YouTube link. Text below the cut.
I hate Aiden Pearce. I mean, I hate him. And not just because they named him “Aiden Pearce,” surely after running through other names like “Adelai Steele” or “Parker Harding” or “Ray Crusher” or “Peyton Shrader” or some equally unlikely but vaguely powerful and masculine name. And it’s also not just, you know, oh, he’s an unlikable protagonist and that makes me unhappy. Lots of protagonists are at some level unlikable. The Last of Us’ Joel is largely unlikeable – but he still comes across as multidimensional and capable of empathy. He does terrible things to people but he tries to justify it to himself as what he had to do to survive. He kills for and cowardly lies to Ellie but it’s because he’s afraid of being hurt again. He’s a self-centered heel but he’s a humanized, relatable heel. In contrast, Aiden Pearce is a one dimensional character whose entire biography just reads “Giant douchebag.”
I’m not sure there’s a character in this game he doesn’t wrong somehow. He is directly, unequivocally responsible for the death of his niece by being a mercenary hacker for very bad people. Then when his sister Nicki begs him to quit that life if he’s serious about atoning for her daughter’s death or at least to keep her and her son safe, Aiden doubles down in the hacker underground in order to get revenge. And as a result of that selfish act Nicki gets kidnapped by his partner Damien. So the majority of the game Aiden justifies all of the death and carnage he unleashes against the city, and cops, and security guards by insisting he has to save her from this unjust crime of forced imprisonment… except he and his muscle man Jeordi have their own hostage with loved ones they took in the opening of the game. And while Damien seems to treat Nicki okay and even lets her talk to her brother, Jordi tortures Maurice throughout the game. Aiden lies to his nephew’s temporary guardian when he puts the kid into hiding. He treats his companions like dirt, only begrudgingly acknowledging Clara as part of the team when she threatens to leave, constantly ignoring and berating Jeordi despite Jeordi showing up as hit beck and call, and lying to T-Bone about the stakes at play once he’s involved. And Aiden threatens and blackmails people to get what he wants, like Bedbug (whose life he was perfectly comfortable to endanger) or the guy in prison who was going to rat him out.
In short, Aiden Pearce is an irredeemable asshole and I’m offended that Ubisoft can’t bother to think of anything other than a menacing, overly aggressive, paper cut-out dudebro straight off the game studio factory line for their protaTgonists. An aggressive loner in his 30’s with a tragic backstory whose only emotional outlet is causing pain in others, a white dude hacker in a trench coat who has a stoic, detached demeanor that people who don’t know any better mistake for a cool disposition when really it just makes him an empty shell. Most of that could apply to Adam Jenson, but Jenson is a blank slate to facilitate role playing. Aiden’s blankness just leaves him as interesting as wood pulp.
And all of that could be forgiven – all of it, the lies, the blackmail, the murder, the stealing, the blank slate personality – if the game just recognized that he was awful. If it thought of Aiden the way Spec Ops: The Line thinks of its protagonist, Walker. But the game honestly thinks Aiden is a cool, hip dude. Or at least, it thinks you will think he’s a hip, cool dude. That’s why they give you his self-declared iconic hat in the deluxe edition of the game: so you can be just like your badass icon! In the end he never really learns anything of value or suffers for his crimes, and the people who end up paying for his transgressions are the women in his life like his niece and Clara. Even Nicki and her son are forced to flee the city they call home and never look back while Aiden sticks around and continues his crime spree. He’s like a videogame version of Bella Swan; an indulgant character who gets whatever they want without effort or sacrifice. And in its closing moments Watch_Dogs’ grotesque agenda of making this amoral thug a lovable protagonist crystalizes as the game decides at the very last minute that it’s a superhero origin story.
But as much as I hate Aiden – and I really, really do – he is just a symptom of a bigger problem. There’s no unified vision here, just a million departments and design teams tasked with meeting three objectives: 1. Appeal to an 18-34 year old male demographic. 2. Incorporate Ubisoft’s established open world design. 3. The game’s about hackers or information tech or cyberpunk or secrets or something. Use your imaginations. And every department seemed to take those loose guidelines and head off in different directions. For example, the game can’t decide whether it wants to be a realistic depiction of an information society with fantastical flourishes for gameplay, or if it’s a full-on cyberpunk title. Lots tropes from that genre are present: There are “fixers” that exist as essentially cyberpunk mercenaries who do hacking jobs and murder, there are punk hacker girls, tech junkers living off the grid, evil corporations, white guys in trenchcoats, really all it’s missing is a good AI character and a whole lotta neon. But all of this is cast against a realistic-ish Chicago in the present day, where characters like Nicky and Jacks live normal lives apart from that genre and real bands based in or originating from Chicago play on the radio. It’s too rooted in reality to be cyberpunk and too detached from reality to feel grounded. Meanwhile, minigames range from down to earth drinking contests to AR games to full-on virtual reality trips, each seemingly presenting a different reality: The real world, the real world as filtered by emerging tech, and a full-on cyberpunk future. Each is potentially ripe for interesting mechanics and world building, but the game just sort of places them next to each other without comment because it’s an open world game and we need a variety of things for you to do.
