Overwatch and the Joy of Playing with Action Figures

Overwatch brings out the kid in all of us, and that's no accident.

When I was about seven or eight-years-old, I got an off-brand (i.e. not WWE or WCW) toy wrestling ring for Christmas. This simple ring quickly became the centerpiece of my playtime, as I converted it into a battleground where my various figures could settle a variety of disagreements that I had manufactured between them (in retrospect, I may have missed my calling as a reality TV producer).

Now granted, this set-up was not all it could be. The ring itself didn’t have ropes or turnbuckles, was prone to collapsing in the center after particularly high-impact moves, and occasionally the fighters would have to deal with fire from the nearby G.I. Joe fortress or aerial attacks if Shredder’s zeppelin was in the area. Even pro wrestlers don’t have to deal with that kind of nonsense.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter. The beauty of the show wasn’t in the details, but rather the star power of the combatants. Whether it was Batman resolving his issues with Mr. Freeze over the matter of last week’s ice encapsulated Batmobile or more obscure match-ups, like the dollar store ninja I had acquired while shopping with my grandma challenging Snake Eyes for the illustrious title of head ninja, there was always a certain kind of magic that resulted from pitting these figures against each other and reveling in the spectacle.

That’s the feeling I have every time I queue into an Overwatch match.

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Overwatch is not a unique game. Actually, its basic concept of pitting two teams against each other in an objective-based competitive shooter environment is only slightly younger than the FPS genre itself. Many of its specific design elements relating to presentation and objective structure are even pulled straight from the Team Fortress 2 playbook, while the remaining aspects that are not—such as the highly specialized character classes with degrees of play difficulty—can be traced back to just about any MOBA.

So if this game doesn’t really do anything that we haven’t seen before, why is it currently one of the darlings of the shooter game world? Well, for one thing, it’s damn good at what it does. The combat mechanics are air tight, the map design is sublime, the speed is just right, it hits that “easy to learn, tough to master” curve perfectly, and, by the grace of the gaming gods, the servers even hold up despite the fact that it feels like most of the civilized world is playing. Even if their name wasn’t embedded on the title screen, there could be no doubt that Overwatch is the product of famed developer Blizzard Entertainment. The entire thing is coated in that layer of polish that only Blizzard can provide.

But that’s not the important part. Not really. Oh sure, if Overwatch hadn’t been so well made, it would have never achieved the level of success it currently enjoys, but all of those things are details. No, what really matters in Overwatch are the characters.

What matters is Tracer, the London operative whose mouth moves as fast as her time blink skills allow her to warp across a map. What matters is Winston, a giant intelligent ape whose desire for peace is sometimes carried out through violent bursts of animalistic rage. What matters is Lucio, who seems oblivious to the carnage around him as he skates into the thick of battle to help those in need.

We know some of this information because of supplemental material that Blizzard has provided that covers the history and personal qualities of these characters, but even if that material wasn’t available, we would still know many of these characters because of the way Overwatch presents them in-game. In case Junkrat’s oil stained clothes and soot-lined eyes didn’t tip you off to his gearhead roots, the shift stick that tops his rickety grenade launcher will. You don’t have to speak D.Va’s native tongue to look at her pro-grade headphones, anime fashion, and iconic victory poses and understand that she is a former professional gamer who carried her skills over to the battlefield.

Or maybe you don’t know these things. Maybe you’ve formed your own backstories for that tattoo on Roadhog’s belly or what such a seemingly peaceful girl like Mei is doing caught up in this war. That’s okay, too. In fact, it’s actually quite difficult to not start forming your own stories for each character given how much personality they exhume through their every action and visual element. These aren’t just nameless grunts running around a battlefield fighting for the cause of upping a kill count. They are fully realized avatars who kickstart imaginations on first sight. You feel an attachment to them not only because you want them to survive long enough to help you win the game and maybe earn a couple of medals, you are attached because of who they are and the journeys you get to share with them.

With Overwatch, Blizzard has given us a stable full of all-time great digital action figures. For that matter, Blizzard has also given us some pretty incredible real-life Overwatch action figures as part of the game’s promotion that just seem to confirm that perhaps this action figure character quality was an intentional design decision all along.

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But for as important as Overwatch‘s individual characters are in helping Blizzard achieve this incredible childhood sensation, they ultimately just represent the benefits of the game’s greater philosophy of inclusiveness. Just as there is a character that almost every Overwatch player can relate to regardless of his/her gender, race or play style, the game itself is designed to accommodate a variety of players that may not otherwise consider themselves fans of the genre, but find themselves drawn to the title based on a need to explore this bright and imaginative world. 

Overwatch does not discriminate against these players. They may occasionally run into a tough matchup or poisonous player determined to ruin everyone’s fun at all costs, but the design of the Overwatch experience is – not unlike the area around a childhood toy chest – meant to be enjoyed by all who simply wish to play. Every hero in Overwatchpresents a viable method of play regardless of your skill level or preferences. It doesn’t have that underlying “kill ’em all” attitude that a game like Quake III built its frag-fueled empire on, nor does it limit itself to a boy’s club Saturday morning cartoon come to life like Team Fortress 2 sometimes does. The vibe in Overwatch is based more around the fun of taking your favorite toy into action and playing with others. Even the game’s competitive elements feel like a by-product of the enthusiasm that Overwatch inspires among its players. 

However, the most impressive element that Overwatch has learned from the world of action figures can be found in the game’s storytelling. Some argue that Overwatch contains no real story and that its lack of a traditional campaign is the game’s greatest weakness. I would counter that argument, though, with the idea that Blizzard has given Overwatch all the story it needs via those brilliant cinematic shorts that preceded the game’s release. Much like how ’80s cartoon showrunners discovered long ago that there is no more effective advertising tool for toys than a full-fledged animated show, Blizzard turned to their own particular set of skills in the field of crafting compelling cinematic sequences to lend the game just enough story to enhance the adventure players will have, but not so much that it detracts from the game’s ability to allow those players to craft stories of their own based on what their own adventures in this world.  

Because, ultimately, that is Overwatch’s true value. It’s a story generator. Not traditional gaming stories crafted by a development team and some writers, perhaps, but rather a nearly infinite amount of stories that we the players get to create through our imaginations, war tales, and a roster of characters that a much younger version of me would have dreamed about placing in a warped plastic wrestling ring many years ago.

Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.