A year is a length of time that’s hard to parse for most games. When people talk about their experiences with a title, it usually clocks in at hours, spent over a period of months. I’ve been playing Overwatch for over a year. It astounds me, but doesn’t surprise. I’m a veteran of persistent content, having played World of Warcraft for well over a decade. If anything, it was exciting to be present for the beginning of a franchise—Blizzard’s first original creation in almost two decades and one that came out of the ashes of their failed MMO concept, Titan.
The game emerged on a market that was already oversaturated with shooters, but it provided a colorful entry point for a lot of people who were too shy or new to the genre. It was a game in a space that was often elitist and toxic, and it consciously used design to combat some of those elements—teamwork is central, and positive reinforcement for good play is key. It’s one of the reasons I fell so hard into it in the beginning despite being someone who gets hives around competition and first person shooter mechanics. It reduced crucial anxiety and made the experience tight and fun for someone like me.
Overwatch really didn’t rest on its laurels, regularly trying to improve on that gameplay. The game underwent quite a few revisions to gameplay modes as well as major balance changes for most of its playable heroes. They introduced and then reworked their competitive mode early on, based on the seasons model that’s been popular with their other games, as well as re-defining the main game mode (quickplay) as having single hero locks. While it was fun sometimes to try and play a regular match against five Symmetras and a Bastion, shunting that kind of game play to their expanded Arcade section (which became the new home for trying out new maps, Brawl modes, 1v1 mode, as well as 3v3 mode and the Custom Game feature) made play cleaner and more organized for the specific kind of experience you were interested in having. Blizzard also eventually expanded its custom game function so that players could thoroughly experiment with settings to delight and befuddle each other.
This all keyed into something early on that made the experience fun for me: any online game becomes way more fun when you can bring your friends along. Blizzard made queueing up by myself enjoyable, but goofing off with a group of my friends and winning a match feels so good that it’s what I opt for in the end. I suspect that most multi-player games strive for this experience in some way but given how Overwatch presents itself as a self-contained fantasy of individual personalities, it takes on a more personalized touch. I’m not playing a random soldier with a complicated loadout, I’m choosing a character who has story notes filled in and a visual appearance that’s distinctive and interesting. All my friends have heroes they prefer and in concert, that team aspect comes through on both a narrative and literal level.
If anything really stood out to me as the core focus of Overwatch over the past year, it has to be just that: the world that it’s set in. I don’t think Overwatch came into such acclaim by having an interesting and fun set of design choices (though I would argue that it’s definitely what broke the game into the genre), but it is that the game pairs them so well with a light story that hooked many fans that would have not otherwise given it a second look. Three heroes debuted after the initial 21 (Ana, Sombra and Orisa), as well as three new maps (Eichenwalde, Ecopoint: Antarctica, and Oasis) and slowly Blizzard is filling in the details of what exactly this future looks like in supplemental materials like animated shorts and comic books. This is what compels me to be interested in Overwatch beyond just the gameplay, I want to know more about the strange optimism of this ragtag assembly of people who have lived through a global robot apocalypse. It’s been a slow trickle of information but one that has its hooks embedded deep within my brain. Seeing everyone on social media start crying after watching the Last Bastion short made me believe that even a game with very few traces of story present in the extant gameplay can still move you in some ways. The ideas behind Overwatch’s vision for humanity have been cast as an ideological glow over the franchise—that we should see things for what they can be, not what they are right now.
It’s clear that this vision, taking form as world building, is a way to drive diversity (of a sort) in their heroes, to represent more than just the people making the game. The comic that came out around the Christmas holiday gave some glimpses into the characters’ private lives, including a kiss between Tracer and her girlfriend Emily. It made good on a promise to reveal queer characters earlier in the game’s life and the internet exploded at the reveal. Here was a game whose face character was a lesbian. It was a big deal for a lot of us who rarely ever feel like we’re a part of the world that videogames represent. While it was something that many players didn’t have to actively confront, given that it exists in the narrative outside of the gameplay, the fact is that when I look up at giant banner hanging at a game event, Tracer is staring down at me.
All this being said, the first year wasn’t entirely hits.
The game’s attempts at representing an inclusive future was one of the places it stumbled in its first year, despite the developers reaching for the brass ring. It’s something I hope they take more notes from as we go forward in the game. Quite a few of the skins when the game debuted were representative in a way that showed little care or respect for the cultures they purported to be from, if they were even from that culture at all. Notable are Pharah’s Raindancer/Thundercaller legendary skins as well as Symmetra’s Devi and Goddess skins. Both are created from cultural artifacts with the serial numbers filed off and show a level of disrespect to their origins, literally made into costumes. There’s also some other gaping political holes in the fabric of the game’s story: robots being used as a racism analogue in a world enshrined as “beyond discrimination,” as well as Lucio seeing his favela razed and set on fire by a large corporation, a story that came out a month prior to a Summer Games event in Overwatch, in tandem-but-not-really with the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
Game director Jeff Kaplan’s recent remarks about how the game is not “political” (despite being extremely political) closes out a year where his team did so much to dazzle us during the game’s narrative floor routine but failed to stick the landing in the final seconds. A lack of willingness to acknowledge precisely why fans are so hungry for representation means that the back pats you want to give yourself for including that representation (which is at times flat or problematic) don’t hold up.
Despite all this, I still find myself deeply engrossed in this game, so much more than any other that came out last year. My deep cynicism invariably comes with a charity towards the game’s attempts to do better, and to do it differently than others in the AAA space. The awards prove that many others felt the same. My (very possibly misguided) hope is that going forward, the Overwatch team looks at the first year as the start of a larger iterative process that isn’t just balance passes but continues to be a commitment to their fans to keep improving on their vision of the future. It is essential for not just the health of the game but for its audience as well.
Nico Deyo is a feminist media critic and curmudgeon who lives with in the Midwest. She self-publishes at her blog Apple Cider Mage, and can be found on Twitter at @appleciderwitch.