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June 23, 2016

On Overwatch and a Call for Elegance


This would normally be the part where I launch into a paragraphs-long tangent only slightly related to the topic at hand, but I think I’d better get straight to the point.  I’m taking a hardline stance on this and saying what I’ve had in mind for years now: video games need more elegance.  Or, if not that, then video games need more elegant characters.  Or just elegance in general.

I’ve got no problems admitting Overwatch is the catalyst for this post.  Really, it’s my sincere hope that it’s the catalyst for changes throughout the industry as well as the gamer zeitgeist; it’s one thing to beg and plead for change in posts and articles and videos, but it’s another thing entirely to have it subtly suggested by the media we consume.  That is to say, Overwatch isn’t directly asking for diversity in games.  It’s just doing its best to prove how freakin’ cool it is when you have a cast that mixes it up.  Given the choice (and the resources), it’s always best to offer more options and means of expression.  That way, everyone can be happy.

And you know who makes me happy in this game?  Mercy.  Because she’s literally the best.


You have no idea how happy I was to win this emote from a loot box.

Okay, let me run that back a little.  As my brother might say, I’m still doing a little soul-searching to find my character of choice -- my main, if you will.  In a pinch (and assuming no one else has taken her), I’ll gladly use Zarya.  If there’s a Support-type needed and we need to go on the attack, I’ll use Lucio.  I’m trying to learn how to use Winston and Pharah, with varying levels of success -- mostly because I’m not used to shooters and thus have the skills of the average marmoset.  And I’m struggling to learn how to use Hanzo, because sometimes I would rather snipe than deal with the chaos on the front lines.  I mean, it’d help if I could actually snipe, but I’m working on it.

But Mercy?  I don’t know, man.  Every time I use her, something clicks with me.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I don’t have to aim nearly as much -- unless I need to bail the hell out with Guardian Angel -- but I can’t help but feel like this is a character I have to play.  I thought she was cool well before I started playing the game, but I thought to myself “Nah, I’ll only play her every now and then.  I want to have some offensive power.”  Imagine my surprise when Mercy can use her pistol to score a kill if she needs to, even if it’s not a good idea to play soldier.

Also, not to go off on a tangent but does Mercy fighting act as a contradiction of the Hippocratic Oath?  Eh, I’m sure it’s fine.


Chalk it up to Overwatch’s game mechanics and nuances, but I find Mercy incredibly fun to use.  She’s not the only one, of course -- Lucio, Zarya, and Winston are all characters in my little stable -- but there’s something strangely thrilling about being able to glide from teammate to teammate, keeping them alive and boosting their power for an enemy rout.  It’s not quite as glamorous as landing a one-shot kill with a sniper or rushing in with twin guns blazing, but it doesn’t have to be.  It’s more than possible to take pride in the fact that, as a supportive healer, you’re able to contribute something significant to the team without scoring a single headshot.

I’m not just saying that because my healing bonanza led to my team -- after scoring the win -- took time out to give thanks to me, AKA “that badass Mercy”.  Though it helps. 

But I digress.  The important thing is that gameplay-wise, Mercy is a cool character.  But in terms of audiovisual appeal, she’s even cooler.  I’d liken it to Street Fighter, or any number of fighting games from the past or present (or future): before you get your hands on a character and learn his/her playstyle, chances are high that you’ll be won over by whoever has a design that appeals to you.  I’d bet that that’s what turned innocent arcade-goers into lifelong Zangief fans back in the day, having grown enamored with his iron body.  Meanwhile, you’ve got a mostly-unknown gem like Under Night In-Birth; when you don’t know who’s who or what they do, your gut instinct is to just go with whoever seems like your jam.


That’s the beauty of fighting games.  In a lot of cases, you’re not spoiled for choice.  Blazblue may have only launched with12 characters back in the day -- and Skullgirls clocked in with a whopping 8 -- but those characters were diverse enough and intriguing enough to warrant a second look…and eventually, loyalty.  Even though it’s a shooter, Overwatch is on the same axis.  The draw is the diverse roster, and the sense of progression felt when developing as your hero of choice.  It leads to a bond that’s hard to break -- a bond stronger than the ones made to what might as well be a floating gun in others hooters.

Does it all start at a superficial level?  It depends.  I can’t help but wonder how many people bought into the game just because they first laid eyes on Tracer -- and I wonder how many Tracer fans jumped ship once Mei was revealed.  I can’t say I blame them, because goddamn Mei is adorable.  Then again, that just helps illustrate my point: Overwatch has won over plenty of people because it has plenty to offer.  Plenty for every persuasion, I’d say; that should be patently obvious given the four primary class types, but if we’re talking strictly about AV appeal?  It’s probably not hard to find a character that resonates with you.


