Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan once stated that the creative team “cared about creating a game… where everybody felt welcome.” This article will cover diversity within the game and how it changed from launch to present, using the metric of which heroes’ design elements fall prey to or avoid harmful stereotypes of the groups they represent. The 4 new heroes are compared to the original 21 to see whether designs have improved or fallen short in relation to fans’ most commonly voiced concerns. Overwatch has attracted a very diverse fanbase, so I reference opinions and analysis from those who are being represented by the character in question as much as possible.
This is Part 1, covering gender, race, nationality, and ethnicity.
The most recognizable aspect of diversity within this game is gender. While I view gender as a complex and multidimensional spectrum, games from big publishers still typically present it as binary, with exceptions made only for non-human entities. Overwatch definitely falls into this category.
At launch, 38% of the available heroes were female, 57% were male, and one was genderless. Two of them, Zenyatta and Bastion, are omnics (sentient robots). I counted Zenyatta as male but not Bastion due to the pronouns used in the official Overwatch bios, as well as this tweet by lead writer Michael Chu. Bastion, as noted in the tweet, is genderless. While the acknowledgement is nice and keeps the line-up from being completely binary, it would be better to see non-binary heroes who are human. A female to male ratio of 2:3 is better than many FPS games out there, but hardly groundbreaking.
The new heroes help even the numbers. Ana, Sombra, and Orisa are all female, and Doomfist is the only male. That makes the current lineup 44% female, 52% male, and 1 genderless. That’s almost half and half (11 vs 13). While I personally don’t find a difference of one or two heroes significant with a lineup as big as Overwatch’s, I do think the diversity within each gender falls a little short. Age and body type, for example, are much more limited among female characters than male characters.
Even face shapes are pretty similar, but I’ll cover this in more detail in Part 2.
Notably, all four of the new heroes are people of color, so racial diversity is clearly a conscious choice for the Overwatch team. While racial lines can sometimes be tricky with real people, in Overwatch it’s more straightforward with a couple of exceptions.
The lineup at launch included 8 clear examples of people of color: 4 women and 4 men, with 2 ambiguous cases, Roadhog and Zenyatta. The main criterion I used here was consistency of cues in each hero’s design elements. I counted Reaper as a man of color, because his design elements point to it and do not contradict each other. His Origins skin depicts him before his transformation, and he has obviously dark skin. His voice actor for the U.S. version appears to be a man of color as well. Although Zenyatta’s voice actor is also a man of color, I did not count him because, as an omnic, he does not have a skin color. Furthermore, his alternate skin designs borrow from several different cultures instead of one consistent one.
Similarly, I did not count Roadhog. Though there is a strong case for him being a man of color—the mixing of different cultural cues, reliance on stereotypical depictions, and appearance of darker skin in one of his skins complicates things. I’ll discuss culturally conscious depictions in more detail in the “Ethnicity” section.
The current lineup of heroes features 7 women of color and 5 men of color, for a total of 12 people of color out of 25 heroes. That’s nearly half the available heroes. “Race”, from a global perspective is pretty fuzzy, so it’s hard to say if it’s representative of world demographics. If nothing else, it’s a nice change of pace from “grizzly white guy #5765”, particularly when it comes to FPS games. Better yet, none of the new heroes fall into the ambiguous category the way Zenyatta or Roadhog do.
My one concern is that the balance is skewed toward women of color over men of color at the moment. A difference of two isn’t huge, but hopefully it’s something the development team will keep in mind as they continue introducing characters. Alternatively, if they clarify the backgrounds of Zenyatta and Roadhog, it will be perfectly even, but I don’t expect them to.
Overwatch is set on a future version of Earth and specifically elicits a global theme in its maps, heroes, and backstory for the Overwatch coalition itself. Therefore, geographical distribution should be a priority for the development team.
At launch, 3 heroes were from North America, 6 from Europe, 6 from Asia, 2 from Australia, 1 from Africa, and 1 from South America. The starting lineup was heavily weighted toward North America, Europe, and Asia. These three regions comprised 71% of all heroes. Only one hero each from Africa and South America seems woefully inadequate considering those are entire continents composed of countless diverse countries.
