Style and Substance
Alright, so Overwatch is releasing tonight and there’s excitement in the air. Blizzard has been rolling out its marketing machine in celebration and we’ve been treated to several comics and video shorts in order to flesh out the game a bit more before the mayhem of players flood the servers.
Sounds a bit familiar right?
Here’s some background. I’m a Team Fortress 2 player. I didn’t jump on board when the game was released but I was certainly playing it when you had to purchase the Orange Box in order to get it. Lovely game that I’ve sunk way to many hours to post here. Was it perfect? Of course not. But over nine years it was interesting to see the evolution of design and for Valve to hone in on the content they wanted to release. There were many bumps and, personally, I don’t hate the cosmetic and shift to free to play like a lot of other stodgy old guards.
I’m more annoyed by the drop/craft mechanic for items and I still hate item set bonuses though it looks like Valve has pretty much patched those out now. There’s still some balance issues but at this point, I feel they’re inherent in the game’s design. It’s one reason why I’m way too ready for a Team Fortress 3 if Valve ever decides to get around to making it.
But I don’t want to discuss game mechanics and I especially don’t want to compare game mechanics with Overwatch. I don’t have enough time in the second game to have really great arguments yet and if you want to see my initial impressions from the open beta, I wrote a rambling blog post the other week.
No, instead I want to discuss something that is far easier to compare between the two games and that’s its marketing.
Mostly, I want to rant against Blizzard’s bizarre direction for their supplementary material.
First, let me just get this out of the way. The videos are pretty. They look like a Pixar animated short and capture that cartoon aesthetic perfectly. The animations are top notch and it is brimming with detail and liveliness. But this Pixar element also seems to be it’s biggest problem.
Namely, I don’t know who on earth Blizzard is marketing to with these videos. I’m not sure they do. When I say the shorts look like Pixar mini-movies, this extends well beyond its appearance. For instance, there’s a surprising number of children in these things with two of them – the latest Hero video being a prime example – that the shorts focus on. The action within them is comically juvenile as well. Here we see people shot with rockets, sniper rifles, automatic pistols and sawed off shotguns with nary a scratch. More often, individuals are just punched or kicked – superhero fashion – with there being nary any damage done to them as though everyone in the Overwatch world is made of rubber.
Contrast this with Team Fortress 2’s videos. Meet the Pyro is a fantastic comparison, not least because it walks this very tight line between comedy and carnage. It simultaneously leans on its cartoon style to excuse the excessive amount of violence within it while also managing to turn that very element into one of horror. TF2 doesn’t ever present itself with any resemblance of realism. The dismembered heads of a soldier’s enemies are line up on a fence while he lectures them is a rather grotesque concept but because it’s visuals are so unrealistic it’s easy to disassociate from any real sort of inhumane behaviour. The Pyro walks away from a street filled with the charred and chopped up corpses of his enemies whistling a little tune and it works within the style and world that Valve have crafted.
Soldier 76 doesn’t. It’s hard not to see the parallel’s between Blizzard’s shorts and Valve’s Meet video series. And it’s equally hard to not see the finesse that one executes them and the bubbling issues of the other. We don’t know anything about Soldier 76 at the end of it. That’s because the emphasis is entirely on the little girl who is neither a character within the game or even what Blizzard is attempting to market. In Hero, the cartoon style is used to create a juvenile world attempting desperately to overcome it’s unrealism to mimic reality as close as possible. A robot is being beaten by a group of thugs, the framing clearly meant to communicate how great an injustice this random act of cruelty is. The aforementioned movements and animation are all trying to make it seem like these are real, sympathetic characters. Because so much effort is breathed into making these characters seem real it makes the moments like when Soldier 76 is beating a thug’s head in with a burning pinata even more jarring. Despite the thug seemingly being unharmed by the assault, it comes across far more distressing than the Pyro driving a fire axe into the face of the Heavy.
