This article contains light spoilers for Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs.
Ubisoft first unveiled Watch Dogs at the 2012 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) with a video that details a fictional terrorist hacking operation, which resulted in the massive blackout of the American Northeast and the death of eleven people in New York City in 2003. Not long after, the terrorist was identified as Raymond Kenney, a systems architect for Blume, a security and communications company that ten years later would oversee the creation of America’s first city-wide central operating system, ctOS, in Chicago, Illinois.
A solution to the complex management of metropolitan infrastructure, ctOS was designed to integrate all systems from traffic lights to subway lines and surveillance cameras into one cohesive centralized control system. Despite its emphasis on friendly ease of use for government and safety for civilians, ctOS is owned and operated by private corporations that monitor and datamine all personal information from all Chicago citizens in order to subliminally influence behavior.
Enter our anti-hero, the player character Aiden Pearce, a gruff and grim, grey hat vigilante hacker equipped with a smartphone that can profile civilians through back doors he uploads to strategic ctOS mainframes.
A cinematic cutscene introduces Pearce as he siphons bank accounts at an upscale downtown Chicago hotel, The Merlaut. His partner, Damien Brenks, with whom Pearce speaks remotely, notices the signature of another hacker group and decides to trace them against Pearce’s better instincts, and exposes their efforts. Soon their identities are compromised, and we hear an anonymous voice place a hit on Pearce and Brenks.
While the fate of Brenks is unknown from the beginning, Pearce’s six-year-old niece, Lena, is accidentally killed when Pearce’s car crashes inside a tunnel after the assigned hitman shoots out the vigilante’s tires. Fragments of this memory haunt Aiden Pearce throughout the game.
Ubisoft teased nearly this much of the narrative arc before the game’s tentative release date alongside the new-generation consoles last November. Despite its heavy marketing push and the plethora of media details and demonstrations Ubisoft released in the nearly two year interim between the first reveal at E3 2012 and the game’s eventual release last month, none of the media truly interested me enough to warrant a sale – at least initially.
The premise Ubisoft pitched, controlling the public and private systems infrastructure of an entire city and its civilians, was intriguing and unique, but every portrayal of narrative features left the characters seeming one-dimensional and unengaging, especially Aiden Pearce.
However, some characters did make interesting impressions: Jordi Chin is a charismatic, somehow loveable sociopath and is Pearce’s hired “fixer” who helps the vigilante locate and “fix” his targets; at first an anonymous tipster, BadBoy17, Clara Lille is a highly intelligent hacker and Pearce’s ambassador to DedSec, an infamous underground hacking cooperative that encourages and facilitates Pearce’s technological espionage. Clara’s role in Pearce’s destructive yarn of vengeance and redemption deepens as the subtle weight of her dark albeit predictable secrets are revealed in her conscious actions.
These characters are interesting and relatable because they show self awareness in bold contrast to Pearce’s single mindedness, his quest to redeem himself and cover his tracks in the aftermath of escalating chaos. In essence Pearce fails to be interesting because he is entirely reactive.
Despite my initial misgivings, I decided to give Watch Dogs a chance; as an early adopter to the new-gen system, my PlayStation 4 had been serving primarily as an expensive Netflix machine, and the initial game drought notwithstanding, Watch Dogs eventually intrigued me enough to justify a purchase. The gameplay is consistently enjoyable if repetitive, but Ubisoft’s first attempt at a modern open-world structure lays an overall strong foundation for the franchise.
My initial grief with Aiden Pearce as a player character, however, is only reinforced by the disconnect between the gameplay’s systems and proposed narrative arc.
As a vigilante Pearce sees himself beyond the police, who no doubt on some level are in Blume’s overflowing pockets. However, as a vigilante Pearce acts not as guardian to civilians in a corrupt city where legal justice has failed, but for his own unachievable redemption and revenge.
Though his smartphone’s profiler can track potential crimes in order that Pearce might intervene, this system is a minor gameplay loop. Furthermore, the reward for catching a criminal is positive favor with the populace; more favor means fewer broadcasts about your activity and thus more anonymity when you cause chaos. In effect this reward only reinforces the sustainability of Pearce’s selfish agenda.
To Ubisoft’s credit, however unlikeable Pearce may be as a character, some features of Ubisoft’s game design do reinforce some level of discretion. Combat for instance plays best when exploiting stealth tactics; Pearce cannot absorb bullets to the degree of most video game protagonists, and close quarter nonlethal takedowns are the best way to stack experience points, which can then be used to acquire further hacking, combat, driving, and crafting abilities. Moreover, at various mission points Pearce is often given the choice to escape fixers on his trail rather than engage in open combat.
Yet for much of the narrative arc, the irony of Pearce’s increasingly violent actions is lost upon him. Not until half way through the story campaign does Pearce finally question the violent repercussions of his selfish actions: having been ransomed for Pearce’s cooperation with Damien Brenk’s own agenda, the vigilante’s other child nephew, Jackson, is hidden away in a seemingly innocuous building patrolled by fixers awaiting the vigilante. It is worth noting that Jackson is a witness to his sister’s death and afflicted with PTSD that manifests in the inability to speak to anyone but his mother.
Your objective then is to take out the fixers and rescue Jackson by any means necessary. Once completed, a cinematic cutscene reveals that Jackson has been hiding in the security office wherein he has witnessed Pearce’s hand in the violence outside. As a result Jackson is further traumatized, and Pearce for the first time momentarily reflects on his brutality.
What could have been a major turning point in the narrative, this self reflection is short lived. From hereon the stakes only become increasingly higher as Pearce must further recruit his small team of hackers to infiltrate Blume and in so doing foil the catastrophic plans of his ex-partner-turned-villain, Damien Brenks.
In a brief epilogue, all scores are settled but one. Aiden Pearce, and thus the player, are at last given a choice between vengeance and vigilante justice: Maurice Vega, Lena’s killer, cowers atop a wooden crate in an unassuming oil stained garage, cursing and berating your fate and the futility of your conquest. Vega, a man mentally destroyed by his own actions, incites you to have your revenge. What do you do?
Images via: Ubisoft