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."