Watch Dogs was both a title that I was greatly anticipating and also one I didn’t have the highest hopes for. The past year hadn’t seen too many stellar releases from major studios and the last two I’d played were mostly a disappointment, Dark Souls II and the rebooted Thief. Neither were terrible, but both seemed antiquated and overall lackluster.
I was hopeful for Watch Dogs though like many players because of its impressive E3 demos that showcased both impressive visuals and refreshing gameplay in the form of hacking. It was an openworld title that looked like it could finally shake the “run-and-gun” play favored by the likes of GTA, Saints Row, Sleeping Dogs, and Assassin’s Creed. It was also arguably the first significant release that was being labeled as “next-gen” and one that PC-gamers would finally be able to experience that wasn’t being held back by the technical limitations of consoles.
The initial demo footage actually showed Aiden simply walking down the street then into a club all the while covertly hacking via his smart phone into the traffic system, surveillance cameras, and into other people’s phones. It was intriguing to say the least, and it left me hopeful that we would actually get a title that was something new instead of an older proven system rehashed and reskinned into a new franchise.
Sadly the final result is nothing more then that. Watch Dogs mechanically speaking isn’t a great measure away from Assassin’s Creed which isn’t surprising since they were both developed by Ubisoft Montreal. The game does rely heavily upon a system of hacking which is meant to be the main highlight of the game, but it is often times completely ignored in forced shooting or car chase sequences.
When the game works well, it’s when the player is allowed to use hacking in conjunction with stealthily getting to their objectives with no loss of life but often the game is scripted to force Aiden into scenarios that can only be described as bloodbaths.
The violence in Watch Dogs isn’t a matter of being out of place though, rather it seems like the game can’t decide what it is suppose to be. Aiden the protagonist of the game seems to be in a constant state of flux where it isn’t clear who he is. On one side he goes out of his way to intervene in criminal activity but on the other hand engages in the same behavior freely with no moral conflict.
Aiden is introduced to the player without much context aside from two pivotal events that seemingly guide much of the game’s narrative. A mysterious botched job that put Aiden on the radar of some dangerous individuals, and the subsequent accidental death of his niece during an assassination gone awry. Aside from this, the only information about Aiden is whatever is communicated through his actions, dialogue, and the performance of the voice actor. In the case of Watch Dogs it’s not a great deal and we never learn what makes Aiden who he is. Because of this, aside from the fact that Aiden is a hacker, his defining characteristic is that he feels guilt over the death of his niece and subsequent emotional trauma to his sister and nephew. While the characterization is already sparse, even this minimal amount is problematic.
As the player we never actually meet, hear, or really learn to emotionally connect to his niece, rather we are treated to a quick cinematic of the accident at the hands of some hired thugs that were out to kill Aiden. While it’s not an unbelievable assertion that Aiden would have cared deeply for a family member, it seems lazy writing to not include any sort of meaningful relationship between the two to allow the player to emotionally connect themselves.
I was never taken out of the fiction of the game to relate to Aiden’s loss or care enough to progress the story to seek justice. In contrast to Ezio’s loss of family however in Assassin’s Creed II, the situation is completely different. We see a young innocent Ezio interacting with his siblings and father in both a playful and loving manner. While it’s not an extensive interaction, we still get a good sense of their close bonds that surpass merely the familial. Thus their unjust execution later into the game comes as an emotional punch for both Ezio the character, and the player who is completely outside the scope of the game. It’s not merely a catalyst here, rather an emotional moment that also dramatically changes Ezio as a character. We are no longer simply spectating upon Ezio and playing a game, rather we become emotionally invested in his struggles and desire to see him succeed.
In this manner Watch Dogs favors using secondary characters more as catalysts then anything else. The rest of the family while still alive and having a considerable amount of screen time barely have any depth to them past serving as objects to spur Aiden into action. Nikki his sister gets kidnapped, thus forcing Aiden to do her captor’s bidding. His nephew additionally frequently wanders off into danger forcing Aiden into scripted fire fights with no significance into the narrative or character development for either of them. Note that I don’t even refer to Nikki’s children by their names, that’s because despite how heavily they seemingly feature in the game and my recent playthrough, I cannot actually remember them because they are that forgettable. The niece doesn’t even have a single line of dialogue and her only appearance is in a heavily distorted flashback where she is simply sitting in the backseat of a car.
