In the last year, Ubisoft has promised a lot about Watch Dogs: Legion, the upcoming sequel to its open-world games stuffed with near-future tech and a modern sensibility about the way technology, corporations and privacy plays in our lives.
But what we’ve seen so far, in gameplay previews shown off at E3 and other industry events, has raised more questions than answered them. Turning every citizen in a near-future, dystopian London from a non-playable character into a playable one — and potentially the main character of your version of the story — raises a dizzying array of logistical questions.
Thus far, Ubisoft has laid out some tantalizing crumbs teasing just what you can do in their vision of post-Brexit London, but have given very few concrete details about just how it’s all going to work.
For a little more insight, we spoke to Kaitlin Tremblay, lead narrative designer for Watch Dogs: Legion at Ubisoft Toronto, this past weekend at the EGLX gaming convention. Here’s part of our conversation.
What’s your role with Watch Dogs: Legion? What do you do on the game?
So being a narrative designer is kind of like a hybrid between a writer and a game designer. So a lot of what I do is kind of a combination of what a writer would do in terms of scriptwriting, writing text and all that kind of stuff that is player-facing, but also working directly in our engine and our tools and doing part of the implementation of how we’re actually putting the narrative into the game.
So are you working mostly scripts, or character sketches and scenes, or environmental detail and events?
All of it. So a lot of what I’ve done is work with missions, and also the shape of what the characters are and how they look in the world.
And so you’ll notice as you’re playing, or if you watched the demo when you’re profiling a character, there’s all this information about them that kind of make them into a person.
And so a lot of what I’ve done is work on that as well, right? So not only just how they sound and how they talk in the actual dialogue, but who they are and the composite pieces that make them the person that they are, is part of what I’ve done as well.
The big gameplay hook with Watch Dogs: Legion is that everyone is playable. Like, is it fair to say they’re like a principal cast like in most traditional games? How does that work?
But also, was there any sort of difference when you’re writing or developing these characters who are perhaps modular, as opposed to the main cast in the traditional sense, like in Watch Dogs 2, for example?
Yeah. So you’re kind of playing more as DedSec itself, building your resistance movement. And so what’s really cool, and you hit on this already, is that there is no predefined hero character.
You’re able to kind of go into the world, see who you like, see who you want to play as who’s sparked your interest. And then you can make them the hero of your story, right. and you can do this with as many different people as you want. Like, you don’t just have to select one person to fulfill this role.
So this kind of does create a really interesting challenge, right? Because we’re still a very story-driven game and it’s a really compelling experience writing characters in this way. But for me, it’s really fun and there are so many different angles you can kind of take into this because there are so many different people and reasons for joining a resistance movement that you really get to tap into with it.
How many different versions of these scripts are there, when in one mission, presumably, you have multiple different voice actors are playing different versions of a character?
I think a ton is a word. [laughs] It’s a lot. There are a lot. Yeah.
Depending on which character you’re playing as they’ll be in that cut scene and they will have their own voice, their own perspective, their own way they move their body, their own fashion. These are characters, right? They’re not just interchangeable people. So they will play differently. And your stories will be inhabited by the people that they are themselves.
Obviously, it’s a really interesting, perhaps unusually current story. It has been presented as a dystopian specifically post-Brexit story.
When [Creative Director] Clint Hocking spoke with CBC’s Day 6, they were asking you know, Brexit is such a weird and moving and changing story, does that change how you guys have plotted out your story?
He said more or less that things were locked in. But even when the news changes, do you have to think about a background reference or an audio diary somewhere as, “Oh, we might have to figure out how to how to change it,” or even make it adaptable to what people think of as Brexit at the moment?
The game isn’t about any one thing that’s kind of happening at the moment. It’s kind of more about the consequence of situations that kind of lead to these things, right? The team draws inspiration from what’s going on in our current lives, but it is a work of speculative fiction.
So we’re looking more at the consequences and the context, versus more specific things, and kind of extrapolating that out to how that fits in our near future London with these specific people in this kind of world.
Obviously, there are a lot of things brought up there are serious topics like technology, security … immigrants, refugees … serious topics in the news. How do you manage to balance a game that deals with serious topics like that, as well as trying to build a fun game the game that is enjoyable to play that also has, like, a spy grandma, for example?
There’s lots of room in a game of this scope to kind of explore all the different facets of the context of the situation right. Yeah. The game does deal with some serious topics, and the game does also have characters that are like the spy grandma, right.
We really want this to be a reflection of the situation. Like, we’re not all the same people, and we all have different reactions to different things. And people will express themselves in different ways. And so we really wanted to capitalize on how when you’re building a resistance movement, built of just everyday people, what those people actually are like.
I mean this is gonna be such a writer response, but even Shakespeare had his clowns, right? Tragedy always kind of needs to be offset with some kind of humour and something a little bit more lively just because like you can’t exist in sadness for the whole experience.
What about playing the game for you so far has really struck out to you? Like, “Oh this is really cool, people need to see this?”
I really, really do believe in and love our play-as-anyone system. And so going around the city and finding people, [and saying], “Oh I like the way that she’s dressed and so I’m interested in her,” and then profiling her and then reading a little bit more about who she is and kind of finding out about her character and personality — and then seeing her unique gameplay traits, how she would kind of suit my playstyle.
I play tanky and so I like people that are kind of tanky. So for me what’s really cool is you’re wandering around London, and you’re seeing all these people and the people themselves are gameplay, right? And they’re stories and they’re gameplay — they’re everything at once.
What are some of the differences between different characters? Do they have different stats, like some have more health than others?
We have three different classes that you can assign to each character when you recruit them. But also every character comes with a unique trait, which is kind of a gameplay perk, that they get. And that’s woven in with the narrative of who they are as well.
Everybody that you can recruit is a different person, but they also do play differently right. So you can recruit based on whether you like the way the person is, or you like the story of who they are, or how they play.
You’ve done a lot of different work in games from the indie scene too, now, with one of the biggest companies in the world, and in Canada. What’s the biggest difference between working in, and writing indie games versus working on the narrative of a large Triple-A game?
It really is the scope and not even just in terms of the game but in terms of the team size as well.
Like, there are best practices, and all of my knowledge from previous things is super applicable, but you’re learning a new way of working with people right. It’s. It’s touching more things and you know. So for me, the scope in terms of project and team was the biggest transition.
Was that a major challenge? Did it make things harder?
No, it’s why I wanted to go to Ubisoft. I wanted to work with teams that had different experiences than me and learn from everybody and grow from everybody else. And there’s no better place than working with a huge team of talented developers to learn and grow.
Watch Dogs: Legion launches March 6, 2020, on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC and Google Stadia.