Shortly after mainstay developer and publisher Blizzard announced Overwatch -- their first new intellectual property in 16 years -- Blizzard's lore master Chris Metzen stated at a press conference that he made a conscious effort during the game's development to make the game more socially inclusive. Blizzard is trying to make Overwatch’s cast more racially diverse compared to their previous games, and they are trying to not oversexualize their female characters.
So, looking at the 12 characters revealed for Overwatch, is Blizzard going in the right direction?
Yes and no. Metzen himself admitted Overwatch is not perfect and there remains “a lot of room for growth.” While some characters make strides in progress, others are still mired in stereotypes and tired customs.
Starting with the positive…
Five of the 12 characters revealed so far are women. Overwatch succeeds with a handful of its female characters who break conventions with traits and needs not based on racial or gender stereotypes. Egyptian mercenary Pharah is a no-nonsense career soldier who wishes to join the Overwatch organization, but has to settle for something less. She believes strongly in justice, using her martial abilities to protect the innocent. While she possesses some design elements marking her as Egyptian -- her name sounds like "pharaoh" and the tattoo under her left eye evokes the Eye of Horus -- being Egyptian is not her only defining quality.
Symmetra, a similarly complex character, is an Indian hard-light manipulator who believes she can use her powers to shape her environment and create order out of a chaotic world. Even Tracer, who has thin characterization and an annoyingly twee way of speaking, breaks the mold a bit. Her backstory reveals her history as a former ace fighter pilot, an occupation usually reserved for men.
Where Overwatch stumbles...
In general, the women of Overwatch do not show a lot of diversity in their body shape, and several of them wear attire that looks impractical for combat, such at futuristic-looking techno heels. Some specific characters included to up Overwatch's diversity have problems with their presentation. Swedish character Torbjörn looks less like an actual man from Sweden and more like a dwarf. It seems culturally insensitive to represent a person with a creature from their country's folklore. Also, it is trite that the primary healer character, Mercy, is a woman. Not to say that women cannot be healers, but of course the one character that abhors violence is female.
Things get a bit worse with sniper Widowmaker's plunging neckline. It would be fine if she was a sexy character because she chose to be, but since her backstory defines her as a brainwashed assassin with little of her own personality left, her revealing attire is probably not her choice, which is a bit icky to think about. It is even hard to argue that she is sexy for strategic beguilement purposes since she is a sniper. Sexiness does not work at long range.
However, all of these issues pale in comparison to Hanzo.
Hanzo is a Japanese character whose only trait is being stereotypically Japanese. His backstory makes little sense, detailing how his clan elders told Hanzo to “straighten out his wayward brother.” When his brother refused to cooperate, Hanzo was forced to kill him, so now he is all sad and ashamed and has to go around the world killing people to restore his honor because that is what Japanese yakuza ninja assassins have instead of therapy. Unlike every other character, he has no connection to the Overwatch organization, not even a distant one.
Hanzo's concept -- a ninja that blends tradition with high-tech gadgets -- fits in with what could further enhance the world of Overwatch, but Blizzard saturated his character the execution with cliches. He spouts stock mystical-ninja-man phrases when he uses his technology-based abilities. For instance, when Hanzo uses his Sonic Arrow gadget, allowing him to see enemies through walls, he says “See through the dragon's eyes,” which makes little sense.
And in this world based around futuristic technology, no characters use magic. Advanced super-science technology that sometimes looks magical? Sure, but it is stated or implied in most of the ability descriptions that they are rooted in scientific advancement. Except Hanzo. His ultimate ability, Dragonstrike, shoots an arrow that creates two spirit dragons while a Far Eastern-sounding horn plays in the background. Give the one Asian guy mystical ghost dragon powers because that won't look racist at all! Right?
Am I looking forward to Overwatch?
Absolutely. I think it looks really fun and I like a bunch of the character designs. I will even play Hanzo occasionally, since he looks effective in tight spaces. But while I am playing Hanzo, I will cringe every time he speaks, because simply including other races and genders is not enough. You have to wrap diversity around good characters.