A Sequence of Observable Events in Watch_Dogs, or Peeping Psycho

Due to the upcoming announcement of Watch_Dogs 2, I was reminded of this piece I wrote. I’ve gone back and edited it a little. I do hope that the next game breaks away from the monstrous but ultimately boring character that is, Aiden Pearce.

Watch_Dogs isn’t a great game, it’s not a terrible one either, this isn’t an original or controversial opinion, like the game itself, mediocrity is the consensus. There is one element of this lackluster game that I’ve taken quite a shine to, the ‘Privacy Invasion’ activity. This, one of the many side activities in Watch_Dogs, involves finding a junction box and hacking it. Occasionally it’s a little more complex but the basic formula of find the thing, follow a line until you find another thing to unlock the first thing, stands. What I’m intrigued by is what happens after that, you get treated to an extended tableau, or the alternatively, the first act of a play, an intrusion into the lives of the denizens of Chicago. They range, much like life itself, from the mundane to the creepy and occasionally the emotionally touching. You experience, like the voyeur you are playing, a snapshot into complex lives.

I’d like to talk briefly about two of these unsettling intrusions. The first happens in medias res, a man and his topless companion are playing Russian roulette, the woman holding the gun towards him and while the man eggs her on to pull the trigger, which she does, several times. Her nudity acts as a visual cue, the breaking of a taboo which signals the possibility of more broken taboos to come, that the gun held precariously could, before the end, expel a small but fatal shard of metal, ending in explicit violence. This didn’t happen, the scene ends in suspense with the woman putting the still presumably loaded and miraculously unfired gun to her own head.

The second is a far more subdued scene, the camera’s view isn’t total, partially blocked by a table or chair. A man, which the wonderful magic phone you carry with you is able, despite the obstruction of view, to identify him. It tells you that he’s a seventy year old man with cancer in remission. He remains motionless and you could, presumably, look on his prone form forever without the camera kicking you out. The only action you have is to hack a phone lying strewn on the floor. Doing so brings up an answerphone message, left just that morning from a concerned son who’s decided that his father should live with him and that he’d be by in the evening to pick him up. Usually these encounters end themselves quickly, kicking you out of the scene, but this one hangs on, I was starting to wonder whether I could leave it on forever and was consequently a little disappointed when it did, after an admittedly decent amount of time, lock me out. Yet that lengthening of the traditional time was done well and impressed me, these incidents were clearly created with some level of thought into the detail.

Neither offers resolution, we don’t know whether the gun will, as Chekhov is famously quoted as saying, go off in the second or third act. Nor do we know whether the man lying on the floor is alive and even if he is, we don’t know what will happen next. Importantly for a game we are unable to influence the future of these figures, we can’t call the police to get the first two arrested (hopefully saving their lives) nor can we call the ambulance for the old man. We are impotent, unfortunately these privacy invasions are not about helping people, they are about being a pretty creepy voyeur, which does suit the personality of Aiden Pearce, the role that you are supposed to inhabit, but is pretty unsatisfying if you wanted to play the game with any illusions that you were a good guy. Often, what little choice you have in these scenes make you anything but, with frequent opportunities to hack the bank account of those you surveil. This, while feeling like a twisted sense of justice against an objectifying misogynistic ass, becomes needlessly cruel against a couple fighting terminal cancer.

What this says about the lead character speaks to the pointlessness of moral choice in a game centered around an ignorant, self-righteous, psychopath.

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