GameCentral talks to the director of Watch Dogs 3 about politics in gaming and how to innovate the Ubisoft formula.
For years now Ubisoft has been adamant that their games are apolitical, even as many, including us, have criticised the Tom Clancy games for being unconcealed right-wing fantasies. Like any publisher, Ubisoft wants to ensure the maximum number of people play their games and so have done their level best to avoid the topic and maintain the illusion that their games exist in a vacuum. But Watch Dogs has always been different, with Watch Dogs 2 in particular being very critical of modern surveillance society and dealing with a number of other social issues without ever feeling preachy or self-righteous.
In fact, Watch Dogs 2 was a much better game all round than it’s given credit for, which is perhaps unsurprising given the anodyne nature of the original. That’s not a description you could level at this third game though, at least not in terms of its story. Each of the games has been set in a different city, whose infrastructure is controlled by an invasive computer system which you, as an activist hacker, are able to subvert via your smartphone.
What’s interesting about Legion is that it’s set in a London of the near future, where drones swarm the skies, every car can drive itself, and Brexit happened long ago. Brexit is only part of the back story – no character mentioned it during the three-hour hands-on we played – but in the game’s fictional world it’s a stepping stone towards an increasingly dystopian England, where Scotland has left the union, the government has all but collapsed, and a PMC (private military company) is in de facto control of London.
We got a chance to discuss the politics of the game in detail with director Clint Hocking, in an interview afterwards, so we won’t dwell on that aspect of the game here. Since we got such a long time to play it though (via a streamed version of the PC edition) we managed to get a good feel for how it works, including its signature ‘play as anyone’ mechanic.
At the top level the game operates much like the originals: tour an open world city completing missions that are meant to turn the public’s opinion in your favour and oust the PMC and their computer system. What’s different about Legion is that you don’t play as one specific character but instead have the ability to recruit anyone you meet.
Sometimes this is as simple as just asking them, if they’re already sympathetic to your cause, while other times you have to wait until the tide of opinion changes or perform a specific mission to win them over.
After one of the opening missions the game suggests that securing a solicitor as an ally would be a good idea, as they can help to get other characters out of jail quicker. This involves doing a short mission on the other side of town (a very convincing version of Shoreditch) which incorporates all the core elements of Legion’s gameplay: driving, stealth, combat, and hacking.
Although most vehicles are driverless, and some very futuristic-looking, they still handle like a normal car and since this is London normal guns seem relatively uncommon. But although the ones our starter characters were packing were non-lethal, they still handled in a satisfying manner. The solicitor wanted us to hack the phones of two recidivists and our initial thought was to sneak up and get in range with our phone, but we were soon spotted and sent packing.
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We’re sure you could’ve beat the mission that way, but we quickly realised the safer method is to hijack a drone and use it to buzz the targets. Drones are everywhere, including larger cargo models that you can ride on – which comes in very useful when infiltrating taller buildings or getting over barricades. Another early mission involves sneaking into a mansion house as a drone and solving a serious of logic gate puzzles in an extended sequence that has you floating about as a disembodied revolutionary.
Although the drones are a relatively unusual element, if you’ve played a previous Watch Dogs game you’ll know exactly how Legion works. In fact, if you’ve played any other Ubisoft open world game it does all risk being very familiar. The ability to play as anyone is a fun and interesting gimmick but at the moment we’re not sure what practical difference it makes, beyond ensuring no one character can do everything.
If nothing else though it’s great for showing off the diversity of London’s populace, although this throws up some amusing dichotomies where although the character we started off with was dressed as a young punk rocker, with a ‘Flesh’ tattoo across her throat, she spoke like the Duchess of Sudbury. Likewise, the solicitor looked like any generic middle-aged professional and yet insisted on ending every sentence with the word ‘fam’.
Apart from that we saw very little in the way of bugs or glitches though, which given Ubisoft’s reputation is encouraging news. We’d be lying if we said there was anything very extraordinary about the gameplay though and the most interesting thing about the game continues to be its setting. How exactly the storyline plays out though will determine Legion’s true worth, as while the set-up is intriguing most of the moment-to-moment storytelling was less engaging.
The first major story character you come into contact with is a sociopathic cockney crime boss, who keeps people as literal slaves and is portrayed in such an over-the-top fashion, complete with mockney EastEnders accent, it’s impossible to take her seriously. If Legion is going to drive its points home properly it’s going to need to do better than her by the time it gets to the meat of the story.
Having spoken to Clint Hocking we’re still optimistic about the game and if nothing else impressed by his worryingly accurate ability to predict the future. His vision of a future London is terrifying because of how plausible it’s become but whether Legion will prove as visionary about the future of gaming remains to be seen.
Formats: PC (previewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, and Stadia
Developer: Ubisoft Toronto
Release Date: 29th October 2020 (10/11 on XSX, 12/11 on PS5)
Watch Dogs: Legion is Clint Hocking’s first new game in 12 years, after making his name with the original Splinter Cell and Chaos Theory and then leaving Ubisoft after Far Cry 2. Despite high-profile roles at LucasArts, Valve, and Amazon Game Studios he failed to release a new game at any of them, before returning to work at Ubisoft. (And yes, we did ask him about whether he’s been consulted on a new Splinter Cell, but he wouldn’t say.)
GC: I was going to ask you what you did at LucasArts but we’ll skip that, as we haven’t got much time.
CH: Yeah, let’s skip that. [laughs]
GC: That bad, huh?
GC: So why, after all these years, did you choose Legion as your big comeback project? Why Watch Dogs?
