Tag Archives: Watch Dogs

A Hook to Grapple With: Transcending Environments with Vertical Accessibility

This E3 is the first time that I’ve paid close attention to the whole spectacle. I’ve only been playing games on a console for a few years now and didn’t really understand how watching game trailers could be exciting. I still don’t really comprehend all of it, but I have come to understand that trailers and early gameplay footage don’t necessarily mean that anything put forth will come to fruition. Cynicism seems to be the name of the game at E3.

I say this to start because I’m declaring something stupid that I nonetheless believe to be true: 2014 is the year of the grappling hook. Grappling hooks were featured in three games shown off at E3 – Battlefield: Hardline, Rainbow Six: Siege, and Far Cry 4. When we put these together with games like Assassin’s Creed, Titanfall, and Infamous: Second Son, which offer (super)natural or biomechanical grappling hooks on the player-character, it seems somewhat obvious that there is a distinct move towards increasing the vertical openness of games. This is not necessarily a new thrust but simply what I think is an increase in the frequency of AAA games attempting to use verticality as a means to create ‘depth’ or be ‘innovative’ or whatever buzzword works.

To start this discussion of verticality, I would like to first turn to how it has been dealt with in another medium – film. Kristen Whissel wrote an article in the early 2000s about how CGI had increased the use of vertical shots in films throughout the 1990s and how that enforced traditional notions of space and power. She writes,

[This article] approaches digitally enhanced verticality as a mode of cinematic representation designed to exploit to an unprecedented degree the visual pleasures of power and powerlessness. Precisely because verticality automatically implies the intersection of two opposed forces – gravity and the force required to overcome it – it is an ideal technique for visualizing power. Verticality thereby facilitates a rather literal naturalization of culture in which the operation and effects of (social, economic, military) power are mapped onto the laws of space and time.

This is a critical argument that can be readily attached to many games without alteration. The loss of vertical power in games like Sportsfriends or Super Smash Bros. equates to loss of life and loss of power within the games. Fall off of a ledge and one must struggle to return to their seat of power or be lost to failure. Miss one of the ladders in that flooding puzzle in Half-Life 2 and you probably will have to start everything over again.

Important to note is that Whissel is dealing with a medium that doesn’t have interaction in conjunction with visual space. For many of the games that I have mentioned already, the power of verticality is not just tied to the space that characters inhabit, but to the abilities of those characters. This is how characters are established as heroes, with their capability to inhabit and embody the power that comes with their access to vertical expanses. It’s how games establish differences between the player character and NPCs. Simply, it’s how the player character transcends their environment. Every Assassin’s Creed hero has been able to scale buildings and reach vantage points that are unavailable to their enemies. This seems to be the case as well with Far Cry 4’s use of the grappling hook (and their gyrocopter), in addition to Watch Dogs’ Aiden Pearce being able to inhabit vantage points well above his enemies through ctOS cameras. It probably isn’t a coincidence that all of those are Ubisoft games.

When we’re talking about these games, we aren’t discussing a struggle to obtain or maintain the power that comes with vertical ability. Instead, we are dealing with a constant that can be accessed by the player. Whissel also writes, “Since extreme forms of vertical movement inevitably involve a violation of physical laws (which often reassert themselves), vertically oriented bodies and narratives provide the ideal form for abstracting power and representing the struggles of the emergent against the dominant – a concept neatly conveyed by the title Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow [the only thing neat about the film].”

Sky Captain, as far as I remember, featured a large number of technological advances that allowed its characters to overcome the environment. Blimps, planes and Angelina Jolie’s eye patch put technology as the only way of attaining and keeping power. These technologies put the characters above their environment, soaring even above the Empire State Building. Here is where the shift in verticality becomes even more interesting. Accessing vertical power is not in the buildings or environment themselves, but in the individual’s ability to climb above that environment. In the early 2000s I remember playing a ton of the Half-Life mod Day of Defeat, a multiplayer FPS set in WWII (the trend at the time). I bring this up because there was always a vertical sense to the maps in this game. I particularly remember maps like Avalanche (a European town square) and Charlie (a D-Day recreation) having vertical spaces that were solely environmental, made of buildings, churches, hills, bunkers, and other natural or man-made structures. These maps allowed for the same kind of accessibility and depth that a grappling hook promises, but entrenched that power into the map instead of placing it solely in the hands of the player.

That isn’t to say that the new AAA games I have mentioned have abandoned environmental verticality. I’ve played a bit of the Hardline beta and there are still plenty of places where a person can obtain and make use of vantage points (and helicopters are still available to both sides of the engagement). Assassin’s Creed games have always used the environment to create tactical advantages, even if only a few characters can use them. However, the point that I’m trying to make here is that environmental verticality seems to no longer be enough for AAA games. Accessible space for all players is being replaced with buy-in options like the grappling hook. Yes, there’s some private property/public space argument here, but I’m unable to fully convey it (hopefully someone else will?).

Why is it that we even desire highly individualized spaces? Battlefield and Call of Duty have been using ‘levolution’ or whatever other terrible word they came up with in their last few iterations. Even Nintendo’s new shooter Splatoon (by far the most interesting shooter to come out of E3 this year) is looking to individualize the map space in a new way, even though it’s mostly horizontal space in that instance. I think part of it is developer’s trying to embrace player creativity and get away from top-down gameplay, freeing up a player’s ability to interact and change their environment. It’s side-stepping world-building and instead merely extending the world, putting the burden of the actual building the life of the world onto the players.

However, I think these sorts of moves are also due to a bit of a shift in how marketers and PR people use words like immersion and depth. Instead of creating these senses by building worlds that reflect a social or cultural period, immersion and depth are measured in how a player interacts with the world. Bioshock and its sequels put the player in worlds that were crafted and conveyed a certain culture. Gone Home contextualized the player through the world it built (see Jill Scharr’s article in Unwinnable Weekly #2 for an excellent article on that world). These games created depth and immersion from the ground-up. These sorts of worlds seem like they would exist even when I turned off the console.

Instead of immersion and depth being used in relation to the world itself, these words seem to be more attached to the interaction between the world and the player. I don’t recall how often immersion and deep were used in relation to the games that I’ve focused on in this article. However, I did recently write on Watch Dogs and the tying of that game to the tag of ‘deep.’ These are not worlds that are deep themselves; they are hollow repetitions of building and character models. Instead the possibilities of depth and immersive quality are being wrapped up in a player’s ability to alter the environment.

I’m certain that there is enough linguistic space available for both of these kinds of immersion/depths to exist (and as this essay shows a new ‘verticality’ is probably also needed). New critical vocabulary doesn’t seem to have been at the top of the list for marketers and PR departments in the past several years, sticking to stalwarts like interactivity and revolutionary instead of stepping out of their conservative lexicon. Perhaps words like ‘plastic’ or ‘malleable’ would be better suited to describe the environments of Watch Dogs or Battlefield than deep or interactive.

Lofty practices generally come with lofty rhetoric, particularly in an industry that promises to revolutionize gameplay every time a new product gets announced. Something that criticism can do is bring that rhetoric back down to earth and put it in line with what the product actually presents to its consumer. An attention to language and crafting a critical vocabulary is one possible avenue for doing this, as we are not tied to the buzzword glossaries that come down from on high before game presentation. Until we do create a more robust vocabulary, we are merely grappling onto the helicopters of PR departments and letting them fly us in whatever direction they please.

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A Week with Watch Dogs

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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