This week sees the release of Gearbox’s Battleborn and the open Beta for Blizzard’s Overwatch. Both games share so many similarities that at first glance they’re almost indistinguishable. Both are team-based shooters that owe more than a little to the Team Fortress 2 model. Both have striking art styles. Both have a rich lore and world building. They were announced around the same time and are launching in the same month. And there are more FPS/arena based games on the horizon.
Why is this? Why the resurgence of interest in 90s style shooters? And why these two in particular?
Like everything else, it goes in cycles and trends. In many ways it’s simply that these are the right games for this time. The rise of MOBAs and always-connected ecosystems facilitates this and lets developers plan accordingly. It makes sense on a business level — there’s clearly a market for it. The thing I keep coming back to is the stylistic choices each game has made. Both games offer a huge cast of characters, all of whom are in some ways familiar, and in others totally unexpected. Both are bright and colourful. Both lean heavily into fantasy and scifi, in notable contrast to the grimdark pseudo-real military fetishism that many modern shooters embody.
Both games have been praised for their commitment to a diverse and representative cast. No longer is every male character a buff white dude, nor is every female a mobile pair of boobs. Elements of those things are still there, but there are also tons of other options. Some see this as the triumph of “Social Justice Warriors” forcing game developers to crowbar in this diversity to appease the torch-carrying politically correct Internet masses.
As illustrated in Gamespot’s excellent series on the development of Overwatch, the game was born out of the collapse of Titan, a cancelled Blizzard MMO. The team was disheartened and took a long introspective look at exactly what it was they wanted to do, and out of that introspection came Overwatch.
In deciding what the look & feel of a “hero-based shooter” would be, they settled all of their focus on the heroes themselves, therefore the themes of the world would be the ideals of heroes and heroism. At it’s core it is an optimistic, forward-looking philosophy. Blizzard Senior VP Chris Metzen said it himself: at every level, Overwatch is a redemption story. Something was wrong, let’s make it right.
That approach informs every decision made in Overwatch’s design, including the determination to make the cast inclusive. Right from the beginning the devs made a clear statement: this game should be for everyone. That’s a sentiment echoed by Anthony Burch, who wrote, among many other things, Borderlands 2 and was on the team for Battleborn.
This marks a real shift we’ve seen happening in games over the past 10 years or so, and both Battleborn and Overwatch are flagships of this new spirit of inclusiveness. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, the reality is that games originally marketed specifically to young white males have widened their scope. Whether a business or ethical decision or a mix of the two, diversity is no longer the exception, it is the standard.
While some have gone so far as to label this “censorship”, the developers themselves say very different things. Now an artist can create characters with a greater palette than ever before. You can still make your big beefy space marine, but you can also make a crazy mushroom person, cyborg Zen monk, or a female anything without getting a note from Marketing saying “give her more cleavage”.
“The problem isn’t that there were some objectified women, but that there was NOTHING ELSE (if not a child/yordle). Restricting body types is limiting to us as creators. We can only make the one type? Screw this.”
— Daniel Klein, League of Legends Designer
As Daniel Klein from League of Legends has recently pointed out, sure we still have sexy characters and that’s fine, but we also have so much more.
The controversy over the infamous Tracer butt-pose illustrates how dysfunctional this conversation can get. On the surface it appeared that an overly sensitive complaint was listened to by the developers, who removed the pose because one person was offended. This in turn feeds the narrative that the SJW movement is bullying design decisions and forcing censorship so no one could possibly be offended.
Examining the facts around the situation, it turns out that the original poster who commented on the pose wasn’t saying anything of the sort. He wasn’t saying that all depictions of sexiness are degrading, but rather that the pose felt, in his opinion, very much out of character for everything Blizzard had shown of Tracer, and in having this sudden weirdly sexualized element was jarring and out of place. That is a totally valid point and useful conversation to have, but of course immediately the Internet Rage Machine fired up into it’s usual factions and started reacting in extremes when Blizzard said they would change the pose.
The irony is as Jeff Kaplan explained, no one on the team liked the pose in the first place and they had always intended to replace it. All Kaplan had done was to say that the team agreed with the posters comments — the team, it must be pointed out, that created the character in the first place and knows her better than anyone else possibly could. Adding further irony, the pose that replaced the “butt pose” draws inspiration directly from 1950’s cheesecake pinups, which while still flirty, aligns far better with Tracer’s coy and playful personality.
As Kaplan is careful to point out in his Gamespot interview, as Creative Director on the project he made a decision, and the reasoning for that decision aligned with some of what that commenter had said. No one told him he could or couldn’t do something. He made an informed choice. That is the opposite of censorship.
Overwatch and Battleborn denote a milestone in video game design philosophy. This change has happened quite quickly, and it’s important to have patience. For a very long time video games have done a pretty lousy job with their depictions of woman, diverse sexuality and people of colour. That’s not going to change overnight. But I hope that Overwatch and Battleborn can be touchstones that we can look to and say “See? Change isn’t so bad. In fact it’s kind of fun.”
The world is a better place when a grizzled cowboy with a six shooter can high five a little Korean girl with a pink mech.