With the release of Overwatch’s holiday comic, gamers saw the game’s first openly gay character: Tracer. Many of us here at Kotaku, an Overwatch fansite, took time to sit down and reflect on how Blizzard has treated the topic of diversity in our favorite team based shooter.
Update—5:40 p.m.: Shortly after publication, Blizzard sent Kotaku the following statement about Tracer. Here’s their thoughts about Tracer’s sexuality:
As in real life, having variety in our characters and their identities and backgrounds helps create a richer and deeper overall fictional universe. From the beginning, we’ve wanted the universe of Overwatch to feel welcoming and inclusive, and to reflect the diversity of our players around the world. As with any aspect of our characters’ backgrounds, their sexuality is just one part of what makes our heroes who they are. From the very beginning of our work on Tracer’s story, it just felt right to make this an aspect of her character.
Here are our own thoughts about Tracer’s queerness and how Overwatch approaches diversity:
Heather Alexandra: I feel like the question of diversity in Overwatch is something we’ve wanted to talk about for some time. We’ve slowly gotten more and more details about these characters. It’s really neat! But I know we all have different thoughts about how Blizzard has handled this. For good and ill.
For me, I love how anyone can be a hero in the world of Overwatch. But even with all these heroes, we sometimes stumble in portraying them. In your mind, what works and what falls short?
Cecilia D’Anastasio: Why don’t we start with the news item?
Heather: We could! There’s big news today. The latest comic gave us a look at Tracer’s home life with her live in partner Emily. Which gives us Overwatch’s first explicitly queer character.
Cecilia: How long did Blizzard tease a queer character? For several months at least...
Heather: I think they’ve been telling us about gay characters since 2015.
Nathan Grayson: They’ve hinted at this specific reveal for months.
Cecilia: That article reads, “They wanted to find a way for it to be revealed naturally and make it part of the unfolding story.”
I feel that the comic did that. Tracer buys her partner a scarf. Her partner likes it. They kiss. The comic moves on. I think it was handled quite well, although the idea of Blizzard announcing a queer character feels sort of…. gimmicky.
Gita Jackson: I was definitely concerned that revealing a queer character would come off as a gimmick, and I’m very pleased at how they pulled this off. This doesn’t feel tokenized, and buying a gift for your partner has a natural place in a comic about the holidays.
Nathan: Right. I think the gimmicky part is teasing it for so long. And then being like “It’s coming soon!”
Riley MacLeod: I think they do it pretty well. I mean, I could be super crass and poke at the panel layout: we cut to Tracer talking to someone out of frame and then a whole frame of ‘look, it’s another woman’ as a definite narrative beat, and then we build to a kiss and cut away again, closing out the brief arc as a story about Tracer being gay.
There’s a definitely a ‘surprise, gay!’ to that presentation, but I don’t know if it’s any different than we’d see in any other relationship arc that isn’t established yet. And I like that the next panels are a bunch of different sorts of families.
Heather: I think having something explicit was necessary. Up until now, Blizzard seemed content to leave the queerness of character up to the fans and capitalizing on the ambiguity they’d created. Having something definite gives queer players a proper point of contact. It also means they didn’t pass on their promise.
Gita: Comparing it to other comics where a character is revealed to have a significant other where one was not already present, I think it could be a lot worse. But I do agree that there’s an element of, “surprise, gay!” here.
On the other hand, the two of them aren’t having a conversation about Tori Amos while polishing their strap-ons, which was another legitimate fear of mine. I was super afraid that the “surprise, gay!” element would be stronger and also feel more cliched.
Heather: A concern of mine with this is that it feels removed from the game itself. Symmetra’s comic states that she is autistic. This shows us Tracer’s love life. But in spite of that, it feels largely secondary to the world of the game.
Riley: Though that’s one of Overwatch’s core elements, right, the characterization happening largely outside the gameplay? Which I think is what’s let a lot of the fandom thrive.
Gita: Yeah, Riley. There’s a portion of the fandom that really only interacts with Overwatch through the fandom and not the games themselves. Which is pretty cool! I mean, because Overwatch does all its characterization in this very bare bones it makes it kind of perfect for a fandom to spring up around it.
Nathan: Even in the secondary world of Overwatch comics, they’ve yet to really explore these characteristics they’re ascribing to heroes. They just sort of apply them and set away.
Cecilia: I like that. I think it’s good that you can let lore matter as much or as little as you want.
For some people, it will mean a lot that Tracer dates a woman. For some, it’s like, okay, I really like fucking up backlines, so I’ll pick Tracer. Boom. Whatever.
Heather: For myself, I go the other way. Queerness or other traits are integral parts of people’s character and being. The idea that we could separate them so easily troubles me, to be honest.
Gita: The characterization of most of the heroes is done in this broad strokes way, so people who write fanfiction or draw fan art have as much room as possible to work with.
Nathan: Absolutely. I do think, though, that canon gives fandom a path to follow and Blizzard speaks through their actions with it. While I mostly like the barebones approach they’ve taken, I don’t think there’s anything stopping them from doing a less surface level take on a character.
Gita: This can be cool.
Cecilia: But then how do you toe the line between sensationalizing it and not saying anything about it at all?
Riley: I mean, that’s one of the really hard things about writing nuanced queer characters, or ‘diverse’ characters of any type. How to not be reductive or dismissive.
Gita: I think, Cecilia, the problem arises when you take a step back and see what, if at all, Blizzard has done in terms of queer characterization. And it’s just this: Tracer kissed a woman. The rest of it is on the backs of the fans, which doesn’t make me feel awesome.