Afrofuturism is a literary and cultural aesthetic comprised of elements from sci-fi, historical fiction, fantasy and Afrocentrism. The movement serves as a vehicle to critique dilemmas unique to black people, and to re-examine history. Or in the case of Overwatch’s world, the future.
Last week Blizzard revealed Overwatch’s 24th hero, Orisa. In the lore, she is a defunct OR-15 defense drone reconfigured and recommissioned by Efi Oladele, an 11-year-old robotics specialist from Numbani, a technologically advanced city somewhere near Nigeria. Intentional or not, Blizzard introducing a character creating change on her own terms is a big deal. Here’s how Efi and Orisa embody the spirit of Afrofuturism.
Whenever she falls in battle, Orisa reminds the player that she’s still new to the fight. In the Origin Story video, we’re shown that she isn’t a battle-hardened soldier with a vengeance, or a hero revered by a nation, but a young person with room to grow. She conducts her duties with the best intentions but has a tendency to overreact and make mistakes. She slips up like anyone new to their world would—if you were a month old, you might accidentally smash a car to help an old lady cross the street too. The narrative space to grow and learn is something black characters seldom experience in videogames, and through small bits of dialogue and lore, Blizzard offers the player a generous amount of nuance. She was built to be a hero and carries many burdens, but an oversimplified narrative is not one of them.
Efi Oladele is established as a prodigious inventor, racking up accolades and securing her place on the world stage as an authority on robotics. While she wants to be a force for good, Efi recognizes her limits, playing to her strengths to find her role in the struggle against terror and injustice. In today’s political climate, a black girl character building her answer to violence from scratch is a strong and timely affirmation of the work black girls and women do for social progress.
It’s also a great reason to not send an 11-year-old into battle.
It’s unmistakable that Orisa is visually coded as Numbanian, a culture that itself exists as a fusion of Yoruba and Congolese clothing and customs. What I consider Afrofuturist about Orisa is that she raises questions about the boundaries of blackness in the future, and whether that blackness extends to robots built by black hands in a black culture. The jury’s still out on whether or not Orisa is an Omnic or just a robot with an advanced AI. If she is an Omnic, however, that opens a whole Can of Discourse about how race is perceived (if at all) among the sentient robots. We’ll have to wait for the writers over at Blizzard to make those calls.
A character’s distinctiveness goes beyond their silhouettes and color palettes. A hero’s mechanics and playstyle force the player to mimic their personalities, too. For instance, a Zenyatta player will be hyper-observant of their surroundings on screen and quick on their keys, ensuring every teammate is protected and vital targets are debuffed. A Tracer player’s fingers will dance across the keyboard, eyes zipping around the battlefield, exploiting a formation’s openings. An Orisa player will watch over the team as a guardian, throwing herself into the fight first to give her teammates the stability to rush the objective. As a symbol of strength and fortitude, Orisa provides a sturdy backbone to most team compositions. The Omnic guardian’s function as an anchor also reflects how black women culturally and historically build the foundational elements of social movements, through pain and adversity.
She also has a voice line asking if you need a hug, and that is the Most Precious Thing.
In Orisa’s Hero Gallery menu, she has a voice line saying “shine your eyes.” Blizzard has a track record of layering hidden meanings in their heroes’ voice lines and Orisa’s phrase is no different. “Shine your eye” is a Nigerian expression meaning “wake up, look at what’s really happening.” Shine Your Eye is coincidentally the name of a Nigerian one-act play in which a hacker has to make a choice between her two possible futures. While the saying has a few contexts in the game’s lore about team situational awareness and the lack thereof, and whether or not Blizzard intended it, the line could also be read as a call to social consciousness.
Chris Kindred is a freelance writer and illustrator. His words can be seen on Twitter at @itskindred, and his images at chriskindred.com.