From the moment Watch Dogs debuted at E3 2012, a lot of the focus has been about Ubisoft Montreal’s take on Chicago. In Watch Dogs, Chicago is a futuristic “smart city.” It is a playground for high tech, mobile hackers in which a centralized server manages basic infrastructure and city services, and can be bent to the will of those with the means. We’ve also had a chance to learn more about the wide assortment of hacktivities protagonist Aiden Pearce can engage in to re-shape the city around him whenever the situation calls for it. However, much less is known about the man himself. What is Pearce’s background and how did he learn to hack an entire city? Why does he embrace a vigilante lifestyle and what brings him to Chicago in the first place?
Ubisoft isn’t ready to reveal many of the details yet, but we were fortunate to spend some time chatting with Kevin Shortt, lead story designer on Watch Dogs. He kept his responses intentionally vague, but there’s enough here to at least give you a sense of the motivations driving Pearce as he disrupts the daily life of the Windy City.
“He’s got a dark past,” Shortt tells us. “He’s made some mistakes and those mistakes have come back to bite him in the ass … and affect his family. So now he’s determined to make sure they stay safe, and he’ll protect them by any means necessary. He’s more of an anti-hero. I think you buy into why he’s doing what he’s doing, but his methods and approach is where maybe we raise some questions.”
Shortt refused to offer any details about Pearce’s family or what sort of danger they’re in, but he did admit that they’re not the only faces that you’ll associate with in Chicago. “There’s a lot of people he deals with, [such as] Clara, who is a character that… helps him a lot through the game. Then there’s Geordi [whom Pearce met up with in the E3 demo]. He’s a bit of a fixer, a guy who, if you’ve got a problem to solve, that’s who you turn to. We’ve got the Black Viceroys … a gang that own the Wards district. There’s all these sorts of people you can interact with.”
Pearce’s background as a techno-criminal gives him some street cred in the shadier areas of the city, but it’s also the reason he’s in trouble. His actions create new relationships, but they also attract familiar faces from his past – some of which he would rather have stayed in the past. As Shortt described it, “a guy takes a step that opens up a whole new door of problems for him and then he has to try and deal with it, make things right. That’s what Aidan is trying to do.”
“I think there’s definitely good in him, but he’s got a criminal past. He’s been on that side of the law for sure. So that plays into who he is now. I think he’s trying to do things right now, but those things can be hard. The key for him is, what can he do to correct the mistakes that he’s made?”
Designing the story is more than just plotting out the journey that Pearce takes as he fights to protect his family. The city itself is equally important for driving events forward, thanks largely to the fact that the hacker play is so integral to everything you do. Shortt explained that inspiration came from many different fictional sources, but that the present-day world was perhaps the most influential.
“Our biggest influence has been the world around us,” he said. “That’s what I think reflects best what Watch Dogs is about. We all have our cellphones … everything is connected. It’s right there, it’s right around us, and nobody’s really covered it in a strong way.”
“All this connectivity is great. I love how connected the world is. But what does that mean? What does that mean for my security, for all the information I’m putting out there? I love the idea of smart cities, of a city that is going to make me get to work 20 minutes faster, is gonna streamline my bills, maybe brings my hydro bills down.”
The obvious and unavoidable downside of a deeply interconnected city infrastructure is the inherent danger of lumping critical systems under a single umbrella. What if someone, some outsider, were to find a way to sneak in and huddle under that umbrella? This is the threat that Pearce poses to ctOS and Chicago’s powers-that-be. The game allows you to interact as you see fit. If you wish to play guardian angel you can, or you can delve further down the criminal rabbit hole and explore the dark side of the power Pearce has at his fingertips. You can also maintain a balance between the two, and the game will react accordingly. Regardless of your approach, the options raise several moral questions.
Shortt asked, “Do we want a world where everyone can hack in and [see your] criminal past? That’s what I think is particularly interesting for us, the questions that it raises about access to information. The good and the bad of it.”
Building all of these concepts into a single smart city is the right move, as it’s an actual direction that the real world is headed in. There isn’t anything out there in the world like Watch Dogs‘ Chicago yet, but the earliest signs of that shift are probably closer to being years away than decades. China has even begun work on something similar, but with more of an eco-slant in Tianjin. That undertaking is scheduled to be completed in 2020. The game’s promise of deep play also carries with it an inherent threat of a grim future in which a technically skilled criminal could ruin everything.
“Smart cities are happening, they’re starting to build them. There aren’t any in a major city like Chicago yet, so we are sort of imagining the ‘what if?’ of Chicago,” Shortt said. “What if it was the perfect smart city? In that it … connects all the grids: the power, the water, the electricity, the communications, and aggregates all of that information into a central spot. We’re imagining what would that be like in a major city like Chicago and what would you do with that sort of power? What’s the responsibility that goes with that? What are the consequences of your choices?”