(The following contains spoilers for Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs.)
I have never hated virtual police more than I hate the police in Watch Dogs. The presence of helicopters and satellite surveillance makes it nearly impossible to avoid detection for any great stretch of time, turning every minor run-in with the fuzz into a protracted 10-minute detour that inevitably ends in death and failure.
And in a weird way, that might be my favorite thing about the game, where the desire to avoid the police presence incentivizes civilization. Watch Dogs doesn’t encourage you to do the right thing because it’s right. It convinces you to do it because it’s easier. The game has a defined social structure with rules and consequences that keep players in check.
It’s a far more accurate mechanical representation of real world ethics than the binary systems we usually get in video games. Watch Dogs has guns and blood bags that go ‘squish’ when you hit them with cars, and some people want little more from video games than recreational homicide. In that regard Watch Dogs delivers victims on demand.
But if you run over pedestrians, the police will take notice and respond accordingly. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, the NPCs in Watch Dogs enjoy a degree of state protection, and that changes the way you interact with the game. You have to weigh the costs and benefits of every crime you commit, albeit on an extremely lenient set of scales. If the police are nearby, it might not be worth the hassle, or it might be a lot of fun.
Then again, that’s just my take on a game in which I tried to avoid killing any non-essential targets. Having access to private information made me reticent, to the point that I would replay entire missions in the case of an accidental death. Perhaps other players exercised less restraint.
Watch Dogs is fascinating because the game world is reflective of the values of the person playing it, aptly demonstrating why justice is seldom entrusted to individuals. People don’t live up to the myths we create in fiction. If a game like The Legend of Zelda asks us to believe in virtue, then Watch Dogs is a game about dismantling our heroes.
Power to the People
More to the point, Watch Dogs is not about technology, even though much of the marketing conversation has suggested that it is. ‘Are we prepared to live in a world in which our darkest secrets are always available online?’ the previews asked. Has our love of convenience made us vulnerable?
Those are the wrong questions. The ctOS system that powers the game is neither inherently good nor evil. It’s a passive network with no agency of its own, which means that Watch Dogs is actually about people. Who has access to the network? Do you trust the people selected to sit behind the wheel?
If it’s people like protagonist Aiden Pearce – a man one step removed from Alan Moore’s Rorschach – then the answer is an emphatic ‘no’.
In gaming, it’s not uncommon to be saddled with a sociopath for a protagonist, but it is unusual when the civilian characters all seem to agree with that assessment. Pearce is wildly unstable, as every calming influence (his sister Nicky, his nephew’s therapist) pointedly tells him.
It would be painfully obvious even without those declarative statements. Pearce’s niece Lena is killed directly as a result of his actions in the prologue, while DeadSec hacker Clara similarly dies as a result of her proximity to Aiden. Meanwhile, his nephew Jackson is traumatized after watching Uncle Aiden murder the population of a building complex on security monitors. Tragedy befalls the people he cares about because his behavior is so erratic.
The great ‘what if’ hanging over Watch Dogs is not, ‘What if a privately held corporation had access to personal information?’ We know what happens. The people with wealth leverage that wealth in a bid to acquire more wealth, just as the people at Facebook and Google collect user data to create more seductive packages for advertisers.
Watch Dogs depicts that reality fairly accurately. Blume, the corporation responsible for ctOS, does not traffic in chaos. Rather, Blume rigs an election to install a puppet mayor who will continue to push its fiscal agenda. That order is better for business.
To the millions of bystanders wandering the streets of Chicago, Pearce represents a much more tangible threat. Bad things happen to anyone who gets near him.
It’s jarring because the plot positions Aiden as a hero against the totalitarian corporation even while establishing that he’s in no way qualified for the role. He makes everything personal, which repeatedly makes him unfit to make judgements with far-reaching consequences. He remains blind to the impact his actions have on anyone beyond his immediate circle.
Pistols at Dawn
Despite the techno-political overtones, the story at the heart of Watch Dogs is intensely private, a contest between Aiden and his former partner Damien Brenks. Everything that happens – from civic destruction to murder – occurs solely because two entitled white men need to find out whose dick is bigger.
Of the two, Aiden is the hero largely by virtue of being the less horrific fuckwit. Damien is condensed greed, a slime that willingly deals cruelty for profit. Aiden has something resembling a moral code, though you wouldn’t know it if you look at his trail of destruction.
That’s the great irony driving Watch Dogs. In a hidden audio log, Damien states that Aiden is “reckless [and] self-centered, but he’s got a curiously strong moral compass. It’s a terrible weakness. It makes him hard to control.” It may be the most insightful thing anyone says in a triple-A video game this year. Aiden believes he’s right with god, so his actions are divine.
Damien, however, recognizes that people with such strong yet wholly internal guidance systems are unpredictable and therefore dangerous. As a citizen, I would trust Blume to generate income, but I don’t know what I expect from Aiden, and neither do the police. They aren’t protecting Blume. They’re so aggressive because they’re protecting the thousands of civilians that you regard as so many NPCs on your windshield on the road to vengeance.
