So, in full disclosure I should admit that I used the Overwatch free weekend to get into probably the most popular current game of the past five years or so. I did this in large part because I’m very cheap, but also because I finally have a computer that I thought could credibly play the game. So I thought, why not right? Even if I only get a couple of hours in, it’s a good time for free and maybe I can write about it at Videodrone. Well, uh, yes and yes: beyond my expectations.
The thing I didn’t realize about Overwatch was that it was not just a cultural phenomenon surrounding a relatively decent shooter. It was a really top-top tier shooter that produced a cultural phenomenon. This might seem like a pretty fine distinction, but Blizzard has really produced something special in the game itself and, not so incidentally, has produced a series of culturally resonant characters to go along with their brilliant design. The two go hand in hand, as any brief search of Overwatch fan fiction, fan art, or pornography will reveal, and a large portion of Overwatch’s massively positive reception seems to have to do with the fact that it is openly representative of people who generally are not represented in videogames. It’s just that that’s not all it’s up to either.
But let’s talk about the characters first, anyway. The general caveat against seeing representation as an end of politics of course applies here — listen, Blizzard didn’t include a diverse and differently shaped cast because they wanted to be nice or advance the cause of more just politics around race, gender, and sexuality, it was for profit. But with that said, I think there’s a very formally interesting quality to the diversity of Overwatch’s heroes. The game takes the Mortal Kombat route of keeping much of the story hidden in the background, so each character becomes a sort of legend upon which you can project yourself, and there are a lot of options. Different races, species, ages, even body types populate Overwatch. And in a shocking move for a high profile videogame, they almost nail gender parity — 10 of the 23 playable heroes are women. And not just waifish white women either: women in Overwatch are just as likely to be offense heavy as they are to be support.
What this means for players is that they can gravitate to the characters they feel an affinity to without having to suffer poor play as a consequence. For instance, I’m old and out of shape, so I usually went with the over-the-hill hero Soldier 76 and the massive biker tank Roadhog. This gave me a ton of flexibility, depending on the rest of my team, and the game totally doesn’t penalize you for experimenting with different roles, as you can swap out heroes every time you die in game if you choose. So, while you never feel married or trapped to a particular hero, Overwatch allows you to feel at home in your avatar’s skin, a gesture that allows both self-actualizing play (”Hell yeah, I’d be so good at fighting in an arena”) and, more importantly, fan investment in otherwise Orphic but opaque character types. Beautifully designed and without a clear set of origins in-game, the Overwatch heroes are totally open to community investment — a sort of Benedict Andersonian imagined community of gamers if you’re feeling optimistic, and a heck of a guerrilla marketing campaign if you’re feeling grouchy. Either way, it’s fairly remarkable.
Beyond the characters, as I said before, the game itself is designed in a really unique and effective way. I’ve had a number of discussions with my friends about what exactly Overwatch is as a game. Obviously, it’s a first person shooter, and we can’t really get past that. But on one hand, it’s also a bit like a fighting game, as each character has a set of specific moves that they can use to specific effect, as well as a series of very particular weaknesses, as well as an ultimate attack. On the other hand, the game is a lot like capture-the-flag games like Team Fortress 2, based around quick but mercurial team cohesion and rapid-fire win-loss scenarios and repeated tactical plans. And on a third hand, snaking its way out of your abdomen, it’s a MOBA, marked with the same tell tale signatures of DOTA2 or League of Legends, just with a lot less complexity: tanks, supports, offense, and defense; deeply specialized movesets that require very specific timing; and a team mentality that is literally required for any modicum of success. Somehow, Overwatch manages to be each and every one of these pvp genres and manages to be it at an incredibly high level. Which of course makes for addictive, non-stale gameplay.
I think in the end, I lean toward the game being a bit like a MOBA for a more casual class of gamer, eg me. I like DOTA2 a lot, but make no mistake, I’m terrible at it and I’m not going to be any better any time soon. With Overwatch, it took two or three hours before I could actually say that I was pretty comfortable in deathmatches, which is a remarkably light learning curve. The game, in many ways, works the way for the shooter that Super Smash Bros did for fighting games: it makes the genre lighter, faster, and more easily accessible to new players without ratcheting down the game quality. As such, it opens up the form to non-insiders, in much the same way genre fiction or popular cinema might in other media. It’s an entry point.
But what’s so fascinating about Overwatch is that it’s not just an entry point, but an end point also. You could literally begin and end your videogame career in Overwatch and not bat an eye. In that way, again, it’s like Smash Bros, which thousands of college kids became experts at while never giving a damn about any other videogame of the moment. And what this does for the form is it allows access to a class of spectator who isn’t particularly concerned with the history and future of videogames, who isn’t at core a gamer. This is important for profit, of course, also, and I’m sure Blizzard is thrilled about that. But beyond that, Overwatch offers a new audience a way into a form that is all-too-often completely unwieldy to newcomers.
So while the cartoon violence, easily identified-with characters, and sense of simple rules that are impossible to master inform the way in which Overwatch is played and received, the important part of the game has more to do with its underlying philosophy. Don’t, it seems to suggest, turn anyone who wants to play away, and you’ll get a better game for it. The videogame community is usually set hard against this philosophy (see my posts on Dark Souls), but quality counts, and Overwatch is doing enough to avoid immanent critique from its base. As a result, we get the videogame version of the novel of manners or sentimental fiction: an entryway into the form that will allow access to its next generation of creators. If Overwatch has a lasting legacy — and it almost certainly will given its standing and popularity — this might be it: that it allowed the people who further defined the form in to sit at the table in the first place.