Central America had no representation at all at launch. This is even worse when race is taken into account. Of the 10 heroes from the U.S., Europe, and Australia, Reaper was the only person of color (and possibly Roadhog as discussed previously). This is disappointing because representation like this perpetuates the idea that these regions are composed solely of white people, which simply isn’t true. When I was teaching in rural Japan, most students imagined “Americans” exclusively as blond-haired, blue-eyed, gun-toting people.
East Asia was also over-represented, with 4 out of the 6 heroes from Asia hailing from the east and being fair-skinned. As much as I love seeing East Asian representation, there is so much more to Asia than Korea, China, and Japan. There are darker-skinned people, especially in Southeast Asia, for example. In general, Blizzard’s decisions of which heroes hail from which countries reinforces assumptions about what people in each country look like.
The new heroes do nothing to dispel this, since they are all people of color from nations where they are the majority. They do, however, add some geographical diversity with Ana from Egypt, Orisa from a fictional city in West Africa, Doomfist from Nigeria, and Sombra from Mexico. This brings the tally up to at least one hero for every continent excluding Antarctica. Antarctica is woven into the story as the Ecopoint: Antarctica map, where Mei conducted climatology research.
The coverage for Africa has certainly improved, but it’d be great to see some heroes whose race and nationality break some stereotypes. For instance, South America would benefit from more heroes that reflect the many nations and ethnicities that exist there. That said, it would take careful planning on Blizzard’s part to maintain or improve the balance of racial and national diversity while doing so. For example, some Argentinians are ethnically Chinese, but East Asian ethnicities are already over represented. Any hero of color from the US or a European nation would contribute further to the disproportionately high number of heroes from those areas. It’s certainly a delicate balance.
First, some context. In general, most of Blizzard’s early character designs in Overwatch are cartoony, exaggerated caricatures. This is true across all heroes and seems intentional as part of the goofy and larger-than-life appeal of the game.
McCree is a walking cowboy stereotype. Hanzo is a dragon-powered, bow-wielding assassin in the midst of Overwatch’s futuristic weaponry. Zenyatta is a vaguely Asian, mystical guru with fortune cookie voicelines. However, Reinhardt, Torbjorn, and Widowmaker are all just as comically stereotypical of U.S. views of people from their respective countries. It’s one thing to depict a marginalized group in a way that reinforces stereotypes, leading to fetishization or othering (or both), and quite another when the group is widely accepted and depicted diversely in media. There are plenty of articles that discuss these issues in greater detail, such as this, this strongly worded one with good details about racial stereotypes, and this excellent post by tumblr user Tabine about Symmetra specifically.
Blizzard seems to have taken note of criticisms here, with newer heroes being much more nuanced while still fitting the fun and cartoony atmosphere of the game.
Ana, for example, gets to be a tough and capable leader, while also being nurturing and protective. Criticisms of Pharah included her lack of Arabic lines; Blizzard found someone who could voice Egyptian Arabic lines for Ana. She is not only a mother but also a soldier, and as far as I know, does not fall into any troubling stereotypes related to her background. Sombra likewise, is undeniably Mexican and a hacking genius, who hasn’t stirred any serious controversies.
On the omnic side of things, Orisa is a dramatic improvement over Zenyatta. It’s clear what her origins are despite her fictional location, and Efi smashes at least a couple of stereotypes as a genius robotics inventor who happens to be a young black girl. Check out this article for more about why Orisa is awesome. Doomfist is new enough that there aren’t many articles out about him as a character as opposed to just his mechanics, but the initial impression seems to be positive. The original lineup isn’t without its successes, however. D.Va has apparently become a feminist icon in her home country.
The size of Overwatch‘s hero list gives Blizzard room to design characters that represent many different experiences around the world. Mistakes have definitely been made in trying to make those designs “welcoming” the way that the team hoped, but progress has been made too. The design choices for newer characters reflect an awareness of fans’ criticisms and a greater effort to research the cultural backgrounds used.
