[20 June 2014]
Early on in Watch Dogs, our protagonist Aiden Pearce meets with his contact for the hacker group DedSec who goes by the alias BADBOY17. To his surprise, BADBOY17 is neither 17 nor a boy, but a grown woman, and he tells her, “You’re nothing like I was expecting.” She responds, “Funny, you’re exactly what I was expecting.” And with that one sentence, she sums up everything that’s wrong and disappointing with the character of Aiden Pearce. He’s exactly what you’d expect.
Aiden is a walking cliche. The straight, white, unheroic yet morally righteous, trench coat-wearing, lone wolf, avenging soldier with a gravely voice. Everything about him—his design, his dress, his personality, his back story—is so completely predictable that he becomes a parody of himself and all video game heroes like him. I dare anyone to try and take Aiden seriously, you just can’t. However, while the utter unoriginality of his character is disappointing in and of itself, it becomes more disappointing when you compare this version of the character to the version hyped up in marketing materials.
(This is, of course, all subjective. Marketing is as much about personal expectations as it is about the actual content of commercials and trailers and the like. I admit I had high expectations for Watch Dogs, and more specifically I had high expectations for Watch Dogs to be a unique take on the open world genre. I saw the many commercials through that idealistic filter. In retrospect, looking back at those same commercials and trailers, I probably should have realized who Aiden really was.)
Aiden is a soldier. He’s good with a gun and even better with a baton. When his old partner describes their relationship, he emphasizes these combat skills, and how clichéd they are: “I want my partner back. Me at the computer, you in the field doing the ‘manly’ work.” Aiden, the main character in a game about hacking, is rarely the one doing the hacking. In fact, I doubt that he can. Our ability to hack the world stems entirely from our smart phone, which was gifted to him by Clara. Hacking is not part of Aiden’s natural skill set. He’s just another man-on-the-ground following orders from a typical woman-in-our-ear.
It was my hope that Aiden would be more than this cliché, that we wouldn’t need anyone in our ear giving us directions or tracing phone calls because Aiden could do it himself, indeed had to do it himself. The “Aiden” sold to me was a true lone wolf, a single rebel hijacking our mass surveillance world for his own benefit. He just wanted revenge, but the way in which he went about that revenge would speak to the dangers of a connected world by showing how such a system gives disproportionate power to a select few people. He was to use The System to fight The System, and through that conflict, the game would explore thematically how such a system impacts us in our everyday lives.
Such social commentary might seem grandiose, but other big-budget open world action games have managed that balance quite well. Assassin’s Creed II explored the role of religion in society, Brotherhood explored the role of politics in society, and GTA V was a damning critique of capitalism and the architects of wealth inequality. Watch Dogs was poised to tackle the subject of mass surveillance in a timely manner, and I don’t think that it’s asking too much for a game about mass surveillance to actually comment on the culture of mass surveillance. Even if the game came out in favor of such a system that’d be fine. It’d still be acknowledging its own thematic content. But Watch Dogs doesn’t do this. Aiden is a symbol of lazy writing, nothing more.
In contrast to that disappointment, the comparatively tiny text-based iOS game Hack RUN succeeds everywhere that Watch Dogs fails. You are a hacker who is contacted by a mysterious third party and “greatly encouraged” to hack into the database of a corporation called RUN.
Hack RUN actually explores and exploits the idea of a connected world. Part of this is due to the medium. Playing a game about hacking on a smart phone is bound to feel more appropriate than playing a game about hacking on a television. While I may not be hacking into every object I see, I am hacking into a specific database from anywhere I want or at least anywhere I can bring my phone. The medium makes Hack RUN an alternate reality game instead of just a video game with you as the badass hacker protagonist, the kind of protagonists Aiden was supposed to be.
Part of this is due to the presentation. Hack RUN looks authentic. The green command prompts against a black screen look like the innards of computer code, even though the actual commands you’re inputting are simplified and accessible.
And part of this is due to the actual process of solving puzzles. While you do hack into databases in Hack RUN, it’s usually with the goal of discovering personal information that might be used for a password. You’re never hacking past authentication screens. Instead, you’re hacking around them, invading a user’s private world in order to learn his or her likes and dislikes and birthdays and middle names and other probable passwords. This is where Hack RUN works as a better social commentary than Watch Dogs: You can’t use any personal information as a password because all your personal information is available online, in one database or another, and I’m bound to find it.
Hack RUN presents the Internet as dangerous, yet democratic. What begins as uncovering a company culture of manipulation and coercion grows into a governmental conspiracy. You feel like an underdog fighting back against a target larger than yourself, using our ultra connected world as a powerful equalizing weapon. Yes, it’s invasive, but invasive is necessary because you’re so small and RUN is so big. Even if the story of Hack RUN doesn’t directly address these themes, the actions of its protagonist (you) are consistent enough to count as commentary. You’re always the underdog, and the social hacking is so prevalent that you’ll inevitably reconsider your own password use. By contrast, Aiden is never the underdog and never considers the social consequences of his hacking.
Watch Dogs introduces a controversial, socially relevant topic and then avoids saying anything meaningful about it. Hack RUN is a well designed, well presented game that lets its consistent gameplay do the talking. As a result, playing Hack RUN is like living Watch Dogs.