In the months since Blizzard released the now-beloved multiplayer FPS game Overwatch, much has been said of its conscious efforts in creating a diverse cast. Many have praised the game as a pioneer in an industry severely lacking in inclusivity. Others have claimed that, despite its intentions, it’s still not diverse enough and that the game’s characterizations may even feed into negative stereotypes.
I myself fall into the former group. With the addition of the newest hero Orisa, a robot built by a girl of color, as well as the recent confirmation that Symmetra falls within the autism spectrum, I can only view the diversity of Overwatch’s cast as a wholly positive aspect of the game.
That said, there’s comparatively little discussion on the narrative choices that made such diversity possible — or more specifically, how the game’s lack of narrative gives it the freedom to assemble such a diverse cast of heroes in the first place. Yes, Overwatch does have a loose storyline and lore that’s mainly dispensed via free side content, but even so, it’s safe to say that little to no knowledge of this lore is necessary to play the game itself. (As with most multiplayer FPS games, the main objective essentially boils down to “kill the opposing team.”)
The unusual diversity in Overwatch exists precisely because the game lacks a story and, by extension, a central protagonist. Overwatch presents players with a huge cast of playable characters, none of whom are prioritized over the others. All the heroes are the protagonists of their own stories, ones that largely occur offscreen.
But imagine if the Overwatch cast were thrust into the confines of a traditional story-based RPG. There is an imminent threat, and only one amongst the cast can have their story told. Only one can be The True Hero of the tale, and the rest are relegated to party members.
Considering the present state of diversity in video games as a whole, what is the likeliness that The True Hero will be Orisa? Or Symmetra? What is the likeliness that these characters will be pushed aside in favor of a protagonist who is perceived as a “safer” option?
One of the most important decisions in crafting a story is in choosing its protagonist. In addition to determining the story’s perspective, the choice of protagonist in many ways dictates the story itself. Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator of the Hamilton musical, embellished on this idea at his UPenn commencement speech:
The simple truth is this: Every story you choose to tell, by necessity, omits others from the larger narrative … For every detail I chose to dramatize, there are ten I left out. I include King George at the expense of Ben Franklin. I dramatize Angelica Schuyler’s intelligence and heart at the expense of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal.
When choosing a protagonist, you are prioritizing that one character’s story above the story of all others. You necessarily exclude other voices in favor of a single, narrowed perspective. Because Overwatch is light in narrative, it is not forced to make this decision. It is not forced to choose the hero of its story.
To be clear: this is not a condemnation of Overwatch nor is it a claim that the game is half-hearted in its diversity efforts. After all, this lack of story is largely due to the nature of the game itself, as well as the multiplayer FPS genre as a whole. Considering this, Overwatch makes an admirable attempt at being as diverse as it can be.
But the true mark of dedication is in placing the weight of a narrative atop the shoulders of a character who is female, transgender, a person of color, and/or who is representative of any demographic that can potentially alienate a game’s often narrowly-defined target audience. And for the most part, video game developers have yet to prove that they are willing to rise to that challenge.
The keyword, of course, being yet.
Orisa concept art taken from the Overwatch website.