I’ve felt scorched by games in my life, things I’ve tried to rationalize as being Actually Good, Really. You know how much I paid for Dead to Rights? $82. You know long I persisted in the belief it was “pretty okay, you know?” Too long. I know better now, of course, it’s terrible, but it’s also home to a boss named Longshoreman X, and that makes it special.
It's appropriate to kneel in the presence of royalty.
That sort of thing I’m used to. When you grow as someone with this interest, you find yourself getting used to the idea that sometimes, you step in in it. But Watch Dogs, though. That was the first time I think I’ve ever felt betrayed by a game.
When Watch Dogs splashed on the screen, back at an E3 2012 that feels like several lives past, it made some big promises. We’re all savvy enough to recognize what a prepared E3 presentation looks like, but what’s harder to do is misrepresent tone. So what that initial demo promised made people sit up and take notice. What we saw was a game that featured a morally ambiguous character expressed in a more nuanced way, an individual that wasn’t heedlessly blasting his way through an open world environment. Instead, he was moving anonymously through a crowd, casually looking at his phone, revealing data about the people on the street he passed. He entered an art exhibit and after a long while spent taking in the sights and data, he met with an associate. During the meeting, the associate turned over a handgun, and this is the first time any weapon was shown- kind of a thing in a particularly heavy-on-real-world-FPS-games E3.
From there, action picked up and a gun battle spilled into the streets, but the thing is, the character’s most powerful weapon wasn’t an actual firearm, but the weird privacy invasion phone he was just casually checking up on people with. With it, he could access the greater city-wide security systems to use active countermeasures in the fight, hacking cameras, shorting out lights and deploying roadblock systems to smash enemy reinforcements arriving by car to pieces. It ended with our hero delivering a message: this wasn’t about revenge, this was about exposing the people in power. Gunshot. Black screen.
It’s easy to get the wrong idea about what a game is going to be, and what it represents. Look at Brutal Legend, nobody thought the core gameplay was going to be what it was, they just saw the flash of the visual style, the metal and the jokes. But that’s the thing, because Brutal Legend was marketed as being a game about metal that was, in fact, about metal. Watch Dogs presented to you the core fantasy of being a vigilante battling against a corrupt police surveillance state, with the intrigue that you’re turning one of their greatest weapons- the surveillance itself -against them. Instead, what we got was a game about embittered loner trying to avenge the death of his niece caused in reciprocity for his own criminal wrongdoings, primarily by murdering the city of Chicago’s Black and Irish population. That’s when you realize that this isn’t simply a bad game, this is actually a game made by bad people. This is the definition of Asshole DNA, and Watch Dogs has it.
This is one of the possibilities your profiler can randomly throw you. So is 'transgender,' in case you were wondering if doing this in the game would ever cause you to feel like a total fuckbag out of nowhere.
The antihero protagonist of Watch Dog is sullen brown-haired nondescript white guy prick Aiden Pierce, and if you’re the type to wretch at any of the new wave of progressively more tortured permutations of names for American children naming in ‘en’- pace yourself, we’re just starting. This meat puppet’s primary occupation as of the game’s start is vigilante, an individual whose primary concern is dismantling the organization he was the unwitting patsy for or… something, I guess? The setup is basically you’re after people and on the way to digging their bastard graves, you’re supposed to be cleaning up the streets, preventing crime and somesuch by upgrading your access to Chicago’s CTos smart surveillance system. This is so as to better expand your phone’s ability to profile people as risks to commit crimes.
You see what I mean about pacing yourself?
That is some audaciousness there, but it gets worse. See, exploring the game world, you’ll ambiently encounter crimes in progress, which can take various forms. Whatever sort of crime it is, you’ll get various scripted indicators that you’re on a time limit- phone text logs pop up on screen indicating people are talking about Bad Things, or more simply you can just hear the shouting from the street. Thing is, the game has a very specific idea how you handle these encounters, and in many cases, stopping the crime in progress causes a failure. This is most blatant in the case of the gunman holding someone at gunpoint, contemplating killing the person and trying to welly themselves. In order to properly benefit from the morality rep boost for apprehending him, you have to let kill his victim first. Then you take the gunman out and absorb the goodboy energy, for you have solved a very bad crime, and are an excellent protector of the people.
