When the Overwatch team debuted their new cinematic, “Reunion,” during Blizzcon, fans were hyped to see one of their favorite heroes, McCree, light up the silver screen. Most didn’t expect Ashe, the pale-haired antagonist of the short, to be a playable character in the near future. While the initial excitement of seeing another female hero was intense, it died down rather quickly as concerns regarding Overwatch’s character designs flared back to life.
When the game first hit the market in 2016, Overwatch tried and succeeded to leap over an extremely low bar with regards to character diversity. First-person shooters and MOBAs (two genres that Overwatch takes large design cues from) both rely on characters players can inhabit, but rarely represent a wide range of characteristics—whether that’s bodies, sexuality, ability, race, or gender.
Overwatch presented a world very similar to our own, albeit in the future, and therefore laid out a responsibility to represent a global audience. Its group of launch heroes spanned multiple nations, skin tones, and levels of cybernetic enhancement. However, one of the biggest draws was the variety of women, none of whom fell neatly into the lithe, sexy model we see in similar games (Widowmaker notwithstanding).
The problem is that while Overwatch progressed a few inches beyond games with largely homogeneous casts, it is not enough to stop there. The game sold its ethos as a utopic internationalism. It supposedly had room “for everyone.” Two years later, we have gotten a few more heroes that expand that vision. Yet Ashe does nothing in this regard.
She’s white (even her hair!) and from the United States. Her design becomes especially egregious when you realize Overwatch, for all its supposed diversity, has six playable white women and zero black women. (Orisa does not count; Orisa is a robot.) This particular point is something of a common refrain from fans and critics alike—especially when you realize the game has two different species of sapient animal.
It further doesn’t help that Jeff Kaplan’s remarks on the topic felt broadly non-specific: that the game may not make everyone happy, but will be inclusive. Blizzard has made a lot of questionable choices when it comes to handling race and cultural identity; the predominant whiteness of Overwatch’s cast only adds to this.
A Narrow Perspective
Ashe’s race is not the only problem, though. She also represents the narrowness of body types Blizzard allows women characters. The developers have gone on record as saying that Zarya and Mei were added to increase “body diversity,” but they remain as very slight differences in a leggy, hourglass world.
Although, if we’re being honest, we couldn’t trust Blizzard to make Ashe properly, visibly fat (versus obscured under a large coat, as Mei is sometimes considered), either. Roadhog, among other characters in the company’s franchises, is the perfect example of how Blizzard sees fat characters: grotesque, gaseous, and comical. Ashe would never be labeled cute or cool if put through the body mass sausage grinder that is historically common in its games. Nor would any other female character.
Age is another kind of diversity denied to Ashe, along with the rest of Overwatch’s women. Each ranges from 19 to 60. Yet most don’t show any distinct signs of youth or maturity—besides D.Va’s extreme baby face and some slight wrinkles on Ana. Ashe is in her upper 30s, much like Mercy, but neither even looks tired. They certainly don’t have dents, scars, or creases. And the 60-year-old Ana looks only 10 years older than her peers, at most.
Not Lining Up
You could chalk this up to Blizzard’s house style relying on more cartoonish, “Pixar”-like animation and softness. But the male characters range from their early 20s to 60s as well. And all of them fall somewhere on the spectrum of “fresh” and “grizzled” and “stately”—with at least some shocks of gray or white hair, facial scars, and general weathering.
You could argue that Mercy, Ashe, and Moira invest in some god-tier Korean skincare, or even sci-fi genetic enhancing, the fact remains that time has not visited many of the female characters in the game. It’s incongruous; Ashe once again represents the very glossy “pristineness” of how women must be presented in the game in order to maintain Blizzard’s cramped definition of entertainment value. (Don’t even get me started on the full beat faces on every female character as well.)
Even if Ashe falls in line with the rest of the female heroes, visually, it might have been interesting to see something different and new in her backstory. Overwatch lore is full of gaps at best and runs the gamut from “vaguely novel but lacking nuance” to straight-up “this is cool in other media, so why not here?” at worst.
All the Missing Pieces
Story is rarely the focus of competitive games—usually relegated to barks or standalone PVE modes—but Overwatch is an especially interesting case. It’s sold as caring deeply about its world and characters, but usually just pulls very thin narrative threads together with a vague air of “coolness.” More often than not, hero reveals and additional voice lines do little more than add a few more pieces to spotty world-building.
Ashe is the second character in the last year (see also: Brigitte) who has direct ties to another existing hero (she leads the gang McCree used to run with). She’s also now the second “cosplay cowboy/rebel outlaw” character in the game’s future setting—which brings that extremely confusing and threadbare idea into sharper focus.
McCree’s own backstory was moved away from a far more problematic, racist concept. Which raises the question: why does the world of Overwatch value this kind of secondhand addition to the story?
A Slow Decline
Ashe is a former rich girl with a troubled streak, now living a life of crime. It’s a typical kind of spice for white characters. Blending it with all the contexts that Western genres bring to the table just sticks out like a sore thumb, even if Blizzard thinks it looks cool. While the visual trappings make for goofy fun in-game, Blizzard ignores what the source material has largely done to erase the real history of people of color (mostly Indigenous), while promoting a broadly colonial mindset. A rich white girl playing criminal dress-up, with such a complicated aesthetic, is something we see far too often in media. It’s not any more progressive just because she is a woman.
Ashe’s inclusion into the cast of the game should have been enjoyable, but Overwatch’s whimsy-without-context lore and character design teams have lobbed another soft one over the plate.
After the diversity disaster that was Wrecking Ball (Blizzard added an intelligent hamster before a black woman), seeing the company serve this up as something new and novel is disappointing. It’s such a huge contrast from characters like Mei or Symmetra—characters full of personality and characteristics very rarely represented in video games. It’s unclear whether this indicates a general decline in Blizzard’s creative process, or what, but it is a failure to look farther and further into the world of Overwatch, and the world we live in, to fill out the roster that once seemed so promising.