Watch Dog's protagonist is a cliché that never grows beyond cliché.
Watch DogsPublisher: Ubisoft
Players: 1 player
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: 2014-05-27
Aiden Pierce from Watch Dogs is a terrible person. He was supposed to be a clever hero: a power-fantasy for the modern age, a man who can kill with his phone as well as his fists. That's not what we got.
Instead, Aiden manages to be utterly generic yet unique in his unpleasantness. He's a thematic mess of a character, someone so inconsistent and frustrating that he becomes morbidly fascinating. He is the biggest failure of Watch Dogs.
Too Clichéd to Be Clichéd
The biggest problem with Aiden Pierce is that he tries to conform to multiple antihero tropes at the same time. The game tries to make him an emotional avenger and a stoic loner at the same time. Gaming is rife with antihero protagonists, so there are plenty examples of these tropes done well, making it easy to see why Aiden fails at both.
Kratos from God of War is the poster boy for gaming power fantasies, a man defined by power, violence, and uncontrollable emotions. He’s on a quest to avenge his family (much like Aiden), except Kratos gives in to his anger and his sense of loss. He rampages, he doesn’t think things through, and he has no real plan. He just hacks his way to Ares and then through Ares.
By contrast, Aiden is too buttoned up -- literally. Whereas Kratos is dressed in only a loincloth, his body exposed to emphasize his lack of self-concern and his face exposed so that we can see his anger at all times, Aiden hides within his clothing with his giant coat and collar nearly covering his face.
He's also always looking down at his phone, his face turned away from us. He's supposed to be on a revenge quest like Kratos, but he treats that interest like a boring side job. He’s too stoic to be the emotional avenger.
Yet, ironically, he's also too stoic to be a proper stoic antihero. He's too clichéd to be a proper cliché.
Stoic antiheroes are (almost) always people who once cared deeply about something or someone, and who were then hurt deeply because of that compassion, causing them to regress inwards. Yet their compassion still exists. That's what makes them an antihero and not a villain. Emotional vulnerability is important for a stoic antihero, and Marcus Fenix from Gears of War is good example of such a character.
Marcus seems to be the embodiment of the clichéd space marine. From the very first level of his game and as soon as we take control of him, he shows himself to be a capable and dedicated soldier with no time for love. He's here to fight, and that's it.
However, the game begins with him in prison because he abandoned his military post in a vain attempt to save his father from the monster horde. We're introduced to Marcus through two conflicting statements about his character. Gears of War understands that contradiction is a part of character, but it's also smart enough to pick a side in order to define Marcus's personal values.
Marcus is a soldier, yes, but he'll always put family first. This contradicts our initial perception of him, but it's a trait entirely consistent with his personality and past. Contradicting our perception is not the same thing as contradicting his character.
Aiden only ever contradicts himself. He sets out to avenge a dead family member by putting his family at even more risk. He forces others to help him (even when they don’t want to) and then expresses regret when things go wrong and someone dies. He has the same stoic shell as Marcus, but none of the interesting contradictions beneath.
He's a cliché that never grows beyond cliché, so his stoicism becomes laughable rather than a defensive personality trait.
On the other hand, if these contradictions really are supposed to represent the "real" Aiden Pierce, then the real Aiden Pierce is an asshole who lies to his friends, family, himself, and the player. And he's still rather laughable.
Badass Doesn't Mean Asshole
Aiden, as he's portrayed in Watch Dogs, is a man incapable of admitting wrongdoing or weakness. He approaches every problem the same way: act like the smartest, strongest person in the room and hope people fall in line. Even when that tactic doesn’t work, like when it gets his sister kidnapped or when it makes him the target of a manhunt, he never changes his approach. As a result, Aiden has no real character arc throughout the game; he doesn't learn any lessons, and he doesn’t grow as a person.
Thus, he’s a boring character, but boring doesn’t necessarily mean unlikable or unpleasant. His nastiness stems from his interactions with others.
Aiden has a team of helpers that he regularly abuses. Watch Dogs might think that this makes him into something like a loner antihero, a “complex man” who struggles in social situations, but it actually makes him frustratingly simple by reducing his role within the group to a cliché: Aiden is the muscle. He's a brute with a good team. Everything he does, everything he is, and everything that makes him powerful comes from his companions.
We realize that despite embodying a myriad of "loner antihero" clichés, Aiden cannot function on his own. Our protagonist becomes a joke, his threats become toothless, and his antihero act becomes a parody of itself.
Interacting with Jordi
At one point in the game a mercenary associate of ours, Jordi Chen, asks for help getting rid of some bodies. Jordi was introduced at the beginning of the game and was quickly tasked with babysitting a suspect who is also a witness for Aiden. Jordi watches over this man for essentially the entire game, yet when he asks Aiden for help Aiden responds, "I don’t owe you anything."
Obviously that's not true. Jordi has been helping us out a lot, so Aiden’s denial makes him look ignorant of an obvious truth. Even if we give Aiden the benefit of the doubt and assume that this denial is a form of posturing meant to establish dominance, then it’s a plan that backfires hard. Every time Jordi calls us or appears in person he mentions Aiden’s hostage, and we eventually, inevitably, do what is asked of us.
