As I’ve spent more time with them, the cities that I have lived in or frequented have often slowly shrunk as I got to understand them better. As I knew where I was based on a landmark or could quickly figure out which direction was north based on a few buildings, these cities became smaller and easier to traverse. Yet they also became deeper. Buildings, streets, corners, businesses became embedded with meaning from my memories.
This obviously isn’t uncommon, but when a city shrinks for different reasons, those memories and that sense of depth don’t evolve quite as easily. I bring this up because I have been playing Watch Dogs for slightly over a week and have finally figured out why I think there are so many problems with the game. Yes, it was a rushed title that seems to have acquiesced to a marketing departments’ slow bloodletting. Yes, it was a Christmas tree that toppled over when too many ornaments were attached to it along with a heavy, poorly-written star at its head.
However these aren’t the most immediate problems when you’re playing the game. They aren’t the things that consistently take you out of the game and disrupt your understanding of its narrative consequences. The problem with Watch Dogs is that it is set in an ever-shrinking Chicago where a sense of depth is never reached. In the ramp-up to release date we were told through Ubisoft reps that the world wasn’t necessarily supposed to be giant, but deep and I had no idea what that would possibly mean before I got several hours into the game.
Watch Dogs isn’t deep; it is hollow. Not just the streets, where everything seems repeated within the separate neighborhoods (and even those resemble each other after a while), but the characters of this game are ghostly. NPC’s are apparitions of randomized ‘data’ and as that data (and the few voice clips players get to hear from pedestrians) gets repeated over and over again the city shrinks. Even if every single NPC had their own constructed three-point description (income, occupation, factoid), is that the best we can do? Is procedural character generation and a handful of minigames really the best way to create a world with life and depth?
Something that could be seen as a positive is that the hollow city is reflected in its hero. Just as Batman reflects Gotham, the empty Chicago is reflected by the main character who talks like Batman. Aiden Pearce is the cishet, white male protagonist that Samantha Allen delineated earlier this year, complete with fridged females and a gravelly, this-must-appeal-to-teenage-men-somehow voice.
The hollowness in setting and characters of Watch Dogs makes me wary that any of this game could be taken as a serious commentary of the culture that produced it. I can’t believe that level of sophistication from a text that has a main character with the emotional palate of Christian Bale’s Batman and the linguistic ability of Perd Hapley. This was supposedly going to be a serious take on the surveillance society in America, where CCTV and data mining collect information on a constant basis for both commercial and national security purposes. Instead, players are brought into the same world they have been brought into time and time again, where “identify bad guy, eliminate bad guy” is the only real course of action.
The most interesting point that could be made about this game is that it reflects the ways that different people are labeled. Aiden Pearce cannot be profiled by the same software that he uses to profile everyone within the world, deciphering their secrets and lives. His face is scrambled by some magic scarf, which makes him look like an asshole instead of the vigilantes of the Wild West. Just like in Watch Dogs, the straight, white male of reality doesn’t have to worry about being labeled. We are privileged to be able to pass through life without a label attached to us. Sure, we worry about being labeled, but that’s because we don’t experience what it means to be actually labeled or have those labels tied to stereotypes and oppression. Cue Samantha Allen again for her discussion of privilege by using Halo’s difficulty setting as a metaphor.
This could have been an interesting point to discuss in some manner during the game, but it is completely left alone. We are only once confronted with the identity of Aiden Pearce, but there isn’t anything in that scene that we didn’t know about Pearce before. Instead the game allows the paranoia of the straight, white male to continue, removing the player from a system of oppression and consequence. Aiden Pearce transcends the system that most Chicagoans find themselves within throughout the game. At best, this suggests that one actually can exist without a digital footprint or paper trail. At worst, it suggests that freedom from oppression comes from existing outside of an oppressive system and not understanding one’s own placement within that power structure and working to alter the system.
And so, the world of Watch Dogs shrinks even more. It becomes as tiny as Pearce’s cell phone and representations become hollow for everyone and everything that exists within the game world. Women are plot points. Black and latino men are criminals. And the main character, the one that players inhabit, becomes little more than a gun with different attachments and abilities, all leading to the same outcome. However, they’re the only ones who can benefit from any of that.
While I have some other things to talk about in relation to the game, they are quite disparate and I’ve had quite a bit of trouble putting them together into a coherent critique of the game as a whole. Everything previous to this was aimed at taking on Watch Dogs in general, but I have a few sections of critiques that follow that should be taken as separate arguments.
There was one thing that I was quite pleased with in Watch Dogs. Whenever you enter the game and continue your progress, the game will remind you of what the following campaign mission is all about. You always receive your campaign mission information in this way, but this way you can recognize the who, why and where of the next mission right away when beginning anew.
This is so helpful that I’m unsure why I haven’t seen games do this before (they probably have, I just haven’t experienced it prior to Watch Dogs). I can’t imagine how helpful this would have been when I was playing the Mass Effect trilogy, as I often got a bit lost when I took a day or two off from playing. I realize that ME had a journal system in the game that told you the key points of the available missions, but this sort of reminder really kept me within the narrative and provided me with a lot more information and motivation to stay within the campaign.
While it acts best just as a reminder of the narrative at hand, I think it also helped instill a bit of urgency in me as I was playing through. Usually when I boot up an open-world game I will drift around aimlessly for a bit before getting back to the campaign. I go attack a few ships in Black Flag or fly around in a plane for a while in GTA V. By being prompted, however, I had the narrative back in my mind already and the flickering mission icon on the edge of my minimap helped as well. I would like to imagine this would be even more effective in a game where I was invested in the story. It’s also possible that it would be completely superfluous since I might have a better remembrance of what was going on.
