WATCH_DOGS, the latest blockbuster title from entertainment software company Ubisoft, is an interesting case study in duality.
Because on the one hand, it’s the ultimate digital urban playground, and gamers who enjoy open-world sandbox-style games have a veritable cornucopia of content to sink their teeth into — physical and digital puzzles, weapons and cars galore, augmented reality games, even chess or three-card monte. On the other hand, there’s something sadly self-fulfilling about an idealized hero who spends most of his time doing what pretty much all of us do a daily basis — looking down at the screen of a cell phone.
(I imagine the video game character labor unions have spent years lobbying for more work like this. No spinning blades? SIGN ME UP.)
Point is, it’s obviously just a game — but at the same time, it’s not at all a game.
Because unlike most open-world video games, there are no fantasy or science fiction elements at the heart of its central conceit. No time travel, no mystical potions, no genetic mutations or scientific experiments gone awry. The game’s central conceit, brilliantly demonstrated in this live-action promo video, is that in a city where everything is connected, anything can be hacked. And even though, for the purpose of effective gameplay, these hacks have been incredibly simplified into a simple press-one-button-do-anything interface, all these hacks are generally plausible in the real world. WATCH_DOGS is not set in the near future, but the present day.
This is an important distinction, because it, along with the very detailed and stylized rendering of Chicago in all of its glory, helps to ground the proceedings in a sense of realism that most games can’t match. Even the amazingly vivid Grand Theft Auto series, the measuring stick against which all sandbox-style games are compared, renders its cities in a layer of over-the-top satire, requiring the names of cities and brands to be changed. New York becomes Liberty City, Los Angeles becomes Los Santos, Facebook becomes LifeInvader, Apple becomes iFruit, et cetera.
But not so in WATCH_DOGS. Everything, from iconic Chicago landmarks, to the various layers of topographical scenery across neighborhoods, to the detailed sonic blend of ambient city sounds, to the musical score and licensed soundtrack, to the diversity of the main characters and the hundreds of bystanders you encounter, creates a sense of realism. I lived in Chicago for eight years, and it felt authentic to me.
This authenticity is a necessary element, because it helps to tie together the two sides of the Watch Dogs experience.
See, in order to justify the enormous expense that goes into creating games like this, major studio releases have to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. And because they know not everyone will be totally thrilled with the single player campaign, and also to boost replay value, WATCH_DOGS is stuffed with a bunch of different kinds of minigames and side quests. Seriously, you look at the game’s map and it’s absolutely riddled with stuff to do. The game even has a little “progression wheel” screen that helps you keep track of all the different mission categories and side activities. After finishing the game’s main storyline, even though I interspersed plenty of these diversions throughout, I’m still only 43% finished and I’ve probably played through 20-30 hours of gameplay. There is a ton of stuff to do in this game.
One of the downsides of the game’s mechanics and level design is that, when combined with a rather long and convoluted plot, it’s all but impossible to suspend one’s disbelief throughout various junctions of the story. Some of it is because of the amount of lethal violence protagonist Aidan Pearce is required to commit. Seriously, you’d think someone that broken up over the loss of a family member wouldn’t be so cavalier about killing so many bad guys, or accidentally running down innocent bystanders during car chases. Also, the hacking, although fun, is laughably unrealistic. Not only can Aidan hack a security camera with his phone (allowing him to view what the camera sees), but can also hack another camera from the first camera. This daisy-chain effect makes it possible for him to hop from camera to camera, exploring dangerous areas without risking physical detection. These and other innovations make for a fun, engaging gameplay experience, but detract from the sense of reality.
However, this is less a critique of WATCH_DOGS specifically and more a necessary limitation of video games as cinematic entertainment in general. Regardless of hardware upgrades, no video game will ever be able to match the level of emotional engagement of, say, The Wire or Person of Interest, because TV shows aren’t required to be directly interactive. While watching TV, you can just focus on the story. There are no controls to master or directions to follow. In one sense, this is a disadvantage for video games, but of course, in another sense this is a huge advantage. Person of Interest only lets you ***watch*** Reese, Finch and company use their computers and mobile devices to prevent crimes. In “WATCH_DOGS,” you actually get to do it.
So what I’m saying is that because “Watch Dogs” (fine, I’m tired of formatting it like that) is both a game AND a story, even though they flow together, it’s important to understand them separately before one can evaluate how well they are integrated together. Some people will enjoy the game aspect of it without even getting too deep into the story, and vice versa … some people will just play through the main story and skip all the side missions and whatnot. But you have to remember that both sides are important.
