Watch Dogs is the video game of our time. Steeped in themes of privacy and surveillance, it was based on reality when it was conceived some five years ago, according to creative director Jonathan Morin.
But WikiLeaks’ release of diplomatic cables and the revelations of National Security Agency whistle blower Edward Snowden have popularized the concepts that the game explores. They’ve made Watch Dogs, Morin told the Georgia Straight by phone from Montreal, “progressively more relevant”.
Released in May for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox 360, and Xbox One—Ubisoft has delayed the Wii U version—Watch Dogs is about the exploits of Aiden Pearce. The hacker inhabits a future Chicago that has become a “smart city”, with all of its infrastructure connected digitally through a Central Operating System, or ctOS.
Morin explained that Chicago was chosen because the game needed to be set in “a place where the political structure would have made sense for the kind of moves we suggest they made in the game, like installing ctOS”. A 2010 Associated Press story described Chicago as the most surveilled city in the world. It’s the kind of “big brother” culture that’s present in many major cities, often under the guise of keeping citizens safe from terrorism.
“Chicago’s not alone, but I think they are further along in terms of how embedded it is in their city,” Morin said.
The idea of a ctOS, which Morin said is similar to a system being installed by Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympics, becomes “intriguing” and “scary” when, for example, the traffic lights are connected to the same system that controls the power grid and banking transactions. “If everything is connected, then a single person who can hack the right place can start connecting himself to everything.”
Through research conducted while developing the game, Morin found out a few things: “I know that hacking traffic lights is kind of easy.”
In the game, Pearce uses a mobile device to hack streetlights and ATMs. He navigates surveillance systems by hopping from one camera to another. Morin insisted that each and every technical trick used by the protagonist is feasible.
“Of course, they’re not possible by the press of a button,” he clarified. “That’s a lie.” It’s one of two that Morin admitted to during the interview.
The other deception comes in how Watch Dogs delivers a multiplayer experience, because players won’t always know when someone else is in their game, or vice-versa.
While playing the game, players monitor the entire city and get notifications about events that are happening, including side missions and those that progress the game’s plot. What they don’t always know is whether the other characters in the mission are controlled by the game’s artificial intelligence (AI) or a real person. “It’s like hiding players in your game,” Morin said, “and then suddenly you realize they are there.
“We don’t really have to tell you who they are,” he added. While every player is Aiden Pearce in their own game, they appear as someone else when in other games being played. We are all Aiden Pearce.
Players can be overt and hack for information, or choose a more covert approach and simply collect data through observation. But in selecting a mission, players can find themselves teamed up with three others working cooperatively against another group in an attempt to get a reward.
The multiplayer experience, according to Morin, was first conceived as a way to manage the demands of a game that during development was getting “exponentially bigger”. Having players appear in each other’s games meant that Ubisoft developers didn’t have to program those characters. “That way you can start adding a lot more content without having to craft it,” Morin said. But it’s also resulted in a game that’s “more rich”, because the characters controlled by players are more unpredictable and interesting than anything an AI could do.
The technology represented in the game is, Morin believes, a “mirror on the player. It talks about technology, but it talks even more about people.”
While Watch Dogs has one ending, Morin thinks that people will perceive it differently depending on their personal experience with and relationship to technology.
“You can look at the ending of the game a bit like you’d look at a painting,” he mused. “It’s static, but it’s very interactive because the way you look at it is based on your own perception.”