Alright, so let’s put the pitchforks down and make this one acknowledgement: these are completely different games. I know people like to compare the two because both have an emphasis on personality and lore in and out of the games themselves (putting aside that neither Valve or Blizzard is the first developer to add a personality to a First Person Shooter. Take a look at “Duke Nukem 3D” sometime), but that alone does not make them the same. One is a game built to showcase a then-revolutionary game engine, the other is essentially another demonstration of Blizzard’s tendency to take things from other games, sand off the rough parts, mix them all together, and serve them to the player. Ok, please put down that pitchfork again, that is not the same as saying that Blizzard is, “derivative” while Valve is a creative haven of fresh ideas and technological prowess. This is not an examination about who is the most innovative, the most, “hardcore”, or the most, “casual”. This is an examination of two very different kinds of creative processes…or at least, the parts one is able to surmise from playing the games.
A common talking point in the discourse surrounding, “Overwatch” is that it is basically a beefed up, “Team Fortress 2” with some reduction in game complexity (show of hands, how good are you at, ‘Rocket Jumping’ with the Soldier in, “Team Fortress 2”? How about at killing people as a Medic? Or at not being a shitty Scout?). It’s an easy point to make simply because both games emphasize team-based gameplay where both sides work together to fulfill objectives, but it’s a simplistic one that ignores what makes, “Overwatch” popular as of this writing. Yes, the game shares traits with, “Team Fortress 2”, but it’s true soul can be found in two sources of inspiration: Marvel Comics and the, “Street Fighter” series. Hear me out here: what is the most popular blockbuster movie series right now that just so happens to feature a bunch of superheros fighting together and even each other? And what game series has a huge cast of characters from different parts of the world, many of which may or may not be politically correct when one stops to think about them? Furthermore, take a look at Blizzard’s design philosophy since it was founded. From the, “Warcraft” universe, to “Starcraft”, to even games like, “The Lost Vikings”, there is one thing in common with all of Blizzard’s most popular games: taking bits and pieces from different sources, sanding out the rough parts (or at least the parts that don’t work for Blizzard), then packaging them together. After all, Blizzard did not invent the Real-Time Strategy Game (that honor goes to the developers of, “Herzog Zwei”, an old Sega Genesis/Mega Drive title that is still a good game in its own right), nor did they invent the idea of high-concept Fantasy lore (I don’t have to spell out the inspiration behind the, “Warcraft” lore, do I?), but with titles like, “StarCraft” and the, “Warcraft” games, they streamline many design decisions made by their peers in gaming, then add in their own mix of appealing Science Fiction/Fantasy.
And it is that creative streamlining process that guides, “Overwatch”, with the problems that can result from it. The game runs smooth when you play an online match, but it lacks the extensive customization/modding chocies that games like, “Team Fortress 2” provide, so no, you won’t be able to play with a nude Mercy or McCree in-game (not that it stops people from making their own character models in Source Filmmaker and doing…whatever the fuck they do with them). The characters are diverse and unique, with each character having individual strengths and weaknesses even within their own class (Offense, Defense, Tank and Support), but when it comes to characterizing these characters? Well…ok, take the official animated short that features Hanzo and Genji:
Two Japanese characters with (at least with English voice acting) heavy Japanese accents, with stuff about mystical beings, honor and other staples of what people BELIEVE forms Japanese culture. Subtle. And there are the things that occur within the game, with some, “skins” (costumes for your game character, if you will) one can unlock through sheer player will, or by buying multiple loot boxes for the chance of maybe earning some. So far, so good…until we get Pharrah’s special skin where she wears an indigenous totem pole like a suti of armor :
Ok, so, what’s the problem? Well, besides the fact that NO LIVING INDIGENOUS PERSON WEARS TOTEM POLES LIKE THAT, that’s the, “Skin” of Pharrah, a woman with armor who flies and shoots rockets at people. According to, “Overwatch” canon, she looks like…well, a cyborg, styled like an Egyptian Hieroglyph:
Note the Egyptian-styled tattoo on her face, along with the entire, “inspired by ancient Egypt” approach to this character’s armor. In official character art, she has this same look, as demonstrated in the game’s original gameplay trailer:
So…if the game characterizes her as an Egyptian woman, why does it have her wear stereotypical indigenous wear? The game gives no indication about the character being a Native American, or from any indigenous tribe, so it smacks of something the creative team thought was cool without thinking through the implications of it. There’s also the political dodging that occurs within the game’s lore. It has a Marvel’s The Avengers/DC’s Justice League kind of story where these, “heroes” get together and duke it out in various locations, but there is one character that shows an omission made by the creators in the name of appealing to as many people as possible, and that character is Zenyatta, who is shown in this short introducing them, Widowmaker and Tracer:
Widowmaker has a French accent, Tracer sounds Steve Irwin levels of Australian (sans the wrestling with crocodiles…wait, she’s from England. Nevermind), and Zenyatta is…a monk. So what of the politics? Well, just look at Zenyatta in the short: Huge temple, lots of followers, and Dali Llama-like speech and mannerisms…sans the stuff that makes the Dali Llama, well, the Dali Llama. In a move that tries to omit what would’ve been a point of contention, this monk is a robot as opposed to being a human, with his cause being the unity of Robots and Humans (the struggle for which is a recurring theme within the world of, “Overwatch” if one pays attention to the map details in the game). What could’ve been a potentially controversial statement regarding, say, Tibet and whether one agrees with China’s role with it or not, is softened through character designs/aesthetic tweaks, and is therefore redirected into something referring back to the world of, “Overwatch” itself, as opposed to something outside of video games. But the issue here is that with the game’s graphical fidelity, it inevitably touches upon stuff one WOULD see in the real world but doesn’t address it honestly, so as a result, some of the characterization feels weak, with the game wanting to be a video game and a story at the same time.
