Why Does Everyone Hate Mercy, Part 2: This is Not The End

When I set out to touch on the topic presented to me for my first Patreon subscriber-funded essay, it was vaguely about the community’s hatred towards Mercy, a support character in popular game Overwatch. It seemed like an easy hook, particularly with my experience looking into sexism in gaming: Mercy being a symbol that represented the Overwatch community’s disgruntlement towards women. But as I dug, I realized there was so much more going on that wasn’t just cultural but in fact mechanical. It was spite towards Blizzard being fixated on other players, it was a brokenness inherent in the system that hadn’t quite been addressed yet. I had no idea what was really to come and how it would change the game.

I can’t talk about it right now, but Mercy is getting some very interesting and sweet changes. — Scott Mercer

When news of what Scott Mercer, senior game designer on Overwatch, said about Mercy changes to Seagull (née Brandon Larned, DPS player for Dallas Fuel in Overwatch League, then Twitch streamer) on the Seagull’s stream at Gamescom last summer reached my ears, a little under two months after I published my essay, it felt like a slap in the face. Seeing the streamer gleefully sitting next to the developer as he talked about what was to come with the hero was the first time I can recall feeling uneasy about the direction of the game. Not only was Seagull a large opponent of Mercy, but it felt like suddenly, people outside of the development process could have a reach directly inside of it. It’s not new to me, especially as someone who has watched Blizzard over the years confer with community members and “influencers” of their games be able to give feedback, but this felt different. It felt unfair that someone who was deeply invested in the Overwatch competitive scene could potentially benefit from something he openly despised. A mixture of things I had noted about the community’s dislike of the character suddenly had taken on a new tangibility and threatened to change the direction of the game I enjoyed.

A week later, the public test realm updated with what was the first major change to Mercy in a long time, one that significantly reworked her entire kit, mostly based around her ultimate ability Resurrect. Jeff Kaplan, game director at Overwatch, in the developer video that they put out when the rework was released, specifically talked about how they felt that the changes would make Mercy feel “a lot more engaging to play than standing around the corner, hiding and waiting for that moment to press the ultimate.” This misapprehension of how I believed Mercy to be as a support class and ultimately a hero in the game was shocking. The perception of her being a passive, boring hero felt like a personal indictment of Mercy players, despite it being something the community themselves demanded of us. But now that it was being used as a reason to change the hero entirely, it made me wonder if even the developers “hated” her.

All of changes to how Mercy has worked (in total, four major changes to her, the biggest of which was making Resurrect a regular ability and gave her a new ultimate, Valkyrie) feels like a slow moving car wreck; all because the developers felt that a rework was needed for the hero as she existed prior to August. She was seen as underwhelming in high level competitive play, but now also hard to play around, which was confusing to me. Nothing about the character’s abilities didn’t feel like a seamless part of the existing game’s design goals. But as I’ve mentioned before, the real rub here was always Resurrect, which is why we’ve seen so many tweaks and fixes and reworks, to the point that the ability itself now is unfun and awkward to use. Using Resurrect now comes with a lot of personal risk, with an ever-shrinking amount of viable usage. On top of that, it’s taken something that was a character-defining moment, (like the other 25 heroes’ ultimate abilities) relegated it to drudge work that very few players really appreciate, but always demand, while at the same time complaining about having to play against. The makeup of Resurrect is why so much strife has occurred — Blizzard knows that it has to appeal to both the players who feel it’s unfair, and with the players who feel Mercy is their hero. In turn, she’s become an albatross around the design team’s neck.

Mercy’s ultimate ability (Resurrect) is the culmination of this kind of [collaborative] play — she can fly in and resurrect eliminated teammates. It can be a great way to keep up a team’s momentum or pull off a Hail Mary of a sorts to keep control of a point when the game is tied up. Knowing when to use this is contentious but it is a fulcrum around which some matches can pivot, not for a team kill of your enemies, but keeping your fellow players in the game so they can do that for you. — my original essay on Mercy

These were my feelings about resurrection back before the changes started coming in hot and fast and it’s still the salt in the wound of many players who hate the ability in general. Something I didn’t really think about at the time was truly the depth of the displeasure for Resurrect and why that might be. After publishing my essay, it became pretty evident that this one ability had fomented a ton of frustration, especially when some of the comments began rolling in that hyperfocused on how wrong I was to talk about sexism, rather than how Mercy is too powerful. Every time a nerf comes down the pipeline, the cheers from Overwatch players feels much the same, even if it is Blizzard who set us down this path in the first place. This kind of fervor is in such magnitude, though, that over time, seems to indicate less about concerns with resurrection, and more from how support classes and certain kinds of mechanics work within the confines of a shooter.

