I’ve played 31 hours of Overwatch to date. Now that pales in comparison to the 322 I’ve clocked on Team Fortress 2 [often shortened to TF2], but the former has only been out since late May and I’ve had the latter for several years now. There’s time to even the scales, is all I’m saying.
Now those 31 hours may not communicate this this very well, but I am all about this game. As a self-proclaimed Blizzard [the studio behind the game] fanboy who has spent actual cash money on every one of their recent releases save for World of Warcraft I’ll admit that I was already primed for it, but where Diablo III: Reaper of Souls languishes half-finished I don’t see any excitement drop-off in sight for Overwatch.
Counting herself as a fellow member of the game’s 10 million or so players, Polygon contributor Susana Polo’s interest stemmed from a different place. To wit, the presence of so many playable female characters was a huge draw for her in spite of not being “a big shooter fan”. While as a whole the its roster is startlingly diverse [it ostensibly only has four Harveys; see here for an explanation of the terminology] it’s Polo’s perspective, primarily her comparison between Overwatch and Team Fortress 2, that I want to focus on.
Apples Blues and Oranges
Her article has its foundations in a conversation she had with a former co-worker, namely regarding the fact that “It’s shitty that Team Fortress doesn’t allow you to play as a woman”. As another class-based shooter with a focus on objectives over kills juxtaposing the two only makes sense.
Team Fortress 2 was released by Valve in 2007. The game offers a total of nine different classes to choose from, most of them White, all of them male [as far as we know]. While there has been much speculation about the Pyro [who is fully masked] being a woman there has been no confirmation from developers at this point.
Overwatch has 21 heroes, with Blizzard already teasing another on the way. Of these characters eight of them are female. While not as close to 50% as the actual number of women in the world, it should be noted that of other 13 two are Omnics [robots] and another is a hyperintelligent gorilla.
Now what we could do is chalk up the creative decisions made by the studios as simply matching the current climate surrounding consumer expectations. While female gamers have always existed it’s within recent years that they’ve become more vocal and made their presence more known, something which the industry appears to have tuned in to.
Given that TF2 was created nearly a decade ago maybe we can cut Valve a little bit of slack for merely keeping up with the times, such as they were. Having made that decision let’s instead change gears and ask a different question: “Why hasn’t Valve added female skins to TF2 in the nine years since it was released?”
Et Tu, TF2?
Susana Polo’s unnamed former coworker had a rebuttal for every one of her points regarding female skins in TF2. She brought up that “half the cosplayers [she saw were] women doing genderbent versions of the classes” as well as “half the fan art, too.” Clearly there was a segment of female gamers who had played the game and connected to it.
In her op-ed she shares his response: “That’s so much development work“. The article she links those words to focuses on Alex Amancio’s, creative director of Assassin’s Creed Unity, assertion that the addition of female characters would have required double the work, as well as what other industry professionals had to say in refuting that. I covered the entire thing myself in a post titled “The Real Reason Assassin’s Creed Unity Has No Female Playable Characters”.
In addition to, as game devs themselves have revealed, it not being that much more work there’s a key advantage that Valve has over Ubisoft, the studio behind the Assassin’s Creed games.
The Team Fortress 2 Workshop: a place where anyone can “Create and submit new items (such as hats, weapons, badges, boots, and more) for consideration to be incorporated into the actual game.”
Literal hundreds of items have been added to TF2 that were designed and modelled by people who were not Valve employees. The studio has a long and storied history of working with the community, and the creativity that’s been injected into the game as a result has been a true blessing to them. Seeing as how the community is responsible for everything from turbans to ray guns it should be of no surprise that some individuals among them also tried their hand at creating female skins as well.
kinggambit, a user on GAMEBANANA, a game modding community, compiled a number of female TF2 skins in a single list, taking care to maintain a level of quality by ensuring that every one included was “well polished, stayed true to the art direction and hitboxes, and stayed respectable to females (a.k.a. not scantily dressed with ridiculous body proportions)”. The second criterion is particularly important since hitboxes [the invisible shape around your character that receives damage] would need to be identical in order for gameplay to remain the same.
I could keep digging for more examples, but the evidence provided should be more than enough. Were female skins for TF2 something that Valve was interested in adding not only do they have a community to do the work for them, much of it has already been done.
That being said, could their reason have less to do with the studio’s creative vision for the game and more to do with actual differences in gameplay between Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch?
The Sound [and the Look] of Violence
Earlier I described the two games as both being “class-based [shooters] with a focus on objectives over kills”. In other words they differ from games like Halo and Gears of War, which often concentrate on deathmatches in which the first individual or team to a certain number of kills wins. For Overwatch and TF2, however, the goal of each game is to capture a control point or move a payload.
