Across the dizzying, colorful show floor at the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo, there were games on display where players could become all manner of things, like a throat-slashing 18th century pirate, zombie killer, a guardian of the last city on earth, music-making sorcerer, ruthless Roman general, shape-shifting creature, goblin slayer and Batman.
The role that seems to have captured the most buzz from the gaming community is one that’s far less fantastical but surprisingly topical: an eavesdropping hacker. One of several surveillance-related games at E3, “Watch Dogs” casts players as Aiden Pearce, a vigilante who can tap into security cameras and listen in on phone calls across a virtual rendition of an automated Chicago.
“Watch Dogs” is set amid an urban open world similar to that of a “Grand Theft Auto” game. As players move through the city as Pearce, they can scan computer-controlled passers-by with a smartphone to glean such details as income, age, credit score, employment, criminal and bank account records.
The timing of “Watch Dogs” is remarkable in light of recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s controversial data-collection programs. They were revealed in media stories by The Guardian and The Washington Post, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Is “Watch Dogs” a case of a video game imitating life — or the other way around?
“We’re just as surprised as everyone else,” said Dominic Guay, senior producer at Ubisoft Montreal. “We’ve been working on this game for the past five years and locked down the script last year. These events keep transpiring in the news — whether it’s the NSA or using a cellphone to hack into a car — that mirror the ideas that we have in the game.”
A demonstration last week of “Watch Dogs” at Sony’s presentation at E3, the largest annual gathering of the gaming industry, showed Pearce hacking a gate open while driving through Chicago, eavesdropping on a man alerting 911 about Pearce’s presence as he exited a cafe, as well as inciting a citywide blackout when Pearce was confronted by police officers.
“I think ‘Watch Dogs’ is appealing to people because they can relate to it,” said Laurent Detoc, North America president of Ubisoft. “It’s a very relevant topic and an extremely ambitious project for us. Because people have been talking about this game for the past year, it’s now up to us to confirm that ‘Watch Dogs’ is what people expected it to be.”
In a sea of sequels and shooters at E3, “Watch Dogs” stands out as a game that could be reflective about contemporary culture, a feat many games can’t achieve given their long production schedules. While arguably provocative, the question remains whether gamers will actually want to play out the always-connected Orwellian situation Ubisoft has concocted.
“We all want to know what will happen and what we should do with these machines that are becoming more and more intelligent,” said Yves Guillemot, CEO of Ubisoft. “We are organizing the world differently. Being able to go and virtually experience that is something we love to do, and we think it’s something our consumers will also love.”
“Watch Dogs” wasn’t the only game hyped at E3 that features ripped-from-the-headlines realness. “Tom Clancy’s The Division,” another third-person action game from Ubisoft, is inspired by real-world U.S. government directives about catastrophic emergencies. Players portray sleeper agents in New York following a bio-terrorist attack on Black Friday.