My partner walked through the room while I was in the middle of playing Watch Dogs and asked “why are you playing Grand Theft Auto again?”
This question perfectly encapsulates the experience of playing through Watch Dogs both mechanically and narratively. The core loop of the game has you doing a lot of the same things that you do in the Grand Theft Auto series, which makes sense; Watch Dogs is a giant open-world game that prides itself on being a faithful recreation of Chicago and the surrounding areas. Like all open-world games, you have to somehow figure out how to fill up all of that space.
Of course, the Rockstar formula is to create small sequences of missions around “zany” characters paired with lots of locations to do totally banal minigames like poker, bowling and racing. Watch Dogs ditches the side characters for sporadically placed missions where you can kill “fixers” (the digitally-connected hitmen that populate every William Gibson novel,) flush out gangs or hack into secure locations. Beyond these side missions there are also online missions where you can compete head-to-head with other Watch Dogs players.
However, the cost of populating this giant true-to-life world map with all of these small events is that they are, at best, small diversions in a massive landscape. Most of my time in Watch Dogs was spent driving from borough to borough dead-eyed while I listened to the passable in-game music and avoided traffic. Sometimes I was chased by the police or by fixers and I hacked into the traffic systems, steam pipes and spike strips of the postindustrial technological city in order to cause huge traffic pileups and the Hollywood incapacitation (but not death) of villains and cops alike.
The driving around and doing whatever you want part of Watch Dogs isn’t the selling point of the game, and those additional pieces of world filling aren’t what has made this game the most preordered title of all time. What’s generated massive hype for Watch Dogs is the narrative we’ve been sold since it was announced. This narrative has been advertised so hard that even I, a person who has purposefully tried to remove himself from the PR machine of games by avoiding all previews of any sort, knew that Watch Dogs was about surveillance and one man’s journey to stop evil corporate overlords from taking over something that was never quite clear.
After playing the game, I’m still not exactly clear what pained white man protagonist Aiden Pearce spent all of that time doing. The game’s story is one full of tropes familiar to anyone who knows their contemporary blockbuster videogames: Aiden Pearce is a boots-on-the-ground hacker connected to a vast criminal underworld. He makes a powerful enemy. This enemy uses the shadow network of hackers and fixers to reach out and teach Pearce a lesson that results in the death of his niece. Armed with a passionate vengeance, Pearce sets out to find whoever was responsible for this act (and when the climax of the game came around and revealed who the villain was I literally laughed out loud.)
With his justification neatly in place, Pearce goes on mission after mission, hacking and serial-killer narrating his way, Punisher-style, through a labyrinthine series of plot points. The crucial engine that drives the game is data and what one can do with it. While I’ve mentioned hackers several times already, I’ve not yet addressed near-future Chicago’s “ctOS,” the thing that everyone is so interested in hacking into. ctOS is a network that quite literally runs the city, logging everything from the private data of individuals to the grand political yearnings of the entire population. This system gets kicked around more times than a soccer ball in the narrative, sometimes being minimally under Pearce’s control and sometimes being under the persuasions of various other hackers.
As I mentioned above, the promotional materials for Watch Dogs really attempted to drive home the reality and immediacy of the events that happen in the game. Large-scale data collection is real and happening in the current time period, and Watch Dogs really brings that to the forefront with its “profiling” system. Crucial to both story missions and side content, profiling is when Pearce turns on his cell phone and points it at things in the world. This reveals things that can be hacked (soda machines, traffic lights) and people whose data the ctOS system has access to, which is quite literally everyone. Profile a crowd of people and you can see the name, income, job title and a factoid about each of them. Sometimes this mechanic is used as part of a scavenger hunt to find someone who is mission critical. At other times it is used to look for crimes in progress to that Pearce can race across town to stop a victim from being murdered.
For all of its posturing about data collection with the foregrounding of ctOS, Watch Dogs never takes a strong stance when it comes to the ethics of that data collection. Instead, it seems to suggest that the act of profiling and making decisions about the likelihood of someone’s actions based on their data footprint is totally fine as long as the person making the decision isn’t part of a giant, evil corporation. Early on in the game I failed a mission where I had profiled a criminal. Instead of hanging back to see if he would actually commit the crime, I rushed forward and tried to head him off. I was immediately told that I failed the mission, with Aiden narrating to himself that he couldn’t “take him down over a threatening text.” That makes sense short of the fact that that is precisely the logic of profiling, and this mixed message about where we should land on data doesn’t do Watch Dogs any favors in the consistency department.
This fundamental confusion at the heart of Watch Dogs bleeds over into nearly all aspects of the game. We’re told that the government is corrupt and totally bent to the will of the criminal underworld of Chicago. Later, Aiden Pearce attempts to break up a sex trafficking ring run by that criminal underworld by calling in the cops (we never hear anything about it again.) We’re told that ctOS is a system for instituting control over a population, but Pearce revels in it and wholly depends on it to accomplish every single major mission objective in the game. It is this, more than anything, that unites Watch Dogs with the Grand Theft Auto series in my mind. By wanting it both ways—data is really cool but also really bad—Watch Dogs constantly rides the line between both and ultimately fails to say anything interesting on either side. The question “are you playing Grand Theft Auto again?” forced me to ask myself the real question: is Watch Dogs fundamentally different from the open world games about men with deep emotional pain that we’ve seen rehearsed over and over again for us during the past ten years? I can’t say that it is, and I felt like I was playing the same old game one more time.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com.