Review: Watch Dogs (2014)

As with most reviews, the following may (read: likely does) contain spoilers – I’d be happy to have you continue to read, but understand if you want to wait. Consider yourself adequately warned.

Full disclosure to begin, I’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Watch Dogs for a little over a year now and fully drank the marketing Kool-Aid surrounding this title long ago. From the preview videos to the reveal articles, this game appeared to be a hyper-techno evolution of the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) franchise and the first big-budget sandbox-style title on the next generation consoles. There was obvious concern when the game was delayed moments before releasing back in 2013, but most (including myself) were still optimistic that Ubisoft Montreal were about to put together something magical.

In a nutshell, Watch Dogs is an open-world shooter game revolving around main character Aiden Pierce, a hacker whose family was torn apart by a shadowy group of other hackers upon whom Pierce is determined to kill. All of this is set within a fictional Chicago which has recently established a massive surveillance system, dubbed ctOS, which wirelessly connects city infrastructure (like bridges, road blocks, and CCTV cameras) which can be accessed and manipulated by state officials (police officers) and those clever enough to hack in, like Pierce.

Some general feelings towards the game…

I’ve been playing the game for several months now, off and on, working through the campaign and dabbling in the side missions and online play, and generally speaking I enjoy the game. While repetitive at times, the game is fun, for all intents and purposes, and pretty much anyone who enjoys the GTA franchise will find something of value to do in this game.

Unfortunately it is this comparison with GTA that dooms WatchDogs because no matter how hard it tries, this title simply cannot live up to the depth and quality of GTA5 and, for this reason, has left many players feeling as though the title does not live up to expectations. Worse still, there are a lot of bugs and glitches throughout the game that makes the months of delays and subsequent $80 (plus season pass) price tag leaving much to be desired.

Video Games and the Surveillance State

Something that particularly caught my eye when playing this game is the obvious connection to the Snowden NSA leaks and the growing concern about state surveillance both in and outside the United States. A core feature of the game is the ability to ‘hack’ non-player characters you encounter on the street, using your cellphone to access people’s bank accounts through their phones as opposed to beating them up a la GTA. While Watch Dogs certainly takes a few playful jabs at the surveillance state, it doesn’t compare to the type of biting social criticism found in the GTA franchise, which most recently taking aim at our fascination with social media and self publicity.

Instead of condemning our over sharing or using the game as a means of shocking players into how readily accessible our private information is, Watch Dogs merely makes it all fun and games, indicating that breaches of privacy are someone else’s problem…but not ours. Worst still, the game actively promotes the idea that resistance is possible within this type of hyper-connected, hyper-surveilled world as plucky over-comers and playful hackers can easily subvert the systems to protect themselves (or take advantage of others) with a few simple button presses on their phone. Although the game does attempt to draw connections between the threats of corporate control over hyper-surveillance, the player rarely feels in any danger, with escape from the watchful machine eye happening regularly, if you just drive (and hack) fast enough. The game at once invites us to imagine being out of control in this world while at the same time presenting an experience in which the player is fully in the drivers seat, assuring us that the types of NSA surveillance revealed by Snowden is okay because we too can escape the machine eye with the press of a button. This cognitive dissonance helps confirm our false sense of safety, that invasive surveillance and encroachment into our privacy is nothing to be concerned about. For this reason, Ubisoft missed a golden opportunity to make a game truly relevant (and experiential) to the conversation around digital life, state surveillance and privacy.

With just a touch of ableism…

Full-body shot of Damien Brenk wearing a leg brace
Pictured here: Damien Brenks or original character treatment for Forrest Gump?

It almost goes without saying that few people play video games for the plot—in fact, most triple-A titles now focus almost exclusively on multiplayer content. In some ways, this return to games driven by player-vs-player experiences harkens back to the early days of digital gaming, when games could not provide challenging and realistic artificial intelligence and so relied on players to invent their own challenges. Despite this rise in player-vs-player driven games, most triple-A titles still have some offline gameplay that deploys some form of story, usually watered down and predictably generic, to carry the player from one interactive experience to the next. For Watch Dogs, this means injecting the player into a typical revenge storyline instigated by the accidental death of Pierce’s niece. If this wasn’t bad enough, Watch Dogs also deploys the well-worn classic trope of the monstrous disabled character through the villain, Damien Brenks. Brenks is presented as man wholly obsessed with his disability, referring to his “crippled leg” as his prime motivator, an external rupture that reveals his internal monstrosity. One of several villains in the text, Brenks is constantly reminding the player of his injury and the toll it has taken on him, culminating with him literally “crippling” Chicago by taking over ctOS, with the player challenged to win back control. The problem with this character is that it continues in a long line of texts that assure the viewer that to crippled is to become embittered by the violence inflicted and wishing to inflict the same kind of pain upon anyone lucky enough to remain able-bodied. Watch Dogs essentially correlates the death of Pierce’s daughter to the wounding of Brenks leg—both events lead to a violent crusade across Chicago to bring those responsible to justice. The grizzly death of an innocent child is placed on the same continuum as the loss of a limb. Not only does this representation confirm the negative status of bodily limitation, but it also validates our learned distrust of disfigured bodies, marking physical disability as an outward appearance of dangerous intent. In keeping with the constant comparison of this game to GTA5, Brenks is a driven by his disability, wholly obsessed with his limitation and the vengeance it requires, which stands in stark opposition to Lester Crest, a similarly disabled character in GTA5, who participates in the plot without his entire existence being dictated by the limits of his body. My hope is that much as the representation of disability has become more sophisticated and nuance in film and television over the past decade, so too will digital disability become more complex, trending toward more characters like Crest and less like Brenks.