Ultimately Aiden is barely even a character. He lacks any sort of personality and describing him would be describing something with no emotion or complexities. Because of this, it’s extremely difficult to even see a shift from the Aiden before the accident seen through flashbacks and the Aiden afterward. Both are completely dull and lifeless and even more problematic is that he hasn’t even made the changes he states that he has made. We never learn exactly what went wrong with the botched job but Aiden states on few occasions that he has left that part of his life behind, referring to being a criminal for hire. But then most of the gameplay within Watch Dogs is Aiden being a relentless criminal or at the very least using questionable means to his own selfish endeavors. And to clarify, I do see his quest to seek vengeance on his niece’s killers as “selfish” as no matter how you play the game, it will ultimately come at the cost of countless lives. It’s ultimately not a quest for justice rather self satisfying vengeance that even Nikki the mother of the murdered child does not desire in the slightest.
On a side note properly characterizing children is never an easy task especially in a medium such as video games but there is already a precedent of successfully doing just that. Clementine in TellTale’s Walking Dead is proof enough of that as well as the moments of bonding shown in Red Dead Redemption between John Marston and his son while hunting.
This leads to how Aiden is presented through the actual gameplay or how he seemingly emerges when the player is given control over him within the confines of the various systems and scripted events of the game. While this will largely vary dependent on who is playing, various factors ensure that a good majority of players will tackle the game in the same fashion. Many instances and conflicts are heavily scripted for an openworld title, morality while a mechanic plays no role in the ongoing narrative or characterization of Aiden, and lastly utilizing certain systems are greatly easier or preferred over others.
Watch Dogs like most games today rely on in-game money to purchase weapons, consumables, vehicles, and other items to enhance the player’s experience. While money can simply be gained from doing literally any of the various activities in the game as a reward, by far the easiest way of gaining money quickly is hacking into the multitude of various pedestrians around the city. It generally works by walking along a city street and profiling all the people around you with your smart phone. It then typically tells you a bit of information about them, and how much money you stole from their bank account. What I found strange about this is that while there is a morality bar in the game that moves depending on the type of actions you perform, stealing money from seemingly innocent people didn’t effect this in the slightest.
One can’t even argue it’s some sort of Robin Hood-mentality since the vast majority of the people I stole from were in positions that made it extremely morally questionable. Typically the game will tell you what type of person they are, such as “recently arrested for murder” or “diagnosed with cancer.” The expectation would probably be that taking money from the criminal would be somewhat justified while stealing from someone battling cancer at the very least is kind of a douchey move. The game doesn’t care though and quickly as a player who attempts to avoid metagaming, I found by a certain point I didn’t care either. I quickly stopped seeing them as people, rather as what they were, lifeless npcs within a game that I was meant to utilize to further my abilities within the game.
Strangely the missions (both main story and side quests) where one would imagine such contradictions could be best avoided given their scripted nature, are not any better. In fact, often they are far worse. The Criminal Convoy missions are a good example of some of the secondary content that frequently presents a moral quandary.
In one such mission, Aiden discovers the Viceroys a street gang within the game are out to do a form of initiation for new recruits. The initiation consists of shooting random innocent bystanders to prove their worth and dedication to the gang. Keep in mind that these new recruits have yet to actually commit the crime and Aiden has no way of knowing whether or not any or all the recruits would actually go through with it. Despite this as Aiden I ambush them en route and am instructed to essentially murder every single one of them before they “might” commit a crime.
The main story where the writing should be held to the highest degree of scrutiny, it gets worse. In attempting to steal data from Iraq, the leader of the Viceroys, Aiden obtains compromising information on his second-in-command Bedbug in order to blackmail him into doing his bidding. It provides an ironic parallel to Damien the game’s main antagonist, and also the one who kidnapped Aiden’s own sister into forcing him to do his bidding conversely. While Aiden’s methods are already questionable, it’s the way in which he emotionally reacts to it that is far more troubling. Bedbug ends up getting caught in the act and thrown out a window. The immediate assumption is that he is dead from the high fall. Aiden expresses little guilt but does state that Bedbug was still young enough to get out. And in fact our invasion into his privacy did reveal him more to be a caring individual merely in a bad environment, then the tough gangster he tried to come off as. While Bedbug does in fact live through this ordeal, Aiden’s complete lack of care to others’ well being is appalling given he is thrown into this light as a vigilante hero by both the game’s narrative and the systems within the game that tell you so.
While Watch Dogs doesn’t have any sort of kill counter that I know if, I internally kept track of the ridiculous amount of bodies that I was dropping throughout and it must have been in the ballpark of about a thousand lives give or take. The vast majority of those were police officers and random pedestrians caught in the crossfire. While this might seem overly critical on Watch Dogs, I’ve never seen such a strong contradiction in other openworld titles.
In GTA, you play as a reckless criminal so while it’s a bit of a stretch, all the unintended destruction is still fitting. In Saints Row you play a psychopath who actually enjoys doing these horrendous acts and much of the game reflects that. Even in openworld titles where you are supposedly a morally upright protagonist such as Sleeping Dogs, the game heavily penalizes you from doing criminal acts and in fact I played through that title with little to no innocent casualties. Despite all that, the game had me far to the right on the morality bar labeling me as a vigilante protector of the people when I easily took more lives then saved.
Ultimately the gameplay itself speaks volumes about who Aiden is or isn’t. While the narrative wants to tell you that Aiden is a master hacker, when I play as Aiden he is clearly some sort of Black Ops or Navy Seal operator. While the game doesn’t always force the player to perform a task in a certain way, often times it completely disallows the use of stealth and hacking in favor of just shooting your way to the objective. There is something clearly wrong where a single hacker who has no military background that we know of can take on hundreds of private security forces and police officers, all of whom have much more extensive training in a head-to-head fight.
In the end Aiden isn’t merely a character that lacks complexities or depth, rather he is absurdly self-contradictory. The game constantly tells the player that Aiden is a vigilante hero but neither the gameplay or the narrative itself ever fully enforce that notion. If anything, Aiden seems like a narrow-minded individual who is solely focused on one goal. He isn’t even particularly tactful to those that are close to him nor very respectful to those that the loss obviously has effected more harshly.
Aiden may have lost a niece, but Nikki lost her daughter and his nephew lost his sister. It’s honestly perplexing that Nikki of all people in the game seems quite calm and passive at the loss of her own child, yet Aiden is literally tearing up Chicago in search for her killer. Of course, if the game had actually bothered to show some sort of connection between Aiden and his niece, this might have been justified, but we were never even given that. Also just when the relationship between Nikki and Aiden gets a glimpse of being interesting when she figures out he is the “vigilante”, she exits the narrative completely never to be heard from again.
Ultimately when Aiden finally does reach his goal, he hasn’t grown or changed as a character. Contrast this to Ubisoft’s own Assassin’s Creed II, the story and journey of Ezio was both engaging and vast. We not only saw him before he was an Assassin, but ultimately what motivated him to become one, hone the skills he needed, and mature from a brash youth to a wise leader. With Aiden he is essentially the same person from start to end.
The problem with the characterizations in Watch Dogs is quite reminiscent of the same symptom that the Star Wars prequel trilogy was plagued with and was quite cleverly highlighted in the now notorious reviews put out by RedLetterMedia. In those reviews the fictional Mr. Plinkett poses the following to simply tell how poorly a character has been written:
“Describe the following Star Wars character without saying what they look like, what kind of costume they wore, or what their profession or role in the movie was. Describe this character to your friends like they ain’t never seen Star Wars.”
The review then showcases response from various members of RedLetterMedia answering in response to the character of Han Solo. He is described as a rogue, arrogant, charming, dashing, fancies himself a playboy, a scoundrel, cocksure womanizer, thief with a heart of gold, etc…
Then in response to the character of Qui-Gon Jinn from Episode 1 responses ranged from “I don’t remember that character” to “well…he has a beard”.
If I were to pose the same question with the various characters from Watch Dogs, I would equally draw up a blank on pretty much every one of them. Most if not all I can only boil down to what they looked like and what role they served in the game. Aiden is a trenchcoat-wearing hacker, Clara looks like the chick from Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, Nikki is Aiden’s sister…she’s blonde and divorced, Damien is crippled, etc…
The problem doesn’t stop there. Most of the characters seemingly don’t act or are motivated by what normal people would expect. Why doesn’t Nikki blame Aiden for her daughter’s death? And furthermore why doesn’t she hold him accountable for now putting both her and her son in danger? Damien Brenks, the game’s main antagonist is a confusing mess. He is angry with Aiden over a botched job that seemingly cost him the use of one of his legs. It definitely sucks for him but a far cry from a tragedy, and also a poor motivation for the elaborate and monumental revenge he’s set out for Aiden. It’s also even less consistent when all signs point to Aiden not being at fault, and Damien having to understand that. It’s as if the writers themselves forgot what they wrote themselves or exquisite corpse’d the narrative from various scraps.
Jordi Chin who is a fixer that Aiden often utilizes is possibly the most inconsistent character within the game. Aiden frequently describes him in an unflattering light that makes him out to be a man motivated mainly by greed. That said, Jordi seemingly is loyal to Aiden for the majority of the game without any sort of compensation. Aiden isn’t even particularly nice to him either, so a degree of friendship or brotherhood is questionable. It’s honestly laughable that he shows up at the final confrontation between Aiden and Damien only to finally betray him. He had countless opportunities to do this before, why now? It’s even more ridiculous that afterward post-credits he offers Aiden a last bit of closure by giving up the location of Maurice, the actual gunmen behind the murder of his niece. There is no gain here and it’s done for reasons I cannot fathom.
Characters are also lazily placed in situations for the sake of progressing the story at the cost of going against what said character would normally do. Clara’s ultimate death is a prime indicator of this. Clara being an established hacker herself and a member of DedSec was up til her reveal to Aiden, extremely careful and covert. That said for whatever reason she ultimately dies in an ambush that she should have seen from a mile away.
And quite possibly the worst culprit of them all isn’t even a character, rather the very setting and premise of Watch Dogs to begin with. ctOS is arguably the real villain in Watch Dogswith its complete invasion of privacy into the lives of everyone in Chicago. DedSec, the games analogue for Anonymous is actively out to shut it down. That said, it begs the question of how such a system was ever approved to begin with. I find it unbelievable that citizens would ever vote for such an invasive system into their homes with no foreseeable benefits. I actually can’t think of one good thing such a system might provide. It’s definitely not more secure which the game makes sure to let you know on a regular basis.
ctOS is a universal networked system that controls and manages essentially everything in Chicago from surveillance systems, cellphones, and traffic. Such a consolidation is obviously problematic as issues that arise would effect all areas and not just one. This doesn’t even seem to be an oversight as the game does feature ctOS suffering blackouts on a regular basis. When this happens, the whole of Chicago is plunged into darkness. It’s not only a case of no electricity, but no access to gas, phone services, or other essential utilities.
The relationship of ctOS to the other players in the game however is probably what is most troubling. I was honestly expecting that by the game’s conclusion Aiden would aid in the shutdown of ctOS in conjunction with DedSec to somehow offset the damage he had done. Such an act would have at least redeemed him slightly as a hero but this wasn’t the case. When DedSec contacts him, Aiden completely brushes them off. It’s even stranger since this shortly follows after Clara’s death, the expectation would have been that Aiden would have been moderately sympathetic to her organization’s aims. It would have definitely made sense in the narrative progression or at the very least, provided at least some character development in a game that had none.
Comedian Kumail Nanjiani makes the excellent point that videogames are one of the rare mediums that only gets better at times goes on and as technology improves. He humorously draws a line from the giant steps taken from the simple nature of a game like Pac Man to the emotionally engaging work Heavy Rain where spatial interactions are used to present the awkwardness between an estranged father and son. An awkward silence is presented by the games dialogue by initially offering the player dialogue choices, then simply exhausting then forcing the player to sit there with their son in awkward silence. “You literally run out of things to say to your son for two minutes in complete silence as he finishes his TV dinner which is cold in the middle cause you didn’t hit X at the right time”.
The point to be taken from this is that videogames have finally reached a level of sophistication where we can move past simple spatial interactions consisting of eating little dots on a screen to actually engaging in complex discourse and scenarios. Gameplay can address and enhance the narrative, it doesn’t have to be the other way around. Watch Dogs really doesn’t have a valid excuse for falling back on long since proven spatial systems of shooting guns and racing cars to tell a story that was supposed to be about hacking, invasion of privacy, and centralization of control.
The irony is that Watch Dogs actually is an extremely fun sandbox to fool around in. As Aiden you can be chased by cops, race down a side street and raise bollards behind you causing the cops to crash into them. You can also casually walk down the street, come to a busy intersection and hack the streetlights to cause a massive pileup. Hacking through cameras to move through a space also offers an engaging and refreshing spatial interaction that works beautifully with the game’s other systems such as combat or stealth. If the game had at least proper characterization or gameplay, it could have still succeeded to a degree, but when both elements are so dissonant from where they should be it just completely breaks down.