And just as it can’t commit to genre, it can’t commit to a level of fidelity to the real world. The game ostensibly takes place in Chicago, and major landmarks like the Willis tower are present. Then there are minor changes – the Magnificent Mile becomes the Mad Mile for example. Then there are bits that simply make no sense, like the small village right outside of the city that seems to be a northern Pacific forest full of large pines and mountains straight out of Alan Wake. I’ve lived up in that area, and I can say that is decidedly not what the suburbs of Chicago look like. The game also forgets what its own technology is capable of. It’s a game where you can glance in anyone’s direction and, with a simple swipe of a smartphone tied to a facial recognition system, pull up personal details on anyone instantly. But characters go into hiding just by leaving town – no new identity or social security codes or names, just packing up and leaving. Aiden’s name and face gets leaked to the press but no one can find any information about him, which I guess makes sense if he’s living off the grid and erased himself from computer systems. But then at one point Aiden says: which no hacker concerned with leaving an imprint on the grid would ever, ever do. In short, the game lacks any sense of cohesion or direction.
The result is a muddled, directionless “corporate product” feel. And I say “corporate product” instead of “confused product” because the only unifying thing about this game is its slavish adherence to Ubisoft’s open world formula. This is, in a lot of ways, a reskinned Assassin’s Creed game. There are the region unlocks, the towers to conquer, the following guy closely but not too closely bits, the broken economy for buying a preset list of upgrades… I’m by no means the first to make this observation, but tentpole Ubisoft games are now this watered down subgenre of open world games, all hinging on their ability to deliver a lot of loosely connected minigames all around a single hook. In Assassin’s Creed it’s the climbing, in FarCry it’s the emergent gun play, and here it’s the hacking. The result is a game that doesn’t use the open world to grant players choice but to mete out arbitrary and largely unrelated gameplay segments in discreet and controlled chunks. Grand Theft Auto may lack any genuine moments, but it’s very intentionally lacking in genuine moments. The entire game exists as directed cynicism, and as harmful as that is it’s at least reflective of a unified vision. But Watch_Dogs lacks genuine moments not because it rejects the idea of earnestness but because it’s a cobbled together frankenstein that reflects a million interests and yet no interests at all.
Perhaps worst impact of this is the fact that it follows in the footsteps of Deus Ex Human Revolution and Bioshock as a game that equates talking about something a lot with being about something. And let me be absolutely clear on this: This game has just about zero meaningful commentary or insight on any of the broad topics it hits. Not surveillance states, not information culture, not hackers in the modern world, not the idea that constant only access erodes privacy, often by willing participation of those losing privacy a la Facebook, not big data and predictive algorithms being used to whittle people down to the output of a function, none of that. Oh, it mentions or makes reference to all of those things, but as far as acknowledging anything other than the fact that they exist to be used as fodder for an open world game it doesn’t seem to have any interest in them at all.
Look, for example, at all the “private moments” you hack out of ctOS servers. They could have been used to tell tales about the breakdown of public and private worlds; how systems of oppression can be amplified when there’s no secrets from the state or even public. Or stories about changes to the judicial system now that ctOS is recording everything – is it more efficient? Prone to exploitation? Heck, they could have even posed hard questions about the ethics of a system like ctOS doing something good but also privacy invading, like stopping domestic violence or child neglect. But that would require giving us actual narratives; clips with recurring characters that show how their lives are shaped by this software’s power for good and for ill. Instead they’re… mostly just Grand Theft Auto style comedy clips. This old lady is mean! This gamer swears a lot! This guy was anonymously cybering with someone and it turned out he knew them! They’re either rapid punch gags like that or they’re commentary free snippets – it shows that the system can detect domestic violence, and it can detect illicit drug use. But do the cops use any of that information? Is ctOS a tool for good? For evil? The game has no real opinion. It just sort of says: This sure is a thing, huh?