Let’s be clear: Overwatch is not a traditional shooter. It’s a team based shooter, yes, but one that specifically focuses on objectives, not kills. While kills are a part of the tactical design, the goal is your team capturing the objective. You either do that or you lose. The design supports this through the kinds of mechanics that so many players who are used to traditional shooters rail against. This is why I believe it isn’t just about Resurrect or Mercy all the time; she is just merely the primary fixation as part of a larger set of grievances that part of the community has. These players simply don’t like to go up against abilities that are designed to let anyone stymie the pure flow of shooting at people despite them being a fundamental part of the game. This does include Resurrect but also could be expanded to talk about D.Va’s Defense Matrix, Sombra’s EMP, or Symmetra’s Teleporter ultimate ability.

It’s these kinds of abilities that has set Overwatch apart from other skill-based team shooters that have come before it, and it seems to have been the design goal from the outset. It mystifies me when I hear an overwhelming number of people effectively rail against Resurrect because it “makes them feel bad” for having their kills be undone. The whole ability is treated as a psychological gulf rather than being accepted as part of the game as it exists and as it was designed. I’ve mentioned this before, but Mercy’s design flies in the face of what a lot of first-person shooter players probably have internalized at this point as being the power fantasy that those games provide for them: it feels good to be skilled enough to mow down other players. It doesn’t feel good to have that particular skill nullified, hence why I think it’s specifically disempowerment. It’s designed that way, to strangle the straight line of “time to kill.” Overwatch has embedded disempowerment deep into itself, because at the heart of the game, the actual required skill of Overwatch competitors is a complicated dance between a team’s tactics to press advantages versus another team’s ability to thwart an oncoming threat. Seeing professional esports players not get this, especially because they come from other types of games that only prize tactical shooting skill feels like the root of the problem in terms of how designers, the community, and the most public faces of the game talk about and feel about Mercy as a hero, if not support in general.

Mercy is the jewel in the crown of Overwatch’s support class design, one that complicates the existing FPS paradigm with elements of MOBAs and MMOs and what healing and defense abilities do for those games’ encounters. Support in Overwatch, much like the other genres it borrows from, is failure management. The game says that it’s not only okay, but necessary to be able to roll back or impede something the other team does, or to extend the timer on engagements between players who are trying their best to kill each other, because it’s in service of a larger objective. To win at Overwatch means to carry your team across the finish line, not rack up eliminations. A brutally efficient team can steamroll and still lose by stepping off the point in the last moments of overtime. In acknowledging that support is part of the game, and that it has different goals and more importantly, different skill sets from those doing the damage, the larger picture Overwatch is trying to paint comes into focus. All of the pieces matter, and all of those pieces need to have their roles aligned in harmony with one another, rather than relegating some of them to a lesser position.

If there was any one thing I failed to do when I wrote my essay seven months ago, it’s that I failed to account for the much larger forces at play and how they all play out in the various attitudes that are floating around the gaming space. Instead of asking why people hate Mercy, I should have been asking why we hate women so much, why we hate support so much, why we cling so hard to singular notions of skill in gaming. If anything, the hate for Mercy is just where all of those things intersect. It’s a singular lense through which the Overwatch community passes through the intense heat of their insecurities. Mercy herself, mechanically and culturally, represents Blizzard’s fumbling with their own desires as designers of a game that is both for fun, casual competitive play and now is moving speedily towards a marketable esports package. Resurrection is the place where these things wage war and so it goes, a symptom of much larger problems with so many people. All of it represents a Gordian knot of the problems we’ve historically created within gaming culture, particularly in shooters, and it feels like we’re all dealing with the aftermath of it now. Does Overwatch want to be a slick esports industry or does it want to retain the audience that fell in love with the game as it stood? Do we hew to the whims of designers and players who have no understanding of the full scope of support?

Mercy has been the measure of all of these demanding pressure cookers and I don’t envy anyone who is desperately trying to answer any of these questions. God knows that I’ve struggled with everything as it relates to my favorite character in Overwatch for seven months now, and I still don’t always have any hard answers. But what I have been able to sort out is why every problem Overwatch players have with the game, even extremely legitimate ones, instantly becomes more heated when we throw Mercy into the mix: one-tricking, broken skill rating mechanics, game balance, toxicity. Blizzard is operating within the same paradigms that we as gamers either struggle against or embed so deeply within ourselves that we take them on as our own principles. We see the hero as where we want to hang our anger when really we should be angry at ourselves and our peers. We should be confronting the question of why gamers see skill as a narrow set of verbs, why we don’t spend enough time in competitive games embracing alternative methods of play, why we have such entrenched gatekeeping, why notions of fairness is dominated by a small group of people who proudly move the goalposts. To ask why we hate Mercy, we must first ask ourselves why we hate ourselves so much that we don’t allow ourselves something different, something better, and try so hard to shoot it out of the sky before its had a chance to fly.

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Editing for this essay was courtesy of Tyler Colp.