By the way, killing civilians makes your goodboy energy go down, so be careful while shooting and driving, or you’ll have to beat up and citizen’s arrest some more freshly-minted murderers before people will think you’re respectable society again.
I can make no positive ID on whether or not this was just crossed creative wires from a typically bloated Ubisoft developer pool. I also can’t say for sure that someone somewhere in the team had grand designs for doing bigger things and there wasn’t time to get it all in. Hell, maybe this was some boardroom shitheel bleating out “what about a morality system, those are hot?” Or maybe the person put in charge of measuring what hits your reputation, how and in what context is an objectivist martian, whose hideous dancing and chittering can only be halted by awarding them with creative positions on AAA titles.
By the way, the morality system barely does anything. Because of course it doesn’t.
Aiden Pierce was once the married father of two, a live son and deceased daughter. Then a re-write occurred and his estranged wife became his tentatively friendly sister and their children became her children. Very little else in this relationship and how it was portrayed on screen was changed, and it oozes through in a distinctly unpleasant way. Though thank fuck this game has the kind of moody seen-it-all-21-year-old disposition that it of course sees all sex as either exploitative or humiliating. In other words, there’s no explicit displays of any sort of human love anywhere, and thus no awkward scenes of cg models of brother and sister rubbing up against each other because they used to be husband and wife.
This aspect of the game is the same sort of creepy as the reason why super-right wing Christians only hug side to side: because that way, their genitals are in no danger of touching, and thus they will have not sinned with a family member. Except with a hypothetical David Cage-esque cutscene that doesn’t exist. Fucking thankfully.
But that’s cold comfort when you start realize what this means for the game Watch Dogs as a creative endeavor. Consider from the aspect of story, that the game’s emotional core is the loss of a child. Specifically, it has to be the loss of a child related to the main character, because, so I would assume is the game’s logic, the player has to identify that something was taken from them for them to understand loss. But maybe they thought that losing a child was something their demographic wouldn’t identify with- young hip gamers can’t have kids! So, I don’t know, maybe make him young child adjacent? Uncle? Crime uncle! I think that would work, right? It didn’t, it was terrible.
This is the sort of decisionmaking that you ruminate over in your analysis. It’s the sort of thing that makes writing difficult, not because of any blocks, but because you’re unsure of which angle to come in at it on, there’s just so much in this one thing. The most egregious remains the disconnect between what was initially shown, and what we actually got. What at first seemed subversive, a story of individual vs a modern control system in a technologically advanced capitalist society, became the same “man loses loved one(s), seeks revenge” motivation we’ve been seeing variations of ever since we decided wasting families was a thing that was on the table in pop media. Watch Dogs isn’t a good example of it; it’s actually a godawful example of it. The reason why is that it attempts to compare the unchecked anguish of a man who quite literally caused the death of his niece to the attempts at healing of the mother of an innocent child caught in a criminal crossfire. Aiden’s sister and her son were trying to move on, and Aiden pulled them in so deep, they had to flee their city in order to qualify for a happy ending. Aiden, this fucking asshole right here, in his attempt to be a good, creepy crime uncle to his law-abiding and wounded family, pulls them down the toilet swirl of his character and ejects them into the sewer of a Chicago underworld trying to kill them to get at him. And the game has the temerity to suggest that Aiden is still someone that’s OUT THERE, DOING THINGS and MAKING RIGHT. Or maybe it isn’t, it’s hard to tell, because this is a game made by human beings that think you can just swap the positions of members in a family willy nilly and the emotional weight distribution will remain the same.
For all this game cares, this guy could be anyone else with skin darker than "not."
One of the many factions that are positioned against Aiden in his quest are a technologically advanced black mob called the Black Viceroys. This is a very good name, because it evokes the Latin Kings, an actual real world organization (I’m giving their full name of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation because, well, why wouldn’t I) that was founded in Humboldt Park back in the 50s, only with a different racial makeup and a different synonym for “sovereign.”
Just fuck everything, why don’t you?
Don’t even get it into your heads that I’m suggesting Ubisoft should have actually used the Latin Kings in Watch Dogs. There’s many bad outcomes to that, most significant of which is the ALKQN probably has cause and resources to prosecute for trademark violations. And also never assume I’d label problems in games as result of laziness, because I’ve had my cup of coffee in gamedev, and even that was enough to convince me that laziness is not the issue in the industry. But this? This is lazy gamedev. It’s also laziness bred out of pure, sheltered, suburban white mediocrity.