Or look at the facial recognition software that gives Aiden the ability to know anyone’s name, income, and a random factoid about them at a glance. It’s attempts to attach names to the people you shoot, it asks us what it means to be boiled down to the single most relevant factoid a Google search can reveal about us. But it’s handled as a simple UI element without commentary from mechanics or Aiden, rendering it inert. Simply giving names to the people you shoot doesn’t make your victims any more empathetic, it reinforces the idea that Aiden is a murderer who has robbed people of sons and fathers and husbands. (Yeah, for some reason this cyberpunk game doesn’t have any razorgirls, just an army of fixer dudes, but that’s another discussion). And boiling down characters to a single trait feels a little too on the nose, a little too fortune cookie-y and transparently procedural. Being able to see that a random person likes bondage or another random person is an alcoholic doesn’t convey much to the player about the terrible power they wield. Yeah, it’s screwed up that I can find that out but it doesn’t tell me anything about the reality of this software. But being able to use that information – or better yet, having your own personal information used against you – that shows you why this technology is dangerous and scary. But Aiden’s erased himself from the grid and his mask renders him immune to its effects, so it’s not something the player fears. And the player can’t use those factoids against others so you don’t see it cause any harm. What should be seen as a deeply concerning tool for anyone to possess is turned into a way to make Aiden seem pseudo-omniscient in this power fantasy game they’ve made. Worse, it serves double duty as a half-assed justification for why Aiden’s violence against criminals is okay – they pop up the criminal record of anyone involved in the crime stopping minigame, but not for anyone else. So instead of using this thing to criticize any of the stuff Watch_dogs claims its about, it becomes another tool for apologizing for Aiden.
Speaking of stopping crime as the Vigilante, let’s look at how Aiden goes about finding crimes. He listens in to ctOS algorithms to detect when and where a crime is happening so he can swoop in and save the day (often by shooting someone dead, because again, Aiden Pearce is a horrible human being who thinks murder is an appropriate response to purse snatchers). But implicit in that is the assumption that these algorithms are flawless. The game never questions whether Big Data is accurate or if it should exist – it takes those concepts for granted. Also troubling is that it waits for a crime to only be something like 80% certain to happen before you intervene. That’s some precog shit where you’re stopping potential crimes based on an algorithm. And if systems like YouTube’s recommended videos can’t stop recommending me my own damn videos, how good do you think an algorithm to predict a shooting or robbery are going to be as it’s happening? And that would be bad enough if it were police arresting people based on potential crimes. But you’re Aiden Pearce. You dispense street justice. The kind of justice where you at best viciously beat someone up because a bar on your phone told you there was an 80% chance that maybe something would happen. At least the vigilante crap batman pulls, he doesn’t kill them and he waits for the crime to actually take place. You’d think that a game that marketed itself as really interested in all this real world technogy and informatoin society stuff would have some meaningful insight into how screwed up that is. But the game does not comment on this. I can’t reiterate enough that this is a game that encourages you to beat up or kill people guilty of what amounts to thought crime, then frames itself as a superhero origin story. That’s the sort of ugliness we’re dealing with, here.
I will say that one thing that does work is the NVSN minigame. Mostly because it feels like it’s designed to comment on technology and takes advantage of how much of a douchebag Aiden is. Aiden would be the sort of jerkoff who would wear Google Glass in a city park and ignore the quiet serenity of nature to annoy park goers with a solipsistic VR game. And the game has aliens land on other people, so Aiden has to actually walk around and fingerguns at random passers by and then invade their personal space to grab the pickups that drop from the defeated aliens. Combine this with bleepy bloopy pew pew sound effects and lo-fi alien designs and it feels like it’s almost solo larping, like the game’s making fun of you and Aiden for doing something so self-absorbed, shallow, and detached from anything real. If it we weren’t watching this from Aiden’s perspective it’d be hard not to see the absurd douchiness of it all. It’s the closest the game comes to actually commenting on a modern or soon to be emerging tech that isn’t fundamentally undercut, completely aimless, or outright idiotic, and while I’d love to commend Ubisoft on that I get a sense that this is the broken clock being wrong twice a day.
I don’t like doing the angry game reviewer thing. It’s not my schtick. And as much fun as I’ve had venting about this game, I might as well be shouting into the wind. Because as ugly as it is, it doesn’t feel like it got that way from on high due to some grand creative vision like Bioshock Infinite. It feels like a mismanaged project, but that mismanagement caused it to be the most preordered new property in Ubisoft’s history. Which means they have no reason to fix the problems that caused Watch_Dogs to condescends to it audience and hit mandated design goals with no unifying tone or theme. It’s just gonna stay a whole lotta not really. It’s Batman (but not really). It’s cyberpunk (but not really). It’s a commentary on privacy and surveilance (but not really). It’s a brand new game (but not really). There is one exception, though. Aiden Pearce is an asshole (really).