Hey, it’s Patrick. I’m trying out a short blog series about character design in competitive video games! Simple format — five things I like about a character, and one thing I’d like to fix. Check it out and let me know if it’s a thing you’d want to read more of!
I’ve been playing a lot of Overwatch over the past few months, mostly because it’s a fun way for Irene and I to spend some quality time together while we’re living apart. From day one, I’ve had a deep fondness for Pharah; my prime FPS years were spent playing Quake III, so I (rocket) jumped at the chance to relive my Q3DM17 glory days. (GIFs are highlights from this obez plays montage.)
#1: Jetpacks are rad.
Simple truth: Flying in video games is fun, especially when you’re the only one that can do it. I think Pharah’s air mobility is the single most character-defining ability in Overwatch; she looks at a level in a way no one else can. I love that her ability to quickly change direction is gated by cooldowns (her boost and her concussion blast) — she feels more like a helicopter than a Gundam — because it means that the power you get from your unique perspective on the battlefield (looking down at everyone) can seduce you into thinking you’re harder to hit than you actually are.
#2: Rockets reward reads.
Why do the jetpack and rocket launcher work so well together?
You see, games are problem-solving exercises wherein we construct a hypothesis of what will happen within the next window of action and act according to the strength of our confidence. Pharah’s rockets are one of the slowest-traveling projectiles in the game, especially among the DPS classes, so in order to hit your enemies you’ll need to make predictions about the future several seconds in advance. Which means you’ll need information about the health and status of both your team and your opponents.
Pharah gets that by flying. When she’s on the ground, her vision is cut off by walls and teammates, so she can’t do much more than spam rockets at known hotspots. But once she’s airborne, she gets all the information she wants — and has to quickly absorb it and choose a course of action. So while her abilities do directly reward the player’s ability to aim and dodge, good Pharah play also is heavily centered around decision-making and calculated risk-taking in target priority (who do you shoot at and why?) and time spent exposed (how many shots do you think you can take before hiding again?). The result is a character that gets to think about the game from a zoomed-out (literally) strategic perspective.
#3: Concussion blast has a great learning curve.
Good: Pack a bunch of varied functionality onto a single ability that is gated by a resource (cooldowns, mana, whatever) in order to force the player to make meaningful decisions. Pharah’s concussion blast can be used to push herself or her opponents, meaning she can use it to disrupt an enemy’s aim or team positioning, save teammates from high-impact abilities, push enemies off objectives, move herself out of harm’s way very quickly, and even score some environmental kills. In any given frame of Overwatch, there’s always at least one thing you’d like to use your concussion blast for.
Better: The player’s decisions become even more meaningful when the ability’s effectiveness varies highly according to the player’s execution (aim and timing). Concussion blast is so useful that you want to use it more often than you have access to it, meaning you’ll have to choose between knocking the sniper off the ledge OR going for the environmental kill OR boosting yourself to a flanking position OR saving it to deal with an incoming ult. Also, make the wrong shot and you might just push the ulting enemy Reaper into your teammates. (Sorry.)
Best: Tie it to other abilities. Overwatch applies velocity more strongly to mid-air bodies than grounded bodies (guessing it probably has to do with grounded surfaces having some friction?), so your concussion blasts will have more displacement if you pair them with your jetpack — or your rocket. As it turns out, the concussion blast actually travels faster than the rockets, so you can fire a rocket and use the concussion blast to push the enemy into its path, or time the concussion blast so it hits after the rocket has slightly nudged the enemy into the air, amplifying its displacement effect. Now Pharah players have to get used to using her whole kit together, to move and shoot and push at the same time.
#4: Understated personality. (Also, Pharmercy.)
Overwatch is built around a pantheon of superheroes and villains, and it’d be easy to fall into the trap of giving everyone an exaggerated personality. Fareeha Amari’s dialogue is short and to the point. In her interactions with other characters she is warm, but serious; confident, but conscious of her relative youth and inexperience. This is accentuated by the fact that many of her interpersonal interactions revolve around her trying to learn more about her mother’s legacy — she speaks with her peers and superiors in wonderment of their abilities, then finds that they remember her mother to be greater still. Sometimes I wish she had better one-liners, but I appreciate that her reserved speech mannerisms stand in contrast to her celebratory animations, which hint at a little bit of the confidence (cockiness?) that she probably got from both her parents.
Also: The fact that Pharmercy works, both as a compelling character personality pairing and as a gameplay pairing, is goddamn beautiful.
#5: “Good OP”
Pharah can be an incredibly powerful pick in the right hands. She can force enemy teams to switch composition specifically to deal with her! But even when she’s very, very good, it doesn’t feel bad in the same sense that it feels bad when Bastion is bad. That’s because the “counter” to Pharah is basically “characters that emphasize a player’s ability to successfully hit a moving target” — and since this is the skillset that is at the core of the FPS genre, we all kind of get that this is the thing we signed up to do, and if we suck at it, we deserve to lose. This is what justifies all her cool unique abilities — in the end, she loses to good aim, and that feels reasonable. I call that “Good OP”, as opposed to “Bad OP,” which is when something overpowered leads to a degeneration of your game.
Thing that needs fixing: Her ultimate.
Pharah’s ultimate ability roots her in place (even if she’s in mid-air) while she unleashes a massive hail of rockets for a few seconds. The player can’t move at all during this time, though she can still aim freely.
Here’s the thing — I actually like the learning curve on it. At first, you think it’s awesome because no one reacts in time to kill you, and you just blow up everyone. Then you learn that it sucks, because if the enemy team is paying attention you very well might die before tagging anyone, and you’re easily stuffed by all kinds of abilities. Then you learn that if you save it for the right situations (good flank, good positioning, good combo) it’s awesome again! That’s pretty neat.
The problem is that it still just kind of feels bad to be at your most vulnerable state when you’re using what should be your most powerful ability, and the fact that you’re vulnerable specifically because you’re immobilized, when Pharah’s mobility is a key element of her kit’s power, feels downright untrue to the character. I’d love to try out an ability that played off of her mobility, instance. An air dive that did AoE damage/displacement on ground impact would be fun, maybe?