When I play Apex Legends, an interesting quote often comes to mind: “Story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” John Carmack, one of the creators of the Doom series, said these infamous words to his co-creator and designer Tom Hall. Hall was in charge of creating the game’s narrative, and unsurprisingly left id Software–a company he had co-founded–in 1993, partially due to his “artistic differences” with Carmack. Doom went on to become a massively successful series. Its gameplay was addictively fun, but for people like me, it was missing something. The game left many players craving more knowledge about the Doom world itself, and wishing there had been more to care about.
No matter how good a game is on a technical level, no matter how fun the gameplay itself is, every game has some aspect that certain players may not enjoy: a boring fetch quest, a terrible mini-game, an incredibly hard level, a really, really terrible mini-game, an underwater section. Did I mention terrible mini-games? When confronted with one of these not-so-fun (or downright annoying) gameplay mechanics–especially when it’s a task that must be completed to progress in the game–players have two options: give up, or keep trying. Often, what makes a player opt to keep trying is the story itself.
They want to see the ending, find out the truth, save the princess, beat up the bad guy. While developers of single-player games seem to have realized the importance of a strong narrative, devs of online multiplayer games haven’t quite managed to implement it. Fortnite has come close, but it hasn’t quite hit the mark. Part of this is because that mark is quite literally a moving target. If you write a story, that story has an ending, and online games aren’t really supposed to end. Fortnite’s island may evolve each season, but neither the characters nor the locale seem to actually be taking the story anywhere interesting (unless you count an admittedly-fun Ariana Grande concert).
Enter Apex Legends. Nearly three decades since Doom’s original release, I finally have the one thing I’ve wanted since I first picked up a controller: an online multiplayer FPS with relatable characters and an actual plot that goes deeper than the typical “Shoot the bad guys. We’re at war with them because, uh…reasons.” Obviously things have changed since the Doom days, and people now expect both quality gameplay and quality storytelling in most AAA releases. But the fact that we’re getting both from a free-to-play Battle Royale is pretty wild, and I couldn’t be more ecstatic about it.
I’ve spoken before about how much I adore Apex Legends for its story, however disjointed its execution may be. Apex certainly isn’t the first shooter to have a plot, but what makes it stand out to me is the fact that the characters themselves are so fleshed-out and interesting–and the fact that their story is ongoing, unlike other shooters with fantastic gameplay but no real story to back it up. There is certainly no shortage of entertaining shooters with award-winning gameplay. But when it comes to the large majority of these games, if you were to ask me who my favorite character is, all you’d get is a blank stare as I desperately try to remember the name of that one side character or the faceless, playable charisma-vacuum that I kind of, sort of related to. Most characters in these games aren’t particularly unique–often due to the fact that they aren’t sticking around long enough to make an impression, because next year there will be a new version of the same game with another just-OK story that I have to pay $60 for, a game which will be inevitably replaced the year after that, when yet another $60 game full of forgettable characters but really good gameplay enters the series. Repeat ad nauseam.
Apex is another story.
Apex Legends has a steep learning curve, especially for those of us who started playing before Arenas, which provides an excellent training ground for new players. But in trios and duos, death comes swiftly, frequently, and without mercy. After all, your squad only has a 5% chance of winning a match when there are 19 other squads competing against you. When I first picked up the game, most matches went something like this: drop into Skull Town, wish someone would blow it off the map, scramble for a gun and pray to the RNG gods that you survive the first 5 minutes of the game, then spend the next 10 minutes collecting loot for the player who inevitably ambushes you and promptly turns your squad into a deathbox graveyard. While the gameplay can be ridiculously entertaining, it can also become ridiculously frustrating, or just stale.
Respawn has cleverly worked around this problem in multiple ways. They blessed us with Loba, who actually, literally blew Skull Town off the map (may it rest in pieces), effectively stealing my heart (and later, all of my loot). The season before, they hyped players up for Season 4’s Legend, Forge, even going as far as adding hints of his arrival into the game’s files to throw dataminers off the scent of their true plans for that season. Then they bamboozled us. Players tuned in to Forge’s episode of Stories From The Outlands expecting the same thing they’d been getting for the last three seasons: some backstory. Instead, they got Revenant, who popped out of the shadows and promptly murdered Forge on live television, then took his place in the Games.
Apex toys with player expectations by training them to expect one thing, then blindsiding them with something totally out of left field. When there’s a change made to one of the maps, it’s always directly related to a character in the game, or to that season’s plot.
Last season, for instance, Caustic took over the Water Treatment facility on King’s Canyon to repair the environmental damage caused by Fuse’s ship crashing into the map and polluting the water with fuel in Season 8. Several seasons before, players discovered secret bunkers around King’s Canyon, each with a room which was made inaccessible by debris blocking the doors. But eagle-eyed players soon discovered a well-hidden little tunnel that only Hack, Crypto’s drone, could fit through. Upon flying the drone through the vent and into the secret room, players discovered a series of rather suspicious messages from Crypto’s kidnapped foster sister, Mila, who was assumed dead but has apparently escaped the Syndicate’s clutches. She warns Crypto that someone is watching him from the inside, then says a phrase in Korean. Crypto audibly breathes a sigh of relief and repeated the phrase in English: “Family forever.” I cannot emphasize enough how cool this was to discover in the middle of a match, hearing bombs drop aboveground as I crouched in the corner of the bunker, praying no enemies would interrupt my discovery.
