Overwatch's new hero Ana Amari is a badarse support sniper who can shoot you with bullets to heal you or just shoot you to kill you. In this video, we'll take a closer look at her mechanics and what they communicate. What does Ana tell us about Overwatch? What does she tell us about AAA game design? We'll find out in this critical look. Transcript:
Overwatch released a new hero recently: The support sniper Ana Amari. She's a blast to use and a great addition to the game. Today, we're going to take a closer look at Ana and what is being communicated through her play style. This is not a "how to play Ana" guide or a big technical run down of her mechanics, although I will cover some of those things. This is a chance to examine what Ana tells us about Overwatch and, to some extent, AAA design priorities. With that in mind, let's get started and simply take about who Ana is and what she can do.
Ana Amari is a former member of Overwatch, a group of super awesome soldiers that helped fight off a robot uprising. She was second in command and a great sniper. She's also the mother of another character: Pharah. On paper alone, she's a unique presence in games; above the average age range for player characters, a woman, a mother and of a nationality that is not typical for AAA games. She's Egyptian. To stress these things, Ana's gameplay and mechanics are forged explicitly to mesh many of these qualities into a play language that reinforces these images. In particular, this is done by making her a healing character. Let's talk about what Ana actually does for a moment.
Ana's primary weapon is a sniper rifle that can heal teammates or damage enemies. This gives the potential to heal from far away, if she's in a good position. Her damage output is not as high as other sniper characters Widowmaker and Hanzo, as she gets no bonuses for headshots. In addition to this, Ana has a grenade that can do area of effect healing or damage enemies while also temporarily hindering their ability to heal. Her other ability is a sleep dart, which is handy for escaping enemies or shutting down particularly dangerous foes. Her ultimate ability power boosts a teammate for eight seconds.
What does this tell me about Ana? Well, it tells me that she is protective. It covers the motherhood angle nicely by giving her a primary mode of interaction that is largely about healing and helping others while also allowing her to focus on threats and take them out if needed. The fact that her healing method makes a good partner to Pharah is also a plus, reinforcing the mother/daughter relationship within gameplay itself. The fact that she cannot do burst damage the same way as Hanzo or Widowmaker speaks to her age; applying a damage over time effect might as well be one of the closest ways games have to representing age or ageing outside of literal clocks and timers. It's pretty great stuff and shows that Blizzard gave a lot of thought to her design.
But Ana becomes a lot trickier when we think a bit broader. It's not a perfect means to analyse games but often, designers ask about verbs. What are the verbs of a game? What are the things that you can and cannot do to express yourself in a space? If tempted, we might look at Ana and think poetically. What do I do with Ana? I heal. I protect. I support. All of this is true but I also need to look at the literal actions? What do I do as Ana? I shoot, I toss grenades. This is the big paradox with Ana: I heal with my gun.
Before we proceed further, let me note that this is fine. Ana's an amazingly cool character with a fun playstyle. Still, we run into a strange scenario where my verbs "heal" and "nurture" overlap with "shoot". This, in turn, begins to tell me about the value system of Overwatch and possibly even the value system of games. Again, let me stress: I am not suggesting that Ana needs to only run around giving people hugs and candy. I'm playing a shooting game; I expect my character to have a gun. Yet, the fact that Ana's overall accessibility comes from the fact that her play language does tell me that the overall spread of verbs that games deal with is limited.
Compare Ana to other healing characters for a moment. Mercy uses an odd healing staff, Zenyatta buffs and debuffs characters through mystical orbs and Lucio literally heals through the power of music. So when the time came to add a new healer, Blizzard had to consider how this healer would heal and if this healing method would be easily understood. Thus far, healing had been a bit more abstract but Ana's overall accessibility comes from the fact that her verbs and her mechanics are something that most players will immediately understand.
Because of this, and due to a lack of mobility that prevents her from gaining quick vantage points like other sniper characters, while Ana is probably intended to be a bit more technical in application, she is actually a bit more direct. She tends to be played at a mid range or even in the thick of things, where she can change momentum quickly through frantic ability use. Sure, you get to be technical and sneaky from time to time, but because Ana's primary modes of interactions lack abstraction, you end up with a diverse character with narratively cogent abilities on paper that mostly just plays like she's from any AAA shooter. And that's a bummer.
At the end of the day, we should always ask what a game is saying with its mechanics. With Ana, Overwatch seems to imply that accessibility comes from adherence to the tired, overused shooting mechanics of yesterday. It undercuts Ana's diversity, reduces the scope of the game space and highlights the limited nature of game expression. Ana's great! She's strong and supportive and brave. But her gameplay and the narrow scope of what she can and cannot do seems living proof to the idea that games still struggle with player expression. If they didn't, I don't know if I'd be healing with my gun.