There’s still plenty of room for growth, but Blizzard has shown it’s willing to learn.
Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment
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Spider-Man Does Whatever a Spider Can
Over the long decades of Spider-Man games that have come and gone, the quality has varied wildly. Some have been really good games for their time. Some had a great idea carrying poor gameplay. More often they were plain bad. No matter the quality, though, one thing they all struggled with was the fundamental issue of capturing the feeling of Spider-Man.
The first Spider-Man on the Playstation was an excellent game. It was also limited in how much it could put Spidey’s real power in the hands of gamers. Maximum Carnage has many nostalgic fans, but it was just a side-scrolling beat-em up. The Spider-Man 2 movie game had terrific web-swinging, but was average or bad at everything else. Often the problems were technological. Other times they were an issue with developer skill or budget. Whatever the case no game really made you feel like the guy you read in comics.
And even more than the actual mechanics of being Spider-Man, games struggled to craft stories of the type that made Peter Parker and his crime-fighting alter-ego so iconic. Ultimately it is the relationships between Peter and his friends and foes that make him so popular. You feel an earnest connection to the conflicts driving his stories. Again, some of the failure here for his gaming adventures involves technology. Spider-Man gaming fell off significantly early in the Playstation 2 lifecycle, and gaming storytelling made significant leaps in that time. More often, though, those games just didn’t try particularly hard.
So how fares Insomniac’s attempt to finally give games a true Spider-Man game? How did they approach these problems? Were they ultimately successful? As an Insomniac Games fan since Spyro the Dragon some 20 years ago, I’m happy to say they made the best attempt yet.
Does Whatever a Spider Can
I’ll start with a pretty definitive statement here; no game has ever, ever had Spidey gameplay coming close to what Insomniac managed with this game. Not only that (and I admit this is purely opinion), Spider-Man has taken the Batman: Arkham formula and completely outdone it.
I won’t pretend the game doesn’t blatantly take the Batman formula. The combat certainly does. It’s the same directional, combo-focused, dodge-and-counter style I enjoyed across four Batman games. Thing is, it also addresses many of the problems in those games. Spider-Man’s enemies do not patiently wait as he beats down their friends. They jump in to stop you. They don’t point their guns forever like they forgot how to fire them. Those suckers get unloaded constantly. Spidey doesn’t gravitate from enemy to enemy like his fists have Bat-magnets pulled towards baddie faces. If you’re caught out of position, you’ll flail stupidly and someone will probably smack you for it.
While certainly inspired by Arkham, Spider-Man has a much more aggressive feel that perfectly suits the more agile, frantic, and plain capable nature of its superhero. Spider-Man isn’t a normal human being with crazy ninja training like Batman. He’s a true superhuman. You dodge bullets and rockets flying all over the place. You web people up, throw stuff at them, or even throw them if they’re properly restrained. Spidey flies around combat zones taking advantage of huge amounts of gadgets and suit abilities. His enemies have armor, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, whips, swords, shock gloves, and sometimes even support vehicles.
It makes for a very fast game with more challenge than I expected. The random baddies you find on patrol are perfectly capable of stomping Spidey into the ground. While nothing close to unforgiving, the game does demand the player get a handle on the combat and understand it. Even when you have your trusty standby style and gadgets, optional challenges encourage you to try the many options in ground and aerial combat. You’ll need to in order to acquire the combat tokens used to upgrade the suits and gadgets you like.
Thankfully, this challenge has nothing to do with poor controls. Spider-Man plays like a dream. The controls are smooth, responsive, intuitive, and quickly become second-nature. This allows the player to effortlessly transition between all the tactics needed for late-game encounters. It’s no problem at all to unleash a combo, dodge someone, counter, duck through a shielded opponent’s legs, web up to an aerial enemy, and unleash a special suit move restraining them all with your web.
