SPOILER WARNING: This essay reveals various plot points from the game Watch Dogs. If you don’t want that story spoiled, maybe come read this after you’ve played the game.
There are five women who figure prominently in Watch Dogs. Four of them die. Two of these dead women are important enough to build the plot around but not important enough to have more than a couple of speaking lines.
In the sprawling open world of near-future Chicago, where technology has changed the world so much, what we see is that not much has changed at all. “The dangerous world of Aiden Pearce” that Ubisoft’s advertising campaign has invited us into isn’t dangerous for Aiden—in fact, Aiden makes it through the entire game without ever being trapped, taken prisoner or experiencing anything worse than being inconvenienced (and inconvenience is always solved by hacking something with a cell phone.) There is a dangerous world contained in Watch Dogs, however, and it is the world the women of the game inhabit, a world where they literally exist only as plot motivation to keep the narrative machinery of the game moving along.
I’m not suggesting that Watch Dogs is unique in how it uses women as stepping stones to get a protagonist from emotional point A to emotional point B. Instead, I want to simply point out that the plot of this game, like the plots of many other games, can only think of women as plot points rather than as whole people to be written as whole people. This is because Watch Dogs is written around the assumption that women are plot fodder, and it depends on a well-worn concept: fridging.
“Fridging” is a term used to describe an act of maximal violence against a woman in a piece of media. The concept has roots in nerd culture and was coined after an event in a Green Lantern comic book where the protagonist, Kyle Rayner, opened up his refrigerator to find his girlfriend dead and stuffed inside. It is horrific moment made even more so because it lays bare the function that the woman plays in the story. She is not a person, she is a plot point generator; she is a vector that creates arcs centered around vengeance.
It is important to have this language handy in discussing Watch Dogs because the plot of the game literally could not move forward if there were not women to be fridged. These characters appear only to have violence happen to them and then they are quickly exited from the game’s narrative after they provide their appropriate plot push.
Take, for example, the two crucial deaths on which the entire plot of the game is built. The game begins with Aiden Pearce trying to find out who was responsible for calling in a hit that left his niece Lena dead. She exists for less than ten minutes total in the game, including flashbacks, showing up only to die over and over again while reinforcing that Aiden definitely must have some emotions because she’s dead. Late in the game we find out why the hit was called in to begin with—the arch villain of the game wanted to make sure that footage of a woman being killed by the sitting Mayor would not be found or released to the general public. Quite literally the footage of the death of one woman (which we are shown near the end of the game) fuels the death of another, which then gives the protagonist of the game the will to carry on with a mission and do what has to be done.
It is all hackneyed. It is all common tropes, leftovers from the thrillers and action flicks of the 1980s and 90s, of the gritty antiheroes that a great many of us started growing tired of a full decade ago. Building a character around avenging the death of a woman at least works as a plot device when you only have to fill up an hour and a half of screen time, but Watch Dogs, being a 15+ hour open-world game, feeds its entire narrative with Aiden’s justified outrage at the bad things been done to the women of Chicago.
That means that during the course of a playthrough of Watch Dogs you will see his niece die. You will experience more than five hours of his sister Nicky being kidnapped and being used as a dangling carrot to push the plot along. This series of missions is punctuated by distressed phone calls from her describing how she doesn’t know where she is and how much she’s worried about her son. You will meet Poppy, a sex worker who has been trafficked and sold to a serial murderer, and you will watch as he saves her from that life (after which she promptly disappears from the narrative.) You will meet Clara, a young hacker, who becomes so guilty about something that she did to Aiden that she leaves the safety of the hacker bunker and is gunned down while putting flowers on his niece’s grave, giving him the final burst of vengeance energy he needs to kill the big bad at the end of the game.
Short of a single narrative thread with “T-Bone,” a rural hacker who takes you down a wild path, every major event in Watch Dogs is in some way related to or informed by violence or death being dealt to women. This violence is often used as punctuation, which reaches its unbelievable apex in a series of scenes that take place in an “auction” where women are sold into sex slavery (a scene which includes a hackable camera that shows you a feed of a woman weeping on a bed after clearly experiencing sexual assault.)
In attempting to show us that the world of Watch Dogs is very serious and mature, the developers at Ubisoft have quite literally made the women of the game into bodies that Aiden Pearce has to step over in order to get his final vengeance.
I don’t point all this out for the sake of pointing. I do it because I want stories that aren’t lazy. I’m pointing because I don’t know what I could possibly say to defend this game to the women who are forced to continually see people like them existing in narratives only to be fridged in proxy wars between grizzled, gravel-voiced men.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com.