There is a revealing moment in No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald’s account of the NSA revelations, when hacker-whistleblower Edward Snowden explains how he has learned some of his moral lessons from videogames. In videogames, Snowden says, “The protagonist is often an ordinary person, who finds himself faced with grave injustices from powerful forces and has the choice to flee in fear or to fight for his beliefs.” As though to return the compliment, the recent videogame Watch Dogs, published by Ubisoft and developed under creative director Jonathan Morin, is set in a near future of omnipresent electronic surveillance and features as its protagonist a brilliant hacker fighting powerful forces.
The hacker is named Aiden Pearce, and he talks, as is the fashion in action movies, in a gravelly whisper that would be perfectly inaudible at normal speaking distance. (The voice actor, Noam Jenkins, seems to be channeling Christian Bale as Batman.) Pearce lives in “hideouts” across Chicago: these dens, whether motel rooms or shipping containers, always contain multiple glowing LCD monitors. He will project a clue-marked map of the city onto a wall, and then punch the wall to exhibit frustration. Later in the game he is joined by a woman hacker with facial piercings, a mohican ponytail and a pixelated skull on her black t-shirt. She is not explicitly called the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but she might as well be. Pearce represents a more grungified version of the hacker-hero than the preppy Snowden (he sleeps in his baseball cap, trench coat and boots, and never brushes his teeth in the morning), but he is definitely fighting rather than fleeing, a moral stand that Snowden admires in other videogames. After a hacking heist went wrong, someone killed Pearce’s niece. Now he’s out for justice.
That Pearce is a hacker is fundamental to the game’s unique selling point, because Watch Dogs is the first videogame to provide a widely explorable simulation of an urban environment that is itself, within the fiction, extensively computer-controlled, and so can be taken over by a tech wiz with a customized smartphone. Underneath the extraordinarily detailed and all-but-photorealistic simulation of Chicago that provides the game’s primary environment is a second-order virtual city that is visualized in gorgeous monochrome geometric wireframe, reminiscent of William Gibson’s earliest descriptions of cyberspace. This is known as ctOS: Chicago’s “central operating system.”
The metacybernetics of these twin nested simulations are rich: in this virtual Chicago, not only are the CCTV cameras, traffic lights and soda machines computerized, but so are the bridges, shipping cranes and “L” trains. All are potential tools for creating municipal mayhem for the inventive hacker, who can even take down the grid and cause a complete blackout over several blocks. Much of the game is spent chasing or being chased in cars, furnishing much potential for emergent B-movie moments. To shake off police vehicles, Pearce can hack a bridge so that it begins to rise the moment he drives onto it, allowing his car to leap the gap and leave the cops behind. (Whatever his other transgressions, Pearce may rest assured that no one will ever pull him over for dangerous driving, no matter if he careens up over curbs, smashes through telegraph poles or speeds into oncoming traffic.)
In a way Watch Dogs thus stands as a critique of modern urbanism’s ideal of the “smart city,” in which infrastructure is controlled by and reports to networked information technology. The “smarter” the city gets in this sense, the more vulnerable it becomes to the geek with a grudge. What Pearce says about a prison he infiltrates at one point in order to intimidate a witness—that he couldn’t possibly do what he wants if it weren’t a computerized correctional facility—applies all the more to the game’s entire world.
At its best, in its kinetic demonstrations of power over the articulated urban skeleton of concrete and steel, Watch Dogs creates the compelling illusion that one can bend an entire city to one’s will—as long as, that is, one’s will is aligned with the protagonist’s prescripted capabilities, rather than nurturing any more nuanced ambitions. One may hack electronic road signs, but only so as to show fellow motorists one of a handful of canned paranoia nuggets (“It’s a trap!”; “Gotta believe it to see it”). There is no option to leave a few lines of Fernando Pessoa’s poetry as pensive roadside graffiti. Which is all the more to be regretted since—as is common in the “open world” genre of large-arena videogames—arguably the most potent moments in Watch Dogs are those when one is not really doing anything.
As with the Grand Theft Auto series, which also attempts to build virtual copies of real cities in spectacular, all-too-solid detail, one of the most pleasant things one can do in Watch Dogs is simply to be a flâneur. On foot, on a motorbike, in a car, or on one of many handily abandoned motorboats, one may cruise around, observing the changing light in the sky and watching the simulated street life go by. On several occasions this writer pulled over to admire the view of downtown Chicago as seen from over the water during a hazy sunrise. To drive around the city at dusk with russet autumn leaves waving in the trees and downbeat electronica pumping from the car stereo is a deep pleasure in itself, as though one is participating in an interactive outtake from a Michael Mann film.
The problem with Watch Dogs, as with Grand Theft Auto and all other examples of the urban-sandbox genre, is that the videogame’s pre-programmed landscape of possibility and risk relentlessly pushes the player instead into a murder-spree dérive. One is not permitted to go into stores (except, here and there, a gun shop); it is impossible to sit down on a park bench. Pearce cannot go to a museum or the cinema—he never even eats. Accidentally mowing down a few pedestrians in one’s car, on the other hand, comes with no real consequences, and if one is chased by the police it is the path of least resistance within the logic of the game to start shooting rather than continuing to evade them. (“Police homicide,” reads the bland pop-up message in Watch Dogs; “-1 point reputation.”) Unlike Grand Theft Auto, moreover, Watch Dogs actively encourages the player to harm ordinary citizens in invisible ways, by compromising their cell-phone banking apps and stealing their money. What its behavioral repertoire mostly boils down to, then, is psychotic flânerie plus neatly virtualized mugging.
