Overwatch’s newest hero Moira has lit a fire under the community and its enthusiasm for lore and speculation - they have already got a legion of ships, comic strips, and assumptions about the latest addition to the cast. I spoke to lead writer Michael Chu, who weighed in on all of it - including what exactly is up with that Naruto run - and dropped a few hints as to the wider implications of Moira along the way.
For the mechanical side of things, here’s what we know about Overwatch patch 1.17 and Moira.
“She was initially hired by Gabriel Reyes [Reaper],” Chu explains, diving straight into Moira’s background. “One of the things that I think about Reyes, and I guess that might make it true, is that he is a good judge of talent in a lot of ways. He recruited Jesse McCree, he recruited Moira when he needed an expert in genetics. That was her avenue into Overwatch. I don't think she would be considered a traditional Overwatch hire, she might not pass the fitness test, but Reyes does things his own way and he valued her.”
Chu is right: Moira isn’t traditional in a lot of ways. An androgynous, 48-year-old woman with a cruel sense of humour and a delicate balance of damage and healing output, she continues Overwatch’s theme of being just off-center enough to be unique.
“She is undoubtedly brilliant, but also controversial,” Chu says of Moira’s scientific work, “and I think that's the sort of thing where Reyes is like 'I can work with her' but the greater scientific community might have some bones to pick with her methodology and some of her experimentation.”
The depths of that experimentation were hinted at in her origins video, though Chu thinks it may have been overemphasised just how bad she went with it. “I've been watching some of the discussion about Moira and it's possible to overstate what she was doing, especially [early on],” he says.
“The way I always think about Moira is a scientist first and foremost, she isn't particularly interested in the practical application of her knowledge. That isn't to say that she doesn't want to understand how manipulating genetics could have an effect on curing a disease or something like that, but she's not like a Winston who says 'I'm going to invent a way to anchor things in time and then I will build a chrono-accelerator, or a rocket engine’. She's not like a Mei who uses her scientific knowledge to solve the climate problems that are facing the world.
“She is much more interested purely in the scientific aspects, the pursuit of knowledge. That's what differentiates her from a lot of the other scientist characters in the cast and I think that's what really defines Moira.”
That begs the question of how a game like Overwatch, which glorifies scientific discovery as something that pushes us forward as a species and improves quality of life, can paint a scientist as a bad guy. “She'd caucus with the bad guys because she's a member of Talon, but she falls more into that Sombra area - and, honestly, a lot of the villain characters in the Overwatch universe - where the means to which they are willing to go is the questionable part.
“I think that when you [talk] about a 'bad' scientist... Moira does not necessarily have the patience for the regulations and the process that she feels overburdens the scientists and keeps them from being able to do scientific discovery. An example I like to use is [to] imagine there's some sort of disease outbreak and Moira's genetic therapy could be used to solve it - the more correct thing would be to do some trials first, make sure it's safe. She would say 'no, go ahead and do it, if there's some side effect, we'll solve that [too]’.”
An easy misunderstanding to make here would be to assume Moira’s doing things just to prove she can, that her ego drives her to show she’s better or smarter than others. It is not that - she is doing things to see what the results are. “It's funny - she has no patience for people who she thinks are not as smart as her, but she's not particularly an egoist. In a way, she's almost... she's so much about the understanding for the purpose of understanding.”
For Mercy’s sake
Two other elements of Moira’s character that have garnered attention since her announcement are the extent of her self-modification and her relationship with Overwatch’s other primary healer, Mercy. Both are a little different from how the community has interpreted them so far. In the case of self-modification, beyond what we see in-game, it is not a huge part of her character for Blizzard.
“When you think about Moira and her methodology I wouldn't say that [self-modification] is her primary form of scientific experimentation,” Chu explains. “We really put that in there as a quick... These origins movies are about giving you a few images that really try to tell you what this character is about.” In essence, the Overwatch team have only got a couple of minutes to tell you as much about a character as they can, after months of working and reworking.
“The idea that the scientist is so [curious that] she would experiment on herself, is really meant to illustrate that she doesn't quite follow the same methodology that you would consider a best practice,” Chu says. A far cry from Mercy’s do no harm and angel wings, then, even if she does bring people back from the dead. What do those two characters think of each other?
“I saw an image that was circling around yesterday, of Moira petting the bunny, and she's named the bunny Better Angela,” Chu laughs. “They certainly have opposing viewpoints in a lot of ways, I think that they don't particularly see eye to eye in their methodology. There will be some voice lines with them - but one way to think about it is that Mercy doesn't have much respect for Moira, but I think that Moira would respect Mercy for the work even if they personally didn't get along.”
Stepping back from the in-game lore and looking at the design process, Moira came together relatively quickly on the art side, while actually writing her took a bit longer. “Arnold Tsang, who is our assistant art director, who has concepted the vast majority of the heroes in the line-up - he is a genius and I am constantly amazed. In the Overwatch What's Next panel he showed off some of the original concept art for Moira, and there was one in particular where she has tentacles, she's got like this tentacle backpack thing.
“That was his first drawing of Moira based on our discussion of her being a healer-support character, and [me saying] I wanted her to be in Blackwatch. Based on that he drew that, and when you look at the final art, it is like two iterations away from his original piece. That's crazy to me, when I'm working on the story for a character it's much more noodling than that.