Watch Dogs is a game that’s about a lot of things, and one of those things is Chicago. And like all of those things, Watch Dogs is only sort of, but not really strongly about Chicago. It pays lip service to the idea that Chicago is a city, and like all cities, it has an identity. Part of the identity of a city is the crime that goes down within its limits, and Chicago is a city with a vibrant underworld history. In choosing to represent this, Watch Dogs took the namesake of an organization with a foundation in Latinx revolutionary ideology and discipline via code and bureaucracy, and somehow interchanged them with militarized black narcotics traders flipped into hackers and info brokers. If you cared about what you were doing, why would you do this? If you wanted to represent a true to life element of Chicago’s history, why would you then just make it something completely different with a nod to the name? Was this quite literally as simple as ticking a box that says “one nonwhite criminal faction” and calling it done?
The Viceoys are led by a veteran of the Iraq War, for the sake of fitting more zeitgeist in and also to add to the feel that they’re a militarized force. His street name is Iraq, because subtlety was made for fools and cravens to protect themselves from the forceful virility of real-ass writing. The inner character of Iraq is conveyed mostly through collected audio logs, and like all the best game audio logs, they’re just some dope waxing philosophical into a microphone for some inorganic reason. In them, the writer’s mastery of the couple episodes of The Wire and Generation Kill they watched while developing this character comes through. Iraq is what happens when you take an individual hopped up on the white terror you’d find in the sort of household that bought into the crack baby superpredator myth and thought Predator 2 was a documentary, then tell them to do the best they can in creating a worthy adversary out of the leader of a black criminal organization. From the ground up, I don’t believe the Viceroys or Iraq as what they’re supposed to represent within Chicago, of a facet of the city that’s growing and changing with the time, because I don’t believe anyone in charge understood anything about Chicago, about race or even about crime as a concept. Whoever came up with the Viceroys has nothing to tell anyone about the realities of organizations like them, because I don’t think they cared to actually learn why themselves. Hell, I don’t even think they’re the kind of person that wouldn’t claim they have a black friend that backs up their claims about the Knockout Game being real.
Oh and by the way? You kill all the Viceroys, every last one. Not out of any real beef, mind, but because they had info they wouldn’t give up. See, they’re a stepping stone to the game’s real, important bad guys. You know, the white ones. So you go and shoot them all up in a one-man raid on their project towers. Because Aiden Pierce is a complicated hero.
At E3 2012, we saw the debut of a game that looked like it was gathering its breath so as to let loose a bellow that shook the establishment of AAA games. Instead, what we got was a game that had the mush-mouthed mumble of a socially awkward 16 year old that, when encouraged to finally speak their opinion, mutters something about “SJWs” and “parasites” and “all lives matter” before trailing off and ceasing to make eye contact with anyone. And everyone present is inwardly glad at that last bit.
Watch Dogs is a game that presents you with a vision of a near future Chicago under the blanket of an ever-present and incredibly sophisticated surveillance matrix, one of the functions of which is profiling individuals based on metrics that allegedly predisposes them to criminal acts. Watch Dogs is also a game that seems to be conflicted with itself as to whether or not this is a good or bad thing. One of the things you actually collect in this game are invasions of privacy, and because nothing is cooler than pervasive displays of human misery, almost all of them are unpleasant. Some are merely maudlin, but so many of them are just bad fucking, I cringe to think of the sort of relationships the people who dated the person who wrote these things were subjected to. But if you’re a vigilante looking to turn the surveillance state against itself to fight on behalf of the people, why would you then be rewarded for literally looking into what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms?
Well, I'm not laughing, that's for certain.