It’s weird. It makes the audience feel weird. There’s this directional conflict between playful violence and serious real world consequences. Soldier 76 beats the shit out of a group of thugs who all seem to be “Batman puts people to sleep” sort of unconscious mixed with moments where he’ll blow a gunman up with rocket fire or others who fall from rooftops seemingly dead.
Alive – perhaps Blizzard best short so far – struggles with this issue as well. That video is following Widowmaker – an assassin for hire contracted to kill a religious robot – who has seemingly no excuse for being so gentle with her foes. Whenever it shows Widowmaker combating the hired security, she’s politely knocking them out but at the height of the video’s climax she takes a shot at the protagonist’s heart which – when the character zips out of the way – turns out to have been a headshot against her mark. The video offers no explanation for this sort of extreme behaviour and, once again, grounding the video in real life like moments as a religious rally for a robot-human civil rights activist makes the juxtaposition between the two tones stand out even more.
Basically, the content of the videos appears as though Blizzard is targeting children. But the framing of the videos is entirely adult.
And I can’t tell if Blizzard is attempting to avoid some sort of controversy over their videos or if they simply can’t decide on a direction for them.
I mean, it can easily be argued that Team Fortress 2 desensitizes its players to extreme violence. Rockets will explode characters into blood giblets that bounce across the ground. In Meet the Sniper, we see the titular character headshot his mark and for the bullet to pass through and strike the bottle of a Demoman behind him wherein glass fragments shatter into his one good eye. The Demoman then stumbles around bleeding profusely and blindly firing off his grenades until he falls into some canisters and dies in an explosion.
It’s hyper violence but it’s meaningless because the characters themselves are so exaggerated. This isn’t just in their form – which features over sized hands, diminutive legs, broad torsos and they like to create vivid and distinct silhouettes between the characters – but also in their behaviour and personality. These characters couldn’t possibly exist within any world striving for an ounce of realism. They entirely consistent within the Team Fortress world but that world is so far removed that the violence is hardly analogous to anything anyone would ever experience in reality.
Overwatch, however, sanitizes its violence. Kills – if they even seemingly occur amongst the hail of bullets, machine gun fire, rockets and grenades – always happen off screen. If something were to actually be violent and in your face it has consistently happened to robots which, conveniently, don’t emote in any real fashion and certainly can not bleed, bruise or otherwise communicate any real pain. When violence is enacted on a human, they always appear to survive through some magical superheroic constitution. Necks or limbs aren’t broken from falls from tremendous heights. Characters are shot at but never actually hit. Explosions make targets simply vanish.
However, this is a game which players are tasked with actually eliminating their rivals via the same bullets, rockets, swords and whatnot. I can understand not taking Team Fortress’ cartoon approach where, even if someone has a hole blown through them the most you might see is some undetailed bone shape and an over-exaggerated emote of pain. But despite TF2’s desensitization there’s no question or ambiguity that these individuals are dead.
It feels more honest than Overwatch’s “everyone pretend to fall asleep.” More importantly, TF2 demonstrates that you can have a lighthearted and fun tone without resorting to juvenile cheats that talk down to its audience. Honestly, if Overwatch keeps shooting for these emotional vignettes, they have to start including some actual stakes to the characters. Have your characters bleed. You don’t need the over-the-top cartoon gore like TF2 and, honestly, that wouldn’t work in the first place.
But having Yakuza run around with arms flailing like a Sunday morning cartoon comic panel then thirty seconds later attempt some grave conversation about sacrifice, honour and familial obligation just comes across as incredibly tone deaf. It speaks more to a creative team afraid to commit to a direction and instead flops between the two. If you want realism then make the consequences of your violence real. If you want cartoony consequences then make your stories cartoonish narratives like the Sniper trying to explain the difference between assassin and crazed gunman to his parents over a pay phone.
It just goes to show that even if you’ve got a good style it doesn’t immediately equate to having good substance. You need to pair the two and ensure your style, tone, atmosphere and character are in line.
Happy Overwatch launch!