A short preface
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I had a longer essay on thoughts about Overwatch 2 that I ended up not liking and sitting on for a long time. Part of that was the overall pretentiousness of my tone, which you may still see here, but another part of it was that I consistently wanted to go beyond the few thoughts and ideas that I had into far deeper speculation than my own experience warrants.
Which, to be fair, may still be the case with this portion of the essay; nevertheless, I find it interesting and would like to share.
What Do I Mean By Naive Characterization
Obviously given the title this is a necessary question to address. While I mean those two words essentially verbatim, it’s worth asking, “What is naive about the characterization in Overwatch, and why is that a problem?”
All characters in a war or battle setting flirt with death, and naturally, in a video game, we tend to gloss over the finality of death. It would be a poor video game that you could only try to play once, never returning ever again after the first time your character dies. It gets complicated when you start to add any kind of characterization to your cannon fodder, but especially when those characters are strongly portrayed; we tend to look towards heroic characters (and I will include in this, as it pertains to Overwatch, villainous playable characters) to be some mix of relatable, entertaining, and inspiring. Whatever they are and however they got here, we expect them to be competent–we expect the world to change as the characters make their way through.
Obviously, this standard must be modified slightly in multiplayer games. We are long since used to multiplayer games being essentially non-canonical; any named character that dies merely retreats, whether they “die” from stubbing their toe on a rock or whether take a bullet straight to the brain. However, it is possible to take this too far; it’s necessary, mechanically, for character death to be non-canonical, but it doesn’t need to be inconsequential, and far more importantly, it doesn’t need to feel inconsequential.
The sharpest edge to that, however, is whether or not the characters themselves seem to treat their own death as inconsequential.
Overwatch was perhaps most directly born from the tradition of Team Fortress 2, which solves this quandary by being a parody of itself. The game’s “canon”, if you want to call it that, includes characters being endlessly cloned and being entirely okay with marching off to death through some combination of infinite hubris and simple insanity. Therefore, if a character blows themselves up doing a rocket jump and reappears at spawn, everyone involved–from characters to players to game designers and observers–can simply laugh it off.
Overwatch, in contrast, is not a parody of itself. Like most games in the general shooter genre, they have absolutely no answer for why characters who “die” don’t die. And that, being essentially necessary, is fine; that’s only really ignoring the fact that it’s a game. The problem comes in when the characters themselves don’t seem to be taking death seriously. With some of them, you can easily wave this away, but they’ve added so many that it’s difficult to point out any reason why, for example, Mei (a scientist with ice-generating equipment and a very polite, timid demeanor) would be willing to shoot an enemy healer in the head or rush head-long into death.
Ultimately, we can write off part of that accusation: everyone does whatever they need to do to win, so even timid characters must stop the enemy who would otherwise stop at nothing to beat them. But many of the choices made on a battlefield, including rushing to death, are a simple consequence of not having a better answer.
This is where I begin to call Overwatch’s characters naive, but I will take one more brief aside before we get there.
The Primacy of Diversity and the Character-Mechanic Duality
Characters loadouts are, necessarily, a game mechanic. They collect all the things a player can do, all the things they can’t, and all the margin for error that the player has (namely, health points), into a single bundle. It is therefore very common for characters to be standardized in a multiplayer game, giving everyone the same basic capabilities with only slight modifications.
Overwatch didn’t take this route, and to its credit. Every character is distinguishable from each other visually, audibly, and through the mechanics of their characters–the last being the main reason for the others. Because every character has distinguishing capabilities, it’s important for each to have distinguishing features. In fact, the developers took this to its logical extreme: with the exception of melee strike, no abilities are repeated anywhere, with even holdout pistols have different sounds and firing rates. All guns have distinct firing patterns, and all actual consequential abilities are entirely unique.
I call this principle The Primacy of Diversity and I do appreciate its existence in Overwatch. It is also, as you would imagine from its place in this essay, a contributor to the “naive characterization”.
You see, each character being its own bundle of mechanics is nice, until the unfortunate consequences of theming get in the way of things. For example, Soldier: 76, a grizzled military veteran, carries around with him healing items everywhere he goes, items that he can deploy with a practiced motion in less than a second. It is an eminently practical tool, befitting military surplus technology, and you could imagine a world in which they were handed out like candy to the entire team.
The problem is that they aren’t actually items. They are a part of one character’s game mechanics. And that, fundamentally, is the source of the naive characterization label that I am putting on Overwatch on this essay.
Pack It In, Pack It Out – No Exceptions
There are no team-scale assets in Overwatch. If a character has a mechanic that persists, such as Torbjorn’s turrets, it persists only as long as the character is on the battlefield. If the player takes them back to a spawn room and switches them out, the asset goes away. I have previously complained about this mechanic in Tribes: Ascend (in a blog post now deleted, due to site migration) for exactly this reason: this is not what the characters involved should have wanted. Everything else you know about the situation tells you that things should have remained as they were.
The mechanics of Overwatch lead to an effective characterization that is highly selfish and naive. Soldier: 76’s healing items make this most obvious: for the sake of the team, and in the interest in saving his own life, it would be best if he handed them out to everyone, or at the very least, could hand one off to someone. The fact that he doesn’t could be selfishness, or it could be a lack of trust, but there is no question that his mechanical inability, and therefore his character’s narrative unwillingness, hurts the team. Every mechanic exists only for the character’s own purposes, and only while they’re around.
If this were a necessary conceit, it would be understandable, and I’m not blaming Overwatch for having the problem. The current game, pre OW2, is essentially the same game it always was: just a fun team-based shooter and not much else. Originally, I intended to release this essay with plenty of time for it to (potentially) be read by the developers and (possibly) acted upon; at current, that’s implausible. But I did want to at least discuss how this ludonarrative defect in the engine might be addressed.
