Beyond Pokémon and Nintendo’s other banner franchises, shooters have always been my favorite videogame genre. That’s not to say they’re all I play—I’ll play anything I can get my hands on, and as of late I’ve played quite a few more indie games than big-budget FPSes—but they’ve more or less become my comfort zone when it comes to gaming. Case and point: over the past couple of years I’ve racked up a somewhat embarrassingly large number of hours in Team Fortress 2, and occasionally, usually when I’m overstressed and need to blow off steam on particularly bad days at school, I’ll spend an hour or two playing through the vehicle sections of Half-Life 2. By now I could probably recite the layouts of Water Hazard and Highway 17 by heart.
That’s all to say that I shouldn’t be surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed Overwatch, or that after less than three weeks I’ve almost passed sixty hours (don’t do that math—I promise it’s just as bad as you think it is). It’s probably more accurate to say that I’m surprised it lived up to the hype. It might just be that I’ve never played a Blizzard game before (MMOs and MOBAs were never my thing, and Starcraft and Diablo always seemed too entrenched to really try and get into as a new player), and that this level of quality is just kind of what they do there, but I think there’s more to it than that. And surprise, surprise, that means I’m going to talk about writing!
(Although first, it’s important to note that none of this would matter if the gameplay were boring or badly implemented, but it’s not. Overwatch is an incredibly varied and well-designed shooter with so many different characters, weapons, and potential playstyles that I’m amazed it’s as well-balanced as it is two months after launch. The most important component of any game is that it be fun to play, and Overwatch is more than fun. It’s a downright blast.)
That aside, one of the things that’s kept me playing TF2 for as long as I have is the art style and the worldbuilding: the vast amount of story and lore that exist outside the main game. The aesthetic of brightly-colored mercenaries in desert/industrial environments is cartoony and goofy and chaotic, but in a marketplace filled with overly realistic military shooters painted entirely in shades of camo-brown and gray, it makes the game unique. And its nine characters are all overflowing with personality—even my personal favorite, the Pyro, who always wears a gas mask and speaks entirely in moans and muffled grunts. Add to that the comics and animated shorts that Valve releases around major updates (or really whenever they feel like it, because that’s how Valve works), as well as all the non-canon theories and stories that float around the community, and it turns a game that, in-and-of-itself has no narrative or plot, into something incredibly engaging and engrossing.
And that is exactly what Blizzard has done with Overwatch. At first glance, it’s a team hero shooter with a bunch of creative designs and mechanics thrown in to make it stand out, and for a lot of people that’s probably enough. But once you give it some time and find a couple heroes that you really like, you start to realize that each of these characters has been impeccably designed around an aesthetic, an archetype, an origin story, and a place in the overall mythos, and that depth makes them doubly fun to play (not to mention the diversity featured puts pretty much every other game in existence to shame). In most multiplayer shooters (really just excluding TF2), different characters are little more than the different weapons they posses, and the potential those have to change up the gameplay. But in Overwatch, each hero has a playstyle that gels with their spirit and personality in a way that makes choosing them and playing them even more rewarding. There are a few particularly excellent examples of this, so here are my favorites.
First, there’s Genji, my most-played hero so far and Overwatch’s attempt at bottling every “crazy-awesome” sci-fi trope they could find into one character. He is, in short, a cyborg ninja
Yes, you read that correctly. Cyborg-ninja.
Now is probably a good time for a sidebar—aesthetically, Overwatch is an absolutely RIDICULOUS game. It’s over-the-top and insanely stylized and heavily rooted in genre tropes and archetypes, to the point where it’s actually extremely comic book-ish. In fact, if I had to label its aesthetic and trace its origins, I’d say it’s massively influenced by superhero comics, in which such a thing as a cyborg-ninja wouldn’t just be feasible but already very much exists (because honestly, is there a better description of Wolverine?).
But back to Genji. His origin story is expounded in Dragons, which I’d rank as the best of the four animated shorts Blizzard has released about these characters, and embellished in the comics, but I’ll give you the shorthand. He grew up as the carefree youngest son in a Japanese crime family, and when he refused to take part in the family business, he and his brother Hanzo (also a playable hero) fought until Genji had reached the point of death. He was rescued by Overwatch and given a robotic body in return for becoming one of their agents, but was plagued by the feeling that he’d lost his humanity and left to try and reconcile his struggle with the being he’d become.
Now, my point doesn’t have anything concrete to do with Genji’s story itself; it’s more that that’s an incredibly in-depth origin story for one of twenty-two characters in a multiplayer shooter with no narrative campaign. And knowing all of that, which lends context to his voicelines and actions in the game, makes him so much more immersive to play.
How about another? If you play Overwatch, you will undoubtedly run into a massive guy in massive suit of armor holding up a massive shield in front of his team. That guy is Reinhardt, one of the game’s five tanks and foremost David Hasselhoff admirer. His weapon is a rocket hammer that makes the most satisfying sound in the world when it collides with an enemy, he can charge using the jets on the back of his suit and pin opponents against buildings and walls, and he can shoot giant waves of fire halfway across the map. He’s fast becoming my favorite character to play because he embodies that cathartic punchiness that the best shooters have (despite the fact that he doesn’t actually shoot anything), and there’s very little in the game that’s more satisfying than a successful match as the German knight with the rocket hammer.
And in short, that’s his backstory—he’s built on the aesthetic and archetype of an aging, medieval knight. In-game, he’s 61 years-old (I believe the oldest character currently in the game), and a staunch defender of his personal code of honor and justice. He’s obviously out past his prime (when his charge hits a wall, he sometimes quips “that’s going to hurt in the morning”) and trying to keep up with all the younger, faster foes around him in a show of stalwart perseverence that’s incredibly endearing and heartening. I actually teared up the first time I played him because sometimes, when he respawns, he’ll belt out in his booming, regal voice, “there is still more to my tale!” I do love playing him for the mechanics, but that’s not why I’ve started to pick him every time I fire up the game. I play him because he’s the guy I want to root for, the character I’ve really started to love the way I love Albus Dumbledore or the Ninth Doctor or Methuselah from Redwall. So when I do well with him, swinging that hammer and pinning perfect charges and shattering the ground with my ultimate, everything is doubly cathartic—cathartic because mechanically he’s perfectly designed, and cathartic because it’s not just me that’s winning, but Reinhardt the character, this valiant, noble veteran who’s going to keep up the fight until it’s taken everything he has.
However, rather than keep expounding about individual heroes, I’m just going to leave a link here for Dragons, and one final anecdote. Originally, I wasn’t going to be able to play this game at all. I have a Mac, and when it comes to computers Overwatch is Windows-only. And for a while I was fine with that. Then I watched these shorts—first Hero and then Dragons—and they were so good that I literally bought Windows and set up Boot Camp just so I’d be able to try out this game.
Because originally, I thought Overwatch would be a fun multiplayer shooter with neat mechanics and some colorful characters. What I did not expect was the incredible depth in worldbuilding and art design that came along with that. And that elevated it to something more than just its chosen genre of videogame—it’s a cross-media, multifaceted piece of fiction that’s centered around a multiplayer hero shooter, and every part of that creation just so happens to be really damn good.