Overwatch: The benefits of unsurprising characterization


Some of Overwatch’s characters are exactly what you’d expect, and that’s good.

Overwatch has many characters. Some are superintelligent gorillas armed with lightning guns. Some are world-renowned DJs who can cure people with the power of music. Some are peppy, time-travelling Royal Air Force pilots. Some are huggable climatologists who stab people in the face with icicles.

And some are cowboys who say things like, “it’s high noon.”

Many of Overwatch’s characters are surprising, original, and weird. Some are not.

This is a good thing.

A little while back, some designers from Wizards of the Coast talked about the overall tone of Dungeons and Dragons. The vast majority of people who play D&D do not, by and large, take it very seriously. We make jokey characters with shitty personalities. We fill the whole experience with silliness and in-jokes and we’re far more likely to talk about the length of our Dragonborn’s clitoris than we are to cry over the death of an important NPC. The actual Dungeons and Dragons lore takes itself very, very seriously…but the rest of us kinda just laugh at it and do our own thing.

The thing is — Wizards of the Coast knows this. It’s known this for decades. And what’s more, it knows the lore must take itself seriously so that we can make fun of it. If D&D were full of vibrant characters and jokey stuff and actually acknowledged how silly it was, there wouldn’t be any room for us — the players — to be creative and goofy and fill the void made by the stereotypical, po-faced lore. Its generic nature is what allows for wonderfully crazy shit like The Adventure Zone to exist. If Dungeons and Dragons were intentionally funny, then it would be far worse.

Or, to put it a simpler way:

You need an Abbott to balance out your Costello.

Overwatch, and its few stereotypical heroes, are proof of this.

I absolutely love Overwatch‘s characters. I love that D.Va is a pro gamer who was recruited to jump into a mechsuit and fight robots. I love that Symmetra is an autistic scientist who wants to make the world a better place, whether the rest of the world likes it or not. And the reason I get to love them so much is because they share a universe with a guy named Reaper who wears a skull mask and says things like, “DIE, DIE, DIE.” It’s characters like Reaper, and McCree, and Genji that allow the rest of the cast to really stand out. They give us something simple and familiar to grab onto — a character safety blanket — so that the rest of the cast can feel more special.

Not only that but, much like in D&D, some of the more cliche characters’ seriousness has allowed the audience to have a great deal of fun with them. Reapernames wouldn’t exist if Reaper weren’t the most obvious expression of the Cool Gothy Badass stereotype. You wouldn’t have incredible fanart like this if Reaper were a complex and multifaceted character. McCree’s smoky delivery of, “it’s high noon” is probably the most traditional Cowboy Thing imaginable, but it’s also a whole goddamned meme unto itself for similar reasons.

Additionally — and this is a great strength of Overwatch’s writing across the board, not just within its more stereotypical characters — the dialogue is not annoying. Characters don’t really make capital-J Jokes, and they don’t say anything particularly bizarre that would draw your attention more than it ought to. Battle dialogue, especially battle dialogue in multiplayer games, needs to be frictionless. It needs to convey information, do so concisely, and, above all, not be fucking annoying.

I’m probably more guilty of this last sin than anyone. Much of the battle dialogue in Borderlands 2 is filled with capital-G Goofz, which can make it extremely irritating when you hear the same line twice. My bad.

Overwatch, thankfully, doesn’t have this problem. Lines like “justice rains from above,” “I’ve got you in my sights,” or “it’s high noon” don’t blow anyone’s pants off in and of themselves, but they convey a bit of character (Pharah cares about justice, evidently, which is why she doesn’t say “death from above”), they’re informative without being distracting, and, while they aren’t particularly badass or funny, they aren’t goddamned annoying.

“Not goddamned annoying” is a pretty good — if cynical — three-word review of Overwatch‘s characters in general. Yes, they may occasionally be cliché, but those cliché characters or lines of dialogue are actually what make the more unusual, unexpected parts of the game really work. Blizzard clearly wants us to play Overwatch for hours and hours, and to talk about it with our friends, and to share stories about it online. Through their intelligent use of stereotypical characters and dialogue, it has more or less ensured that.