Overwatch received a new tie-in short story, titled “Bastet,” recently. However, bigger than new lore was that the story revealed Soldier: 76, the game’s grizzled Captain America-analog, as the second explicitly gay character in the game’s roster. The fast-paced shooter is clearly Blizzard’s diversity workhorse (with a roster of characters from all over a semi-realistic Earth), but it is still unclear if it’s doing a good job. Soldier: 76 being gay just serves to highlight the game’s — and its developer’s — strange attempts to grapple with storytelling and identity.
Blizzard has courted this kind of awkward, even hostile stance in the past in how it handles LGBTQIA+ communities in their audience, as well as how it celebrates related causes on social media. It doesn’t help that the company also has fairly opaque codes of conducts and punishment systems for their games and related forums. That often allows the widespread streak of homophobic toxicity that has been bred in the gaming community for decades to persist around Blizzard games.
This doesn’t just feel like a consequence of the company’s goals for its creative works, but indicates a conservatism about what their audience wants to see. Historically, queerness not only did not appear in the developer’s games at all, but the few times it did, it was to make a joke; most of which has taken place in World of Warcraft.
Smoothing Over a Rocky Past
Between quests, items and tons of dialogue spoken by NPCs, plus being a persistent environment for almost 15 years, the juggernaut MMO is where most people looked if they wanted to see themselves in Blizzard’s franchises. Up until recently, though, this was not really possible for LGBTQIA+ people. The game inserted jokey NPCs (even with lispy voice acting), flavor items, and even an entire race’s worth of jokes that capitalized particularly on effeminate, flamboyant men. It always made WoW feel like it was designed by juvenile straight men for other juvenile straight men. And while Warcraft has started to move in a more progressive direction, it still pushes queerness to the margins.
While video games as a whole have had a hard time with including any non-heteronormative sexualities in their stories, Blizzard has a particularly spotty history. One of the main reasons is that Blizzard is not in the same narrative business as, say, a BioWare or a Bethesda. It is in the business of selling experiences, not stories (at least for the time being). Before he left Blizzard, former Chief Creative Office Rob Pardo expressed in an MIT talk that the company was in the business of selling “epic entertainment experiences” and that, while not against the idea, that narrative was not a “value for [them].”
It follows suit that the writing in Blizzard games exists as a tiny hook upon which their gameplay loop hangs. Characters, even in their most story-driven games (such as Warcraft), are often archetypal and given very little time interacting with a larger story. These figures very rarely deal with romance or love, and definitely not sex. The few times that they do, their relationships are left as enduring or dramatic romances between men and women — nothing else.
“Experiences” Over “Story”
Since its debut, it’s clear that Overwatch is the franchise the company is using to build a more progressive, forward-thinking image. Mentions of several queer characters were made in interviews dating back to 2015. Now, with the addition of Soldier: 76, the total number of queer characters is two out of a roster of 29. Making Soldier gay, more so than even Tracer, is harder to reckon with given the community and the company’s propensity to play around with homophobic concepts that directly impact queer men. But both characters suffer from the aforementioned Blizzard ethos of “experiences” over “story.”
Overwatch, despite creating a world for these heroes to inhabit, has this same issue.
At best, it is a narrative frame draped around the edges of the actual gameplay, with a handful of in-game references and semi-canonical character barks. Most of the story has been meted out in world-building mood pieces such as comics, cinematics, and short stories. Those little narrative injections still add very little — characters still exist as barely-filled in sketches of a culture, or a costume, or a personality quirk. Being gay is simply a bullet point that sits next to two characters, with no other development.
Given the lack of queer characters in gaming, we should be happy with an older gay man in Overwatch, despite him being underwritten. However, we should also demand more. Expecting a game with no actual story in its core loop to be deep and complicated is unfair, but comics, short stories and cinematics have long been powerful ways to deepen an audience’s understanding of a world and the characters that inhabit it.