While the story itself is a wild ride, the true heart of the game isn’t the characters’ actions, but the Legends themselves. These characters aren’t the same tired stereotypes players have seen a million times before. At a whopping 18 playable Legends, there is truly something for everyone, but a few Legends truly stand out for their unique relatability:
Horizon, a (presumably-single) mom who struggled to balance motherhood with her career, and whose goal is to get back to her child by any means necessary.
Lifeline, a healthcare worker who spent last season trying to do the impossible and save everything she loves in the middle of a viral outbreak, while also not speaking to her family because they can’t see eye-to-eye on politics. In addition to this, she’s also struggling to keep her childhood friend’s Stim addiction from spiraling out of control.
Octane, a drug user who is addicted to the pharmaceutical his family produces, and who still desperately clings to the hope that one day his physically and emotionally abusive father will be proud of him, even though it’s clear that dropship has sailed. He’s trying to outrun his troubles as fast as he can (which is pretty darn fast), but no grenade-jump in the world is enough to propel him out of his family’s toxic reach.
Revenant, a badass tough-guy who pretends to just love killing, but suffers from deadly-serious PTSD & suicidal ideation. He joined the games not simply because he’s programmed to be bloodthirsty, but also because he’s bored…and lonely.
Then there’s Loba, a woman who was born into poverty only to have her family taken from her just as their financial woes were dissipating. Rejected by her foster family, she ended up on the streets, yet has still managed to “claw her way to the top” in her quest to find the one thing she hopes will make her whole again: revenge. But it seems like she may have found something else along the way: love.
Bangalore, a former soldier who fought on the “wrong” side of the Frontier War, is traumatized and haunted by the death of her brother. After watching Loba, the woman she is falling for, nearly die the same way her brother did, Bangalore pretends they were “just friends.” She seems to have decided that she can’t lose another loved one if she never admits to loving them in the first place.
Then we have Valkyrie, a woman haunted by the death of her father yet still following in his flight-path (against his wishes), after recently figuring out that revenge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But despite her carefree demeanor, she’s still struggling, because the realization that revenge will fix nothing seems to have sent her into free-fall–recklessly drinking, flying and flirting her way into enough chaos to distract herself from her pain.
Bloodhound is a non-binary individual who is struggling to find a partner and blames themselves for the deaths of the two people they loved most: their uncle Artur, and their would-be lover, Boone. They even write a poem shared via a loading screen that ends with the following words: “But winter falls, the heart astray. Never us together. Never ‘He’ and ‘They.’”
Fuse is a man whose best friend, Maggie, not only blew off his arm and took out his eye, but then proceeded to suicide-bomb King’s Canyon–all because Fuse chose not to fight against his homeworld becoming part of the Syndicate, and instead joined the Apex Games.
One of my personal favorites is Caustic, a Legend who pretends to hold little regard for human life, but who is secretly suffering from cancer and has survived past his estimated expiration date. With an unknown amount of time left to live, he has devoted himself to ensuring the safety and success of Wattson. He envies his adoptive brother, Crypto, for “stealing” their mother’s love.
Crypto was orphaned and then—through no fault of his own—had his found-family taken from him in a horrific fashion. He is desperately lonely but too paranoid and scared of getting burned to let himself get close to anyone—both for their safety and his own. Still, he appears to have forged a brotherly friendship with Mirage, and (much to Caustic’s chagrin) a possibly-romantic relationship with Wattson, the only Legend besides Caustic and Loba who are aware of his true identity.
Wraith suffers from mental illness that she sees as something she deserves, a punishment for her past actions as an IMC scientist. But she has nonetheless formed a close sisterly bond with Wattson, and has also learned to listen to her heart and trust the little voice inside her head (even though there are several of them).
Then, of course, comes Mirage, a self-depreciat—self-defecat—uh, guy who makes fun of himself, a man who’s all handsome charm and mild narcissism on the surface, but who uses his holographic camouflage to hide a much darker truth: three brothers missing in action, an absentee deadbeat-dad, and perhaps worst of all, a beloved mother who is slowly forgetting who he is. Despite this, he’s managed to coax both Crypto and Wraith out of their respective shells, and very few legends know the truth–that he’s not just a sleight-of-hand magician, but a lonely, self-conscious, truly sad clown.
I think most players see little pieces of themselves in each Legend, and because Respawn has really gone the extra mile when it comes to character development, players–myself included–keep coming back. Instead of choosing between Generic Camouflaged Male and Generic Camouflaged Female, Respawn gives players the option to select characters that have a similar personality to the player, and possess combat skills that reflect this.
As wild and fantastical as Apex’s story can be, its characters are real, down to earth, and relatable. The personal issues they face are issues that real people face–the loss of a loved one, crippling guilt, loneliness, addiction, mental illness–everyone has experienced at least one of these struggles at some point in their life. That’s what makes Apex’s developing plot and evolving characters compelling enough to get even the most casual player interested. But there’s a very stark contrast between the story in this game, and the story in a porn movie: in the Outlands, a happy ending isn’t always guaranteed.
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