A lot, and when I say that I mean most, players of Overwatch don’t care about the lore. It’s designed so you don’t have to engage with the characters you are playing with, or the locations you’re in. If you are just there to get as many eliminations as you can, or help others get as many elminations as they can (god bless you healers), the game is set up to be able to handle that. At the same time though, there are cosplayers, fan art-ers and those genuinely interested in the story of the universe. The personal life of these characters is something a portion of the community definitely dive into and feel invested in.
However, something interesting has happened that will consume the Overwatch message boards for a while I’m sure. In the holiday themed comic Reflections just put out by Blizzard, it’s revealed that Tracer lives with someone called Emily. In a panel, the two engage in a kiss confirming Blizzard’s long held stance that some of Overwatch‘s characters identify as something other than heterosexual. This is a big deal too. Tracer is the ‘face’ of Overwatch, and quite possibly the face of the biggest game of the year depending on your metric. That doesn’t often happen. To have a major AAA game’s lead character come out as anything other than straight is basically unprecedented. What makes this doubley big is the comic has been blocked by Russia as part of their laws on ‘gay propaganda’, and this couldn’t have been a surprise to Blizzard. Recently the country asked for a ban on FIFA for an LGBT supporting shirt. Russia is a big part of the game’s community too, so this most defintely counts for something. It’s a big stance by Blizzard.
However, predictably, the conversation on portions of the internet have moved to Blizzard pandering to some mandate of being politically correct. To some, it seems Overwatch has suddenly become ‘political’. That could be a shock to those who have an invented idea about who these characters are. The hero they ‘main’ might be something very specific in their minds, so when Blizzard messes with the lore, I understand that can ruin that. Especially if that character has a political belief or an aspect of themselves they don’t share.
Let’s get real though. Firstly, their Blizzard’s creations to mess with, but more importantly, Overwatch was political from day one. In fact, a ton of the game is based on some political basis, be it in the heroes or maps.
I think pretending there isn’t any political subtext to this world, misses the point of what makes this universe interesting. While mostly just an online shooter, spending but a few minutes looking at character interactions, any map or wiki should tip you off there is something more going on here.
To talk about that, we have to talk about Omnics. Omnics are more or less what sentient robots are called in the universe. The debate about Omnics is a huge part of the character interplay in the game. It’s understandable too. The Omnic Crisis was a whole thing where people died at the hands of robotic armies and some of the characters fear them in the game because of it, while others take a more liberal stance of acceptance. That is easy to miss in the waiting rooms of Hanamura when you are tearing apart vending machines to get at plush onions. But those characters, depending on who you chose, have interplay. A ton of them are politically driven too. Zarya hates Omnics, yet Zenyatta is one and wants peace. The dialogue exchange?
Zarya: I’ve got my eye on you, omnic.
Zenyatta: And I shall watch your back in turn.
In fact, here is just a smattering of dialogue that I think is already “political”.
Zenyatta [On Numbani]: How wonderful! A place where omnic and human live as equals.
Lucio [On Numbani]: Now this is my kinda city, everyone’s free to live as they choose.
Torbjorn [On King’s Row]: If you ask me, the Brits have their heads on straight! Omnic rights? Pah!
Genji [On Kings Row] : Does the suffering of the omnics here trouble you, Master?
Zenyatta: It does. My brother, Mondatta, did much to improve their lives, but it was not to be.
Zarya [On Nepal]: I do not trust these omnics, and I do not like this place.
Symmetra: To think I would have to work with a street ruffian.
Lúcio: I’m not all that excited about this arrangement either.
Junkrat [On Omnic themed Nepal]: This place makes me sick.
Torbjorn [On Omnic themed Nepal]: It’s like a culmination of a thousand of my worst nightmares! Are you kidding me?!
Zarya [On Numbani]: The humans who live here are fools to trust the omnics. They will see.
That is only a small selection too and not at all everything in the game about the politics of the universe.
Let’s also not forget that the Overwatch roster is multi-cultural either. There are several characters from the same country (US, Eygpt, Australia, Germany and Japan have multiples), but largely, the characters are from different parts of the world, all with different races. The social and larger politics are almost destined to surface because of that kind of composition.
It’s fair enough if you aren’t convinced at this either, but there is another point too. The characters don’t just talk about each other, but the environments they are in. Politics is bred into the game’s maps too. For example, King’s Row in London is one of the most anti-Omnic places in the world [the politics are at the forefront of the Alive short], while Numbani is seen as a haven between Omnic and humans. I understand shoehorning politics into a text where it isn’t there can feel forced, but if you haven’t been noticing these conversations, I wonder if you’ve paid attention to anything at all past the pure gameplay, something not hurt by the revelation that Tracer likes to kiss girls. None of this is in your face either. If you want to ignore it and just shoot a bunch of dudes, that is fine. However, I feel like saying politics has just been ‘added’ into the game because a character has been confirmed as not heterosexual, well, you are missing a lot (and ignores the fact that the comic isn’t even in the game).
Of course, you could ignore the topic of Omnics as just sci-fi guff about robots, but if you’ve been paying attention to the news these past 12 months and remember sci-fi is almost always alegorical, I think it’s hard to deny there is something metaphorical about acceptance and descrimination going on. I personally don’t think any less of a character because of their stance, but to pretend Overwatch wasn’t a ‘political’ game from the start feels like someone interprating a very surface reading of the title. To put it in other terms, Star Trek: The Original Series was about a multinational crew coming together to show off unity. It’s easy enough to not want to dig into that, but even taking a small trowel to the material shows that there is something ‘political’ happening under the surface.
Essentially, my point is, hearing some suggest that politics weren’t imbued into the fiber of Overwatch until now surprises me. It’s there. At this point, considering how vocal the characters are about their beliefs, and the diversity of the main cast, thinking just one of the 23 heroes in the game might be anything other than heterosexual can’t be a far stretch. The notion that Overwatch ‘just’ got political because of a sexual preference of one character was revealed seems ludicrous. I mean the fact that anyone’s sexual preference can be seen as a ‘political’ issue baffles me. If we can accept a diverse cast of characters with different political leanings, how is something like sexual preference even considered a ‘political’ stance by the developer?
At the end of the day though, despite nationality, faction or who you like to get down with, every character comes together as one team to achieve a goal. That’s a really hopeful ideal, regardless of what you believe in. I reckon that’s what makes Overwatch powerful past its stellar gameplay.