The objectives themselves are not violent, but in order to accomplish them [with few to no exceptions] violence must be enacted. With that in mind it should be stated that Valve’s shooter is significantly more violent than Blizzard’s.
While arguably even more cartoony [both games use an animated aesthetic not often associated with the genre], TF2‘s deaths are brutal and visceral. Depending on how they’re killed characters can be “gibbed”-
-and backstabs are an essential part of the game. The latter in particular not only produce the kind of sound you might expect from sliding a switchblade into someone’s body, they also elicit a scream of pain from your victim.
I’ll admit that I title these sections to be as funny as possible, but sound design is a big part of what sets the two games apart. While heroes will scream when killed in Overwatch, it’s never with the same amount of volume or drama. That isn’t to say that this is especially realistic in TF2, only that it adds to how violent your actions are perceived. In spite of being a game where you can slice people with swords, blow them up with grenades, and, yes, shoot them in the head, Overwatch somehow manages to keep from making it feel “too real”. At least for the most part.
In addition to what’s already been mentioned [and that you can maybe make out above], the blood spatter seen when damaged is minimal to the point where, in certain threads that I perused, people were unsure that it even existed. The violence feels most uncomfortable for me, personally, when you are attacking some of the female characters.
Notable among their number is D.Va, the nom de guerre of 19-year-old ex-pro-gamer Hana Song. While normally she wages war from within a robotic exosuit she also has the ability to escape from it before it falls apart. At that point she takes her pilot form, as seen on the right. Even now, almost three dozen hours of Overwatch behind me, I still find it a little bit unsettling trying to mercilessly gun down a diminutive Korean woman as she dances back and forth, firing back at me with her pistol.
There’s a possibility that it’s this very feeling that Valve and the creators of TF2 were trying to avoid when developing the game, and what kept them from changing course as time went on. To introduce one final question, however, is violence against women in video games really anything new?
You Have to Hit Like A Girl [Instead of Just Being Hit Like One]
To elaborate on that heading title a bit, a distinction needs to be made regarding violence and women in video games. I’m not referring to any game in which you’re able to hurt or attack women. The games I want to touch on are the ones in which female characters exist on the same level playing field as the player themselves.
A bad example would be Grand Theft Auto III, in which not only could you solicit the services of prostitutes, but you could also kill them and take your money back. This was not at all an uncommon occurrence for players, and I should know because I was 13 once [side note: Googling was less of a thing, so we tried and failed]. It should also be noted that these NPCs [non-player characters] were not aggressive towards the player.
A good example would be Skyrim, in which you will encounter both female allies and assailants with regularity. It’s possible to play the game without ever harming any women, but it would be extremely difficult as high level female bandits and mages appear along the way to impede your progress [see: kill you without giving it a second thought].
That doesn’t even touch on fighting games like Street Fighter, a game franchise that has featured Chun-Li kicking people in the face for 25 years now. In fact you would be hard-pressed to find a fighting game that didn’t feature a fair number of the fairer sex, ranging from the bloodless Tekken series to the gruesome fatalities of Mortal Kombat.
Given the current conversation surrounding gun violence, specifically in the United States, it’s probably good to return our focus to the shooter genre as this could be seen as one of the more “realistic” depictions of violence against women [fighting games notwithstanding]. On that note, even the aforementioned deathmatch-focused Halo and Gears of War games have the option of playing as women, albeit decked out in heavy body armour-
-a point I feel like it might help offset those feelings of discomfort I mentioned earlier [it’s likely why I’m more okay taking out Pharah, who is likewise bedecked in a heavy combat suit].
Setting aside the sci-fi trappings of all four shooters mentioned thus far, DICE’s Battlefield series has long set its games during actual historical wars. Their latest installment, Battlefield 1, is being released this October and came very, very close to featuring playable female characters in multiplayer [the single-player campaign will feature at least one]. The reason that Amanda Coget gave as a former coder for the studio was:
In other words, the primary factor for not springing for female playable characters in multiplayer had nothing to do with avoiding the portrayal of violence against women and everything do with believability. Keep in mind that there were in fact female combatants in World War I.
Considering that one of the industry’s grittier, more realistic shooter franchises came so close to featuring what the goofier TF2 never has may be the greatest strike against Valve, and that’s without taking into account all of the other games created before and since then.
At the end of the day Overwatch is more than just the shiny new game that actual millions of us have been pouring our off time into, it’s also consciously and unabashedly more diverse when compared to Team Fortress 2. As to why the latter hasn’t made any of the very effortless changes in that regard the answer appears the same one as Ubisoft’s with Assassin’s Creed Unity: they just don’t want to.