Widescreen: Hollywood should ditch Lara Croft for rich, diverse 'Overwatch'
A few weeks ago, I floated the notion that a new "Tomb Raider" movie is unnecessary when the video-game source material is already cinematic in nature. The North American box office receipts suggest audiences agree. Last week brought Steven Spielberg's ode to gamer culture, "Ready Player One," and that fared better -- but that's an adaptation of a novel about video games, not a video game itself. So, yes, we're still waiting for that first great video-game movie. Is such a thing possible?
The answer may lie with a two-year-old global phenomenon that I've just recently become obsessed with.
Released in 2016 for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, "Overwatch" is a team-based, first-person combat game that transcends a genre full of brooding, gun-toting grunts with its cast of 27 distinct characters doing battle in a colorful, stylized world. Instead of fighting terrorists with realistic weaponry a la "Call of Duty," your avatars in "Overwatch" employ freeze rays, sound waves and dragon spirits across maps that include an outlandish theme park and a lunar colony that's home to a talking ape. (His name is Winston, and he's one of the playable characters. He wields a cannon powered by Tesla coils.)
"Overwatch" has a back story -- the title refers to a band of heroes that defended the Earth from a robot uprising -- but the game eschews that for the pure fun of online multiplayer combat. There's no single-player campaign, no adherence to narrative -- just two teams of six heroes doing battle to control an area or escort a payload from one end of a map to another.
The gameplay is addictive. Like, "it's already 4 a.m.?" addictive. You can say that about a lot of games, but "Overwatch" stands out thanks to its characters. One of the game's great pleasures, aside from taking down an entire team with your hero's unique "ultimate" ability, is earning loot boxes that unlock more aspects of the heroes' personalities. These include different outfits, some tailored to holidays or seasons, and new lines of dialogue that can be triggered during combat. These changes don't affect the gameplay mechanics in any way, but they do make for a richer, more fun experience.
So why would "Overwatch" make a great movie? The game's developer, Blizzard Entertainment, has already made the best argument on that front in the form of eight animated shorts that flesh out the game's heroes.
Available online at playoverwatch.com, the most promising of these mini-movies focuses on "Overwatch's" most adorable character, Mei, voiced by Yu Zhang. ("Adorable" is not a word often associated with first-person shooter games, another demonstration of "Overwatch's" unique nature.) In "Rise and Shine," the Chinese climatologist and her colleagues at an Antarctic research station enter cryosleep to wait out a cataclysmic ice storm. When Mei wakes up, the world is a much different place -- and all her colleagues are dead. The 10-minute short is tragic, emotional and even stirring, and it boasts feature-quality animation and music.
"Overwatch's" animated shorts leave you wanting more, and that's what a feature film should give the audience, not something different -- an "Overwatch" movie should not be a live-action retelling of the game's lore, but a larger-scale animated feature with the same voice cast giving life to its fully-formed, diverse personalities. They include a hardened American military hero (Soldier: 76), a Brazilian DJ (Lucio), rival Japanese warriors who are also brothers (Genji and Hanzo), a punky Mexican hacker (Sombra), a teenage South Korean gamer with a giant pink mech suit (D.Va), a Swedish engineer (Brigitte) and the game's most popular character, Tracer, who appears multiple times in "Ready Player One" and is a British lesbian time traveler.
"Overwatch" has appeal across demographics and genres. It has a back story that can be easily explained and used as a launchpad for a two-hour, action-packed feature. It boasts more than 35 million active players, according to Blizzard. It even has its own professional esports league. Mostly, it's a whole lotta fun. I bet we'll see it on the big screen soon.
• Sean Stangland is a Daily Herald multiplatform editor who usually plays "Overwatch" as Pharah, the Egyptian security officer with a jet pack and a rocket launcher. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanStanglandDH.