Reviewed on PS4
Warning: Minor Spoilers May Follow
The CIA has a Twitter now. This made me squirm as soon as I heard it. I mean, we all know the government can follow us on Twitter whenever it wants to. But now it wants to actually follow us on Twitter? It feels like power projection, a reminder of the eerie technical prowess of our government (What does the CIA have to tweet about, anyways? “Nothing at all worth talking about going on in Benghazi today, wouldn’t you agree?”) in a post-Snowden world.
It doesn’t help that I’ve been playing Watch Dogs, an open-world hacking game released recently for all major consoles, all week. In Watch Dogs’s version of Chicago, a fictional entity called the Blume Corporation has a similar sort of everpresence. Billboards, marquee ads, commercials—they’re everywhere, promoting and endorsing what they call ctOS (“city central Operating System”), a “smartcity” infrastructure system that digitally connects the entire city, from utilities to building security to traffic lights; a security system, a mass surveillance program, and a social network all in one, all in the hands of one company, and supposedly marshalled only for the benefit of Chicagoans. It’s enough to make a body anxious. That’s what the game, and the marketing leading up to it, promises, anyway. Watch the 2012 announcement trailer, and the thematics are obvious: the risk of centralized technical power, the ethics of mass surveillance, daily life in a paranoid techno dystopia.
In an interview with VentureBeat prior to the game’s release, lead writer of Watch_Dogs Kevin Shortt makes the ambition clear. “I hope [the players] come away looking at their own lives and privacy and security and access to information and they now have something to bring to the table when we talk about those issues, things like the NSA or Edward Snowden,” he says. “It’s all part of our discussions nowadays. It would be great if we could be part of that dialogue.”
In reality, though, Watch_Dogs just isn’t very interested in all that. It is, however, really passionate about gun fights and car chases.
Don’t get me wrong: The setting here is just as rich as it was made out to be. Ubisoft Montreal’s vision of Chicago hums with connectivity. Surveillance cameras line every city block. Your fancy smartphone gives you names, ages and randomly-generated quirks for every person you encounter. Information is everywhere, so dense you’re almost tripping over it. And the setting is rife with interesting little details and scenarios: an Anonymous-esque hacker terrorist group trying to shake Chicago out of its apathy, Weather Underground-style; a street gang using hacking prowess and illegal hardware to operate off the grid manages to build something like a cyber protection racket.
Or consider an early mission in the game, where you find an audio recording tucked away in a prison, detailing the way an employee at Blume is using information from ctOS to manipulate the mayoral elections, utilizing all the detailed surveillance information it gathers to target advertisements and messages with such precision that it borders on brainwashing. Fascinating, I thought. What are the implications of that sort of vast information apparatus? At what point does targeted advertising cross the line into crass manipulation? Will I get a chance to interact with this system, perhaps, or make in-game choices that shape how ctOS will be used? Nope. Instead, you just keep moving, hacking security cameras and taking down guards, the fascinating revelation entirely uncommented on.
The problem is one of perspective. In Watch_Dogs, you play as Aiden Pearce, a grumpy middle-aged hacker guy who spends his spare time working on his Batman growl in the mirror. He’s after non-specific revenge against he’s-not-really-sure-who for the death of his young niece, a hit ordered after a digital robbery gone wrong. All that familiar video game bullshit is here: a boring antihero, women in refrigerators, and a story designed to let you cut a bloody swath through every location and faction the game has to offer. That Anonymous equivalent? You end up chasing one of their members (who for no clear reason is wearing a Pyramid Head mask like a haunted version of Deadmaus) out of an EDM club, culminating in a cartoonishly large shoot-out on a rooftop. That street gang? You end up hunting down their leader, listening to him monologue about vague villainous ambitions and killing him…after a cartoonishly large shoot-out that ends on a rooftop. I could go on.
Later, when we learn that not only did Blume rig the mayoral elections, but the mayor himself is corrupt, owned through blackmail by a crime boss using ctOS to get information on everyone around him, all Aiden Pearce has to say is, “A corrupt Chicago mayor? What a surprise.” Thank you, Aiden. Your apolitical cynicism is a breath of fresh air. What a waste. At almost every turn, Ubisoft subordinates Watch Dogs’s great setting and evocative ideas to a standard, tropy video game plot, skimming past thematically resonant revelations for characters and situations the story doesn’t do an effective job at getting the player to care about.
