Overwatch gets three new heroes a year. There’s a routine and a rhythm to their release, especially for the heroes who are announced outside of BlizzCon. There’s a tease or two on social media, and then we get to see an animation that introduces us to the character as, well, a character, and then finally there is a kit reveal. Sometimes, those reveals land well, and I am delighted or intrigued at the newest member of the Overwatch cast.
Sigma, Overwatch’s Hero 31, was far more of a gut punch. His origins animation is an ambitious piece of work from the Overwatch team; it involves non-linear storytelling, an abstract depiction of Sigma’s thought process, and a healthy dose of cosmic horror. It verges on the Lovecraftian, or inspired by a plot device like Warhammer 40k’s Warp.
The mental illness stigma
I’ve struggled with mental illness my entire life, including in-patient stints in hospitals. Today, my health is much better managed, and I take a cocktail of medications and see a surfeit of professionals to ensure it stays that way. But when you’ve been in the mental health system your entire life, it’s easy to see how parts of that experience have evolved into common cultural tropes and archetypes.
Padded rooms, abandoned asylums, and straitjackets are all imagery that is liberally used in media. It’s a convenient shorthand for unpredictability, violence, or loss of control that appeals to a primal fear — and unfortunately, that can contribute to the real-life stigma around mental illness. In Sigma’s origin video, he is restrained. Floating equations are liberally used throughout the narrative, reminiscent of A Beautiful Mind’s depiction of a mathematician dealing with schizophrenia.
When I had the chance to sit down with three Overwatch developers, including lead writer Michael Chu, I asked about the animation and whether it was an intentional depiction of mental illness.
“It’s interesting, because I can see how people in the community have identified with Sigma as someone who is struggling or dealing with mental health issues,” Chu said. “But with the idea of the character, we never intended him to be an example of someone who’s going through mental health issues. He’s really supposed to be more focused on this very specific thing that happened to him, which is that his body and his mind were literally ripped apart by the momentary exposure to a black hole.
“With other aspects of his character, he’s certainly supposed to be eccentric. The idea behind that is more just that he sees the world a little differently. We liked this idea that he had this connection to music. So, for example, the way that he thinks about the universe, gravity, and physics, is through this prism of music. From experience talking to physicists and especially theoretical physicists is that other things that aren’t literally just the equation or the mathematics have influenced the way in which they interpret things. And so that’s the direction we went with him.”
Is Sigma a “bad guy”?
According to Blizzard, Sigma is “unaware” he’s “being used as a living weapon.” Instead, he’s largely working off-site, in a lab Talon has granted to him. It’s a similar dynamic as the one Symmetra shares with her Talon-affiliated boss at the unethical Vishkar corporation. Symmetra is also on the autism spectrum, as hinted in a comic and confirmed by game director Jeff Kaplan. It’s an uncomfortable dynamic to work with, and can potentially go wrong.
With Sigma, it’s easy to read the shorthand Blizzard uses as common mental health tropes, even if it wasn’t what was intended during production. If one sees him as unstable and ill, then the dynamic between him and Talon is inherently exploitative.
That’s not unprecedented; Talon kidnapped Widowmaker, brainwashed her until she killed her own husband, and then underwent genetic modification that included her heart slowing down and her skin turning blue. But Widowmaker is so extreme, so disconnected to real life, that it’s hard to imagine seeing yourself in the blue, catsuited, murder-loving, mysterious assassin.
I had a strong reaction to Sigma’s origins animation because I saw myself there. The gurney, the restraints, the artificial lighting, and the confusion were all familiar hallmarks of my experiences in mental health wards. It’s powerful imagery, but one that perhaps unintentionally trades in dangerous shorthand based on the stigma against mental illness.
Best foot forward
After Sigma’s origin animation and gameplay, one of the biggest fan focuses has been Sigma’s feet. Some of that dialogue has been astonished (or a little bit horny) at Sigma’s bare feet and long toes. Other people have been more concerned about what Sigma’s feet might mean for the overall depiction of mental illness in Overwatch.
A Blizzard character artist, Qiu Fang, wrote that Sigma’s bare feet helped “sell the ‘asylum’ look a bit more”, citing the policy of hospitals and institutions removing shoelaces from patients as a way to reduce the risk of self-harm.
When I ask the assembled developers about their thoughts on the fan reaction around Sigma’s release, the topic of feet comes up naturally.
“The feet thing reminds me of a couple of funny stories, because I remember when Jeff [Kaplan] was like ‘He floats. Why does he have to wear shoes?’” said Chu. “It’s something he felt strongly about, and it was like… OK, that makes sense. He floats, he doesn’t need shoes. Jeff was also like ‘It… it’ll be a thing’, which… [laughs].”
