To my teacher
Anatoliy Zapevalov

Overwatch’s visual design is ruled by cultural diversity, starting from small things like voice lines, through themed hero skins and ending with entire maps dedicated to a particular culture. And while some people somehow find some things offensive, the overwhelming majority of the community highly appreciates all the references to their native culture.

That being said, when it comes to design, in many instances Blizzard goes for stereotypes rather than actual referential material. And while many stereotypes are, indeed, heavily based on real-life culture, some of them may be quite irritating in a native’s eye, especially when one can see how wrong they are just by comparing them with a view out of one’s window.

The purpose of this article is not to blame Blizzard for poor design decisions — they are actually quite understandable if one considers that making scenery recognisable to a wider audience is often more important than making it absolutely authentic. Rather than that, I will use Overwatch as a convenient starting point for showing what things actually look like in Russia.

So, without further ado, let’s walk through Volskaya Industries and see whether there are vodka-drinking bears in the streets of Moscow or not (spoilers: there aren’t, life in winter Moscow would be too interesting with them).

 

General Design

Overwatch.wikia.com claims that Volskaya Industries is located in St. Petersburg, and though it does not give us any source reference, I tend to agree with this assumption — Petersburg is just too distinct from any other Russian city, with all the prevalence of Baroque and Neoclassical buildings along the banks of multitude of channels, which is why the city is often referred to as “Venice of the North” (alongside with other similar northern-European cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen).


Griboyedov Canal near Nevsky Prospect, photograph by Evgeny Gerashchenko, used under CC-BY-SA-3.0 license.

Though one particular building is clearly out of place here — a blatant copypasta of Grand Kremlin Palace! Also, note the distinct lack of “swallowtail”-style merlons (a.k.a. teeth-like thingies on fortifications for troops to hide behind) on the Overwatch version of “Kremlin” wall. To some of you they might seem familiar, as their design originates from Italy — the best source of architects at the time of construction of the last iteration of the Kremlin (in fact, most of top-level architecture in late medieval/early renaissance Russia was built under supervision of Italians, including all of the Kremlin cathedrals).


Grand Kremlin Palace, Moscow, photograph by Ed Yourdon, used under CC-BY-SA-2.0 license.

Now you might ask, who in their right mind builds an enormous factory producing giant stompy robots right in the historical center of wannabe St. Petersburg? Well, Peter the Great does. Not only is the Admiralty Shipyard the oldest factory in St. Petersburg, it is also operational to this very day, producing military submarines, which is actually not that far from big stompy robots. And just as its Overwatch counterpart, it is located right in the heart of the city!

panorama by Yandex maps.

The Grand Offender

One of the more enduring stereotypes about Russia is that every other building should have at least one huge gilded dome on top of it. Which is complete nonsense, as those onion-shaped cupolas are exclusive to religious architecture, and while the historical center of Moscow is, indeed, filled with such buildings ranging from small churches to grand cathedrals, even there they are far from “one per city block”, as it is so often depicted. But we’ll give Blizzard benefit of the doubt here, as in a lot of cases, clerical buildings in Russian towns tended to cluster in one place. The problem is not with depicting a lot of churches on Volskaya Industries, the actual problem is with how they are depicted.

Let’s take A.P. Chekhov Library a.k.a. attackers spawn A as an example, for all the churches in the background simply follow its style. (By the way, whether in present day Russia a library in cathedral building would surely be a strange phenomenon to say the least, the mere 30 years ago such things would be quite common, as following several strong anti-clerical Bolshevik campaigns after the October Revolution, many cathedrals were repurposed as civil and industrial buildings, and many more outright demolished. And though I cannot quite remember any instances of a former church hosting a library, the famous Saint Isaac’s Cathedral of St. Petersburg for a long time was used as the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism.)

Proudly it stands, made of red brick, with tall round towers topped with onion-shaped domes, one of which has a very distinct pattern in it. Thre surely are lots of such cathedrals everywhere, like famous Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed.So typically Russian, isn’t it?

Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, Red square, Moscow, photograph by Ludvig14, used under CC-BY-SA-3.0 license.

Except it’s not. It’s really funny how the first piece of architecture everyone envisions when they think of Moscow is actually the most unique design in all Russian religious architecture. It has no analogues, in preceding, contemporary, or later architecture of Muscovy and Byzantine cultural tradition in general1. The nearest thing at least partially similar to it is St. Petersburg’s Church of the Savior on Blood, but even in that case, the similarity is only in exterior decoration, not in the form itself. In fact, Vasily the Blessed is not one, but nine separate chapels built on common foundation, whereas the overwhelming majority of Orthodox churches have a distinct cubic main volume.

The Russian Orthodox churches are distinguished by their verticality, bright colours (usually white) and multiple domes which provide a striking contrast with the flat Russian landscape. The main volume is often square or (more rarely) rectangular in plan. The roof is usually supported with four, six or much rarely two or no pillars and is topped with domes. The number of domes has symbolical importance: one symbolises the single God; three represent the Trinity, five represent Christ and his four evangelists and relatively rare thirteen represent Christ and twelve apostles. In either case, the arrangement of cupolas is always symmetrical. The ornamentation combines native carpentry, oriental, Italian Renaissance, and German Gothic motifs.

