Watch Dogs forces you to sit back and watch crimes happen if you want to be a hero
I’m standing with Jonathan Morin, the creative direct on the next-generation title Watch Dogs, and I can’t help but notice there’s a closed-circuit camera above us, watching.
I point it out to him. “Welcome to my life,” he said with a laugh. “Everywhere I go, I see my game.”
Watch Dogs is a cautionary tale about living life under the constant gaze of cameras, and a vigilante who uses the system for his own purposes. It was interesting to see the game discussed at Sony’s PlayStation 4 reveal, after the electronics giant boasted of all the ways the PlayStation 4 tracked your playing habits, and then a game critical of that kind of surveillance was hyped.
“It’s both a warning and a glorified look at technology. You can see it as dissonance, I see it as a plausible and probably required comment on our society,” Morin said when I brought this up. “We all love our smart phones, and our technology, and how it makes us more efficient. I love that. Everybody on the team loves that. At the same time, when you look at how humans function and how sometimes we take those things and get addicted to them or start putting too much information in it, we can be a bit naïve about it.”
“This is where the other side of it becomes interesting. It’s humanity vs. our evolution, or against the technology of today. It’s not a commentary that technology is evil, it’s more like a 360 degree look around the subject,” he continued.
Being a hero
The story of the game is a tightly kept secret, and the content we see comes from the open world, optional missions in the game. You can hack into the phones of those around you, or watch people in their homes by taking control of their web cams. I’m suddenly even more nervous about the Kinect in my home.
While much of the game's content may have seemed like science fiction a short time ago, or at least incredibly paranoid, the idea of the government uses our online services to track our movements and actions doesn't seem so far-fetched anymore. In Watch Dogs, it's the player who gets access to all this information, and then decides what to do with it.
The interesting part is that you can use all the data and learn about crimes that are about to happen, and then decide whether or not you’d like to intervene. The game gives you a reputation score, and you gain or lose points depending on your actions. You can see the chance of someone becoming a victim or a perpetrator, and that chance rises as they get closer to commiting that crime. You have to wait until the crime takes place, and then do something about it. If you stop the crime from happening, you lose reputation points.
The reputation system forces you to be reactive, instead of preventative. I wince as I see a man get cracked against the jaw with a baseball bat. I could have stepped in and stopped the attack, but it would have hurt my reputation. I brought this complaint up with Morin.
“If no one has shot at you and you begin intervening, of course there’s potentially more consequences to that negatively, because people are looking at you. They see you,” he explained. “If you’re reacting to violence, that’s different. That’s how the system works. We’re trying to avoid the player being judged by the game, and in fact there may be a disconnect between what people around you are saying, about how you’re doing things, versus how you feel you’re doing them.”
So if you prevent crime, your reputation goes down, even though you saved someone. That’s, to put it gently, fucked up.
“Yes, but you’re the only one who knows that,” Morin said, his eyes twinkling. “That’s what’s so interesting. Often when I talk about the game, I talk about the tragedy of being a vigilante.”
You know that you saved someone, that you stopped a crime, but other people just see you attacking someone. Or you can decide to stand by and let the situation play out, especially if both sides of the altercation are “bad guys.” Why not let two drug dealers kill each other in a back alley shoot out? Morin reminds me that inaction is, after all, a way to cause change. “You do nothing, but you made a choice. You did something,” he explained.
The demo we saw made the reputation system explicit, you’ll get a numerical score that goes up and down depending on your actions, but Morin said it may move to the background. He wants to help the player feel their way through the situation, instead of making decisions based on the feeling of the player. Maybe you do want to stop a crime instead of waiting for someone to be victimized in some situations, and the world simply reacts to that decision in the background. Your reputation decides how the world reacts to you, whether people like you or fear you, and the meta-narrative of the game will change depending on how you play.
That being said, the core story, which is again being kept a secret, will remain linear. “To be quite clear, the story is linear. We’re crafting the story in a finite way,” Morin said. He likened it to a painting: the content of the main story always remains the same, but the rest of the game provides context for that story, and may change how you see it.
“That’s where the open world comes in, everything around the main story needs to reinforce that subject in a very personal way,” he said. “You intervene in the way you want, you play in the way you want, and there’s this ratings system on top of it, that creates this very personal perception, so when you’re confronted with the subject matter of the game, which I will not spoil, you will be able to interpret it in your own way.”
It’s interesting to see the game in action. It doesn’t look significantly better than current generation games, but every now and then you’ll notice how much is going on and the rock solid frame rate. Everything is smoother, more solid. It’s hard to describe, but you can definitely tell Ubisoft had some extra horse power to play with while creating the game. It’s fun to watch the character animations, when Aidan Pierce draws a gun he pulls a mask over his face and changes how he walks to hide the gun with his body. It’s a nasty, threatening change in body language, and you get the sense that this is not, strictly speaking, a nice man.
Even without any hints about the game’s story, the metagame of becoming a sort of hacking superhero who can adjust the environment in order to stop crime is fascinating, as is the moral tightrope of deciding when to step in, and what to do about the situations that unfold around you.
When you know everyone’s secrets, what do you do with that information? Do you save someone and become a hero, or step in and be seen as a villain? Either way, the cameras are always watching.