The revenge plot of Watch Dogs all begins with the death of Pearce’s neice, one that the player solely gets to experience through cutscenes and odd audio recordings that the player can access at a few points on the map. Memory studies of games have largely looked at the historical/official legitimacy of memory recreated in games or on the trends of nostalgia and retrogaming. What we see in Watch Dogs is the use of a memory as a narrative vehicle. The memory of a child’s death is supposed to carry us and motivate us throughout the campaign. I might be a hostile audience to that sort of motivation already (I really don’t care about a child that I have known for five seconds), but this really doesn’t work.
I’m unsure of the best way to make memory work in videogames, but I think that there is a requirement that if the memory is to be of significance, the player must experience that memory first-hand instead of simply being told about it. Red Dead Redemption (Marsten being shot by Bill Williamson in the first few minutes of the game) and Dishonored (the player inhabits Corvo as the Empress is killed in front of him) are two revenge plots that both take advantage of forcing the player to create a memory to motive them. The opening scene of GTA V allows the player to understand the skepticism and paranoia that exists between Trevor and Michael throughout the game.
It’s hard enough for film to create memories within the audience that last a few hours. When we’re talking about dozens of hours with games, it’s even more difficult if designers and writers want the motivations for playing to come from diegetic memories. Games need to switch up where these turning points happen; where motivations are spiked and memories that drive players are created. How are those motivations sustained?
Watch Dogs suffered not only from a weak starting point, but also fails to force the player to recollect the initial reasons for the undertaking of this revenge quest. Instead, the player is faced with a convoluted storyline that tries to add on to the initial push with other, newer memories instead of relying on recollection. To take again from the Mass Effect trilogy, we are constantly re-presented with the motivations of Shepard. If there isn’t a specific mention of how this mission plays into the saving of the galaxy, the threats of the galaxy are at least mentioned. At the end of Watch Dogs, the game is no longer about revenge or retribution, but simply about killing. Side missions, like the gang hideouts or fixer contracts, are never contextualized into the narrative and acted solely as distractions from the motivations of the campaign.
While the morality/justice/representation hodgepodge of Watch Dogs’ NPC data has been touched on in other pieces, I think it’s important that we talk about this a bit more. Watch Dogs depends on a decontextualized morality. Fragments of a person’s life are thrust out toward the player in what seems to be an attempt at creating empathy or hatred towards certain NPC’s, but really just falls into lazy characterizations of people. Muslim and Transgender NPC’s are characterized in the same way as avid comic book readers or videogame players.
At some point while I was playing I tried to imagine what the algorithm that ran the profiler would be looking to put forward, what computational device set these sorts of factoids out among others. The profiler’s algorithm isn’t like Amazon’s or other advertising-situated algorithms, since many of the random NPC factoids would be difficult if not impossible to monetize. I have to think that the profiling algorithm has something to do with power and the secrets that people have, as much of the plot revolves around obtaining information that would blackmail most of Chicago’s upper echelon (see Act 2 and anything dealing with Iraq).
If we look at these tidbits of identities as possible sites of blackmail we can see how easily Watch Dogs falls into normative, if not even more conservative, understandings of deviance. Drug use and sexual deviance are more often than not the tidbits of possible criminals. And those that exist outside of the crime prevention minigame seem to exist only for the player to shame the NPC’s (or as some have done, eliminate them). There is a surprising amount of time devoted to shaming people who identify as furries (three different discussions of this subculture exist). Homeless people are tied to drug abuse and addiction.
One of the procedurally generated bits of Watch Dogs is the crime prevention system, which will throw a randomly-generated crime up on the minimap every five to twenty minutes that the player can investigate and attempt to stop. Once in the area of the crime, the player must profile the potential victim or the potential criminal and watch as the ‘crime probability’ progress bar slowly rises to over 95%, when they are prompted to intervene. Intervene too early and no reputation points are awarded to the player, but the crime does not take place and no one is injured in the process (why this isn’t the true end-goal, I’ll never understand). If one waits just long enough, they are able to stop the crime before the victim is injured at all, but the projected perp is taken down violently. Wait too long and the crime may occur and the player might be required to shoot down an escaping criminal.
The first problem with this is that most of the victim’s are women and most of the ‘criminals’ are POC’s. This is a huge problem that simply shouldn’t be occurring anymore in games. It is an unacceptable shortcut at this point in gaming.
Another problem is that this sort of justice isn’t one based on actual crimes, but on the probability that one might occur. This has been written about a bit by Ben Kuchera already, but what isn’t mentioned is that this isn’t the work of a traditional vigilante. The vigilante sees crimes occur and seeks retribution for those actions. This is something entirely different, with Pearce taking on the role of a crime weatherman, predicting what will occur before it happens based on past experience and a few angrily-said sentences.
I’ve written on data mining before and the real problem with the process is that it attempts to predict the actions of an individual based on a decontextualized set of data. The player in Watch Dogs is always presented with a decontextualized set of data that presents actions or characteristics in very black-and-white ways. In this world being Muslim is an off and on state, and there is never a sense that religious belief could exist on a spectrum of interaction. These binary characteristics become attached to action in crime prevention scenarios, where drug addicts are very quickly attached to certain game types and therefore to certain punishment.