“On the story side we always knew we wanted her to be this important character in the relationship and life of Reyes/Reaper, but there was some iteration like should she be in Talon? How did that work out? So we had a lot of discussion about that. I'd say she came together very quickly once we knew what we wanted and with this character, from a high level we had the pillars of her character early on.”
All the heals
Gameplay was rather quick, too - both the community and development team agreed that the game needed a new healer support character who would fill a little of the same space as Mercy. Chu says the iteration on ultimates and abilities took a normal amount of time, but the initial choice of role made everything else a bit easier.
“When I'm thinking about the personality, how the character talks and the backstory, one of the things I really look at is what we have out there,” Chu tells me. “Obviously art contributes a lot - Arnold and the art team and I, we like to go back and forth a lot so there's a lot of shared inspiration there.
“Specifically I really like to look at the game mechanics because I feel like there's a magic when the mechanics speak to the character. One of my favourite examples of that is Reinhardt. When he puts his shield up, when it's [running out of power], when he charges in - there's an empathic link between you as the Reinhardt player and Reinhardt the character that is powerful and just makes sense. He should be a protective character because he's got the big shield and that's his function in the game, it's a good synergy.
“With Moira, when we were talking about her abilities where she uses one hand to draw in the negative energy from her enemies and then she puts it through her backpack and it comes out as healing energy - I think that's where you start to get that idea of duality and it's where a lot of her character was also inspired.”
The specifics of that character have garnered a lot of interest. If there’s one thing the internet is expert at it is spotting anime references and Moira is packed with them:
Sometimes you just have to ask: so, what is up with that Naruto run?
“This is hilarious. One thing I would say broadly, the development team, the artists, we're all big anime fans - I certainly could not deny some of the references in her sprays and stuff,” Chu says. “The run in particular, we felt like her design with [her clothes] and her stance really contributed to a dynamic and visually striking character. We thought that with the cloth and the hip panels she has, having her have some of these exaggerated movements really looked good and also help her be distinct and identifiable on the battlefield.
“Because of that you get stuff like that very exaggerated run. There's no question when you're playing Overwatch and Moira's running around that you have seen Moira - except when she has faded out and she's not there. That's one of our goals, when you're on the battlefield you should be able to immediately recognise characters going through their animations and their movements. I think she really sticks out and she's such a fun, dynamic, and animated character.”
Talk it up
Despite the references, Moira is her own character, and brought to life by Overwatch’s usual standard of excellent voice acting. Genevieve O’Reilly takes the part, her most famous prior role being a leader of the Rebel Alliance in Rogue One, and Chu says she nailed the exact combination of tone and ethereal presence he was looking for.
“With the character of Moira, she has these sort've magey elements - she's the closest to a traditional spellcaster, warlock, mage as we'll probably get in Overwatch - and I wanted her to be so into the science that the world is the secondary concern. I tell people this story where Moira is working on her experiment and someone is talking to her and then after a while she'd be like 'oh, are you still standing there?'. Then she'd go straight back to her work because she's so in touch with it and that is the world that she actually lives in.
“So because of that I really wanted her to have this mysterious, ethereal vocal tone. By that point we had also decided we wanted her to be Irish, so we were looking for an Irish actress with this vocal quality. I remember when I heard the audition from Genevieve I was immediately taken by the quality of her voice, I really hoped it worked out. When we actually got to work with her it was so much fun. I really think she brought a lot to bringing the character to life.”
Finding that voice was helped along by Moira having a different demeanour from the game’s current cast. She is, simply, quite cruel. She will mock characters with their own voice lines when fighting them, voicing them with a subtly different, meaner delivery than normal. This is most notable in the gameplay trailer when she executes Hanzo with some “simple geometry.”
“We're always trying to find a new space for [new characters] to occupy. That’s in vocal tone, that's the way they speak, their sense of humour, all of that,” Chu explains. “What I would say about Moira is that I wanted her to be a more heightened character - someone like Sombra is very naturalistic, you could imagine someone talking like Sombra on the street or just walking around with your friends.
“But Moira feels like she's more constructed. I gave her some bigger words, she's a little more formal in the way she talks, she's got this superiority. We didn't want her to just sound like the evil spellcaster, it was more of this very powerful, but unknowable, wise character. What's really fun is that's one part of her character but she also has this more cutting, casual way of conversation.”
Chu goes on to say that Moira is quite good at interacting with other people, she just isn’t particularly interested in it. “There are a lot of scientists in my family. Having to get funding, having to explain what your research is all about - that's an essential scientist skill. Sometimes people don't think about this, but there are so many scientists that are extremely good at at communicating, so I thought that was essential to her. Especially if you consider maybe after the first decade or so of her scientific career, she's a little out of favour, it definitely behooves her to be good at interacting with people, convincing them to help her with things that she wants.”
There is still plenty of room to expand with Overwatch’s latest character too. In fact, Chu built Moira as something of a bridge between all the different factions of Blizzard’s world, with the hinted at ‘Venice Incident’ at the centre of that. While Chu laughed and said “it’s classified” when asked directly about that particular hint, he did confirm that she is a plot thread yet to be developed.
“I think that one of the great things, and one of the reasons that we made a character like Moira who is so tied into different organisations and different characters and the story of Overwatch, is that she provides a window into and is also an actor in so many interesting parts of the Overwatch storyline,” Chu says. “We feel that characters like her really offer a lot in terms of the overall storytelling and story potential of the universe. Very much intended, and yes, we hope to research and look into more of these events and relationships.”