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Watch Dogs

Breaking Free Of Binary Morality

Since June 2012, when Watch Dogs was unveiled to the world, we’ve learned much of its premise. Ubisoft Montreal is building a game that holds a mirror up to our society’s obsession with information and connectivity. The message is spelled out in bold letters, “you are a data point.”

Everything is binary, except how the Watch Dogs team is approaching morality. “This is a very personal opinion, but I think that for the past 10 – 15 years, games have been asking me very polarized moral questions,” producer Dominic Guay explained. “They lack nuance, and I don’t necessarily relate to them. As a random example, if I meet an orphan boy in one of those games, I’ll get the choice like ‘Will you give him all of your money, or will you hit him?’ Those two extreme moral answers to this very nuanced and subtle encounter are not really speaking to me. I wouldn’t do those things, I would do something much more complex. That is the area we want to explore, the gray zone of morality, one in which most of us lie, actually.”

The morality spectrum is made possible by Disrupt, the new engine powering Watch Dogs. The technology allows for more realistic and dynamic simulations. Guay told us that situations will play out differently every time. He pointed out that in Watch Dogs, anti-hero Aiden Pearce can manipulate his environment anywhere, at any time. In contrast, most engines would require more precise scripting and AI response. 

During E3 2012, we were shown a demo that included Aiden causing a traffic accident by hacking traffic signals. Guay told us that depending on the simulation AI, the resulting chaos could play out in a variety of ways. Drivers might swerve and passersby might call for an ambulance, or it could be pure carnage with dozens of cars piling up. 

That same level of unpredictability permeates moment to moment encounters with pedestrians. As an example, lead animator Colin Graham, who was controlling the demo, pulled out a gun on the sidewalk. People reacted more realistically than I expected, with some cowering, and others emboldened enough to call the police. On this level, it might not seem worlds ahead of what developers are already doing, but this is merely the lowest expression of the AI.

From a visual perspective, the engine is stunning and fluid (for this demo, the specifications of the PC were approximate to the PlayStation 4). The detailing on vehicles, houses, and pedestrians is impressive. For instance, one of the cars showed realistic wear and peeling paint. It had fallen into disrepair, and the body imperfections conveyed a sense of age rather than intent of an artist.

The demo we saw took place in The Wards, which is the in-game representation of real world Chicago’s five poorest districts (despite the fictionalization in some places, famous landmarks like the Willis Tower are included). After invading a Central Operating System (CtOS) server (powering Chicago’s “smart city” functions) and installing a backdoor, Aiden is given access to hack more freely. Mobile phones and cameras become fair game, as does the city’s predictive crime system. 

The system in question alerts Aiden (and police) to likely locations where crime might happen and the people who are most likely to be involved. Here, the elements of morality and player choice come through brightest. Aiden can opt to intervene at any time once likely suspects and victims are identified. However, moving too soon could cause pedestrians to misinterpret his actions or, worse, he could make a mistake. 

“The citizens are going to respond to you,” Guay detailed. “They are going to be a reflection of the things that you do to them. They’ll talk about you on social media and on the street. Remember, you can hack into any device and so you will overhear those conversations.”

In one particularly difficult situation, Aiden is made aware of a man on the hunt for his wife’s attacker. In our demo, he chose to allow vengeance to take its course. However, he could have just as easily stopped the revenge plot or stepped into deprive the man of his quarry by doing the deed himself. Each of these options has a different impact on Aiden’s reputation, but its variable based on witnesses.

All of Aiden’s actions feed into his overall reputation and, more granularly, his relationship with different factions. Each of these encounters will be layered, especially given the uncertainty surrounding the predictive system. “Our world works in such a way that we, as developers, don’t know how that’s going to turn out,” said lead story designer Kevin Shortt. When we spoke with him, he told us that situations aren’t always as they seem, and they are never simple.

“For us it was important that we didn’t just go with the straight ‘he’s a bad guy, take him down’ versus, ‘he’s a good guy, don’t touch him,’” Shortt told us. “Those are just too easy. We challenged ourselves to come up with issues that we as the writing team had different opinions on.”

In addition to private communications, Aiden’s activities will make him a target for the media. “You might see yourself on the news,” Guay explained, “What they say about you depends on your actions.” In one scene, Aiden had the misfortune of being in a pawnshop when his face was shown on the news. The reaction from the owner was fascinating, as the man not only reached for a silent alarm, but visibly tensed while his facial expression belied a desperate attempt to remain calm.

