Warriors of Light, but the action also happens around those characters, ensuring that the playable character is always going to be there, but that there are still stakes because there are non-playable characters that Bungie and Square Enix can do with as they please.

Major characters who have been in Destiny 2 since the days of Destiny 1 can die or switch sides or straight up disappear (only to reappear months later), all in the service of creating compelling storylines that Bungie has built over the course of years. That is what TV shows do.

Respawn hasn’t managed that with Apex Legends, because so much of the story hinges on the fact that all of its main characters must, somehow, always be competing in the Apex Games. They can meet new people, explore new planets, suffer from disease, fall in or out of love, discover long-lost family, or whatever else Respawn has cooking, but it must always come back to one conclusion: These characters are never going to stop competing in the Apex Games. I suppose Respawn could have the group join a different blood sport that just happens to have the exact same rules, but that’s not a meaningful development. Not in the same way that games like Destiny 2 and Final Fantasy XVI have become altogether different beasts from where they started.

Until Apex Legends gets protagonists and antagonists to care about outside of the playable legends, it’s always going to fall a bit short in comparison to the narrative-driven service games around it.

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