Ubisoft Montreal’s Watch Dogs gets philosophical—how connected is too connected?


I had the chance last week to see a preview of Ubisoft Montreal’s newest big-budget game franchise, Watch Dogs, and boy is it looking good. The game, scheduled for a November release, appears to mix all the best parts of Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and Splinter Cell, which should be no surprise given that those last three are all Montreal creations.

Watch Dogs stole the show at the last year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, where it was unveiled, not just because it’s an entirely new property, but mainly because it looks like it’s going to capture the zeitgeist of the super-connected era in which we live. Protagonist Aiden Pearce is a vigilante who can hack into the central operating system that runs near-future Chicago, and in doing so can control much of the city itself and access information on its inhabitants.

The idea, according to the game’s designers, is to have players think about how far they want connectivity to go.

While watching the demo, I got to thinking about a topic that’s been top of mind lately—that of how the media tends to focus on the side effects of technology rather than the effects. It has long been the role of popular fiction, which includes books, movies and games, to question technological advance by highlighting some of its potential negative effects. That’s a necessary function, since asking such questions is to the benefit of everyone, but the ironic downside of it is that the questions themselves can often shape expectations. It’s The Terminator syndrome, where a simple science-fiction movie has made a great many people afraid of advances in robotics or technology in general.

Here’s the teaser trailer what was shown at E3 last year. Full of loaded terms such as “control, virus, panic, vulnerability, private companies, digital shadow” and “scams,” it’s easy to think that Ubisoft is trying to scare people into playing this game:

I asked Kevin Shortt, lead story designer, about whether Watch Dogs is going to be guilty of technological scare-mongering, and he doesn’t think so, in spite of the trailer. He explained that the benefits of connectivity in the game’s world are pretty obvious: the residents of Chicago are generally happy because their commutes to work are smooth thanks to an efficient traffic system, their energy bills are lower because of a smart grid, and crime isn’t much of a problem because police response is swift and precise.

It will ultimately be up to the player to determine how he or she uses the in-game technology, which will likely be a reciprocation of how they actually feel about it. “I don’t think we want to come away saying it’s a bad thing,” Shortt says. “We want to come away saying, ‘What does that mean for us?’”

I also found it a little ironic that we were watching a demo of a game in which the “hero” hacks into city control systems and sets off explosives with his phone just weeks after the Boston bombings. In previous demos of Watch Dogs, Pearce has caused multi-car pile-ups and mass mayhem by hacking into traffic lights.

The line between vigilante and terrorist seems to be very thin indeed, especially in a game where the main character is supposed to be heroic yet at the same time can do some amazingly unheroic things. It’s one of those silly problems with video games that no designer seems to have figured out yet—in Watch Dogs, for example, Pearce can pursue a criminal who has just beaten up or killed an innocent in an effort to bring him to justice, yet run over half a dozen pedestrians in doing so. The fact is, creating virtual havoc is just so much damn fun and a game where the character follows the rules to the letter of the law just wouldn’t be all that enjoyable.

Shortt says the game has a system to push players toward doing the honorable thing, in that the media (both traditional and social) will report on Pearce’s actions and thereby reward him with “reputation points.” It’s not unlike our own, real-world socialization system.

“We are not telling the player you should go this way or that way, but we are making sure they’re thinking about it,” he says. “The citizens are going to respond to you. Hopefully that’ll get players thinking what’s my role in this, am I culpable in what’s happening?”

As far as terrorism goes, that’s another choice that will be up to the individual. “The player is going to decide how far they go. We ultimately hope that players end the game and have that discussion: well, what kind of a guy was Pearce and what kind of a message did they come away with?” Shortt says. “I hope there’s a debate on that point, and if there is then we’ve done our job.”

Executive producer Dominic Guay adds to that: “You can take any context in which you give freedom and power to the player and do something bad with it, but then the whole game system is going to tell you and give feedback on how that impacts the city and how the game wants you to be a vigilante.”

With the developers keeping plot details close to their chests so far, it’s hard to say what messages Watch Dogs will or won’t deliver. I find their decision to set the game in a major, real-world city to be a risky one, given the potential for it to be linked to anything bad that might happen there. Both Shortt and Guay say the decision was ultimately an easy one, given Chicago’s rich history of crime and corruption, its suitability for gameplay elements (the waterways and bridges will come into play) and its architectural beauty.

“It’s also one of the most surveilled cities in North America,” Guay says. “You don’t want to be associated with something tragic, but the story we’re telling is that of a vigilante who’s helping people. Those sorts of things need to be on the minds of anyone who’s building anything, but I think we’re on the right track.”

Either way, Watch Dogs is already shaping up to be one of the more thought-provoking big-budget games on the slate this year. Depending on how it—and the real world—turns out, that could also make it one of the most controversial.