Meanwhile, “Team Fortress 2” draws from a well of World War 2/Cold War political eras, and lampoons them with more honesty, thanks to the games, “Mature/Pegi 16” rating, which therefore gives the game license to portray actual things like injury and death in darkly comical ways and with more detail. Compare and contrast the short of Team Fortress 2’s Soldier:
With the short of Soldier 76 from, “Overwatch”:
Both shorts are violent, but the, “Overwatch” short is set in a potentially contentious setting, a city in Mexico (“Dorado” in this game’s universe) with the titular character appearing and fighting a gang wearing colorful, “Dia de los Muretos” themed costumes and wear. Not exactly subtle, and yet the violence is shown off camera or with editing cut-aways. We’re TOLD what the consequences are, but they’re not demonstrated. For all of the graphical fidelity and color, Soldier 76 may as well been fighting in a generic warehouse or steamy factory like they do in the movies. Meanwhile the, “Team Fortress 2” short is bloody, showcasing the gory consequences of death while also showcasing the madness of the Soldier character himself. It may not be set in a real-life warzone or environments similar to those one walks through in real-life, and yet the cinematic allows its characters to hurt, to be torn apart and even to be wrong.
Granted, “Overwatch” has shades of that, yet its problem is that it aims to be a popular title by picking and choosing from both the real world and from the games that follow it, and the characterization and world-building is haphazard as a result. It pulls a diverse cast of many races, creeds and even different species, but it brushes them in broad strokes. Which is fine, except for parts like Pharrah’s stereotypical Indigenous-themed skin and the game’s way of appropriating different cultures for the sake of aesthetics and for that alone. “Team Fortress 2”, on the other hand, demonstrates that one CAN have substantive characterization from within different types of characters within just one setting. It even has a fucking Black Scotsman, speaking like Mel Gibson from, “Braveheart”, and yet the way they pull off his characterization makes him an awesome and substantial character in his own right.
“Team Fortress 2”, from it’s launch in 2007 to today, LEANS into what is otherwise a mostly uniform world while letting each character actually BE characters besides their powers. “Overwatch”…has yet to reach that same level. This is not to say that, “Overwatch” is this flawed, bad game while, “Team Fortress 2” is this masterpiece that the, “casuals” will never comprehend. Like I alluded earlier, “Team Fortress 2” is a complex and somewhat bloated game. Back in the day, “Team Fortress 2” was very polished. Now…well, over the years Valve released so much content in the form of cosmetic changes, weapons and other content that it can feel daunting to get into it unless one has already sunk hundreds, if not thousands of hours into it.
“Team Fortress 2” is kind of a world in and of itself, for better and for worse, which would be fine if it didn’t lead to the main core game having a long set of longstanding issues that haven’t been addressed. Parts of the game are still buggy as hell, some classes are extremely overpowered (insert a long, angry stare at the Pyro here), and unlike, “Overwatch”, experimentation is not as encouraged. One has to get REALLY good with at least ONE class so that you will actually play your part as opposed to just getting killed over and over again, and that is a hurdle that will take time to get used to, but…well, the game isn’t exactly attracting new players, even with its, “Free to Play” model, which in itself is a contentious issue because the game’s community was built from the get-go with an understanding that one has to pay to play…that, and “Free to Play” games tend to have terrible players. One need to look no further than, “League of Legends” to prove that.
Just to get this out of the way: I happen to play both games, and like them very much. I’m more invested in, “Overwatch” right now because, well, the game is very good in spite of the flaws I wrote about. I like the characters (Mercy/Reinhardt for example, but I do dabble with the other ones and Zarya…*sweats profusely*), and I find the core concept intriguing, but I’m not sure if I’m willing to say that it is a GREAT game. It’s colorful, it’s dynamic, plus it’s surprisingly balanced at launch, considering all of the different heroes and the variables they bring. It’s just that the world-building, the meat of the game, still needs plenty of work, needs to have the developers actually think through their characters and their world so that the experience can be unique and yet appealing to a lot of players. I think the developers can do that. Once upon a time, “Team Fortress 2” proved to millions of players worldwide that it is possible to have what is essentially a game of digital paintball with objectives brim with personality and a great lore that allows every character to fit into the world while still remaining distinct, sans the racial stereotyping problems that would otherwise sink such an approach.
It is my hope that Blizzard can make, “Overwatch” into that kind of game…and they can start by fixing that fucking Pharrah skin. Or, just put an actual Native American character in it. I mean, the game has a fucking talking gorilla with an electrical probe, why not let an indigenous character have a go at the mayhem, eh?
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