So what does Aiden’s life look like if he never fulfills his vendetta?
For starters, Nicky and Jackson never leave the city. Damien goes looking for someone else to do his dirty work and probably ends up on the wrong end of a fixer contract after bungling his negotiations with Blume. The city of Chicago is never subjected to a full-scale hacker war and millions of Chicago residents live their lives peacefully without knowing anything about the machinations under the surface.
Meanwhile, Blume and resident mobster Lucky Quinn continue to run the city with a corrupt fist. Most of the people they rule continue to be completely oblivious. Is that really so bad?
Or at least, is it bad given the alternatives? If you bring violence to an entrenched institution with access to a military force, they’re likely to respond with violence, and innocent people will die in the crossfire. What’s scarier, the fact that inequality exists between corporations and individuals, or the fact that you could die tomorrow because some self-righteous lunatic with a gun made the decision for you?
And yes, that’s a false dichotomy. As villains go, Blume is terrifying not because it engages in overt oppression, but because it fosters a stratified environment in which poor people will kill each other. It’s particularly evident in the class and racial inflections depicted in the game. Blume’s system creates stability for people like Nicky and Jackson, but it deals violence to marginalized people like Bedbug and Iraq. Of course Iraq is willing to go to war with the state. That’s his everyday reality.
Besides, what else were they going to do? Drug dealing is their family business in a system that compounds disadvantage and strips legitimate paths to success. Wealth begets wealth, which is problematic for people who don’t have it.
But that class critique is mostly tangential to the actual plot of Watch Dogs, which focuses entirely on Aiden. The dance between Blume and Iraq is separate and (mostly) silent until Aiden forcefully inserts himself into the narrative.
That’s what makes Watch Dogs so unsettling. Throughout the game, there’s a real sense of speaking truth to power. Toppling Blume is a noble and necessary endeavor. Aiden’s success is therefore frightening because it suggests that any form of terrorism is justified as long as the target is itself an oppressor.
Hell is Other People
There’s been a lot of backlash about the game’s questionable depictions of various minorities, though that strikes me as unfair. Yes, it is possible to profile the NPCs in Watch Dogs. But like the ctOS network, the game is more of a mirror than a guide. Certain aspects may be uncomfortable in the abstract, but it has no morality beyond the one the player gives it.
With that in mind, the anger directed at an inanimate game disc feels misguided. Watch Dogs tells us that other people are just as horrible as we’ve always feared, and that’s at odds with the escapism we expect from a mainstream video game. It demonstrates that there are still racists and transphobes who will profile and murder the hated group when given the opportunity in a digital world.
In all likelihood, these are people who consider themselves the heroes in their own stories. They’re willing to share – to publicly out themselves as racists with montages on YouTube – because they believe they’ve performed a community service. They don’t see how terrifying that is for the targeted populations.
That’s why society cannot abide vigilantes like Aiden Pearce or Batman. Beyond the fact that it would be physically impractical, when you entrust justice and morality to individuals, you don’t know what kind of arbiter you’ll be getting. He could be altruistic, but it’s just as likely that you’ll get someone like Elliot Rodger.
It’s also just as likely that the vigilante will make a mess of things even if he has the best intentions. Pearce is so self-centered that he can’t see how much damage he’s caused to his immediate family, to say nothing of the strangers caught in his wake. As with firearms, the technology in Watch Dogs is frightening only because it increases his destructive reach. The ctOS network enables targeted and sweeping forms of Armageddon, as you hack into a bank account before blacking out the city.
It makes for a telling point of contrast with Ubisoft’s other major franchise. Despite the more menacing title, Assassin’s Creed has always placed constraints on the player. Killing civilians is expressly forbidden, a ham-fisted yet effective way of communicating the idea that violence should never be wanton. The hidden blades are precise instruments, suitable to single targets rather than crowds.
Watch Dogs contains no such controls, and that, in turn, tells us far more about ourselves. The game humanizes the NPCs that populate its world as if hoping to appeal to our better nature as human beings. If too many people fail to do that – if too many players use a passive video game for their xenophobic fantasies – we’d be better served focusing our attention on the perpetrators rather than the video game that merely exposes latent racism.
No More Heroes
Sadly, Watch Dogs doesn’t do much to discourage the antisocial behavior it enables. Aiden’s eventual success tells the player that those kinds of self-fulfilling criteria are a completely legitimate basis for societal governance and feeds into the self-aggrandizing narrative of the solo protagonist. If Aiden is a hero, he could theoretically justify any idiosyncratic and untested set of ethics.
However, I’d argue that Aiden Pearce is a psychopath, and I can’t perform the mental gymnastics required to make him respectable, regardless of anything he accomplishes. Watch Dogs ostensibly has a happy ending. Blume’s crimes have been exposed and Aiden’s revenge is suitably satisfying.
But there’s an equally strong sense that it’s a hollow victory, especially when you stop to survey the wreckage. Your niece is still dead. Clara has joined her, and your family is forced into exile. Everyone is worse off than they were when you started. Was any of it worth it?
And will anyone ever be ready to make such a decision?