A Lack of Clarity
“Bastet,” like the other pieces of related Overwatch media, is so spare that fans clawed and scraped for this one potential reveal about Soldier’s character. And it’s all contained (implied, really) in one tiny conversation, where Ana and Soldier talk about past failed relationships. Fans went to Twitter to ask Michael Chu, lead writer, to confirm that it was a former lover; Chu did so, and clarified that both identify as gay. Having to elucidate that on social media is not only a failure of storytelling, but says more about how discrete nodes of lore are the only things of value wrung from the fiction created outside the game. These tie-ins are not dramatically interesting or important on their own merits.
The short story also failed on another level; while not absolutely required, stories in media rely on relationships between characters to reveal motivations, growth, and interpersonal friction — not to mention moving the plot. Overwatch’s in-universe clock has barely moved seconds ahead, but it is a space that could and should explore relationships between its many heroes. It’s what turns the gears of the fandom, on social media and in fan art, but the game’s ancillary material is not carrying that weight. What has occurred in cinematics and comics so far is half-hearted, with very few instances of the characters actually talking to one another for extended periods of time. When they do, the dialogue is trite.
And in the actual game… Characters sometimes spout voice lines at each other, but you only hear them vaguely at the beginning of matches. They also run the gamut from insightful to actual jokes that have no bearing on the canon.
Getting an “Emily”
This strangeness of Overwatch’s story is where expressing sexuality becomes the most fraught. If no one speaks to each other, if relationships in the canon are suppressed, how are they supposed to be meaningfully represented?
Both Tracer and Soldier: 76 received romantic interests that sit comfortably outside the scope of the actual game. In fact, fans on social media termed it “Giving Soldier an ‘Emily,” in reference to Tracer’s own coming out in the 2017 holiday comic Reflections. In the comic, she kisses her non-hero girlfriend Emily.
For Soldier, it is a reference to one “Vincent” during his conversation with Ana. Vincent is someone in his far-flung past — an uncomfortable memory and acknowledgement of his intense loyalty to Overwatch. Both instances give the narrative development team an easy out from ever having to push the heroes’ stories forward. They also give players a lot of berth to completely ignore the relationship and the homosexuality.
Soldier: 76, as of this new event, has a single “spray” (widely joked about as the most meaningless class of Overwatch cosmetic) of the faded photograph that features his old boyfriend. That’s it. He is effectively unchanged from before the reveal, except in the minds of fans who understand the signifiers of a voice line here, or a sentimental spray there. (The fact that the spray for Soldier: 76 is locked behind participating in an in-game event is a late capitalist nightmare not lost on one fan.)
The Onus Is on the Fans
Despite angsty romances being a compelling part of other games, and most media for that matter, Blizzard sidestepped those devices in order to not create more content around the game that might involve two of their characters together. Doing so would put more of an onus on players to “see” someone’s sexuality — unless you conveniently provide them a love interest that is either not a part of the cast or conveniently lost to time, in the case of Soldier: 76.
It adds another layer of obfuscation to the actual parameters of someone’s love or sex life. While this may work for someone like Torbjorn, the game’s resident family man, queer people routinely have to “make do” with headcanons. These headcanons have driven much of the fan interest in the game; a cynic might think that not butting into the headcanons of fans makes good business sense. It also doesn’t upset those fans Blizzard previously courted with a more “apolitical” approach that routinely makes gay men the butt of its game’s jokes. But we all know they are still angry Soldier: 76 is a gay man at all.
These are the worlds that Blizzard has built, and the world of Overwatch is no different. While it is great to see more characters that hew close to my identity — especially ones that are such a big part of the game’s marketing (Tracer and Soldier: 76 are de facto mascot characters for the game) — the sad fact is that’s where the representation nearly always ends. The community around Overwatch, like with so many games, is still very hostile to queer folks. And the game does little to show how beautiful and complicated our lives can be. Soldier: 76, like Tracer, like every other hero in the game, deserves a richer fictional life. We as the audience do, too.