In fact, the random baddies can be so surprisingly tough that the boss fights feel almost disappointing. Don’t get me wrong; they play well and usually have properly sizable scope. After hours of beating on upwards of like 50 thugs at a time, though, focusing on only one or two supervillains feels almost tame. Especially when few of them try anything particularly innovative in the combat system.
(The highlights are definitely the 2 fights involving Spidey going solo against 2 supervillains. One keeps the Spidey in the air at all times, while the other involves extensive use of the environment.)
But what about the method of traveling between all these fights? How exactly did Spider-Man manage the always important web-swinging mechanic? We all remember Spider-Man 2 and want something matching it, I know. And I won’t say the physics behind Insomniac’s Spider-Man matches its PS2 predecessor.
You know what? I don’t care. Rather than go for something “realistic,” Insomniac went for fun. Give me this any day.
The most important part of the web-swinging, in my humble opinion, is to make you feel like Spider-Man as he zips around New York City. This game manages that and then some. Besides the obvious swinging from building to building, Spidey can zip to ledges and points, vault off them, dive-bomb to pick up speed, and shoot quick webs to propel him forward and maintain speed around corners. He can run up and along buildings with ease. Transitioning from one move to another really lets players keep the speed up with ease.
Insomniac definitely went for accessibility over depth. The right-trigger button puts the player in something of an automatic parkour mode, and you can basically hold it down as you go and pull off what looks like complicated web-swinging and city traversal. However, this won’t make the most of the web-swinging. There’s a learning curve before you find the groove making the most of the speed and flow the web-swinging is capable of.
While the physics may not match what Spider-Man 2 did, don’t listen to anyone who says physics play no role. You can’t swing if there’s nothing your webs can attach to. Where your webs do attach determines the speed and momentum of your swing. Combined with the zip-lines and quick webs and wall running skills, you’ll need to make the most of all these mechanics and physics to become a truly gifted web-swinger. Especially if you want to complete the various challenges and missions.
Within the story missions, Insomniac blends these gameplay elements with well-placed quick time event button presses to create impressive spectacles. Spidey swings from helicopters and stops falling cranes and smashes through glass ceilings while beating on villains. The scale of these events makes for highly memorable moments after the various side content available between them.
Spider-Man’s open world certainly tries nothing new. You stop random crimes, pick up collectibles, activate towers that fill in the map, and take photos of various landmarks. Nothing about it breaks the mold formed by dozens of open-world games before. Where Spider-Man tends to avoid monotony, though, comes from the speed of these tasks. In the time it takes to scale to a viewpoint in Assassin’s Creed, Spider-Man lets you stop a crime, collect a backpack, activate a tower, and be on your way to the next objective. None of these typically mundane tasks feel mundane because of how quickly you complete them. None of these tasks feel lazy or boring when it’s so easy to check multiple items off the list in like 3 minutes. Thus, Spider-Man’s web-swinging adds a fresh new dynamic to the familiar open-world formula.
Like with the combat, it is this speed that defines the game. If you have an aversion to this kind of open-world repetitiveness, I can’t promise this game will overcome it. If one can, though, this may be it. Besides the brisk nature of these tasks, the game also does a good job pacing them. Right when you might be sick of picking up collectibles, enemy strongholds are revealed. You get sick of that and the challenge missions show up. You get sick of random thugs and the research stations unlock.
Overall, Spider-Man takes advantage of its namesake’s abilities, along with some excellent design, to avoid a lot of the flaws in open-world gaming design. It’s a fresh, updated fusion of Batman and Assassin’s Creed. Almost everything about it plays fantastically. If you have any interest in Spider-Man or open-world games, I can’t imagine feeling dissatisfied. Even if you don’t, I think you’d enjoy this game.
Now It’s Personal
But what about the underlying story and characters driving all this gameplay? After all, who cares about gameplay if I feel no motivation around anything? If you’re a Spider-Man fan, I think you’ll be more than satisfied. Insomniac has a GREAT grasp on what makes Spidey and Peter Parker so appealing.
