My fellow fanatics, January is still the slow period in this business. The holiday season is dying down, there aren’t a lot of high profile experiences to talk about, unless you count Super Smash Bros. Ultimate that came out near the end of December, and award shows have come and gone. But Blizzard managed to stir the gaming community pot by revealing that Soldier 76, one of the playable characters in the insanely popular hero-shooter Overwatch, is gay.
And it has lead to some pretty spicy takes. Once again, it’s January, so here’s mine.
First, let’s back up to examine the interesting way Blizzard has been revealing these character details. Overwatch shares similar traits to another popular game, League of Legends, in that the world-building and lore for their respective settings are always pushed to the margins in order to keep their gameplay as the focus. Both games are entirely multiplayer-focused and have colorful and distinct characters to play as on the surface, but look up any official information and you will find a lot of detail that is mostly set dressing. The primary difference is that Overwatch has kept their lore to a dripfeed with more elaborate production values. An animated short here and there showing how Mei got her ice powers or revealing the back-stabbing Sombra, a web comic revealing that a character has a girlfriend, the list goes on. Sometimes things get confirmed in Tumblr posts Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan sends to fans like how the Indian support hero Symmetra is on the autism spectrum.
Which brings us to the latest peek into the world of Overwatch with the official short story: Bastet. It involves the two badass elderly characters, the Egyptian sniper Ana and the disgraced head of Overwatch, Soldier 76, grousing about how much things had changed since their superhero organization went down the tubes. Ana finds some of Soldier’s old personal effects and finds a photo of him with another man named Vincent. And Soldier gets sad because he wanted to have a normal life with Vincent, but his beau moved on and got married.
Not only is the grizzled soldier gay, but he tragically had to let his boyfriend go.
And for a highly vocal part of the gaming community, this was the final straw; another victim to “PC Culture” and a sign that gaming is no longer just targeted at straight white manchildren in their early twenties. But considering Overwatch has made a name for itself as having one of the most diverse cast of characters in the medium, it’s not exactly a surprise. There seems to be at least one hero from every major country and nationality, there’s a healthy amount of body types from lanky, physically fit, robot, space gorilla, chubby, and large. But Soldier 76 was seen by many as the vanilla character. His design a combo of a generic bro from a Call of Duty game with a letterman jacket slapped on. His unique powers amount to noobtube, sprint, regenerating health, and aimbot, which is pretty reliably plain compared to powers like invisibility, wall-running, and shooting laser beams. But now that the secret is out, it magically makes the character just another agent in pushing some agenda.
And to those kind of people I have two thoughts. First, go outside and try socializing with actual people. Diversity isn’t the devil, it’s the norm for many people. And second, Blizzard already prepared itself for situations like this. Not from a cynical “they’re a company that’s just trying to make money” sort of way, but in the very way they promote and sustain their game.
One of the clever things about Overwatch as a game is that so much personality is conveyed by simply playing as a hero you enjoy for long enough. Everything from their vocal barks to their victory poses to the way they’re animated helps give you a vibrant picture of what that person is all about. Even if those personality traits are simple like “energetic and friendly” or “playful gremlin” it is still a strong association that comes through in gameplay.
But due to the nature of the game being entirely multiplayer-focused with an emphasis on quick and easy to understand gameplay modes like Capture The Flag or Control, a real coherent narrative can’t exactly happen. The first Titanfall tried that and it failed horribly. But thanks to these online comics and other paratextual media, we can get a much better idea about the characters and the world while still enjoying a straightforward experience online.
Put another way, the divide is similar to Reagan-era cartoons from the 1980s. Overwatch: The Setting is the saturday morning cartoon you watch and get invested in, Overwatch: The Game is you and your buddies playing with the officially licensed toys and playsets.
This divide helps send a message of focus. I identified Tracer as a peppy optimistic woman that was always ready to leap into danger to help her friends first and a lesbian second because of how said media was presented. I played the game as her, then got to see her significant other in a webcomic around Christmas a few months later. Which goes a long way to deflect criticisms of tokenism or attempt to be PC. These were characters first, and these key identifying parts of their lives aren’t pushed into your face. You’re going to be more worried about what role the hero will fill in a pitched battle than whether or not they’re queer or whatever. But if you don’t dig into this extra material, the core experience remains unaffected.
For the sake of fairness, there is a potential nugget of concern that the backlash does help illustrate with this story. Due to this hard divide between gameplay and narrative text, the writers and creators of Overwatch have plenty of freedom to change characters the way they see fit, but if not handled with a delicate hand, can be read as token or forced.
But, at the end of the day, I am alright with learning this new side of Soldier 76. He’s still the taciturn army guy among cyborg hackers and mech pilots that people enjoy, and I got to know the guy a bit more when he isn’t in the field.
Now let’s wait to see the backlash when the cowboy hero McCree is actually three midgets in a body suit.