This is possible because the citizens of this lovingly modeled Chicago themselves turn out to be just as hackable as the city’s infrastructure. “I’ll have to thank ctOS one day,” Pearce whisper-growls. “A simple breach of their facial-recognition software and I’ve got access to everyone’s personal details.” Not only is the player encouraged to steal citizens’ money, but bite-sized information about their financial difficulties, hobbies and emotional issues is portrayed in floating information cards above their heads: “suffers from claustrophobia,” “collects cans and bottles,” and so forth. Pearce thus enjoys an even more intimate version of the panoptical powers that Edward Snowden has described having had as an NSA contractor. “You could read anyone’s email in the world,” Snowden explained. “Anybody you’ve got an email address for, any website you can watch traffic to and from it, any computer that an individual sits at you can watch it, any laptop that you’re tracking you can follow it as it moves from place to place throughout the world.” (We now know that staffers at the NSA and other agencies passed around people’s sexts for office entertainment. Thankfully, Watch Dogs does not go as far as to feature naked camera-phone snaps of its invented people.)
But whereas Snowden was outraged that anyone could have such power, Aiden Pearce revels in it—at least when it’s his. At one point, he discovers that the city is recording people inside their own homes, and expresses disapproval: “ctOS filming these people and they have no idea,” he complains, sotto voce. Then he is back out on the street, hacking everyone’s cell-phone conversations and text messages, and stealing from their bank accounts. All the more peculiar, then, that the game also offers optional “vigilante” crime-fighting missions: thanks to one’s relentless intrusions into the private lives of the citizenry, one is sometimes alerted to the imminent commission of an assault or theft, and given the option to foil it by beating up the malefactor with a telescopic baton. To judge the point at which a potential criminal becomes an actual criminal who has not quite yet committed his crime, however, is a subtle matter indeed, and the player is often punished for erring on the side of pre-emption—even though the hacked information that has led the player to the criminal is presumptively, within the fiction, 100 percent accurate. This is Minority Report without the moral complexity.
Pearce’s powers, which make him a smartphone-toting god able to see into the souls of everyone and know their darkest secrets, are also employed by the game’s scenarists to justify the frequent descents into mass killing, when the hero must storm one of many facilities staffed by ctOS guards. Here the game becomes merely a second-rate imitator of military-simulations-cum-Michael-Bay-movies such as the Call of Duty series. Since Pearce is not a soldier, and his adversaries are not bomb-throwing Islamists or invading Russians, his serial murdering of ctOS security workers is narratively excused by the fact that, according to their hacked pop-up biographies, they are all criminals-at-large, guilty of everything from fraud to sexual assault. But would ctOS itself not have been able to dig up these secrets? And if so, would it not probably have preferred to screen out such evidently undesirable employees? If the player stops to wonder for too long about such awkward questions, she will probably just get shot in the face and be obliged to reload the mission.
The game’s most ingenious and novel moments are far removed from the general ambience of psychotic flânerie and criminal crimefighting. They are the elaborate spatial puzzles that the player must solve for Pearce to hack in to the next ctOS tower—a kind of antenna that functions as a neural node of the city’s electronic brain. One becomes disembodied, leaping from one CCTV camera to another in order to discover the sequence of junction boxes and switches that, once hacked, will lead to the core. (That one requires line of sight to the next object in order to hack it is a patently unrealistic restriction, but it is necessary to create the arena for such mental acrobatics.) In these quiet and cerebral sequences, one adopts a multiple and fluid view—analogous to the “view from nowhere” described by the philosopher Thomas Nagel—insofar as it stands outside any subjective perspective but is able to encompass them all. One is first-person singular and first-person plural; one is pure mind, traveling at will. Here is an inventive and satisfying translation into three-dimensional riddles of the old saw that information is power. It is only when one finally attains the tower’s core that proceedings revert to a surprisingly ancient puzzle-videogame paradigm in which one has to rotate junctions to cause current to flow the right way through a circuit. At bottom, the hacker-hero’s feats of magic depend on a simple question of information plumbing. Yet perhaps that is appropriate, since as we know from life as well as electronic fiction, information plumbing will always spring leaks.
Watch Dogs presents a Hollywoodized version of hacking, suffers from a derivative, cliché-ridden and often nonsensical script, and asks the player to admire and abet a flatly psychopathic avenger for whom no “collateral” body-count is too high. It is, in other words, a modern high-budget videogame. Yet its picture of omnipresent personal surveillance is the most consistent yet attempted in this medium, and is at times authentically disturbing. One ingenious “social” (or rather anti-social) feature, moreover, cleverly turns players against one another, allowing them to hack into each other’s worlds. The hero must then identify the human malefactor among the simulated urbanites within a strict time limit. Who on this sidewalk is not behaving like a computer-controlled character—or, perhaps, too much like one? The first time this happens, at least, it generates a visceral sense of paranoia and fear of intrusion from any quarter. (After one or two such experiences, one is glad to switch off the interruptions.) Given the potency of such moments and the beauty of its pure information-space enigmas, it is clear that the game could have been a truly courageous departure for the form if only the player had been given no access at all to guns, homemade bombs and the rest of the stereotypical videogame arsenal. What if, in other words, Aiden Pearce’s only weapons—like those of Edward Snowden—were his computers and his intelligence?
As it is, the most contrarian thing one can do in Watch Dogs is to refuse to pursue any of the scripted missions at all. There is plenty of space for virtual tourism and even civic education—one may, for instance, “check in” at various Chicago landmarks to learn more about their history. A true rebel player of the game, perhaps, will simply drive around the bejeweled nighttime city in a sensible hybrid vehicle, carefully observing the speed limit and admiring the looming gray mass and soft yellow illumination of office buildings, while perhaps occasionally taking a voyeuristic peek into the life of a passing pedestrian. This is eerier and more moodily compelling than anything the game wants the player to do. For an hour or two, it is even enough.
* This a review published in Issue 9 of The Point. Subscribe to read the full issue in print.