Now, look.  I know people have been spitting in Overwatch’s general direction (and Blizzard’s by extension) because of its attempts to offer a breadth of options.  That’s true of its ladies, obviously; there are different races represented, but -- in a bit of a rarity -- there are differences in body types as well.  Okay, it’s most obvious in Zarya and Mei, and not so obvious with the rest of the women, but hey.  Baby steps.  And not to play strawman, but apparently some people aren’t okay with there being a little diversity?  For some reason?  Like, there are guys out there who just think there are different skin colors and body types to satisfy some fringe demographic/boogeyman’s agenda?

I’d prefer to pretend that there aren’t people like that out there -- and I’m overreaching here -- because the alternative would really, really suck.  In my eyes, it’s not about playing to the whims and demands of others.  It’s not about arbitrarily filling slots, either.  I’d normally say that it’s all about fulfilling a creative vision, and as true as that is, I have an even simpler answer: because it’s cool. 


The end goal is to create a game with lots of different characters with different styles, and mixing up their looks is the fastest way to achieve that.  Yo, you want to play as a high-flying soldier with an Egyptian motif, hundreds of rockets, and may or may not have a body underneath her avian super-suit?  You got it!  Want to play as a shifty and hyperactive Australian mad bomber who’s probably a bigger threat to himself than his enemies?  You’re in luck?  So many options, so many tastes, and so many chances to please; part of what makes Overwatch special is that even without a dedicated campaign (for now), there’s still more than enough to be had from its heroes.

That’s the clincher.  Yes, the end goal is to use the roster to convince everybody of how cool the game is (or at least act as a lure, given that the game itself is more fun than a pizza party with a bouncy house on tap).  But it’s not necessarily about making everybody slot into a cool archetype.  Poster girl Tracer is cool because she’s also full of fun, energy, and spirit; I hope that whoever decided that one of her highlight intros should have her burst into laughter was paid handsomely for it.  Winston is cool because he offers a charming juxtaposition between a cultured man of science and a raging beast.  And in Mercy’s case?  She’s cool because she’s elegant.


You can see it clearly in almost everything she does.  Admittedly, her design is a big part of it; she has a slender yet feminine form.  Motions that are measured, but smooth nonetheless.  A sense of sharpness and softness all at once, whether it’s in her features or in her animations (even in something as simple as her hand wave).  The game’s not afraid to put its ladies in skintight suits, but it’s also not afraid to feature a futuristic dress for one of the canon’s senior members. 

Nor is it afraid to bust out the heels…though that brings up questions of combat appropriateness -- as it did with Zero Suit Samus in Smash Bros. -- but it’s offset because this is a character whose kit is half-built on flying around.  Besides, it fits the character a lot better than, say, a pair of army boots.  Context is important; it’s always a pretty good idea to analyze and judge on a case-by-case basis, unless you want to look like a dumb-dumb doo-doo head.  So let’s analyze here as an example.


I’d think that when people observe female characters (or, let’s be honest, real females) there’s a pretty good chance they’ll focus on a few choice areas.  Fair enough.  But I’ve been thinking about it, and maybe it’s not so much the curves of a woman that we should focus on -- at least in the AV space.  Maybe it’s about the lines and angles.  Like I said, there are some sharp features on display with the character; the eyes, the face, the fingers, and pretty much everything from the knees down are some examples.  I can’t help but focus on two things, though: her waist, and the arch of her back.  I wouldn’t call them realistic, but look at the game we’re talking about here.

The angles on display are emphasized enough to act as exaggerations, but they only help highlight the abstractions of the character.  That is, it’s a matter of drawing lines and building silhouettes.  Even with the Valkyrie suit on, it’s not hard to notice that Mercy’s got hips wide enough to bear Paul Bunyan’s children.  That’s made possible by subconsciously being able to break down her design into basic parts, which in itself is made possible thanks to those angles.  So on one hand, you know that her penchant for standing the way she does -- firmly, yet with a sense of peace and poise -- is made evident thanks to a detail like her spine’s curvature.  On the other hand, you’re more likely to de-emphasize minor details to look at the big picture.  That’s where the lines come in.  Even though this is a game experienced almost exclusively in first person, it’s kind of important -- and plenty appreciable.  As Mr. Plinkett once said, you might not have noticed it, but your brain did. 

