I am confused by Watch Dogs. Not about its apparent drop in visual quality from its early trailers, nor how it now looks more like a typical gun oriented game than previously advertised. I am confused about why this game takes place in Chicago.
Ubisoft Montreal has positioned Watch Dogs’ setting as a foremost feature of its game. In a trailer titled “Welcome to Chicago” it uses the city as a way to talk about the complex engines at work to make this game as realistic as possible, a wide network of lives and personalities inside what they call a “bustling metropolis, with all types.” But the Chicago I see in the ads isn’t the one that I inhabit.
Shortly after graduating from college, a friend offered me a room in his Hyde Park apartment. I jumped at the chance, having fallen in love with the city while making trips there from my midwest college. At an open mic I attended mere weeks later, I heard a comedian joke that “Chicago is diverse like a zebra is grey.” I learned quickly that Chicago is segregated, and the city’s relationship to race is highly politicized. Once, when walking home from GameStop, a man in his car shouted out the window at my white roommate, and derisively called him, “whiteboy.” To this man, his whiteness in this neighborhood was a transgression. My roommate has lived in Hyde Park his entire life.
Chicago has considerable merit—its warm art scene, its indie devs, its craft beers and hot dogs—so despite its race relations, I don’t see myself leaving any time soon. The flaw, however, is glaring and ever present. At Roosevelt, the last stop in the Loop for many L trains, I have witnessed a mass exodus of white travelers. I’ve seen the eyebrows raise when I mention my address. No matter how loudly they want to be acknowledged, the South Side is invisible. Although Hyde Park is just barely south of downtown, to many Chicagoans, it and everything south of it may as well not exist.
It seems from the scant footage they’ve released from Watch Dogs that Ubisoft Montreal shares that opinion. The story trailer promotes the main storyline of the white, male Aiden Pearce, and it features famous landmarks in the Loop, suggesting that most of the action takes place there. While it shows us minorities when discussing crime and gunplay, this suggests that poverty and violence are the only contexts in which minorities exist in the Chicago of Watch Dogs. An article in Ubiblog with senior producer Dominic Guay suggests that all these neighborhoods inspire “The Wards,” which will be one section of the huge virtual city. But to lump every low-income neighborhood into one area seems very limited. Although the mostly Black South Side and the mostly Latino West Side share similar income levels, they are so culturally different that painting them with the same brush is short sighted. In the words of Creative Director Jonathon Morin in Forbes, “Chicago needs to be a real city.” But only for the part of Chicago that already only speaks of and about itself.
(The Megabus pickup location in Chicago near Union Station. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.)
When the developers from Ubisoft Montreal speak about this game, they do so with great reverence for Chicago, and they come very close to addressing some of the contradictions that I find interesting. “Chicago is one of the world’s great cities,” says Jonathon Morin to gamestar.ru. “From its inception to today, it symbolizes modernity and progress alongside crime and corruption.” But they veer shy of specificity, and draw repeatedly on historical references such as the Great Fire and prohibition to flesh out their view of the city. Given the distance of Montreal to Chicago, this comes as no surprise, but it belies a lack of real research into their chosen setting. They acknowledge the problems that exist, but don’t think much about what lies at the root of them.
I would not go so far as to call this racist, or even to think it was done with malintent, but it does strike me as dishonest. Ubisoft wants us to believe that they have accurately recreated Chicago in miniature, but given what we have seen from the game, I only see a set. This is a playground in which we will play. A part of the Chicago that I experience as a black woman living in it, one where the racial politics are ingrained on each block, might not make an appearance. If it does, it will be as the rungs on a ladder that a white protagonist will climb over on his tale of revenge. The more they tout how complex and interconnected the game is, the more simplistic it feels.
(The South Side of Chicago, 2008. Photo by Mike Rosenberg.)
Although I think the hullabaloo over perceived graphical changes are overblown, I think it communicates a frustration that I also feel about this game. This is another missed opportunity, another moment when the words of the developers do not seem to match their actions. Why make a city so immersive, one that will supposedly feel so real, and remove a chunk of it that directly informs the experience of living there for hundreds of thousands of residents? There is no obligation of fiction to describe everyone’s exact experience, and I will not argue that. But simulating Chicago and then deciding not to engage with a huge part of its culture will make Watch Dogs feel hollow.
If that stands, this will be a story that could take place literally in any city. All cities have crime, more and more cities have intense networks of CCTV cameras, and all cities have white men with wives and children to stuff into fridges. While Chicago’s status as this most surveilled city in America is apt, Ubisoft Montreal chose Chicago before they learned of Operation Virtual Shield. The dishonesty lies, for me, in the decision that Chicago is perfect for Watch Dogs while not actually creating a narrative that serves, explores and speaks directly from the city.
I’m still excited to play Watch Dogs, despite my reservations. Given that Ubisoft Montreal is also the studio behind Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – Freedom Cry, an Assassin’s Creed DLC that features the rare event of a black man and a black woman speaking to each other in a videogame, I do believe that these developers have the ability to address race in a constructive way. However, I am weary of Watch Dogs’ narrative and the types of characters it features, and I am confused when Morin compliments Chicago so greatly by saying ”...what I love about [Chicago] is that it has a vision. They are not scared to try things,” while, at the same time, reveling in something so stagnant. It makes me feel like the game could only improve by striving to be more like the Chicago I love.
Gita Jackson writes at xoxogossipgita.tumblr.com and her Twitter is @xoxogossipgita.