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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Loverwatch Left Me Wishing For a Third First Date

The world of Overwatch has, to some degree, always been a bit more compelling than the game that inhabits it. Even people who never play the game are familiar with its characters, and its bright vision of an optimistic tech-driven future feels equal parts MCU and Star Trek. Oh, and everyone is super hot.

Perhaps that's why a dating sim featuring Overwatch characters isn't just a logical choice, but an inevitability.

As part of Blizzard's new, more aggressive content release plan with Overwatch 2, this week the company is rolling out Loverwatch, a standalone game that lets the player attempt to romance their choice of two of the series's most popular characters: Mercy and Genji.

Mercy is an angelic overachieving scientist-slash-healer and Genji is a brooding half-cyborg ninja that won't stay still long enough to get healed. You, the player, get to choose which of them you would like to embarrassingly try to flirt with. (In hindsight, a romance story starring the two of them trying to date each other would also be hilarious.)

While players continue to wait for the promised PvE story elements, it's a tantalizing glimpse into a (strictly non-canon, the game is insistent on pointing out) world that has a broad appeal beyond the crowd of online shooter enthusiasts.

Mild spoilers for Loverwatch to follow. The game is about a 30-minute experience, so it's worth playing yourself before you read on.

Playing Your Way (By Default)

While discussing the idea of an Overwatch dating sim with coworkers and friends who were fans of the series, there were two main questions that hovered over the experience. First, how would the game handle the possibility of queer relationships? It's easy to look at the simple choices of Mercy or Genji as a form of dressed-up “Man or woman?” selection. But would the game accommodate players who aren't making that choice from a heterosexual perspective?

The second big question I was asked was, “Do they get to kiss???”

Surprisingly, the answer to both of these questions was intertwined—and to rip the Band-Aid off now, no, the characters don't kiss. And there's a reason for that. As senior narrative designer at Blizzard Miranda Moyer (who wrote the Genji storyline) told WIRED, “An actual design philosophy that we went into this game with was making it open to as many people as possible.”

“That’s why the whole structure of this dating sim is you play as yourself,” added narrative designer Kyungseo Min, who wrote the Mercy storyline. In both stories, the player gets to flirt, have awkward conversations, and get to know more (non-canonical!) things about the characters they're trying to romance.

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However, the dialog is written so that there's never a mention of anything that would exclude any particular fantasy or role-play. Gendered dating tropes are entirely absent, with the game leaning instead on the inherent awkwardness of early romantic relationships for both comedic and sweet moments. 

In some ways, this approach is refreshing. Your character is never confronted with an inevitable physical relationship, which lets you imagine any kind of relationship you'd like. If you want to imagine Mercy and your character flying off into the sunset to start their asexual lesbian journey together, there's very little in the story that would explicitly contradict your fantasy.

On the other hand, it's hard to not feel like this leaves just a little bit too much on the cutting room floor. Popular dating sim Dream Daddy, for example, made a splash by focusing on a specific type of relationship: You play as a single father dating other single fathers. This decisive approach to making queer relationships explicitly lets it explore the depths and nuances of the weirdness that's specific to gay-dad dating that Loverwatch can only sometimes hint at.

That said, it would be incorrect to say Loverwatch lacks depth at all. It's extremely easy for dating sims to fall into the trap of buying enough presents or saying the right things to lead to the money shot ending. For how short this game is, however, you get a surprising number of genuine moments where the “right” choice has nothing to do with winning and everything to do with building a relationship.

Humanizing Heroes

The most attention-grabbing aspect of Loverwatch, however, isn't the dates you go on with Mercy or Genji. It's the internet-breaking Cupid Hanzo. Combined with a devilishly charming highlight intro (that gets even funnier when paired with his other skins), Hanzo gets elevated from smoldering bad boy to Pedro-Pascal-level heartthrob.

In the game, however, Hanzo is primarily here to help you in your romantic endeavors. Because you clearly need his help. He also pulls double-duty as a mercifully (ha) toned-down, Deadpool-esque, fourth-wall-breaking character. He's not as in your face or edgy about it, but … well, to put it mildly, this game knows how this all looks. And it's not afraid to be in on the joke.

Of course, in the lore of the Overwatch universe, Hanzo and Genji are also brothers (with a tumultuous relationship, to put it lightly). And while Cupid will insist that he's not precisely Hanzo Shimada, brother of Genji, it's all too obvious that he has his opinions about your attempts to woo his cyborg sibling.

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While in Overwatch 2, these characters are larger-than-life heroes, this approach lets Loverwatch take time to humanize them. “For Genji in particular, I really wanted to hit home on the kind of head-empty golden retriever energy,” Moyer says of the storyline she wrote.

“[Mercy's] just so awkward,” Min adds. “I was like, she was probably so busy getting two PhDs before the age of 18 that she probably didn't have much time to socialize. But she's still so sure of herself.” Without spoiling specifics, this outlook shows up in both characters' storylines, where these people that you may have spent hundreds of hours playing as suddenly get to be massive dorks at dinner.

While there's more that I could say about the characters in this game, it's a short enough experience that it's worth playing for yourself. But suffice it to say that the Cupid Hanzo memes are probably on their way.

"When Can I Date Moira?"

The only truly disappointing aspect of Loverwatch is how little of it there is. It's a bit of a meme in the Overwatch community that lore drops can be somewhat sporadic (and the dating sim even pokes fun at this at times), so this feels simultaneously like a deep dive into extra-canonical lore, but also a tease for what more there could be.

So far, Blizzard hasn't committed to adding anything else to Loverwatch, but the possibility is there. “That's the hope. I mean, if this is well received by players,” marketing manager Beth Bryson tells WIRED, "No promises, but absolutely the hope would be that we will be able to potentially expand this experience in the future."

There's no shortage of characters to expand the dating roster with, either. There are currently 36 playable heroes in Overwatch 2, with new ones arriving every other nine-week season. And according to the writers I spoke to, it seems like none of them are off the table for a potential follow-up.

I asked them all whom they'd most like to see get a Loverwatch storyline in the future. “Ramattra,” Bryson said, referring to the game's newest, buffest tank. “He's so angsty! We stan an angsty omnic.”

“You could heal him,” Min chimes in, before adding her own pick. “My choice would be—this sounds really weird—the mech, the Wrecking Ball mech.” In Overwatch 2, Wrecking Ball is a character that consists of a hyper-intelligent hamster named Hammond piloting a giant ball-shaped mech.

“I had this whole outline in my head of just like, Hammond is the parent and there's a curfew,” Min elaborates. “And you help the mech understand human emotions and help it translate what it means to embark on the journey of love.”

The non-canonical nature of Loverwatch means that the game is free to explore ideas like this without being bound to the lore or even logic of the full game itself. And that might just make this little mini game one of the most exciting things to happen to Overwatch in a long time.

For years, the characters in the game have been its biggest strength—each one full of personality, with clear identities, strengths, weaknesses, and relationships. But most of that has only been touched on in the occasional animated short, comic book, or odd voice line and map easter egg.

Until the long-awaited PVE mode arrives—or until we finally get an Arcane-style Overwatch anime—this dating sim might be the best glimpse we get into the characters we've spent nearly seven years playing with.

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