Whether she’s in motion in a highlight intro or stone still in a victory pose, you can’t help but see the lines rearrange into distinct, deliberate shapes -- forms that try to give a concrete understanding of abstractions.  In Mercy’s case, even with the threat of battlefield horrors -- spurred by the desperate and ever-important struggle of winning a match of King of the Hill -- she moves with grace.  With confidence.  With beauty.  The positions of her limbs and contours of her form give the sense of what she’s all about, and create the divinity that her character thrives on.  If Blizzard’s crew wanted to make an elegant woman, they succeeded.

And that brings me back to my earlier point: video games need more elegance.


As a guy who’s dabbled in (subpar) art, I understand that it’s important to find ways to breathe life into your characters.  You have to show off what they’re all about, which sounds difficult if you’re working with just a simple pencil and paper.  But it’s not impossible; there are plenty of aspects to take advantage of, and any artist worth their salt should make use of those tools alongside their creativity.  And as an art form, video games aren’t exempt.  Given that we’re smack dab in the eighth console generation, I think it’s safe to say that we have more than enough power under the hood to get whatever we want rendered exactly as imagined.

So with all of that in mind, I have to ask: why aren’t game devs rendering elegance?

Well, let me run that question back a little.  It’s not as if games are devoid of elegant characters; it’s true that fighting games get a lot of flak thanks to the bodies/costumes of characters like Mai Shiranui, Ivy Valentine, and R. Mika, but they’re no lost cause.  Elisabeth Blantorche of King of Fighters, Orie from Under Night In-Birth, Aoi Umenokoji of Virtua Fighter, and Helena Douglas from the eternally-respected Dead or Alive are just a couple of examples.  There are even more out there, I know; say what you will about Nintendo, but it’s hard not to appreciate the likes and airs of Rosalina and (various incarnations of) Zelda. 


As I’ve admitted before -- however begrudgingly -- video games aren’t always the medium you turn to if you’re looking for top-notch narratives.  To make up for it, they can excel in two ways: with their gameplay, and with their AV wizardry.  I’m sold on Overwatch because it proved its wizardry via Mercy; even a basic 3D model takes time, effort, and skill to put together, and the fact that Blizzard can nail a sense of elegance in a mass of polygons is worth a round of applause.  But the trade-off there is that those devs actually went for it.  You could argue that they needed to fill a slot in the Big List of Archetypes; still, even if they did, they still had a Big List of Archetypes in the first place.

I hope that at this stage, nobody out there is pretending like video games (and fiction in general) don’t have a problem with their portrayal of women.  They have in the past, and they have in the present.  Steps are being taken to change things, which is good.  It’s something worth celebrating, without question, even if it’s something that devs have had to fight for (see: Remember Me).  Yet I can’t shake the feeling -- the worry -- that those devs’ good intentions might lead to more problems created than solutions.


The thing I want most -- whether it’s out of female characters or games in general -- is variety.  Different styles exist in art, and we’re better off for it.  Obviously, I have a strong lean towards elegant characters or aesthetics; despite scraping the bottom of the tier list, I play Palutena in Smash 4 because I found her style to be a revelation.  And yeah, I know that it’s hypocritical to say that games need more elegance when just a few paragraphs ago I said that it’s not about catering to the whims of the public.  Here’s the thing, though: it couldn’t possibly hurt the medium to have characters (in particular, but also worlds and styles) that emphasize elegance.  Beauty, grace, class, whatever you want to call it -- there’s value to be had when a game manages to pull it off.  It’s the sort of thing that can take your breath away.  Something tailor-made to dazzle, and leave audiences in awe.

Do we get that affect in modern gaming?  Opinions may vary, but as the Eternal Optimist I’ll go ahead and say “yeah”.  As someone with at least a few points in his Reason stat, though, I have to expand that statement to “yeah, but”.  With another E3 in the books, there are likely dozens of videos running through the standard fare: explosions, guns, action, violence, grit, and the usual fare.  It’s really telling that, even though games can be and have been more in the past (and present), the bigwigs make a point of showing more of the same accepted, expected, monothematic “epicness” that’s supposed to be a selling point.

Then again, maybe they have every right to do that.  If they’re trying to sell us on the stuff that actually sells, then can you really blame them?


Obviously, indie games and niche titles are doing their best to pull eyes and minds away from the stuff that’s become standard operating procedure.  As always, they’re doing the lord’s work.  How are the guys in the big budget space responding?  More shooters!  More zombies!  More violence!  More seriousness!  More sequels, remakes, and remasters!  As much as I want to be fair, it’s hard to sing praises when we’re in 2016 and we’re still seeing the tricks of the trade used at least a half-decade earlier.  If E3 is a representative of what games are -- or what they should be in the eyes of a lot of companies -- then games are the complete opposite of elegant.  They’re ugly.

