That Elusive Ingredient
I like feeling like a fish out of water in video games. A few months ago, when reviewing Starbreeze Studio’s excellent futuristic first-person shooter Syndicate, I commented on how thoroughly I enjoyed seeing the attention to detail put into creating the world I was blasting my way through, and learning the little intricacies of its fictional corporate super-entities, revolutionaries, and the history behind all of it in the completely optional log entries. I also, however, chided the game for investing a considerable amount of time into creating an interesting world with an interesting past for the game, and then failing to make it feel alive – where were the innocent bystanders, the random pedestrians, the traces of some semblance of people living life all around me? Alas, maybe that elusive quality could not be achieved by a cold, mathematical mass of numbers and coding.
And then, at today’s E3 2012 Ubisoft conference, came Watch Dogs, and proceeded to simultaneously blow my mind and explode the fishbowl of my sphere of gaming perception.
A Special Spark
Right from the beginning of its 10+ minutes of actual in-game footage game demonstration, Watch Dogs showed off what can only be described as an unmistakably rich flavor. After a brief introductory sequence, protagonist Aiden Pearce makes his way down a city sidewalk; hands in his pockets, head lowered with the brim of a baseball cap pulled down to shadow his face further, trench coat tails flapping in gusts of wind. But the scene all around him is teeming with life: cars travel down the street; other pedestrians are going about their business and holding conversations with each other; tree branches sway in the wind, leaves casting myriad moving shadows while the L-Train glides down its elevated tracks up ahead. Across the street, a small crowd is gathering under a neon-lit marquee advertising an art exhibition, when Aiden veers right to cross the street toward the throng of people looking to gain entrance into the establishment. There has not yet been any action of any kind, no reason to mark this game as anything special, apart from its beautiful visuals. But this city street already feels alive, whatever else happens.
It didn’t take long for the gameplay demo to peel away more layers, revealing even more similarities to games like Deus Ex and Syndicate than was at first apparent. Crossing the road, Aiden Pearce readies a small handheld device and puts it into his coat pocket. The purpose of this soon becomes clear, as the gallery’s bouncer, as well as several unsuspecting bystanders, suddenly and mysteriously lose all wireless connection from their cell phones, almost as if the signal had been jammed all around them. As the perplexed bouncer moves a few steps away in an attempt to regain his lost signal and complete his call, an unassuming Aiden Pearce quickly and quietly slips through the open doorways, leaving annoyed mutters of hapless cell phone users in the crowd in his wake.
It’s certainly not a novel concept in gaming to be able to use a gadget to remotely interfere with various frequencies; Syndicate itself was built from the ground up around the concept of being able to “breach” the minds of your enemies and make them do your bidding. But the level to which Watch Dogs, in one single demo, conveyed the completeness of its world becomes more apparent a few moments later, while mingling inside the nightclub-like art gallery. In an attempt to locate a particular party guest, you’re forced to scan the people standing around you – learning facts about them that make them more than just a bit of coding in a game, but like actual, living people, with virtual lives, who are worth keeping out of harm’s way as much as possible. It’s hard not to feel more personally connected to each individual in the room when you can see who’s a newlywed, who’s got a bad credit rating, and who’s HIV positive.
It’s one thing to be able to see small, intricate details put into a game to flesh out its environments. It’s another to know that you have a hand in actually determining who lives and dies by your actions, right down to the most expendable and unimportant ancillary pedestrian.
In an effort to forcibly stop a vehicle carrying an armed hit squad into his direction, Aiden uses his mechanical gadget to hack into the city’s automated traffic light control system. Switching both lights at a busy intersection to “green”, he succeeds at stopping the target vehicle by causing it to t-bone another car in the driver’s side, instantly causing a massive pile-up of about a dozen random cars in the intersection. In the brief shocked silence that follows the metallic crunching, several concerned bystanders – some carrying umbrellas because of the cascading rain – rush to the aid of the drivers of the smashed automobiles, opening doors and helping the dazed victims out of the wrecked cars.
Oddly, nothing seems to be moving in the unlucky vehicle that your target first slammed into. Crouching behind the car in the ensuing gunfight, using it as cover as stray bullets puncture tires with a hiss and slam through headlights, you can hear a voice inside the car, pleading; it appears the man in the passenger seat has survived the crash, and is now begging his motionless wife, who was at the wrong place at the wrong time, “No! Answer me! Come on!” At this point, you can continue the shoot-out, protecting your skin while riddling your opponents with bullets, or you can show a more humane side. Aiden pries open the passenger side door, pulls the protesting man away from the body of his wife, and tells him to “Get out! Stay low!” It doesn’t make a difference to the outcome of the fight, but being able to interact with your dynamic surroundings as they change due to your own actions is certainly an unprecedented move that more games should try to emulate. It certainly helps suspend your disbelief when you feel that these are real people, living real lives.