[25 June 2014]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
I still haven’t finished Watch Dogs. I’ve been playing it on and off again (mostly off) since its release, but I just can’t work up the interest necessary to press the power button on my Xbox for the most part.
I love open world games. They’re kind of my thing, but there are two really essential elements of an open world game that are necessary to make them work well in my mind. First and foremost is the world itself. It has to have a personality. It has to be a place that is interesting to occupy. The Grand Theft Auto series is good at this with their evocation of particular eras and of specific American cities and their ability to send up the culture surrounding those times and places. The Assassin’s Creed series is also good at this. It presents interesting places and times in history that are fascinating to explore within the mythology of the eons spanning war between the Assassins and the Templars.
The second crucial element of an interesting open world game is to create a character that works within that world, that is interesting enough to spend 40-50 hours with. Again, the two aforementioned series have generally been good at this. GTA‘s lovable and sometimes reprehensible criminals and many of Assassin’s Creed‘s rogues have been fascinating enough people to tour the worlds that they occupy alongside.
Watch Dogs, so far for me, has failed to deliver on both counts, creating a bland world with an equally bland tour guide (in the shape of one Aiden Pearce) to spend time in that world as.
I’m trying to figure out Aiden Pearce. So, he’s a hacker and a vigilante in an American city that has essentially become a surveillance state. Pearce uses the systems that the state has created to perform his own acts of mischief and to exact revenge against those responsible for killing his niece.
Got it. He’s a rebel breaking the rules by manipulating the same rules and structure that holds society captive. He’s some kind of modern day Robin Hood or Guy Fawkes. Except he isn’t.
Pearce is a thief, stealing not from the rich and giving to the poor, but stealing from anyone within distance of his own wi-fi signal.
Walking the streets of Watch Dogs, I am capable of hacking the phones and thus (in some way) hacking the lives of most any passerby. This is a provocative idea I suppose. It’s fascinating that just by passing a stranger I can find out their name, their occupation, and that they are recovering from colon cancer. Oh, and the size of their bank account, which ZAP I just stole the contents of. I just robbed that poor shlub who got the good news that he is in remission of $600. Oh, and that dude over there who is trying to make a living by getting his garage band some gigs? ZAP, I have his $850.
Oh, sure, I just stole five grand from some corporate fat cat who just sat down to sip his espresso within my wi-fi range, but my thefts are not in any way discriminatory or discriminating. I press X to hack anyone’s phone and steal an mp3 or nearly every penny they have.
I’m just not sure why. What’s the take away supposed to be on this in-game mechanic of perpetual pickpocketing? Am I supposed to feel guilty about the circumstances of some of those that I steal from? Am I supposed to be merely shocked at how exposed our finances, reputations, medical information, and details about our personal lives really are in the information age? One way or the other, though, what’s in it for Pearce? All this information is just babble, or better put, perhaps, just techno-Babel, giving me vague intimate glimpses of people before reducing them to a source of in-game currency.
Yet, Pearce is supposed to be a vigilante. A man interested in administering justice as some of the game’s other systems suggest. Pearce operates like a superhero at times, getting a heads up that a crime is about to go down that he can rush off to prevent or at least nail the perpetrator when it has gone down. Armed either with guns or a baton, Pearce takes down muggers and random shooters, building a reputation with the public, which depending on whether he uses lethal force or non-lethal force determines whether he is a menace to society or one of the good guys.
The confusion that I feel about what motivates Pearce can be summed up, though, in a single moment of gameplay that I experienced a few hours into the game. So, I’m heading over to an ATM to withdraw some of my ill gotten loot. I scan a lady in front of the ATM and hack her bank account withdrawing $700 from her account. She is then attacked by a mugger at the ATM, who I chase down and beat down (non-lethally) with a baton. The meter that records my reputation with the public appears and indicates that I now am that much more heroic to the public at large for having done this lady a good turn. So, I electronically mugged a lady and then avenged her physical mugging, and I’m what, a good guy? Why exactly?
Is the only unscrupulous act in the information age is an act of physical violence? And, thus punishing that violence is okay, while my own similar but less embodied crimes are just fine. Basically, I can play voyeur and steal anything digitally and feel no remorse and even come out looking like a hero?
Maybe, I need to finish Watch Dogs and allow the character to take more shape or explain himself in some way, but at the moment, I’m fumbling around in the Babel of information at my fingertips trying to understand how I’m supposed to make meaning out of or understand the goals of a man awash in a society reduced to numbers and bullet points about their lives, not a city of living people that he gives a shit about.