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The Tragic Optimism of Watch Dogs 2

Watch Dogs 2 is an open-world action game about hacking and digital privacy set in and around a colorful version of San Francisco. In that regard it speaks uniquely to the present. Ubisoft’s latest features proxies for companies like Google, Facebook, and Uber, and you interact with the world through your phone rather than an automatic weapon. The cast is socially diverse and optimistic, while the game itself suggests that the efforts of private citizens can keep corporate corruption in check.

What’s weird is that Watch Dogs 2 arrives at a moment in which its optimism feels undeserved. The first Watch Dogs was an exercise in toxic masculinity and the sequel is better in nearly every way. Though it has guns, Watch Dogs 2 is about hacking, with missions and mechanics that are designed for stealth rather than murder. You spend most of the game tapping into phones, cameras, and city infrastructure to create distractions (and sometimes mayhem). Watch Dogs 2 is both likeable and laudable, while the overall tone is far more consistent.

The catch – and the source of my ambivalence – is that it no longer feels like a reflection of reality. The cultural climate in North America is as bleak as it’s ever been, and the game’s polite approach to activism doesn’t seem bold enough for the issues that it wants to engage with. I have very different thoughts about Watch Dogs 2 than I would have before last week’s US Presidential election. That’s not the game’s fault, but it makes for a strange experience when events that are portrayed as fiction have already happened in reality.

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So what is Watch Dogs 2 about? For starters, it ditches everything that people disliked about the original. The new protagonist is Marcus Holloway, a black nerd who joins a hacking collective called DedSec to battle against Blume, a faceless corporation that maintains an invasive surveillance network and sells information to the highest bidder. It’s a fine premise, though it hurts the storytelling because the game doesn’t really have a villain. There is an evil corporate hipster named Dusan Nemic, but he doesn’t have any personal connection to Marcus or the rest of DedSec, which limits his effectiveness as a motivator for the group’s political actions. The first few hours of Watch Dogs 2 sort of meander. DedSec is a group of kids playing fort, a secret club that pulls stunts to make other people think they’re cool.

And no, that’s not a metaphor. You spend the entire game performing anarchic pranks (and taking selfies) to gain followers and increase your botnet, like an action version of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. If the original Watch Dogs was a neo-noir thriller, Watch Dogs 2 is an homage to Hackers that reimagines hacking as an 80s-infused subculture with its own music, style, and artistic sensibilities.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The young idealism makes Watch Dogs 2 far more welcoming than its predecessor. It’s fun to hang out with these characters, even if they do look like “the attractive yet non-threatening racially diverse cast of a CW show.” The diversity sometimes feels like it was focus tested, but the game makes a good-faith effort to be more inclusive and for the most part it does an excellent job of doing so.

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The problem is that the feel-good progressive vibes don’t convey a sense of dramatic urgency. DedSec doesn’t have a defined goal beyond the ambiguous ‘Take Down Blume,’ so it’s often unclear what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Early missions about tampering with movie sets and exposing a Scientology scam seem to be inspired by the lulz rather than any sense of civic responsibility, and there’s nothing less cool than a group of adults trying to be hip, geeky anarchists. At times, dialogue that is supposed to be relatable is downright cringe worthy. For instance, Marcus doesn’t get drunk, he gets lit. He also name-checks famous franchises to let you know that you have the same taste in movies, but no one has ever had a conversation as unsubtle as the ham-fisted debate he has about Alien vs. Predator.

Fortunately, the game gains focus and a voice once the larger plot begins to unfold. The stunts (and the targets) get bigger, and the fraud and corruption that DedSec uncovers is severe enough to warrant genuine outrage, as with a murderous group of corrupt cops and an algorithm that prioritizes favorable news items about one candidate in an effort to swing an election. Blume collects and sells personal data in an effort to manipulate the global populace for fun and profit, and Marcus is the only one with the means and the ability to expose the truth. Watch Dogs 2 pushes the logic a little for the sake of entertainment, but the core ideas are frighteningly plausible in the wake of an election cycle in which fake news items were indeed circulated more frequently than legitimate ones.