The dominant problem of late medieval Russian architecture was the placement of the belfry. An early solution to the problem was to put the belfry above the main body of the church. Detached belfries with tent roofs are exceedingly common in the 17th century; they are often joined to the church by a gallery or a low elongated narthex.

Now, back to our Volskaya library. Whereas it has that distinct cubic main volume topped with a large single dome, the towers on the sides are completely out of place. If they are to represent belfry, then why there are 3 of them? If multiple-cupola design is an inspiration, then why are they topping distinct towers, why are they placed with disregard to summitry and why there are three of them? Another point of contention would be the choice of colour. While there is a number of purely red churches (Church of the Resurrection, Kostroma), for the most part, Orthodox architecture tends to either use white for the whole building (Church of the Intercession on the Nerl) or at least incorporate it as a strong accent (Kazan Cathedral of Moscow). Most people don’t know, but before the October Revolution, the Moscow Kremlin was in fact painted white too.

P. Vereshchagin. Moscow Kremlin View. 1879

Even less logic can be observed when looking at library’s interior. Classical Russian Orthodox architecture is based on Byzantine Cross-in-square church type. As such, most of the interiors would be dominated by four relatively thick pillars which form archways supporting the main dome. The walls are usually highly decorated with frescos or mosaics.

Church of the Savior on Blood interior, photograph by  jimmyweee, used under CC-BY 2.0 license

And while it would be silly to expect such elaborate decorations to remain in a library, at least Blizzard could reproduce the general layout, right? But instead, we have a typical Renaissance interior more fitting to modernised version of Basilica of San Lorenzo!

All in all, from the culturological point of view, A.P. Chekhov Library is a total mess.

Time, Forward!

But as soon as we exit the aforementioned library we find ourselves in a totally different word. Whereas the background of Volskaya draws heavily from Imperial Russia, the playable portion of the map depicts a factory and is unmistakably inspired by Soviet Era.

Right by the doors of the spawn point we come to what appears to be a monument to factory workers who participated/were killed in the First Omnic Crisis. Indeed, such memorials dedicated to those workers who served in the Red Army during WW2 were extremely common in the Soviet Union.

Memorial board to WW2 veterans of N.D. Zelinsky Institute of Organic Chemistry

One of the dominant features of control point A is a large inspirational mural depicting Zarya. Once again, such murals are a common artistic technique for Socialist Realism architecture.

Standard soviet mosaic, photograph by Konstantin Merenkov, used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license

Other distinctly Soviet features on Volskaya are the various propaganda posters. Unlike Great Britain, in Russia Omnics are not welcomed. Torbjörn would be pleased!

That being said, the posters themselves are actually not very creative. Blizzard could certainly do a better job with parodying some classic Soviet posters. Like this Nazi spy just begs to be replaced by Bastion!

L. Torich, “Be vigilant! Expose the enemy behind any mask.”, 1941

Finally, a cute little detail. Though I am not sure whether this is a deliberate reference or not, those cute little hoover cars that can be found all over Volskaya definitely resemble popular ZAZ-966/968 “Zaporozhets” (which itself draws heavily from NSU Prinz 4).

Vladimir Putin with his 1972 Zaporozhets, photograph by kremlin.ru, used under CC BY 4.0 license

All in all, the “Soviet” part of Volskaya is much more accurate than its “Imperial” part.

 

Dishonorable mention

This little stupid thing has nothing to do with design. I also don’t think that was meant to symbolise anything at all. It’s probably just a silly error on Blizzard’s side, but still…

How incompetent must “Russian Defense Forces” be to allow Omnic vs Human gunfight in the center of Moscow (within plain view of President’s residence) and, more importantly, how even more insufferably incompetent must be the journalists who report it as “Omnic strikes in Siberia“? =D

Conclusion

To create a digital world with so much cultural diversity as we see in Overwatch is a great challenge. Volskaya Industries is not without its flaws, but to expect absolute realism would be foolish. And is it even necessary, as most gamers will not notice these small cultural inconsistencies? What Volskaya Industries does absolutely right is capturing the feel of an old, constantly modernised Russian factory, the mood of industrial districts of Venice of the North. Volskaya Industries feels distinctly Russian, but it does so without becoming a parody of itself like so many other “Russian” locations with all that vulgar trope of “Vodka, Matryoshka and Balalaika”.

But even that is not actually important! Some people find those little (and somewhat insignificant) errors in the depiction of their culture outrageously offensive. To me, they are a convenient reason to talk about my culture, to educate people. Without Volskaya Industries, I would have never talked with gamers about the beauty of Russian architecture. Without Overwatch, many would not discover those wonders of foreign cultures. And for that, I can only be grateful.

 

P.S. Blizzard should still fix that silly news report, though!

 

Reference
1. Russian architecture and the West by D.S. Shvidkovsky, Yale University Press, 2007, p. 126

 

froGGod
Variety Gamer, Scale Modeller and Lead Engineer in N.D. Zelinsky Institute of Organic Chemistry