Ubisoft commanded the gaming world’s attention at E3 2012 when it gave us our first glimpse at the next generation of gaming. Before the platform holders themselves were prepared to publically showcase their hardware, Ubisoft invited the world’s media and gaming retailers to look at Watch Dogs, the publisher’s first interpretation of what the future of gaming might look like, and in doing so, it stole the show.
Things have been almost eerily silent since then, but with the game’s release now imminent, Ubisoft is finally prepared to invite us back for another look at its open-world crime thriller set in near-future Chicago.
Aiden Pearce is an antihero, an everyman vigilante hacker armed foremost with a smartphone, and set loose in a new kind of city entirely controlled by a single, central operating system called ctOS.
Pearce is an ex-fixer, says Kevin Shortt, lead story designer at Ubisoft Montreal. “A fixer is a mercenary skilled not just in weapons and hand-to-hand combat, but also in hacking, and these guys take on freelance contracts.”
When a contract goes bad Pearce’s family gets hurt, and he turns his nefarious skill-set against his employers.
“We always think of him as an antihero,” continues Shortt. “He’s a guy who, when players understand what his goals are – what he’s trying to achieve – they’re noble, I think we can buy into them. But his methods… where’s the line?”
It sounds a little clichéd at this remove, but it does provide an adequate narrative framework for the real star of the game, a kind of techno-dystopian Chicago.
“We chose Chicago for a couple of reasons,” says Shortt. “Straight off, it’s a great gameplay city. It’s got all those hackable bridges, which would be fun. It’s also a city that has a rich past. Think of the Great Fire, they had the great fire, but they recovered from it. And they recovered in a bigger and better way. The architecture became rich and pretty exciting. They had a real scandalous prohibition but they came out of that as a bigger, stronger city. So when we thought, what kind of city is going to embrace such a radical ‘smart-city’ approach like ctOS, Chicago seemed like the kind of city that would do that.
“I also like the blend of corruption that Chicago just kind of has. They’ve got this weird relationship with government and crime. They’re not too shy about it either! You go there, and I was surprised about how many novelty things they had around Al Capone.”
As Pearce navigates Chicago he can hack into not just the city’s operating system, but he can also hack into the devices of its citizens, and profile them, and the information the game presents on each NPC is also dynamically generated.
“You’re getting a window into these people,” explains Shortt. “To give you an example, I was playing a level where I had fixers on me, and I was trying to sneak around to get one of these guys. I came around a corner, I had my profiler on, it popped up – the guy was a newly-wed. For a second, I was like, ‘Oh man, he’s a newly-wed!’ You register it. So that, I think, is a really interesting layer to the game.”
What the player chooses to do with the information she steals is up to her. A reputation system ticks away quietly in the background, and how Pearce behaves in the world will affect how the media and civilians react to his actions.
Even these mundane interactions with pedestrians help to underscore the point that there are important ideas about our relationship with technology deeply woven into Watch Dogs.
“We came up with the idea [for Watch Dogs] about five years ago, and we all had cell phones, but smart phones were really starting to come into play,” says Shortt. “Our core fantasy was to give you a city you could control and use as a weapon. What we like about this whole thing is that every time a new technology comes in, it’s often open for abuse. People are still trying to figure out what to do with it and you can guarantee someone is going to find something bad they can do with it. We wanted to find out what it means to have all this access, all this information out there. What does it mean for us, for our privacy?”
“We’re not Luddites, but we’re at this point with technology now where it’s all so new, and we’re trying to figure it out. I would love it if people played the game, put down their controller, and hopefully it’s a clear line from that to grabbing their phone and heading outside, and asking themselves what that means. Hopefully people start to get into a dialogue. We want to be a part of that conversation about where people are going with technology.”
Watch Dogs is due out for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, and Windows PC on November 21, with Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions also coming in the final quarter of this year.