“Open world” is a misleading term in gaming. Once you get past the bullshit marketing, you realize that all video games have a “closed world.” Games like Grand Theft Auto and Arkham City might have big places to explore, but the boundaries of these places are as clear as the boundaries were in SNES RPGs. Watch_Dogs seems to recognize the limitation of “open world” video games with its hacking mechanic. The physical world of a video game is obviously limited, but what about the world of information you can access about a game’s citizens and infrastructure?
Based on what we know about Ubisoft’s answer to Grand Theft Auto, Watch_Dogs taps into our global culture’s obsession with information. Whether Watch_Dogs will inspire a meaningful commentary on the (Mis?)Information Age remains to be seen. On the other hand, there’s no question Ubisoft knows it audience: gamers plugged into more information feeds than any single person can imagine.
Our Information Age is full of distractions. How many times have you clicked on an article when you weren’t even looking for something to read? The Ubisoft blog (Ubiblog) describes Watch_Dogs as a game about distractions. The protagonist of Watch_Dogs, Aiden Pearce, has a clear mission, but he must deal with the problem of having too much information at his fingertips. Pearce is not simply able to manipulate things such as traffic lights; he can get the lowdown on any person in his world. This power can lead Pearce, and thus the player, away from the main quest, as explained by senior Watch_Dogs producer Dominic Guay:
Although Guay is quick to point out that there’s no such thing as a typical player (“I think people will all play it very differently,” he says), he’s noticed a consistent trend in their testing of the game: Many of the testers will start on Aiden’s quest, they’ll have a goal, and they’ll begin to move forward with the story – only to get distracted by countless other activities. “That’s what we hope for because not only is that happening to the player, but it’s happening to Aiden too,” Guay smiles.
In other words, the player’s natural progression will, in some ways, mirror Aiden’s. “He has this mindset in the beginning and gradually becomes a vigilante because he sees all these things happening around him,” Guay explains. “It seemed natural to let the player become distracted by injustices within the world if Aiden is doing the same. They will be constantly finding other narrative threads within the world that they’ll want to dig into. We see players moving forward in the core narrative of the game and then they start looking around and getting involved in side missions. They start setting goals for themselves instead of just following breadcrumbs.”
The interesting thing about this passage is the phrase “distracted by injustices.” This phrase suggests an everyman point of view in Watch_Dogs, marking a deviation from Grand Theft Auto V, a crime simulation that might distract a player with tattoos and tennis, or Arkham City, a game in which the player assumes the role of a licensed superhero (Batman).
The quest and distractions of Aiden Pearce could make Watch_Dogs the video game that defines the Information Age. There is also the possibility that Ubisoft is only offering a shallow voyeuristic experience — more noise for our news feeds, if you will. Regardless, the premise of Watch_Dogs can’t be ignored by information fiends like me.