This Game is Big Enough for the Both of Us
As a metaphor, let’s compare Overwatch as a game to a movie. We have an ensemble cast, each with their own backgrounds, some connected and some seemingly independent of the rest. They might have existing relationships to the antagonists, or they might not; at the start of the movie, they are standoffish, prickly, and unwilling to bend. Each has long since gotten used to doing things Their Own Way, and no other way will suffice.
The movie’s plot, of course, demands that they work together as a team. The first two acts are full of friction, as competing methodologies butt heads. Some refuse to work as a team at all, in spite of the danger, thinking that they can continue to do things Their Way. The second act necessarily punishes them for their hubris, and the third act involves them working together, allowing the audience to revel in the potential that we saw in them all along–potential the characters didn’t seem to see in themselves, or each other. This is a classic three-act narrative, so basic that you could fill in the details any one of a thousand ways, even without the massive cast that Overwatch as has built.
However, that is the effective narrative for Overwatch, the original game: a properly functioning team is already operating in that third act mentality, where every protagonist is bringing all of their strengths to bear and covering for each other’s weaknesses. Every character continues to be who they were at the beginning of the movie, but now they’re together.
If we were to follow that movie with another one–let’s call it Overwatch 2, to be decisively unimaginitive–the start of that movie would match the end of the first. Character growth increases from where we already were to a higher level, with a commensurate increase in the difficulty of the challenges. They start with all of the characters that we have now, and by the end they’ve become… what? More of the same? That’s not much of a character arc. In fact, it’s not an arc at all.
How can they move further away from isolated, untrusting individuals and more towards a cohesive whole? By tearing down old boundaries.
At Last, the Premise
The suggestion that, eventually, I wanted to get to was nothing more or less than a dedicated cooperation mechanic. Every character may have their own way to cooperate; for Soldier: 76, of course, he can simply hand off healing items. But some characters have no items to hand off at all; characters like Reaper or Moira who may have nothing to give might instead have something to share. If they can’t hand over an object to someone else, maybe they allow an ally to be a part of their own ability, especially movement abilities such as Reaper’s Shadow Step or Winston’s Jump Pack.
Obviously, this can’t be unregulated. My offhand instinct is for characters to have one cooperative ability and one cooperative slot; you take another character’s ability and store it in your slot. There would most likely be cooldowns on both: you can’t give away an ability infinitely, and you can’t use two borrowed abilities back to back. Under those rules, if you had enough time to set up, everyone in your team could have their own Soldier heal-pack, but each could only use it once. But, there could also be any number of other restrictions, or combinations of restrictions, to be worked out in testing.
This suggestion has the narrative benefit of making the characters less foolishly stoic, and the mechanical advantage of increasing the flexibility of characters that would otherwise be very niche. It provides a way for low-mobility characters such as Torbjorn to get around those restrictions, with caveats; it could increase damage potential or crowd control potential of any character. It allows a more dynamic playground, where the existing meta-game is completely shaken up, and there are even more nuances and edge cases for people to experiment with and learn to master.
And equally important, it doesn’t invalidate the principle of Primacy of Diversity. All characters on a team might be able to share in one character’s special, it’s true, but you know which specials they have access to based on the current team composition, and each shared special can be as distinct as their own, character-centric abilities. If you see a character using one specific borrowed ability, then you know that the origin character is definitely on the team. And, in the case of shared (as opposed to granted) abilities, you will most likely be able to see the characters cooperating. They will most likely be required to stay in proximity, or have some other specific and predictable restriction (perhaps line of sight).
What is Overwatch 2, Really? Who is it For?
Having gotten this far, and explained what I wish existed in the sequel, you can understand why I’m disappointed by everything I’ve heard about and seen about the sequel. That is a little unreasonable, I admit–this isn’t the first game where I’ve imagined what it could be and ended up disappointed. It’s my nature as a writer, designer, and consumer of things others write and design; my thoughts run ahead of the actual process, while everyone else continues apace on their own trajectory.
Even given that I accept they won’t create what I imagine, though, I am still disappointed in what they have shown so far. The writing for the trailers has been abysmal. I’m not a fan of decreasing the team size. I scoff derisively the great deal of effort they seem to have put into refining the sound design, perhaps as much because my own hearing is awful as anything. The leveling system I’ve already written about, of course. More recently, the idea of locking characters away instead of charging up-front has been largely deemed undesirable, and I agree even as I sympathize. Monetization, as always, is hard.
But the things that I’ve seen so far in general seem to show a lack of vision. What is the game? Who is it for? Are the game developers themselves eager to play it? If so, why are so many leaving? If not, what is the problem? Is it bad management, or is it a lack of vision, or multiple conflicting visions?
What about the writing? After all the hints, implicit storytelling, and side content, why did the trailers have such… trashy dialogue? Were the writers just exhausted, did they not have good writers to begin with, or perhaps were the writers in conflict with management? If so, who won?
The game already had a strong dichotomy between game design decisions made for the top-tier, ranked players, and those who are new to the game or new to a character. How are they expecting to balance both of those against the PvE gameplay? Is that going to have its own high-end challenges for the elite players, or will it end up being a more typical mob stomp? If you’re a high-end player, is there even a good reason to be playing the co-op content? If you’re a low-end player, will you feel punished for going into it?
Overwatch in general has a lot of potential, but that potential requires growth, and growth is not what I feel like I see right now. I can certainly be wrong; I’m not obsessively following the game’s progress. But where I stand right now, I’m expecting to be disappointed, whether that’s fair or not.
Hopefully, things will all turn out, but until then, all I can do is dare to dream–and dare to make polite, if definitely not succinct, suggestions.