For me, the gameplay mechanic was what first hooked me, but the story was what kept me coming back. Not only in the main cutscenes featuring Aidan and the various others within his circle, but also the various bonus recordings spread throughout helped to sketch the details of the story. What starts out as a fairly simple revenge story unfolds as a vast conspiracy that touches various elements of the Chicago criminal and political underworld. (See? I wasn’t just pulling The Wire out of the clear blue… the comparison is actually warranted.) And while Aidan himself seems a bit undercooked as a character, the writers wisely surrounded him with a vivid cast of allies and enemies (including Battlestar Galactica‘s Aaron Douglas, who does excellent voice work as wisecracking Jordi Chin), and part of the intrigue is in figuring out who’s on which side.
Most crucially, though, the story serves as something of a cautionary tale.
As one of Chicago’s legendary “fixers,” Aidan Pearce’s primary job is to manipulate situations to get what he wants. He does this digitally with his computer and cell phone, but he also does it with whatever weapons or motor vehicles he can get his hands on. While garden-variety criminals can usually be taken down with a swift, non-lethal blow from his collapsible baton, other more formidable foes are either leveraged or defeated through surveillance, blackmail, trading favors, or good ol’ fashioned gunfire.
As one might imagine, all of his digital sleuthing and vigilante exploits eventually take a heavy toll on our hero. At various points throughout his journey, we witness Aidan pondering important ethical questions. How far is too far? If this blows back at me, what will that do to my relationships? What kind of life am I living?
This kind of cognitive dissonance is not just written into the main character, but exists in the heart of the gameplay experience. As an actual, law-abiding citizen with a clear moral compass, it was hard for me to kill and maim so frequently and casually in pursuit of others who do the same — especially because in “Watch Dogs,” there are no nameless, faceless thugs. When connected to the central operating system (“ctOS”), Aidan has access to facial recognition software that can instantly identify anyone he encounters. And not just main characters, but any of the hundreds or thousands of NPCs (non-playable characters) in their fictionalized version of Chicago. Every time he sees someone with his phone’s “profiler” feature activated, a little mini profile pops up on his heads-up display — name, occupation, annual salary, and a detail about their life, like “loves to play with kids,” or “runs a shady convenience store,” or “cheats on wife with secretary.”
If information is power, then Aidan Pearce is Big Brother and the Grim Reaper, all rolled into one. He is, for all intents and purposes, a god.
This, to me, is at the heart of what the principal creatives at Ubisoft are trying to communicate. Having access to that kind of power never ends well for those who wield it. Not only do individuals put themselves (and their loved ones) at risk when they attempt to take the law into their own hands, but repeated acts of violent retaliation tend to change us, bit by bit, into the monsters that we so despise. And on a larger scale, a society that willingly allows its leaders to succumb to the siren song of enhanced surveillance or any other cutting-edge technology, risks the abuse of that same technology. Any silver-bullet solution for universal safety has the potential to be another avenue for further corruption and chaos.
This is the part that’s not a game!
It’s my sincere hope that gamers who play “Watch Dogs” will not only have fun running and shooting and driving and hacking to their hearts’ content, but find themselves challenged by the moral quandaries embedded into the experience. Racial profiling, sex trafficking, organized crime, abuse within the penal system, these are all issues that are touched on in the Watch Dogs campaign — not just for the sake of a realistic experience, but because these are all real issues that affect real people — not just in Chicago, but around the nation and across the world.
For this reason, I think it could be appropriate for certain mature teenagers to play. If I had a fourteen or fifteen year old, I might even allow it, although they wouldn’t play without my direct supervision because there are a few scenes with nudity and/or sexuality depicted.
The truth is, a lot of the kids and adults to whom this game will appeal are already part of certain elements of hacker counterculture. I’m not necessarily talking about white hats, but the kind of folks that love to test boundaries, who have issues with authority, and who might consider dabbling in less-than-legal-or-ethical activity on the internet. And whether it’s something really dark and destructive, or just illegal piracy or file trading… that stuff has consequences. If seeing those consequences fictionalized through the plot of “Watch Dogs” gives some cocky teenager a little extra pause in considering their online behavior, then to me, the small amount of suggestive content (and the regular use of profanity from most of the game’s characters), is well worth the trade-off.
And even if, in a few cases, it doesn’t give them pause — they’ll still probably get pwned by another fixer in the Watch Dogs universe.
And one of these days, that fixer might just be me.
Because when I play “Watch Dogs,” I take that junk seriously. I get into it. And if one of those young punks wants to talk smack to me, after I finish uploading a virus through a backdoor into their system, I might just holler out my favorite catchphrase:
“What?! YOU THOUGHT IT WAS A GAME?!?!“
I love doing that.