“The other thing was from Alyssa [Wong, Overwatch writer],” Chu continued. “She was saying — and I can’t remember how she had heard this story — but when you’re up in space, and there’s no gravity, you don’t use your feet the way you do, and the blisters and calluses and stuff just fall off.”
There’s a moment of cross-talk with Chu and Joshua Noh where the two confirm that Sigma does, in fact, have soft feet and it influences why he floats. Chu credits concept artist Arnold Tsang with his “continued interesting footwear and foot design.”
Equations and conclusions
No Overwatch hero is the responsibility of any one developer at Blizzard. Sigma went through several iterations as he was developed, including a stint where developers thought the character might be Mauga, a Talon character from Baptiste’s past. His kit was eventually prototyped, and the rest was built around that kit and the idea of a gravity-based hero.
The origins animation and Sigma, as a whole, draws on established cultural understandings of mental illness. He’s described as a brilliant, yet eccentric pioneer, who’s ambition led him to undergo “serious psychological damage” that “fractured” his mind. Afterwards, he was “quarantined”, “deemed unsafe”, and “isolated.”
This isn’t a sci-fi, futuristic experience for many people; it’s an occurrence that many people dealing with the mental health system experience. The end result is that it comes across like Blizzard either wasn’t aware or didn’t think to investigate the real-life parallels of Sigma’s story. He doesn’t ruin the game for me, but he’s an uncomfortable splinter in the premise of the game.
Overwatch has been sold as a futuristic, inclusive world that is at best an utopia, and at worst, worth fighting for. When I look at Sigma’s origin animation, I see a depiction of a personal, painful experience I went through. I see a system that fails people that struggle, and sees illness as inherently dangerous.
It’s a lot to grapple with, and it raises questions. How does a game like Overwatch, which builds lore around the core experience of a team-based shooter, depict complex and multifaceted characters with inner conflicts that might match the ones real people experience?
“I think we thought this character would hit people, and they’d be like ‘Whoa! OK, that’s a lot to take in!’” says Chu. “That was very much by design.”
Item Shop also coming to Fortnite’s first mode later
Fortnite’s first-but-less-glamorous mode Save the World will now share the locker full of emotes that players have been using in its more visible Battle Royale incarnation. This becomes effective with the launch of season X, a community coordinator told the game’s subreddit.
That means the emoticons, sprays, toys and, of course, dances available to a player in Battle Royale are available to them in Save the World after season X begins soon. This is part of a larger reconditioning that will bring other improvements to cosmetics and locker functionality, Epic said. The publisher also plans to update the emotes so that they play out, with every Hero type, without clipping or weird positioning.
“Fixing those is an ongoing process,” Epic said. The publisher also plans on adding Emote functionality to the end-of-mission screen (in Save the World) and to call out distances in chat when toys are used.
“We’re focusing on wraps and pickaxes as the next addition to the Locker,” the community coordinator wrote. “When pickaxes arrive in Save the World, we will grant all of the unique pickaxes you earn through progress in Save the World as cosmetic items which you’ll be able to use in Battle Royale as well.”
As work continues, Epic says three principles will guide any forthcoming changes: Cosmetics will be completely optional (meaning they provide no gameplay advantage); no one will lose any cosmetic option once acquired; and they will be as universal as possible.
At some point, Epic will add an Item Shop to Save the World. “At the moment, we’re focused on adding the ability to use cosmetics you already own,” the manager said. “For now, you’ll have to buy cosmetics through the Battle Royale store until the Save the World Item Shop goes live.”
The microtransactions offered in Bethesda Softworks’ Wolfenstein: Youngblood are proving to be controversial with some fans. Much of the anger seems to come from the fact that it has been hard to figure out what items can be purchased with premium currency bought with real money, and which can only be purchased using in-game currency picked up during normal play.
Matt Frary, director of PR at Bethesda Softworks, even tweeted this message earlier today:
Does everyone understand you can’t buy boosters in Youngblood? I keep seeing it pop up.
— Matt Frary (@PR_Flak) July 31, 2019
The answer to that question is no, not everyone understands that you can’t buy boosters in Youngblood. And their confusion isn’t their fault at all. I know this because I was there on the game’s first day of release, trying desperately to figure out what the heck was going on.
So wait … what can you buy?
I was working on a guide that explained exactly what you could or couldn’t buy with premium currency on Friday, July 26, and the task proved to be harder than I had anticipated. The Steam listing for gold bars, Youngblood’s premium currency, stated that you could use them to buy consumables and other items that could give you an advantage in the game.
Here is the original listing from that morning:
Contains gold bars, an in-game currency used to acquire new power armor and weapon skins, gear, pep signals, and consumables to help you and your friends battle through Nazi occupied Paris.