Not to say it’s all bad. Some of the minor story beats are spot-on, particularly the characterization of a whistleblower in hiding, an expert hacker cum survivalist who oozes paranoia and righteous indignation. He’s a fascinating character, the sort of person you want to follow as they try to make sense of this world. And the game is fun to play, well, roughly half the time. The core hacking mechanic, which lets you, with the touch of a button, infiltrate ctOS, surfing from security camera to security camera, sabotaging utilities and gathering information as you go, is fantastic. It allows you to sneak into hostile areas without ever actually entering them, accomplishing objectives and taking down enemies with well-placed environmental hacks. When it works, it sings, making you feel like a character from a William Gibson novel. Unfortunately, the rest of the game is a mediocre GTA clone, with shooting that feels weightless and slow, and cars that handle like bricks soaked in canola oil.
Even that great hacking mechanic, though, is marred by the game’s unwillingness to confront its own themes. As Aiden Pearce, you have incredible access to the infrastructure of ctOS, able to surveil the city of Chicago in nearly any way you please. A system called the Profiler (an unfortunate but accurate choice of names) gives you personal information on everyone around you, lets you listen in on phone conversations and text exchanges, even sneak money from bank accounts (think of Batman’s cell phone sonar scheme from The Dark Knight meets serial identity theft). It’s the primary way you advance the plot, gathering useful information in the quest to find and exact justice on the people who murdered your six-year-old niece. But the game spends almost no time wondering if Aiden’s ends justify his means here, if all this power in the hands of one individual might be dangerous or immoral.
It seems that the idea is to let players make up their own minds by leaving these questions implicit. But silence is still a political stance, and in the interest of not passing judgment the story just sort of avoids the questions entirely, and it ends up painting these surveillance systems as a kind of neutral force. Whether or not ctOS seems to be helpful or destructive depends entirely on who’s using it. In the hands of a crime boss, it’s a tool for evil, not because of any fact about the nature of surveillance itself, but simply because an evil person is using it. But if the bad guy gets his in the end (and rest assured, dear readers, he does), who cares how Aiden did it, really? Any potential insights into the realities or ethics of using data gathered via surveillance are lost in messy theming and an unwillingness on the part of the developers to think out the implications of the game’s mechanics. After a while it all just felt like window dressing.
Compare that to a game like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The most recent instalment in the Deus Ex franchise was far from perfect, but it presented you with a complex sci-fi world and asked you to make choices about the world. Even if it was in minute, largely incidental ways, at least you were constantly being asked in the game’s quests to roleplay as someone living in that world, to consider issues related to biological augmentation and transhumanism, and to make decisions about those things. It’s a game that wanted you to think about the political issues it raised, and that attempted to craft the narrative and the mechanics in a way that urged you to do so.
Watch Dogs wants to be a game like that, but the developers didn’t take the necessary risks to make it happen. Instead of a game about surveillance and privacy, it’s a mostly generic action game that uses those concerns to facilitate set pieces without ever confronting any deep ideas. Which I suppose isn’t surprising. This is, after all, a game made by the same company that’s so afraid of offending anyone that it prefaces every boot up of an Assassin’s Creed game with a disclaimer about multiculturalism, lest you think that a game where (spoilers for a five-year-old game coming up) you literally get into a fist fight with the Pope might have something to say about organized religion. When the revolution comes, it’s not going to come from Ubisoft Montreal.
Look at that announcement trailer one more time. It’s chilling and insightful, an indictment disguised as a commercial. This is the sort of world we might be living in soon. Chicago is already drowning in a complex network of security cameras. Watch Dogs had a unique opportunity to be the right game at the right time, the rare triple-A title that was fun to play and made you think. Instead it’s Grand Theft Auto: Hey That’s a Cool Smartphone edition. And that’s a damn shame.
Jake Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living in Austin, TX. In addition to writing for Loser City, his writing appears on Ovrld and anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him byemail or twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. He has very strong feelings about Kanye West.