Written by Stephen Patterson
Aftertouch is a series designed to look more deeply into games – and the concepts therein – which have been overlooked or misconstrued. It’s fairly difficult to say that anything about Watch_Dogs 2, the second open world Grand Theft Auto style hacking game from Ubisoft, has been overlooked considering how recently it released and how widely it has been played. However, it’s worthwhile taking a look at the narrative it presents and how challenging it is to the real world status quo of Californian tech monopolies and how they erase our personal privacy. So, like I am while writing this, fire up some Synthwave and dive with me into the information superhighway…
This week, I innocuously shared in person with a friend how the central heating in my house works – you can adjust it via a laptop from wherever you like. The basic concept surrounding this idea, that previously mundane mechanical devices are becoming networked and connected, is called The Internet of Things. Personally, as a term, I think it sounds ridiculous. The concept is very real however, and presents security holes that can brick devices or demand ransoms from their owners. This idea is something that heavily influences the writing direction in Watch_Dogs 2 and defines the entire game’s hacking mechanics, as it did in the first iteration of the franchise released in 2014. This is an issue that will continue to grow and damage systems on a wider scale in the future, as it already has in San Francisco (the location of Watch_Dogs 2) of all places.
How does my central heating system tie into this anecdote? Well, hours later, I logged onto Reddit, and the sidebar advertised to me a new, network connected thermostat system, even though I’d never searched or typed the word on any of my computers before in the past. My phone, I surmise, listened to me while I spoke and picked a product that matched my topic of conversation to advertise to me. So when we talk about Watch_Dogs 2 as a video game and the ideas around technology it presents, it is easy to see them as far-fetched and unrealistic, a byproduct of decades of dystopian science fiction writing that has generated the entire genre of gritty, dark, humourless cyberpunk – but the circumstances are real and taking place as we speak.
Ubisoft’s collected developing might (including but not limited to the Montreal, Paris and Bucharest studios) sought to inject some life into a property which previously had none, which helps offset the often startling and too-close-to-home nature of the content on show. Instead of the wet, dark grey of Chicago in the series’s first showing, Watch_Dogs 2 presents us with a colourful representation of San Francisco which prevents the onset of technological lethargy which struck me so prominently the first time around. Although driving around the city and solving simple logic puzzles forms the vast majority of the game, the introduction of characters who are lighthearted and enjoyably determined is refreshing. This approach enables the game to present us with it’s story of Silicon Valley corporate collusion while also finding space to provide commentary on the representation of ethnic minorities in the tech sphere and the difficult times ahead for personal data and sharing. The package as a whole provides a more effective vehicle for enlightening us to modern day issues with The Internet of Things and hacking because it keeps us engaged for longer and interested in the characters and their development on a personal level, not just the conspiracy-driven plot at large. Wrench, a thinly-veiled analogue for online privacy in human form, wears a mask which displays his emotions in digital form – at first a gimmick, but by the end of the game, a developed story beat which emotionally ties you to the character on a more personal level.
Watch_Dogs 2 is not the most elegant piece of meta-commentary ever written, even just in the world of video games, but it does manage to remind us as players as that there are issues with your private data and surveillance that are unfolding right now. Refreshingly for fiction of this type, the game does not provoke thoughts of ‘what-if’, of futures yet to come, instead it encourage us to make moves to combat the misuse of our online persona right away. It barely masks it’s intent to lambaste media companies of today as part of it’s narrative: the Google analogue in the game, Nudle, only hires three black people on it’s entire campus. A senior politician running for re-election is making backroom deals with major antagonist Dusan Nemec – a representative of Blume, developer of the overarching and all-seeing ctOS – in order to ensure he receives enough votes to beat the competition. Facebook doesn’t escape either: Invite, a social media company in the narrative, is promoting certain candidates in news feeds for cash. Remind you of someone?
Unfortunately, the way Ubisoft present hacking and internet culture in the game does little favours for the perception of those who seek to fight for online privacy and the right to private data and encryption. The characters can be often be pushed too far into their ‘hacker’ tropes and too far away from it means as an everyday user, and the amount of times the game devolves into full blown shootouts with drug cartels and even the FBI is farfetched and ridiculous. In the case it leaves me disappointed, because deep down there’s a real and important message about acting now to prevent a future where net neutrality is a pipe dream and the right to privacy is banned, both eventualities that can realistically occur if those with power and money succeed with their personal goals for the internet at large. What Watch_Dogs 2 does achieve is to gently remind people that moves to restrict us are happening now, but as a political commentary it does little more than poke fun rather than confront the issue head on.