The latest tank hero to arrive in Blizzard's Overwatch is now live in PTR and while his portrayal of a literal mad scientist was intriguing to many, a large part of the community couldn't help but to zero in on his bare feet. The studio then issued a statement regarding the design choice which sparked a major discussion regarding mental health portrayal in games and other forms of entertainment.
Over on Arstateion, Blizzard artist Qiu Fang responded to inquiries about the bare feet, saying this choice was meant to "sell the asylum look" to the playerbase. This isn't the first time mental health has been used as a marketing ploy in media, though usually there is a justification of a fully-fledged narrative to provide nuance. In this instance, many felt it just wasn't necessary at all.
"Thanks for your feedback," began the artist in his response to ArtStation users. "We decided to keep the feet bare to sell the 'asylum' look a bit more; in many institutions, patients are not allowed to have shoes because they might cause harm with the laces. While Sigma isn't necessarily in danger of that, we felt that having no shoes helped draw that connection. I also had iterations of him with shoes on, and it made him a lot more generic, so, in the end, we decided to leave him barefeet. That's just what the reasoning internally was though, I'm sure we'll be making skins with shoes on him in the future!"
Though the artist seemed well enough in their intentions but the idea to "sell" a look based off of very real mental issues is nothing new but seems irrevocably callous and superficial in this particular instance. With Blizzard being a studio that has seemingly prided itself on inclusion and community awareness, many long-time fans were shocked to see such a basic and misinformed reason behind a very glaring aesthetic.
Want to include talk about mental illness in your art? Cool, there is nothing wrong with that, BUT ask yourself:— Jennifer Scheurle (@Gaohmee) July 24, 2019
- Do I know enough about this to do so and do I have access to information if not?
- Can I do the conversation justice?
- Can my game communicate it adequately?
The OP also mentioned that a shooter maybe isn't the place for this sort of discussion regarding mental illness, but at the end of the day the solid point being made is that context matters. There's no denying that the barefeet was a solid choice in terms of marketing, there were certainly enough people talking about it with the "what are thooooose" memes over on Twitter, but one could argue that there were other ways to garner that same attention without "selling" an asylum "look."