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Off the Clock: Robots, Wrestlers, and Other Narrative Devices

This weekend I played Overwatch and I watched Survivor Series. Both have cartoonish violence and over the top characters, but only one of them has good writing.

Welcome to Off the Clock, my weekly column about the stuff I've been doing while out of the office. This weekend, I spent my free time...

...Running Up Walls, Blowing Up Mechs, and Looking At Cute Emotes

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After months of being pretty much unfazed by Blizzard's Overwatch rollout, the game's showing at BlizzCon a few weeks ago finally got my attention. Since then, I've been watching lots of gameplay footage (including our own Unfinished) and trying to figure out what it is that attracts me to the game. After all, it's not like I have a ton of expertise or love for either class-based first-person shooters or Blizzard games. This weekend I finally got to dig into the game for a few hours, and while my experience helped me understand what attracts me to Overwatch, it also made me wonder if I'll actually be able to enjoy the final product when it finally releases in 2016.

More than its competitors--even more than Team Fortress 2--Overwatch prioritizes character, and not only in the basic visual design of its characters (though those are all striking and memorable, too). Each character's personality extends to their special attacks, movement tricks, and other abilities, all of which are splashy and vibrant. Not only does this allow for the recognizability necessary for tactical play, but it also means that major sequences of events play out with the punch of little, didactic stories.

For example: One of my favorite characters is Bastion, a robot who can transform into different modes as the situation requires, chirping happily all the while. At a crucial point in one match, another team member used an ability that revealed an incoming group of enemy players, so I switched into my sentry mode, turning into a shielded turret so that I could tear apart the other team as they streamed through a chokepoint. And then I saw the grappling hook speed above my head, and then Widowmaker zipping towards me, and then I realized that my sentry mode locked me to a 180 degree rotation, and then I was dead. It was like a little informational comic, like something that might get packed in with commercially sold Bastion units. "Remember, your turret can't actually watch its own back!" Lesson learned.

Overwatch uses bright, cartoonish art to communicate a lot of tactical information.
Overwatch uses bright, cartoonish art to communicate a lot of tactical information.

It helps that the world Overwatch matches play out in has just as much personality as the game's characters. My favorite arena starts one team in an arcade filled with machines running mock-sequels to Blizzard games, but each level that I played over the weekend beta was filled with little details blossoming in its corners and corridors. It's indicative of Overwatch's particular heritage: It emerged from the remains of Titan, Blizzard's canceled followup to World of Warcraft. While other shooters only work to establish the barest justification for a death match to pop off, Overwatch feels like a tiny part of a much larger, well considered setting. I'm not saying every shooter needs to do this--Team Fortress 2 leans so far in the other direction as to be charming--but it really helps to make me care about the world.

But there's a weird tension between the game's competitive design--which includes multi-character power combos and MOBA style pairings--and its world building. Overwatch is warm in a way that many competitive games aren't: The characters--even the grotesque ones--are endearing. Even when they're bad ass, they rarely feel like they're trying to be bad ass. It all makes me want to inhabit the world of Overwatch, but right now the only way I can do that is by repeating the same few, uninspired match types over and over. Maybe the full release will switch that up, but even then, I'm worried that I won't be able to dedicate the time I need to keep up with the game's skill curve--and I'm curious to see if the friendly atmosphere will shine through the usual muck of online competitive play. After Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm, it's clear that Blizzard knows that this is something they need to anticipate, but I don't see the same sorts of safeguards and design decisions in Overwatch that those games had.

...Watching Large Men Fail To Capture My Imagination

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I also put aside the time this weekend to watch WWE's Survivor Series--I know many of you don't like wrestling so I'll be brief: I wish I hadn't put that time aside.

Oh, fine, I'll say a little more. On Twitter I wrote that it was a condensed exhibition of every weakness the WWE currently: A few key injuries and absences (especially that of chief bad guy and former champion Seth Rollins) make what is actually a pretty talented roster seem weaker than it actually is; the company's writers can't set up stakes that anyone cares about or buys into; cross-generational competition is hamstrung by the need to respect established legends; the audience is all a little too knowledgeable to care about anything. But what is more frustrating than all of this is that Survivor Series actually put some of the company's greatest strengths on display, but these weren't enough to save the show. There were fantastic performers in the ring basically all night, but Survivor Series never felt cohesive or vital. With rare exception, solid in-ring performance doesn't make up for months of poor storytelling.

I'm pretty sure that his new pompadour officially means that Xavier Woods is an Overwatch character.
I'm pretty sure that his new pompadour officially means that Xavier Woods is an Overwatch character.

At the end of the night, a resigned looking HHH--who holds both a fictional and real corporate role in the WWE--shook the hand of the new world champion, the "Celtic Warrior" Sheamus. HHH's face communicated that he was settling: He'd lost Seth Rollins to injury, so yeah, sure, Sheamus would have to do. It fit with the HHH character--clever, observant, opportunistic. But it hit a little too close too home: WWE was also settling. It's easy to imagine that the behind the scenes, the company's staff left that night feeling like they put on the best show they could've put together given the circumstances, only to face the fact that their best simply wasn't good enough. No audience was going to leave that show happy. The WWE made sure of that months and months ago.

I also spent some time...

Reading: Speaking of not making audiences happy, Brendan Keogh's "Videogames Without Players" and Mattie Brice's "Kill The Player" both think about what games might look like without our focus on the player's pleasure--and what that focus has lead to in design and aesthetics. Elsewhere, Gita Jackson pays attention to something that many players have ignored: Furniture.

Listening to: Times New Viking's "No Room to Live" and Vince Staples' "Summertime" (No, but really, how the hell did I sleep so hard on Summertime 06????)

After the success of last week's comment's section, I want to turn asking y'all a question into a recurring thing. So, in the spirt of Survivor Series:

Can you think of a game that you don't like despite being able to recognize that its parts are totally solid? Or, said differently: What's a game that you don't like even though on paper you should totally love it?