That’s ultimately why I came to appreciate Watch Dogs 2. It’s a slow starter, and for the first few hours I wasn’t sure if the game had the courage to take a stance. That concern faded towards the conclusion. The game speaks in platitudes, but it states in no uncertain terms that the lack of corporate oversight and the subsequent loss of privacy are an imminent threat to our civil liberties. The critique doesn’t have a lot of depth – it stops well short of anything that would upset the status quo – but it’s much bolder than the average triple-A blockbuster and it’s a message that we need at this moment in time.

The game’s non-violent approach is equally refreshing. Though direct confrontation is an option, it makes Watch Dogs 2 more difficult because guards are quick to call in reinforcements. You instead need to resort to indirect methods of conflict resolution, using drones, cameras, and distractions to gather intel and infiltrate corporate strongholds. There’s only one set of missions that forces you to kill your targets, and even then I never once felt the need to use a gun. You actually can be the good guy, fighting against injustice without having to rationalize your homicidal actions.

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That’s not to say that the game is free of dissonance. You can go on rampages and shoot civilians. Like most sandboxes, Watch Dogs 2 is too sprawling to be entirely coherent. The key is that Watch Dogs 2 does not incentivize violence, which is presented as a last resort if everything else goes wrong. DedSec is supposed to be winning public sympathy. The fact that Marcus can legitimately claim the moral high ground feeds that narrative, and it makes Marcus a more compelling protagonist because the mechanics mirror his convictions. If nothing else, it demonstrates that murder does not have to be the default interaction in an action game.

In any case, Watch Dogs 2 works because it recognizes that the problem is not technology per se, but rather who has access to that technology. Corporations like Blume are threatening because the information they collect creates an insurmountable imbalance in terms of power and resources. The public doesn’t have the means to defend itself, and we become more susceptible to manipulation when we don’t know what’s possible or that our security is at risk.

I just don’t know what the game expects us to do about it in a practical sense, and the same factors that make Watch Dogs 2 relevant also make its relative timidity more glaring. Watch Dogs 2 identifies major security concerns and then allows a group of well-meaning individuals to solve them through sheer pluck and ingenuity. That prospect is not particularly comforting. Though Marcus and his friends are altruistic, they’re still vigilantes acting without any kind of oversight, and they’re not the only agents active in that sphere. At one point you engage in a hacker war with a vindictive woman actively using her network for criminal ends, and many of the top (in-game) experts are working for companies like Blume. Given the risks, people like Marcus usually have more incentive to join the system than they do to fight it. There’s no guarantee that hackers have the public’s best interests in mind.

Watch Dogs 2 tries to alleviate that with the concept of followers, arguing that DedSec is leading a movement that gives voice to people’s anger against a corrupt system. It’s a lovely thought, but it’s perhaps the most fantastical element of the game. I no longer have faith in the public’s ability to educate itself and to take appropriate action, which makes reality far more depressing than the optimistic futurism presented in Watch Dogs 2.

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On that front, Watch Dogs 2 is the victim of extraordinarily bad timing. I started playing the game the day after the election. In the week since, Facebook and Google have discussed the need to reduce the number of fake news stories circulating on social media, explicitly calling into question the neutrality of the algorithms that drive the internet and Silicon Valley. That’s a step in the right direction, but there’s nothing to suggest that the truth will do anything to sway public opinion. Much of the information people are reacting to now was fact-checked and available prior to the election, but we’re bad at separating good information from all of the emotional noise. I don’t know how we move forward if people refuse to acknowledge the integrity of basic facts.

That’s the trouble. The issues raised in Watch Dogs 2 are not hypothetical fears about a dystopian future, or even a dystopian near-future. This is the present, and while it is cathartic to take down numerous corporations, it feels weird to see it passed off as escapist entertainment because it feels like an inadequate and placating response to the challenges we face. The security concerns in Watch Dogs 2 are very real. The solutions that it offers are not.

Having said that, I don’t want to punish Watch Dogs 2 for bad timing, and the game’s heart is unquestionably in the right place. Watch Dogs 2 is benignly progressive – or at least benignly woke – and while it should not be the end of any conversation, it is an accessible starting point for people who might not otherwise come across these kinds of issues. Though Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t offer much in the way of nuance, it is an action game from a major studio that advocates for corporate transparency, non-violent resistance, and greater civic engagement.

It’s hard to disagree with that agenda. Ubisoft addressed all of the criticisms of the original Watch Dogs and delivered a game that is more fun, more self-aware, and more inclusive, and it’s a fascinating example of a game that filters important concepts through the lens of interactive entertainment.

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