But when I looked at the boosters in the game’s menus, I noticed that they could only be purchased with in-game currency, not gold bars. Here’s an image to show you what I mean:
So the official listing for the premium currency said they could be used to buy boosters, but the PC version of the game contradicted the listing, while the PS4 version of the game not only let you purchase boosters with gold bars, but there were more boosters available to purchase. Here’s another screenshot, taken on the PS4 version that Friday afternoon:
So, at launch, the PlayStation 4 version of Wolfenstein: Youngblood did have an XP booster and a silver coin booster that could be purchased with premium currency as well as in-game currency, and neither of these two boosters existed in the PC version of the game at the time.
I contacted Bethesda to ask about what was going on, and was told that these differences were meant to have been patched out of the game before launch. After receiving that email over the weekend, we’ve done a hard boot of each system and restarted the game to make sure any patches have had a chance to be installed, and checked to make sure everything matched up with what Bethesda said. The ability to use premium currency to buy boosters was removed.
The updated Steam listing for gold bars has also been edited to remove any note about consumables. This is how the text looks at the time of publication:
Contains Gold Bars, an in-game currency used to acquire new power armor and weapon skins to help you and your friends battle through Nazi occupied Paris.
The extra boosters are no longer available on the PS4 version of the game, and premium currency now seems to be limited in use to cosmetic items. This seems to be the way it was always intended, although it’s possible that the conversation about what to include and how to sell each item continued right until the launch date of the game, or the final decisions weren’t patched into the shipping game quickly enough to keep the boosters from being sold for premium currency at launch. There was even some confusion in interviews before the game’s launch about microtransaction plans.
Our guide has since been updated, and as of now is accurate, but trying to figure out what was being sold on which platform, and how, was much more complicated than it needed to be, and the situation was adjusted relatively quickly after the game’s initial launch.
The confusion makes perfect sense now that it’s clear that different listings on different platforms were saying different things, and the selection of boosters changed after players first had a chance to play the game for themselves. Trying to figure out what was happening was confusing as hell.
So it’s not just that players are confused about whether they can buy boosters — they had every reason to be confused. The issue is that the game launched with muddled, sometimes contradictory messages about what was being sold, and for how much, on each platform.
But it’s not fake outrage that’s led to this situation. The real problem lay in a botched launch of the game’s economy combined with poor messaging.
But now, after all that? It’s true that you can’t buy boosters for premium currency, but players could do so, for a brief time, and the situation could always change in the future. The microtransactions in the game are pretty fair, in my opinion, but confusion over what they were is never a good way to calm people down.
The mode is also getting four new champions and its first new origin
Teamfight Tactics, League of Legends’ new auto-battler mode, is going to be a permanent addition to the game, Riot announced on Wednesday morning.
While it was always expected that the mode would become permanent, nothing was official until this announcement. Riot has been attempting to add a new permanent game mode to League for the better part of a year, with modes like last year’s Nexus Blitz getting added briefly without ever living up to the standards Riot expected. Teamfight Tactics is the first of these new modes to earn a permanent spot.
Teamfight Tactics has proven wildly popular since its release last month. The mode has frequently occupied a top spot on Twitch when measured by number of spectators, and even brought new players to League of Legends who wanted to try the new mode, but weren’t interested in the original game itself.
Part of the mode’s continued success has been Riot’s frequent updates, that have included one new champion and a number of balance changes that were meant to keep the game fair and fun. Riot also announced that the next addition to the game would be a brand new origin and four new champions. An origin determines what extra bonuses champions get during the course of the game.
The origin will be called Hextech, and will have the ability to disable items on your enemy’s board. The champions coming to TFT for the first time will be Camille, Jayce, Vi, and Jinx. All four characters will have the Hextech origin.
These changes should arrive on the League of Legends Public Beta Environment on July 31 and are scheduled to be added to live servers on Aug. 14.
Fortnite’s latest season is just around the corner, and Epic has released the story trailer to give players a preview of what’s to come. While we’ll have to wait until the official patch and patch notes on Thursday to know what the season will hold for sure, the trailer certainly seems to suggest that we’ll be going back in time for season X.
The trailer opens with Jonesy running away from the glowing orb that’s been floating above Loot Lake since the monster attack. The orb explodes, and Jonesy is transported into some alternate reality as he floats through what appears to be time.
As he floats through the purple void, a variety of things from Fortnite’s past fly by him. There’s a Tactical SMG, a Skull Trooper outfit, various buildings that no longer exist, and even some things from old holiday events. All of this ends with Jonesy thrown out of the void, directly outside of a completely unscathed Dusty Depot the instant before the comet crashed into it. Jonesy is able to move, but all of time seems to be frozen around him.
One thing we do know is that the three teasers that Epic released before this trailer hinted at various things from seasons 3, 4, and 5, so it’s possible the game could be taking us on a tour of the past, and visiting each of those seasons along the way.