Despite those scathing words, I won’t act like the industry isn’t making progress.  Tomb Raider’s been successfully rebooted, we’ve got a Mirror’s Edge sequel, and there are two upcoming IPs starring leading females -- ReCore and Horizon: Zero Dawn, both of which managed to get some time to shine in recent trailers.  Indeed, the first step toward getting some cool shake-ups in the industry is to actually have a shake-up with characters, especially the female ones.  But that’s where a whole new set of problems start.  It’s one thing to have a leading lady, and another thing entirely to have a different one.  Or a good one, for that matter.


I referenced Remember Me earlier, but even if it took a bold step by having a female lead, I’d imagine that Nilin didn’t exactly set the world on fire with her characterization.  I have some hang-ups about nu-Lara in the recent Tomb Raider games, because it seems like the zest has been taken out of her to make her more…”relatable”, I suppose?  “Realistic”?  Arguably, but I wonder if that’s an approach that works.  I’ve seen plenty of reviews rail on Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst for a lackluster story, and given how vital a main character is in determining a good story, I’d imagine that some of the blame falls on Faith.  Both of the ladies from ReCore and Horizon seem fine for now -- and it’d be silly to judge too harshly given that they’re mostly visible in snippets -- but they don’t scream “we have a winner” to me.  They’re functional, yet they lack pizazz.

Don’t get me wrong.  I want tough, capable, bold female characters as much as the next guy.  With that in mind, I want other types of female characters, too.  They don’t always have to be survivors, or hunters, or soldiers, or would-be action heroines; if they were, then that would be boring.  It’d also be pretty unfortunate territory if we measured the worth of a character (female or otherwise) by their kill count or how much punishment they can take.  I want to feel the character of these characters, but how am I supposed to do that when creative culture in general sticks to nigh-immutable rules?  How can characters thrive when the only distinct trait they have -- what some believe they should have in their entirety -- is “strong”?  And even then it can go way off the rails

I’m not going to get in deep with a rundown of the characters I called out.  But what I’m going to do is make a request.  Video game industry, don’t be afraid.


Don’t be afraid to have characters that are glamorous, or have movements that flow like silk.  Don’t be afraid to flex those animation muscles -- to take advantage of the inherent unrealism of the medium, and use abstractions for a powerful effect.  Don’t be afraid to toss in some pleasant scenery, or build a sense of class.  Don’t be afraid to put your women in a glimmering dress.  There’s so much that can be done to diversify the medium -- and better yet, draw attention and sales to a product.  The fact that Overwatch has basically had to do by itself what should come naturally to any given company -- use the tools at hand to offer a wide array of options -- in goddamn 2016 is ridiculous. 

Blizzard is a big company, but that didn’t stop it from delivering a game that’s full of artistic flair.  And that flair has long since been appreciated, even if it’s only by me (and I suspect it isn’t).  Mercy’s elegance makes me get hyped for Overwatch even before I jump into a match.  Surprise, surprise, the game’s been a runaway hit without doubling down on the tiresome violence and teeth-clenched machismo that’s gripped the industry -- and as easy as it is to hate a AAA company, Blizzard used those sweet, sweet WoW bucks to offer up something different.  True, Overwatch isn’t 100% devoted to a chic affect, but the fact that it even has one in the first place just goes to show how there’s a hole that games could stand to fill.  There's a place for everything and everyone, really.


I don’t expect executives from EA or Ubisoft to read this and suddenly decide “Oh yeah, we should totally greenlight a game with lots of frilly dresses!”  But I expect that people on the lower rungs of the industry -- the lowly gamers who form the backbone of everything -- are reading this.  In which case?  I hope I’ve helped open your mind to the possibilities inherent in the medium.  Even if you’re not like me and don’t want more elegance, that’s fine.  Not everybody likes Mercy, I bet.  But I suspect that there are styles and affects that you do like.  And I hope that going forward, you recognize them.  Enjoy them.  Defend them.  Fight for them, if need be.  Make the world of creativity a better place.  Because who knows?  Maybe that’ll make the world at large a better place, too.

And that’s my case.  Hope you enjoyed it, and I hope that you find new ways to respect your Overwatch waifu even more.  I know I do -- though she doesn’t even qualify as a mistress compared to my true waifu, Makoto.  Because not even elegance can trump loyalty.

Now, if someone were to combine the two…well, then they’d be invincible.  It’s a simple fact of life.


LITERALLY.  THE.  BEST.  

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