Memes are in this game. Believe me, they’re worse than that sounds. See, rather than being clever and creating a bunch of basic-ass plausible meme jokes to populate your game world with, thus allowing your characters something real world to play off of without grating the player and possibly even creating something that could go viral by itself- paging Yakuza 0, if you want an example of something like that happening recently. But no, they took the easy road, and made them not only a collectable, but also extremely stale. As in, extremely stale as of the time of the game’s development, and just super fucking embarrassing by the time the game made it out (and it suffered delays, too). Because of this, you can go out onto the highway, find a road conditions sign, and hack it so that it displays “ALL UR BASE” or “TACTICAL BATON TO THE KNEE.” Because of course this game is the sort of douche that would specify that their collapsing baton is ‘tactical.’ But then shit has to go even further and more embarrassing than that. See, a thing I haven’t gone into, because if I didn’t narrow shit down, I’d be here forever, is that Watch Dogs has like a dozen villains, and very few of them are worth remembering. One that everyone actually wishes they could forget is a hacker that wears a knockoff Deadmaus helmet and communicates via leetspeak, memes and an Optimus Prime vocoder. Put the knife down. His name is Default. PUT THE KNIFE DOWN. Default becomes the primary threat 4 acts into the game, sticks around 3 missions while garbling up the UI with dumb horseshit that would make a redditor eyeroll, and is then forcibly shit out of the main game into the bowl of the DLC. This character baffles me. So does the intent of him in contrast with the rest of the game. Are memes and internet people bad now? I thought they were extremely cool and good? Eh, who gives a shit? I don’t think Watch Dogs does.
There were people that couldn't go home to their children because they were too busy crunching to help bring this into the world.
But where Watch Dogs shrugs perhaps the hardest and most pathetically is its handling of the hideous, heinous crime of human trafficking and slavery. Watch Dogs features the dismantling of a human trafficking op and a literal human auction in it, with Aiden sneaking through sub rosa as sex workers or being bid on and handed off. Now, let’s not go into the fact that our entry into this world is of course through a mission where you take out “a real sicko” to get his invite to this thing and it turns out what the dude’s into is just, like, bondage and discipline. But I’ll mention it, because it’s adorable. But let’s instead consider what happens in this mission when you bring the roof down and crash the operation, or specifically, how it ends: as the player drives away and sirens can be heard converging on the now ruined auction, Aiden mumbles to himself something to the effect of “those girls will be safe with the police.”
The Chicago police have the historical precedent of being one of the most excessively brutal forces in American history. They were recently exposed as maintaining a number of black sites where they would take people arrested for petty crimes, the majority of them black men, and torture them to somehow extract criminal intel. Features of these interrogation spaces included blood gutters in the floor to assist drainage of any bodily fluids spilled. This is before we even get into the procedure for individuals trafficked for sex work when they’re taken into custody. Basically, they get cleaned up, identified and interviewed. Police confirm that they’re in the country unlawfully, and then turn them over to ICE for deportation. At this point, the people in charge of the operation will be informed that their merchandise is on the run, either by people they have in ICE or customs or the police themselves, at which point they’ll be abducted and sold again. This is the reality of this terrible crime: it never stops, because it’s a business, and any business can be facilitated under capitalism with enough money backing it.
That Watch Dogs, a game set in an ostensible dystopia, doesn’t know this? That is everything.
And then it becomes a sidequest, because there’s more of that operation to bust up scattered around the city. No pressure, though, do as much or as little of it as you want.
This is the certainty of which Watch Dogs speaks the messages to be learned of the society it portrays. It states that the surveillance state is intrusive, dangerously powerful and humiliating to submit to, but it also states that it’s pretty handy and good when in the right hands. It states that jokes that are only jokes because a certain context made them understandable as such are hip and cool, but also stupid awful nerds from the internet use them too much and because of that, they’re also terrible. And it states that the police, who are so much a tool of the city’s corrupt and powerful to the point they have produced a determined and well-equipped vigilante in opposition to them, would provide proper care and aid to individuals violated by an inhuman crime and it's soulless perpetrators. With back straight and voice clear, Watch Dogs is a game that isn’t afraid to stand up and speak up its mind, and it does that a lot. The main problem is that all it has to say is stuff like “it’s fucked up when fucked up things happen” and that grunt version of “I dunno” people give when they really, truly don’t know.
Given the fact that there’s still so much to go over in this trainwreck, I would say definitively that Watch Dogs is a game that doesn’t know. I mean, for fucks sake, one of this game’s million pointless alternate costumes is called ‘The Anarchist’ and its colours are black and yellow. That alone was enough to make me mad, but it’s one petty little point on a garbage pile of surefire focus-grouped failure and sheer cluelessness. What’s also definitive is that it’s a major asshole, right down to its genes. And if you want to doubt this, here’s another image of an old meme on a highway safety sign. Don’t box me on this, you know I’m right.
Also, fuck you.