Image adapted from Activision

'Overwatch' Is Burying the Bald Soldier Dude Archetype

"Overwatch" characters don't look like the stereotypical first person shooter character.

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Nov 3 2015, 5:57pm

Image adapted from Activision

My favorite character in Overwatch so far is Hanzo, a Japanese assassin with a bow and arrow. He doesn't shoot very fast, but every shot counts, and when I find a good vantage point I can be a menace. Standing on a balcony, I see the enemy team coming towards us: Lúcio, the Brazilian freedom fighter who slides around on laser rollerblades; Symmetra, the Indian light-bede; and Winston, a scientist who also happens to be a gorilla. A shot or two to the head, and they're all going down before they even see me.

Something weird is happening in the world of first-person shooters. Suddenly, sepia-toned battlefields and gruffy bald soldier are being replaced by colorful locations and even more colorful characters.

Nowhere is this change more evident than in Overwatch,developer Blizzard's first-person shooter that released in beta last week.

Blizzard rarely releases new games, and Overwatch is doubly momentous because it's the first new franchise for the company in 17 years. All the other games Blizzard released in that time have been building upon the developer's previous success, with Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo sequels and spin-offs.

At first, it's confusing just how traditional Overwatch is. There's no clever, high-concept twist you could pitch to a game publisher in an elevator ("It's like Battlefield meets World of Warcraft!"). It's just a straight-forward "class-based" shooter like Valve's Team Fortress 2, meaning two teams of six players enter an arena, and use different characters with different abilities to hold a certain spot.

However, there is one major difference that sets Overwatch apart from other shooters. With Asian, Indian, and South American; male and female characters, it seems like Blizzard is making a concerted effort to create a more diverse cast.

Symmetra. Image: Blizzard

This is a great improvement on Blizzard's own track record with representation, but seems to be part of a bigger shift in games and the first-person shooter genre specifically.

For years, the genre was dominated by one type of character: the white, tough soldier dude, with a bald or near-bald head, probably because video game hair is so hard to get right.

Wolfenstein's B.J. Blazkowicz, Call of Duty's Soap, Resistance's Nathan Hale, and of course Doom's space marine. These and countless more are all basically the same square-jawed guy, and their sameness is even more boring in multiplayer, where several variations on that theme run around in circles and blow each others' bald heads off.

Team Fortress 2, Overwatch's closest relative, added a little more character for great effect, but all its characters were still caricatures of shooter stereotypes—Heavy, Engineer, Spy, and so on.

More likely, it's the popularity of League of Legends and other multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) that have finally opened the floodgates of creativity and personality. League of Legends has 127 characters to choose from, so it has a colorful, diverse cast by necessity. It also has 67 million monthly players, so it's not like people refuse to play games that don't star bald soldier dudes exclusively.

It'd be nice if publishers and developers had more diverse characters out of respect to their audience, but they're just chasing the money. Everyone's doing it now. Battleborn, the next big game from the makers of Borderlands, also had a beta test this week, and it also has a big, diverse cast of characters. Even Call of Duty, the king of the soldier dude games, is making similar changes. For the first time in the series, Call of Duty: Black Ops III, is letting players choose from a cast of unique characters. You can be a female special forces soldier from Brazil, a female assassin from Singapore, a killer robot—and yes—a bunch of more typical soldier dudes, but at least there's some choice there now.

Zarya. Image: Blizzard

This is a great evolution for the genre for all the obvious reasons, namely that more diverse representation might make for a more diverse audience. But for purely selfish reasons, it also makes for better games. It seems that once developers stop imagining the player as the same kind of hero, they're free to come up with more interesting heroics.

Overwatch characters don't just look different, they play differently. If you like picking targets off from a distance, you'll want to play as the Widowmaker, who can climb up to sniper nest with a grappling hook. If you're more of a lover than a fighter, you'll want to play as Mercy, who can fly to other heroes and heal them. And guess what? If you still want to be a soldier dude who mostly just shoots people in the face, you can play as Soldier: 76.

Allowing players to identify with a wide variety of players who don't only look different, but also offer more than one way of playing a first-person shooter, is what makes Overwatch so fun right now, and what I suspect will give its lasting value.

Of course, none of this would matter if Overwatch wasn't well-made on a more fundamental level, but that's the other thing that sets Overwatch apart: Blizzard's trademark polish. This isn't one specific design choice you can point to, but countless of little parts of the game that are tuned to perfection: the speed with which characters move, the sound Widowmaker's rifle makes, the spread and recoil of every weapon, the clean user interface that makes it super clear what players should try to do at any moment, even if they've never played a shooter before—all first-person shooters tweak these things to varying levels of success, but in Overwatch, it feels like the moving parts interlock like ornate clockwork.

Lúcio. Image: Blizzard

Every game Blizzard released in the past decade, which has been a huge financial and critical success, has perfected an existing genre. EverQuest existed long before World of Warcraft, but World of Warcraft made it obsolete. Action role-playing games existed long before Diablo, but every other game that followed lives in Diablo's shadow. Even collectible card games (CCGs), which aren't even just video games, seem lesser in the light of Blizzard's Hearthstone. Overwatch is Blizzard's first first-person shooter, and as is the Blizzard way, it makes its competitors seem sloppy.

Every once in awhile, a game popularizes an improvement that's so undeniable, other games have no other choice but to follow. In 2007, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare popularized the idea of "killcams," which show you what player killed you and how, and most shooters have copied it since. It's too obvious not to put in your game.

Overwatch, Battleborn, Black Ops III, and others, it seems, have learned from League of Legends that it's stupid to put only one type of hero in your game. Hopefully, it means we can put the ubiquitous soldier dude to bed. I'm sure he'll stick around, at least as a choice, but first-person shooters are finally getting some fresh faces. So far it seems to be working.