Part of Watch Dogs’ texture comes from Aiden’s own past and his mastery of the digital world. He will have access to the personal lives of those around him. According to Guay, his ability to peer into personal business is an addiction. “What if you had all those systems at your fingertips? What would you do with your newfound powers?” he quipped.

In one instance during the demo, Aiden uses a public Wi-Fi hotspot that allows him access to any device connected to it in a nearby apartment building. He happens upon a laptop webcam that reveals a man with an interest in unconventional (and inanimate) romantic partners. The gameplay purpose is to gain access to a car, but accompanying that is a brief narrative moment.

“I have more writers than I’ve ever had,” Shortt shared with us. “It’s double what I’ve ever had before. It’s a good size writing team. The game is big, and we had to make sure we had the content to support that. You can hack into cell phones, you can hack into cameras that see into rooms. Those are all encapsulated stories, but they’re stories. There is a lot more to craft in that regard.”

Watch Dogs will be available on November 19, 2013, on PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii U, and "other next-generation systems."

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Comments
  • Can't wait for this game it's gonna be boss

  • Saying something and actually having it in the game are two different things also I'm not really sold on the melee weapon it a metal stick with a magnet on the end made to take shrapnel out of hunted game. It seems really limp in my opinion. A stun rod or nightstick would be better.
  • This game is gunna be awesome.

  • i cant wait looks better then the ac series ps4 might be the best system for this game but im sticking with my ps3 until it doesnt work

  • I'm glad to see advances in morality in gaming; the old systems do seem a bit extreme.

  • So the question is "will this just be a carbon copy of AC with a modern setting and just another guy with a swishy coat?"
  • I welcome more depth in morality and choice; its nice to see developers so quickly using the technology for the benefit of the narrative

  • I will be spending my entire thanksgiving break playing this.

  • If this is the demo I think it is, there's a segment where Aiden is attempting to compromise a ctOS server building (this game's analogue to AC's viewpoints and FC3's radio towers).  The question I found myself asking afterwards is this: are there non-lethal takedown options?  Let's say the player flubs his attempt at a ghost run on that building - leaving corpses strewn about the place would result in a slightly different sort of response, both immediately and in media coverage thereof.

    Also, given all the comparisons to AC, I for one would be amused if a set of assassin robes showed up as an alternate outfit...

  • so excited for this game, i love the idea of "grey area morality" it actually makes a lot more since than the old "good deed +5 points" and "evil deed -5 points", the gameplay can be molded better with morality. great job ubisoft

  • so if i point a gun at a woman will she know she's getting the D

  • there should be an option to try to convince people to not freak out such as the pawnshop owner, you could maybe threaten him to not set off the alarm or try calming him down.because i would have unloaded my mag of pistol ammo into him if he pressed it
  • This game is a game Changer even if it doesn't do good.   The ides that this game has will be copied and "MAY" be done better by some  other company..  I still think this game will do great and now that I decided to build a collection like I did on my original Xbox ( 64 games)  this  is a must have....    I loved looking at my collection and seeing that I had all 3 splinter cells and ghost recons  and much more..  Traded all them in and got a 360 for like 40 bucks!  

  • I hope this is a launch game for PS4. Day one buy for me if that's the case.

  • It all sounds great to me. I've always had an interest in hacking whether it is through real news stories, books or movies. I find it fascinating & impressive. I'm really excited about the way they are taking this game with so much detail they are introducing into the living world they are creating. Midnight launch buy for me without a doubt.

  • This is really shaping up to look even more fantastic every time I see it. I hope that dialogue and situations don't become repetitive, since in reality everyone is doing something different. But I understand it's incredibly difficult to make stories for tens of thousands of background characters. Just hope it turns out well.

  • I'll just consider this blowing smoke till the actually game proves these things. Plus I would like to know more about the main story in general.

  • Clearly Assassin's Creed had a profound effect on this game. Whereas it would be VERY EASY for me to say that Watch_Dogs would be derivative as a result; I don't think it's that simple. This "Disrupt" simulation engine may be just the difference/catalyst needed in providing a dynamic, nuanced and totally unpredictable experience that would warrant numerous playthroughs

  • Amazing, in the modern age of high-tech devices a game like this really makes me think. I love the idea of being able to alter the storyline and roam freely, there's nothing worse than playing a game with the same story over and over to death. I can't wait to play it! :D