The game takes place 8 years after Peter acquired his powers, bypassing a lot of the “learning to use your powers” stuff we’ve seen and played a thousand times. This allowed Insomniac to build a rich history of what Spider-Man has already done, what kind of relationships he has with those in his life, and how exactly he lives his life. Insomniac uses this basis to build a story and world operating as a love letter to Spidey comics new and old.
From the beginning, we see a familiar picture: Peter Parker struggling between his personal life and his superhero responsibilities. He has a tense post-relationship dynamic with Mary Jane Watson. He helps Aunt May at a homeless shelter. His professional life takes place in a lab with Otto Octavius, who feuds with Mayor Norman Osborn. Peter isn’t the unsure kid facing these difficulties for the first time. That doesn’t mean he fails to struggle. Early in the game, he even loses his apartment after failing to pay rent on time. Said apartment is cluttered with late notices and makeshift gadgets.
To be honest, I think this is the best version of Peter Parker anyone has ever managed, even in comics. He’s a perfect blend of the struggling, responsible dork and super-capable superhero veteran. He blends effortlessly between cracking jokes and dramatic moments. One moment he’s stopping masked thugs, the next he’s freaking out over a text message MJ took the wrong way. Spider-Man never shies from leaning into these moments and letting the emotion and drama of a moment speak for itself.
Peter’s personal relationships lay at the center of the story. Both of the major villains are mentor figures to Peter. Aunt May and Mary Jane feature prominently, including in gameplay. Miles Morales is introduced during one of the game’s big twists and becomes a prominent character afterwards. A pre-Wraith Yuri Watanabe plays a Commissioner Gordon role, and the banter between her and Pete make for some of the game’s funniest moments. Even the lesser supervillains have a history with Spidey that come into play when he confronts them.
Everything is so steeped in personal history and Insomniac does a terrific job relaying that history.
One considerably controversial piece of storytelling occurs through the occasional stealth sections putting Mary Jane Watson and eventually Miles Morales in the player’s hands. Some dislike these sections for interrupting the Spider-Man gameplay with comparably weak content. I actually like them. They’re easy, forgiving, and typically do a great job giving MJ and Miles a key role in the story. They also serve as a perfect example of something I mentioned earlier: the excellent pacing keeping the open-world Spidey gameplay from becoming monotonous.
These gameplay segments are also used to great effect in some key story moments, making you really feel the tension or tragedy of the moment. Plus they do great things for player investment in those characters. Investigative journalist MJ is easily my favorite MJ ever.
The same can be said of the lab puzzles you perform for Octavius. All of the puzzles are pretty easy, quick, and give useful rewards. They help immerse the player in the shoes of Peter Parker, not just Spider-Man. Not everyone likes them, and I get it. Insomniac does, too. They let the player skip them completely while also receiving the rewards for them. It’s the storytelling purpose of these segments that matter and are why they exist.
Overall the story doesn’t hit any particularly groundbreaking beats. Does it matter when they hit the familiar beats so well? Seeing the degradation of some relationships alongside the rehabilitation of others makes for some fantastically well-told moments. Insomniac succeeds with storytelling no Spider-Man game would attempt 10-20 years ago. Some of the more dramatic plot points rank among some of my favorite video game moments in recent years.
And when it all finally comes to an end, the game pulls no punches. The final boss has all the emotion you’d expect after hours of build-up, and afterwards, Peter is forced to make one last decision perfectly representing the idea of “with great power, comes great responsibility.” In fact, the ending can be seen as a direct rebuke of an infamous Spider-Man story from the 2000s.
Overall, like with the gameplay, no Spider-Man game has ever captured his life this well. Insomniac chose to create a Spidey game for a reason, and I think their love for the character shines in every second of this experience. I wish I could delve into a more spoiler-y summary of it to make this opinion more clear.
Perhaps myself or someone else will eventually, because I think Spider-Man deserves it.
I won’t say this is the best game of the year. Not with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey currently receiving hype as the best game the series has put out in years, and definitely not with Red Dead Redemption II releasing this month. You also have to consider God of War, Monster Hunter, Dragon Ball Fighterz, etc….it’s a hard slog to proclaim Spider-Man the best of that bunch.
