The Watch_Dogs E3preview titled “Exposed” opens with a cell phone screen: the background is a soft green, it is 6:38 p.m. and Jenn Kramer is texting, asking the recipient if he’s at home. To the viewer, it appears to be an ordinary day not unlike any other.
The owner of the cell phone, Joshua Kramer, hastily replies, “Stuck @ the office :(,” his fingers dancing across the glass surface as they’ve likely done a thousand times before. Joshua casually looks from left to right, as though checking to see if any of the nearby pedestrians have witnessed the casual lie he’s just texted his wife.
Confident that he’s in the clear, Kramer walks across the busy Chicago street. As he does, the viewer’s perspective changes, revealing an active surveillance feed of the area.
Kramer and a man in a baseball hat brush shoulders briefly, inconspicuously. But the small action causes the focal point to shift to the man in the baseball. A gruff voice speaks, “Give me four seconds and a clear signal…” and information about Kramer is shown on the screen; he is an auctioneer, a married man and a father of four.
In keeping with the thematic attention to technology, Kramer once again lifts his phone. The screen now shows a mysterious symbol. Another moment, and a chat feed is displayed from within a small coffee shop. A woman admits to having found “something on Stefan’s computer,” much to the shock of her friend Liz.
The same voice states: “I’ll get in, and you’ll never know.” Kramer continues his long walk, passing an ATM terminal that flashing text identifies as being hacked.
“But I want you to know,” the voice again, matter of fact and underscored by a digital Central Operating System (CtOS) advertisement proclaiming a reduction in crime. “You’re not anonymous. I’ve seen your kind before.”
The preview goes on to reveal Joshua Kramer’s double life as a human trafficker as well as vigilante Aiden Pearce’s role in Kramer’s very public takedown. But, instead of detailing what is, perhaps, the more action-oriented half of the trailer, I think it’s important to consider some of these early elements and their role in creating an immersive, realistically sinister environment for future players.
Ubisoft Montreal is best known for their work with the Assassin’s Creed franchise, which reimagines historical settings and events in order to appeal to gamers and craft a unique play experience. In Watch_Dogs, the developer continues and strengthens this approach of repurposing aspects of the real world in order to create an elevated gaming experience that verges on art.
Instead of using history as a playground, Ubisoft now seeks to mimic and exaggerate current societal issues– making a number of pointed statements about morality, privacy and the way the two are linked in the Digital Age. Through the lens of Aiden Pearce, the player is forced to confront the likelihood that “good” and “evil” are (and, debatably, always have been) empty terms.
Aiden, the player character, is intriguing because, from what we’ve been shown at this point, he walks the line between protagonist and anti-hero. He is a man with seemingly unlimited power, provided to him by a proclivity for hacking and a society inundated with devices, and somewhat shady motives.
We might be inclined to view him as the hero because we’ve so often related to and empathized with our main characters, enacting our will on them as they seamlessly do the same to us. But, in a recent interview, Senior Producer Dominic Guay states that Aiden was designed to “not necessarily be a good guy or a bad guy.”
So, while neither good nor bad, Aiden Pearce is a man who illegally rights crimes, who punishes the wicked, who seeks to carry out some unknown act of revenge. He is a 21st century Robin Hood, a V, a Sherlock, the definition of a vigilante – someone who holds himself above the government, above the law.
Not only does this liken Aiden to currently popular and morally ambiguous characters such as The Last of Us’sJoel, Red Dead Redemption’s John Marsdenand Dishonored’s Corvo Attano, but it also marks what can only be described as a trend in our precarious faith in governmental control outside of the virtual world.
In many ways, Watch_Dogs summons forth the ongoing Edward Snowden/NSA affair and the very real fear of the way things that once appeared to offer freedoms have become confining and exploitative.
For obvious reasons, this is particularly pertinent to the game’s story and mechanics as well as Aiden’s unique abilities. In the brief clip described above, we see not only private information about Joshua Kramer, who at least seems nefarious and to be involved in some way in the game’s larger story, but also the bank account and chat room discussions of two unimportant bystanders.
The “Honored” trailer, which focuses primarily on the fast pace and grittier elements of the game, also subtly depicts the way that Aiden can harness private information just by walking by a person. As Aiden strolls the streets of Chicago in his already iconic ball cap and trench coat, personal data – including age and occupation – about two NPCs are revealed.
One has been “recently evicted” and the other is “addicted to online auctions.” In all cases, whether it be these two brief instances or the chat room exchange described earlier, the information is neither good nor redemptive.
It is the kind of information that we view as bad, dirty, embarrassing, exposing – the things that we talk about in hushed voices or share in conspiratorial text messages. It is the kind of information that we want to keep private.
But, as Aiden taunts in “Honored” while overlooking Chicago from the rooftop of a skyscraper, “In this city, no one can hide from me. No one.” By extension, no one is safe from the player either, who is complicit in Aiden’s spying whether intentional or otherwise.
It is in this way that Watch_Dogs proves truly interesting. While there’s obviously a sprawling and seemingly well-conceived story involving Aiden Pearce’s past; the notorious hacker group Deadsec, who defame Aiden’s character in another trailer by fingering him as the man “who has done exactly what we have warned you about”; the city’s CtOS and human auctioning, the game has the uncanny potential to invoke real world anxieties and meaningful reflection.
Watch_Dogs doesn’t invite its players to reconsider history or to fathom the possibilities of a fictional world but instead invites them to look more closely at the world they live in and interact with every single day.
Similarly, the open world mechanics, which allow the player to determine the amount of physical and psychological damage Aiden will enact on city, criminals and civilians alike, welcome reflection. By defining Aiden’s morality through the innumerable actions afforded us, we also work to define our own.
And though we’re drawn to empathize with and embody Aiden Pearce – despite not knowing his true intentions, despite his fearful and fathomable abilities – the “Exposed” trailer (and, one can only hope, the forthcoming game) quietly urges us to question how easily we could end up like Joshua Kramer: on the big screen, all of our dirty secrets revealed, and the life we’ve worked to build crumbling around us.
Watch_Dogs seems destined to be a successful title due to its visuals and open world gameplay, but it also seems likely to redefine our perceptions of connection and privacy in a world gone digital come November 15.
After all, everything is connected and connection is power.