It’s been a good, long while since a video-game truly excited me. Portal 2 maybe? I’ve been enthralled by video-games for so long, and perhaps it’s fatigue, but at one point last year I just could not be bothered. E3 this year seems to be a tour de force of the absolute worst that the gaming industry has to offer. Far Cry 3 looks like a dull, sterile first-person shooter with a grizzly voiced generic protagonist whom I will have no connection to, and the ghastly disgusting depiction of women is just getting worse. Ubisoft literally opened their conference up with this absolutely stunning blasphemous piece of game design that probably had Clint Hocking and the Far Cry 2 leftovers just shivering in shame. For a while, it was a dull conference. In fact, the whole E3 was for the most part utterly insipid and the cynical beast inside of me is just so sick of shooting people. But then, something weird happened. Something utterly unexpected. Ubisoft closed their show with an absolutely mind-blowing presentation of something which has truly enthralled me.
Watch_Dogs, aside from the absolutely underwhelming title (I liked Turn Off The Lights that was teased in the trailer), is probably the most exciting thing to come out of the triple A market in forever. Assassin’s Creed 3, Rayman Origins were pretty good shows in the same conference but Watch_Dogs stole the entire E3 for me. It’s kind of hilarious to see outlets like Game Informer give the ridiculously (and Ubisoft published I might add) downsized, ‘packaged’ and rubbish Splinter Cell: Blacklist ‘game of the show’. It really saddens me to see a gaming press so religiously devoted to regurgitating the same themes of basic violence and disgusting blasphemous ‘cinematic gameplay’ over and over. But… perhaps Watch_Dogs is the white knight to save us all?
For starters, its mechanics reinforce its artistic messages. Wait, oh my! Artistic messages? In a video-game?! Been a while since that hasn’t it! You manipulate the city at will, invade people’s private life with a flick of a finger and are able to manipulate your way into the upper echelons of high society with just a few switches. The very mechanic of the society becomes a method of interacting with the world. You can literally use the infrastructure of a city to your will.
That is probably the most exciting idea.
Our world right now is… not so kind is it? Everything that Watch_Dogs bases itself around resonates with us. Its paranoias about the new technological age, the invasion of privacy and the destruction of individuality, the dystopia and Orwellian touches to a 21st Century civilisation and so on. Its very ideas touch us because they are completely and utterly relevant. They’re not asking us to put ourselves in the boots of ‘Sgt. Scurge McKill’ and shoot ethnic groups in the face. They’re not asking us to pilot planes and bomb land like it’s Vietnam all over again. For once, a triple-A developer is asking us a what if question firmly rooted in a blended world of sci-fi and the pure real world. What if you had the height of control over a city? What if its systems, securities and technological webbing were in the palm of your hand? It’s thrilling, exciting, fresh and scary because the minute we start thinking of the relevance of Watch_Dogs’ world is the minute we start thinking that perhaps we’re simply playing ‘the other side’. The puppeteer.
It’s been a long time since a base of mechanics actually thrilled me in such a way that I now think of endless possibilities, and it’s just so satisfying to see it done justice. The city seems populated with individual, maybe randomly generated, citizens. People with jobs, desires, homes, wants, needs and secrets I can crack into. Maybe I’ll find myself…
I read somewhere that, in one example, the ‘JOURNALIST’ in the game demo (the one who commits ‘PLAGIARISM’) it’s apparently available to the player to follow her home, download the data off her laptop and then blackmail her for money. Grand Theft Auto IV had the promise of a city that felt ‘alive’ but I would argue that it felt fundamentally ’empty’. I knew that the words the pedestrians said were simply lines fed into a recording studio, written by some hack of a writer (Dan Houser is not a natural writer). I knew that their lives were stitched out of textures, paint and pushed audio-bits but in Watch_Dogs these people have names. They have jobs, they have lives and privacy. That is more alive than some scripted pedestrian. The fact I can invade that privacy is even more interesting, but this is where I begin to question the legitimacy behind Watch_Dogs‘ promise.
Can a whole city, with that many citizens, be truly alive? It’s been proved in the last two years that the current generation of consoles, once heralded as the technological masterpieces of console gaming, is now stuttering with its lack of RAM and processing power. Developers have squeezed the last juice from the pulp of these systems, and it’s hard to see how a truly fully simulated Chicago can be full of Apartments and places and people with names and digits and lives. That’s my one worry, and it’s the one that might prevent it from being one of the most exciting things to come out of this generation. I truly believe that the technology might hold it back.
Then there’s the worry that… well… the demo they showed had massive glaring faults. The protagonist had his own voice, his own muse and was a seriously generic and bland character. You already know my stance on player-characters; they’re simply conduits for my interaction and nothing more, giving them a backstory I can’t connect with will just hinder my connection to the world of the game and thus my interactions. To be handed this ‘Adrian Pierce’ or whatever… it’s kind of really underselling the promise of the game. How about just let me customise my own character and blend my own morals and rules into the game, maybe I can learn something through my trials and tribulations throughout the experience. Maybe the game can matter to me?
What also scares me is the still almost throbbing cinematic leech on the presentation. I can sense some Blade Runner and Total Recall (both Philip K. Dick actually) influences blending in, and that’s completely fine, but the characters and plot seem ripped out of the Hollywood machine. The most obvious example being the dreadful and almost deafingly bad writing. I expect better of video-games, and that’s saying something when half of the modern medium is Call of Duty‘s limbs stitched into neat places. I’m serious here Ubisoft Montreal; let me write your game. I’ll do it for free. I’ve read me some books here and there and I know a thing or two about writing stuff (implying I’m a good writer) so let’s not… oh… you’re doing cutscenes as well. Okay. We can make it work somehow?
The nail in the coffin to my massive enthusiasm, which is now just a restless excitement, is something that I noticed. Throughout the whole of E3 2012 I found that gamers and tweeters and folks were starting to become aware of the fact that shooting things is just boring. It’s been fun for a while, it’s even been interesting to find new ways to kill people. But for the first time, I began to notice tweets that despise the entire practice of murder. I still enjoy Gears of War and Uncharted but it’s time to put away the meaningless violence. I want to know about my enemies, my antagonists and the targets. I want their backstories, their privacies and their worries because it’s more interesting if I’m then given the opportunity to manipulate that. That I could invade a single-mother’s home, drain her bank account with a touch of my screen and weeks later see her sick on the pavement with her daughter begging me for money. That I could take down a drug kingpin by invading his home and having all the police flood into his place, only to find his family photos on his laptop. The very act of promising me a whole world to dive into, to manipulate and to discover is incredible… but if there’s one thing I notice on my Twitterfeed is that when the demo switched to third-person shooter mode, there was a sigh. Just a worrisome sigh. I was hoping to play a true everyman, not a suddenly trained killer. Maybe I’d use my fisticuffs, but for the most part I’d always be against the odds and have to use my wits and the city on the edge of my fingertips to aid me.
Just don’t blow this one Ubisoft. This could be something special.