Overwatch came out a couple of weeks ago. A few short days later, Blizzard’s foray into the FPS genre quietly rescinded itself, rendering its data inert and reminding us in the process that Overwatch was never really out. Now, to many people’s excitement, the game is returning for an official—and hopefully much, much longer—encore. What happened two weeks ago was just a free, unfettered taste. The internet, predictably, is now thoroughly hooked, and its people gather at the gates of the Blizzard Castle, clamouring for more.
My first impressions were mixed. It wasn’t the game design itself—we’ll get to that—but the characters, writing, and artistic direction really rubbed me up the wrong way. It felt like the same dumb pandering on display in Diablo 3 and StarCraft 2’s wooden dialogue. The forced attempts at humour paired with thorough lack of self-awareness make the game, much like Blizzard’s other recent offerings, seem very concerned with guarding the oh-so-serious sanctity of its primary cast. Even jokes at the characters’ expense are actually in the service of making them look more—as I imagine someone might say in a design meeting—‘bad-ass’. The characters are advertisements for themselves, and sometimes this comes across as cringe-inducing. It’s a powerful self-confidence that belies the game’s creative limitations. What’s worse than a bad comedian? A bad comedian who thinks they’re a genius.
The game was accompanied by CGI short films exploring the characters, but even these felt overcooked to me. In one, Winston the gorilla-man spends a lot of time staring out into space, twinkly-eyed, flashing back to his childhood, facial expressions cueing an emotional response in a way that seems a little calculated. I imagine the word ‘feels’ used with full seriousness in the same design meeting; I start to ‘feels’ a little unwell at the thought.
“The game was accompanied by CGI short films exploring the characters, but even these felt overcooked to me.”
Anyways, the characters feels to me like they’re missing something, which is at odds with how exuberant their animations are. Overwatch desperately wants its characters to instantly become iconic, as was the case with Team Fortress 2, but this misses the point that Valve’s game, as well as being a masterpiece of visual design, was actually blisteringly funny. The jokes worked, but more to the point, it felt like the writers really understood their characters. Even though the game felt outlandish and, for lack of a better word, ‘wacky’, there was something perfectly natural and believable about the whole affair. Thinking of TF2 makes me wish Overwatch was a little more aware of its own clichés.
One more point of contention: the game continues Blizzard’s track record of “bad British accents done by people who do not have that accent naturally and oh boy can you tell,” in the vein of Hearthstone’s “Scottish” innkeeper. In Overwatch it’s the cockneys’ turn to take a hit, and this is made all the more cringe-worthy by the attempts to inject dialect as well. Every time Tracer utters “Cheers, love,” Ronnie Kray no doubt turns in his grave.
That’s not why we play Blizzard games, though. We play them because Blizzard has been running World of Warcraft since 2004, one of the biggest online experiments in games, which has provided them with reams of player data and feedback for almost any design concept imaginable. As a result, the company has mastered the art of compelling people to repeat the same basic tasks over and over; doling up sensory rewards via a perpetual Skinner box.
And what a Skinner box this is! Progress bars filling up, enemy health bars depleting, all reinforced as bullets hit with a satisfying thud of audio. Meters charging, licks of electricity sparking from the UI as they fill, before flushing empty as their power is released. Yes, there’s the associated spectacle of the game-world itself, the cast of functionally varied heroes blasting each other to bits with all manner of colorful weaponry, but these things just hide the fact that this is a game about managing varying amounts of different values—health meters, timers, progress—all present on the UI overlay. Keep your values maxed out and your opponents’ empty—or if you have to trade, do so efficiently.
“And what a Skinner box this is! Progress bars filling up, enemy health bars depleting, all reinforced as bullets hit with a satisfying thud of audio. Meters charging, licks of electricity sparking from the UI as they fill, before flushing empty as their power is released.”
As a child, I used to sit, cross-legged, in a big office chair, watching progress bars fill in file sharing programs like LimeWire, an illegal download of The Matrix taking weeks to complete as pieces slowly fell to the hard drive like feathers. The program was a precursor to torrents—you’d push out pieces you’d already obtained to other users, and in return they would give you the pieces you needed, and if it all worked out you’d be drawing in more bandwidth than you were putting out. The to-and-fro of data transfer, data churning data, point to point, and through the chaotic soup, assorted scraps—the bit where Neo first takes the red pill at one IP address, but at another, the bit where Morpheus is wearing that nice purple shirt but is very sweaty because he is being tortured. Each bit marked, catalogued, tracked, resolutely slotted into the right place until everything is woven together at the seams and you have in your possession an illegal download of The Matrix. It’s the same itch scratched by whoever first organized a pond of scattered ducks into a straight line, and thought: “Now there’s a fine looking idiom.”
And that is exactly what Blizzard taps into. Overwatch tells you precisely what is going on at any time. It knows how to make you feel whether any object or action is good, bad, when to reinforce and when to discourage. It has deep, flesh-wrenching hooks that kept me playing throughout the game’s beta period.
“And that is exactly what Blizzard taps into. Overwatch tells you precisely what is going on at any time.”
Bottom line: the characters made it weird for me. An overwrought line of dialogue, an indulgent victory pose—these were the minutiae that made ‘this is designed to be a compelling loop’ bleed into ‘this is designed to make me experience the feels’. It gave me the sense that Overwatch was nakedly trying to ‘trick’ me into thinking a character was sassy, or smart, or brave, or cool, or happy-go-lucky. And this bothered me for a while—until it didn’t.
My beady critical eye held out for two days until Blizzard hypnotized and indoctrinated me; such is the psychologically-assured inevitability of the game’s addictive systems. One more day and I simply didn’t mind that the characters were stiff and the writing somewhat lifeless. By the end of the Beta, I was praying at the looping altar like the rest of the converts. Interwoven with the moreish gameplay loops, the characters become part of the package. Nobody likes their first cigarette, but after a while, the harsh sting in your chest lets your brain know the nicotine has arrived, and you learn to miss it when it’s gone.
I haven’t bought Overwatch yet. But I can only hold out for so long.