As if they did not already have enough to be happy about, fans of Overwatch this week were treated to fantastic news: the first new character was going to be announced. Even more exciting, PC players would get to test out the new teammate (a sniper healer of all things!) on their Public Test Region before wide release. The icing on the cake for many fans, myself included, has been the identity of the new character: Ana Amari, a founding member of Overwatch. Previously presumed dead (like several other members of the team), Ana’s recently decided to step out of the shadows and return to the team in the hopes of making things better in the world.
When she is made available (for FREE at that) for all players, Ana will run support as a healing sniper. Yes, you read that correctly. This old soldier is going to shoot you to make you feel better. She also can throw healing grenades and dart her enemies to put them down for a nap. It is an interesting mesh of tactics — for people who normally like to snipe enemies from the shadows, Ana capitalizes on their skill sets while simultaneously supporting their teammates playing offense or tank. Unlike the game’s two other healers, Ana also allows players to take cover and sit further back from the heat of battle. If you want to find her, you have to search for her while avoiding being shot by her. If used correctly, I foresee a lot of matches being closer games than they would be with a different healer on the team. Being a healer in competitive play is often a ‘play at your own risk’ choice; you have to hope your team will keep you covered while you do your job because your opponents will be gunning to take you down first. Having a healer like Ana, who does not need to be in the thick of a fight to do her job, changes that dynamic. But that is not the only way having Ana join the ranks shakes things up in Overwatch.
When it was first announced, Overwatch received a lot of praise for the physical and ethnic diversity of its cast. There’re robots next to a gorilla scientist (from the moon) next to a cyborg ninja next to a teen in a mecha suit and a couple of irradiated misfits from Australia. Blizzard’s concept artists seemed to have received permission to design whatever they wanted, and their excitement over the IP reflects that in its variety. It was also a clever marketing move; this is a game about a global task force trying to protect innocents. Its roster should show that, particularly when the tagline repeated by mascot character Tracer is, “The world could always use more heroes.” Not “The world could always use more heroes from America.” The age range of its heroes spans as young as 19 (mecha pilot D.va) to as old as 61 (stout-hearted wandering knight Reinhardt). Characters originate from many countries like India, Brazil, Russia, and Sweden just to name a few. A majority of them have recorded lines in both English and their countries’ native languages. Several have lost limbs and thus rely on a prosthetic in its place.
However, like everything, there were discrepancies. Before Ana, the gender breakdown was 11 men, 8 women, and 2 robots. While the men’s ranks boasted at least 3 old soldiers, all the women skewed youthful in appearance. Mercy, the eldest at 37, looks so youthful other characters comment on it before a match.
Now there’s Ana. Ana is 60. She has wrinkles. She had a child. She is missing an eye. Her hair is white. She is lovely, but she is clearly aged. And it does not matter. Her skills are not called into question any more than people question the men. No one comments on how old she looks or offers to de-age her, and if they did, the impression one gets is Ana would rebuff them. Like the Vuvalini in Mad Max: Fury Road, Ana is celebrated and admired for her wisdom and her abilities.
Another discrepancy revolved around Ana’s daughter, Pharah. Pharah and Ana are both Egyptian. Both served security forces based in Egypt prior to their current activities in the rebuilding of Overwatch. Both even speak English with Egyptian accents. But, while many of the characters have lines in their native languages, Pharah speaks only in English.
The omission (along with several others) has been pointed out by the player community, with opinions ranging from a desire to up the quality of representation to many people simply enjoying the characters speaking another language. For some, it is rightfully a critically important issue (especially if they are of the same ethnicity as the hero). For others, it was a bit of flavor they may not have previously realized they liked as part of a game’s world building.
This is where Ana is also a game changer. Many players who dove into the Public Test Region took it upon themselves to document everything about Ana in advance of her official debut. Along with screenshots of her outfits and video of her emotes, they also recorded all of her dialog. Of the lines, two have been confirmed to be in Arabic (one is not in the linked video).
It may not seem like much, but this kind of character development is very exciting. This shows fans who before might not have spoken up that developers are beginning to listen. This also teachers developers that you can have characters who do not fit the tired ‘middle-aged white guy with brown hair and stubble’ and be successful. I hope it inspires more studios to try to break out of that mold, to better reflect the real world diversity in their fictional settings. I for one am extremely excited for Ana, and even more to see what Blizzard has in store for the next hero to come after her.