It’s clear then that Jordi understands the power dynamic between these two men and how to gain the upper hand. It’s also clear that the developers understand this dynamic as well since they gave Jordi his voice and dialogue. We too will understand this dynamic by the time that the third time Aiden reluctantly agrees to do a job for Jordi rolls around.
Thus, everyone inside and outside the game recognizes the power dynamic between these two men, except Aiden. When our antihero talks tough to Jordi, it’s hard not to roll your eyes.
Interacting with Clara
Clara is your contact within the hacker group known as DedSec. She acts as the voice-in-you-ear giving you objectives for most of the game. As the chaos around Aiden grows, she becomes more reluctant to help. When she’s caught up in a grand assassination attempt and has to flee with Aiden as he blows up his base, she’s understandably upset by this turn of events. “We need to trust each other,” she says when they meet again after the attack.
Aiden, instead of explaining why he should be trusted, plays the pity card and tries to make Clara into the unreasonable offender, pushing her away even though he’s already admitted to himself that he needs her help: “You know what? I don’t have time to soothe you, Clara. If you don’t trust me, there’s nothing I can do. Someone shot up my motel room, my sister’s gone, and I have nothing. You are not my priority right now.”
If Aiden is being honest, then he’s embarrassingly dense about his own limitations. He’s only able to hack things because of the super smart phone that he got from Clara, and he’s only able to follow leads because Clara keeps hacking Chicago for him. Even in that short bit of quoted dialogue he admits that he has nothing, but still refuses to admit that he needs her help. This makes Aiden seem like an abusive boyfriend, demeaning Clara so that she must work harder to earn his affections. Sadly, it works.
When he does finally admit that he needs help, it comes after a flirtatious request from Clara, and their conversation is more humorous than serious. Clara gives him doe eyes while he crosses his arms and answers curtly. They’re both playing up their clichés: Clara, the anarchist with a heart of gold, and Aiden, the stoic loner avenger.
Within this context, his admission feels less then authentic, more of a bizarre attempt at flirting than a genuine request for help. Even if he is being truthful, it would seem that for Aiden mutual respect is a last ditch effort.
She then prods him a little, tying to understand him: “Not used to being a team?” she asks. Predictably, Aiden answers that no, he's not used to being on a team, except that throughout Watch Dogs we only ever see him working as part of a team: He's working with a fellow hacker named Damien in the prologue, with the "fixer" Jordi in the opening action scene, with BADBOY17 (Clara’s online handle) in the early game, with Clara herself later on, and by the halfway point, he's even got a legendary hacker in his group.
Aiden is always part of a team, but he doesn’t realize this. He's an emperor with no clothes, and not only does that make him unlikable, it makes him embarrassing to watch.
Interacting with Raymond
Raymond is the previously mentioned legendary hacker, and he has no real reason to help Aiden. He's spent the last several years hiding from the Blume Corporation and Aiden blows his cover, yet he's still magnanimous enough to follow us back to Chicago and listen to Aiden's request.
However, when he learns that a former associate of Aiden's was plotting with Blume to take him out, he's understandably reluctant to help. Aiden, instead of turning into an abusive boyfriend as he did with Clara, turns into a demanding parent, commanding Raymond to act: "You listen to me. I want a name in that server. Now, out deal is: I bring you the information and you decrypt it."
It's no surprise that Aiden's supposed deal offers Raymond nothing for his services. Yet again, Aiden is a position of weakness and demands help while offering nothing in return. Clara is the one who eventually convinces Raymond to stay by appealing to his ego.
Thus, again, we have someone who has been convinced to risk their well being to help Aiden without fully understanding the danger and with no clear personal benefit to himself. Aiden, our hero, is incredibly selfish, but everyone else in this world is incredibly charitable.
Finally, at the very end (naturally), the game turns on Aiden as characters start calling him out on his hypocrisy. The game is clearly aware of the inconsistencies of his character and tries to hand wave them away with some epilogue-like exposition describing him as a man "who’s always looking for the upper hand in a situation.” That Aiden sounds like a manipulative super-villain, a selfish asshole, and a true antihero.
It would have been interesting to play as that Aiden. He’d be just as unlikable, but at least he’d have a compelling personality. His arrogance, if it were a consistent character trait, would explain why it's okay for him to rob bank accounts, but it's not okay for muggers to rob civilians. Super-villain Aiden would see himself as above it all, the ultimate watch dog who's immune to criticism.
Sadly, the real Aiden of Watch Dogs isn’t that compelling. He's not a super-villain, and he's not really a man "always looking for the upper hand in a situation." His inner narration betrays his insecurities and confusion. This is not a man with a plan. This is a man in over his head who only survives with the help of the friends that he says he doesn't need.
Jordi eventually sums up the world's relationship with Aiden and why this supposed hero is such a failure: “You don’t appreciate what I do for you. You don’t realize how much I take of you, do you?”
Aiden is a fool who thinks he's brilliant, and no one wants to play the fool.