As a Spidey fan, though, I can’t imagine anything besides Red Dead possibly competing for the title of my favorite game this year. This is the best Spidey game yet.
There’s certainly room to improve. The game kind of bogs down in the final act, with an excessive amount of armed thugs lying around. The open world stuff could be more imaginative. Improvements can be made to the web-swinging. I’d also love to see inspired boss fights taking full advantage of the combat’s depth. Also, no symbiote suit? Really?
Considering the obvious sequel setup this game ends on, I’m sure we will get these improvements and then some. Insomniac knows how to do sequels. Just look at the sequels to Spyro the Dragon or Ratchet and Clank.
For now, though, I prefer to bask in the many, many things Spider-Man does right. I was skeptical this game would be anything more than solid, and feared the worst. Years of Spidey-related disappointments trained to temper my expectations. Instead I got something very, very good, but just short of great. But it was great enough for this Spidey fan.
You can bet that for once, I’ll be ready to pre-order a sequel immediately.
Images Courtesy of Sony Entertainment
Facade’s ‘Tortuga 1667’ Packs A Lot of Piracy Into A Small Package
Piracy comes to your table with Tortuga 1667 from Façade Games. Tortuga is a social bluffing game for 2-9 players, each game lasting between 20 and 40 minutes. Players belong to one of two (or three) sides: The British or the French. In games with an odd number of players, there is a solo Dutch pirate. Players do not know who else is on their team, and they are likely not part of the same crew.
Set up is fairly simple, thanks to Façade’s design: lay out the map, pass out starting vote cards, and set up the event deck. Most importantly, players starting locations, and therefore roles, are chosen randomly by choosing meeples out of a bag. This randomization mechanic is becoming more popular, and I love the way it streamlines set up. Also given out randomly? Your loyalty cards.
Crew members receive their role based on their position on deck. If you are at the front of the line, congratulations, you are now the captain of that ship. The person behind you, assuming there is one, is your first mate. Ideally, you trust them. The person at the back of the line is the cabin boy. This might sound like you’re low on the totem pole, but you are the only one who can move treasure once it’s been placed. It is possible to be the captain or first mate and the cabin boy, if your crew is small enough. The captain of The Flying Dutchmen goes first.
There are five locations players can go to during the game. Two ships (The Flying Dutchmen and The Jolly Roger) two row boats, and Tortuga. The titular Tortuga is where players will find themselves marooned if they are kicked off their ship. The rowboats allow access back on board either ship, but can only carry one player at a time. Similar to the ships, Tortuga also has a track with meeples filling in from top to bottom. Are you the first player on the island? Welcome, Mayor! Everyone behind the mayor has the same role: a voting member on the island.
The victory condition for Tortuga is to get the most treasure for your country by the end of the game. If you are a solo Dutch pirate, your goal is to make sure both the French and the British have the same amount of treasure at the end. The game ends when the Spanish Armada card is revealed to all players. This mechanic allows game time to fluctuate: less cards in the deck means a shorter game. It also means no one knows quite when the end will come, providing tension as the deck grows smaller.
What does play actually look like? For us it was a lot of cooperation at first. We all wanted to get treasure, regardless of which side we were on. The only way to get treasure is to work together—a captain with no crew cannot win a battle. We exchanged vague plans and preferences, hoping to come to an understanding without revealing confidential information. Eventually, people started to decide who to trust. People were kicked off boats. The mayor of Tortuga ruled over quite a few brawls. My captain betrayed me. It was a wild journey, full of cannons and mutiny.
Tortuga is a quick, dynamic, and beautifully historic game with high replayabiltiy. The packaging is stunning, as is a hallmark of Façade Games. If you have always wanted to deal with scurvy, mutineers, and stolen goods, this game is for you. If the idea of lying to your friends, marooning them on an island, and leaving them for broke makes you seasick, seek different waters.
I give Tortuga 1667 5 out of 5 Dubloons.
Images Courtesy of Facade Games
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