CH: So back in 2015 Alex Parizeau, the studio managing director in Toronto, reached out to me while I was still at Amazon and asked me if I wanted to think about coming back to Ubisoft in Toronto and he told me right then to work on the next Watch Dogs game. At that time Watch Dogs 2 wasn’t out but there were a few interesting pieces to that puzzle. One was they’d shipped Splinter Cell back then – Blacklist – and they were looking to expand the studio and needed a second creative director in order to be able to really continue growing.
And the magic part of the equation was that the original Watch Dogs team started from the Far Cry 2 team and so they were all good friends of mine and they’d started working on the original Watch Dogs in early conception after Far Cry 2, when I was on something different with another part of the team.
I trust those guys, I respect those guys. Jonathan Morin, the creative director, was the lead level designer on Far Cry 2; Dominic Guay, the lead producer, was the lead programmer on Far Cry 2. We worked really closely together. So they wanted to move the lead on the third one to Toronto, in order to potentially get to that sort of staggered development.
It seemed like a good move to see if I was interested: start Watch Dogs 3 in Toronto and have the ability to grow the team, grow the studio, while at the same time have that sort of close personal connection that allows you to migrate.
GC: You were so pleased to be working with former colleagues you rewarded them by forcing them to wallow in the misery of Brexit and the forced realisation of how far the world has fallen over the last few years?
CH: [laughs] I mean, it was… we started in 2015, right? So Brexit wasn’t even a thing at that point. Or at least when we first started talking about locations and places we were talking about, ‘What’s the future gonna look like?’ Donald Trump wasn’t president but we started envisioning this kind of dystopian future and how the escalation of technological progress and the increasing lopsidedness of the economic world, and global problems like climate change, put pressure on all of those systems and politics and peoples, and mass migration and things like that. And so, yeah, we ended up conceiving this dystopia that had a hard time keeping pace with reality in some cases! [laughs]
GC: [laughs] I’m laughing here but it’s either that or you cry.
GC: It must be – fascinating is one word – that you chose your setting so long ago, before any of this happened. But you seem to have adapted to the changes as you’ve gone, integrating Brexit into the story but also the more general rise of right wing governments across the world. And even since I last saw the game you seem to have pivoted more towards a sort of Black Lives Matter style activism?
CH: I don’t think we were pivoting to these things necessarily…
GC: I always make the point in reviews that it is actually difficult for games to be specific in their political themes because a big budget game takes so long to make. But Legion is interesting because you wanted to address these general issues anyway and you’ve been unfortunately correct in your assumptions.
CH: My wife thinks I’m pretty cynical [laughs] and sometimes it can get pretty heavy around the dinner table. But I think the writing was on the wall in 2015, right? And that’s what we were looking at then, what are these trends going to lead toward? Well, they’re going to lead to this and this and this and this. And you know, it’s not that we pivoted to absorb these things. I also don’t think that we were prescient, I just think we were projecting where we were going, and I think maybe we went there faster than anybody thought.
But I think we already were figuring out what the world was going to be shaped like and when things like Brexit happened it was, frankly, fairly easy for us to then sort of roll that into our backstory in our fiction. And keep in mind, we had years to figure out how to make that smooth, right? We didn’t really have to pivot, but we did have to figure out how to integrate it and not feel like it was bolted onto the side.
GC: One of the things I was thinking when playing the game, just in terms of the visuals, was seeing all the drones flying around and how that probably is how things are going to be. But the obvious, terrible implication of all this is that since your predictions are accurate in other areas they may well be in terms of the game’s most dystopian aspects as well.
CH: [laughs] Like I said, I’m a pretty cynical person!
CH: At the rate we’re going, I’m not sure. There’s two things, I think. One is we spend an awful lot of time thinking – the drones is a really good example – thinking about how would drones actually work and in a weird way our simulation of drones following highways and going to drop-off points and having their own kind of navigation system that’s just offset on the Z-axis or whatever. This is probably quite likely how drone delivery and ubiquitous drones will work. They’ll have this sort of second navigation system that lives as a layer on top of our world. And so by thinking through the problems, and in some ways building the solutions, you end up understanding the problems better.
And to tie that more relevantly, by thinking through the problems of this difficult world and by looking at what our proposed solution is. It’s collective action and working with people and trying to understand and empathise with your fellow citizens, and organising and pushing back against these problems.
Maybe not with explosions and gunfire, but organising and collective action, that’s what we have to do and by building those systems and understanding the problems and the challenges and threats to them I think it’s… I’m a pretty cynical person but now I’ve thought through the problem [laughs] I have a little more hope than maybe I had five years ago.
GC: You cut to the heart of the matter there. The problem is not governments or technology, it’s people and their lack of empathy. Brexit and Trump, they were the will of the people and their wilful belief in obvious lies. I mean, I don’t know how you make a game out of that…
GC: But one of the things that worried me a little about the plot is that it seems to be implying that a lot of the problems are being sort of parachuted in. By having no sign of the government, by having no sign of police, and just having this sort of evil Nazi style paramilitary organisation in charge you’re simplifying the problem. You’re almost bypassing what caused all this in the real world, and presumably in the game.
CH: I think if you look back to 2015, pre-Brexit and pre-Trump there were a lot of concerns, and there remain a lot of concerns about the privatisation of things like security, the privatisation of the media, the privatisation of healthcare – which is a particularly big concern in the UK. And a lot of our world fiction is based on the idea that as automation and technology and wealth inequality start to sweep through, and massive unemployment starts being triggered in staggered waves, the government collapses due to a lack of a tax base, essentially.
And in order to firefight that they end up chunking up huge pieces of their domain – our security, our healthcare, our public institutions – and privatising those things.
So really, at the core… it’s different. You’re right to point out that tonally it seems the same but when you look at the actual details of the world fiction and the story, it’s a little bit different. What happens in our world is that the government has basically sold off most of their power. And they’re a crippled, almost non-functional state, and it’s mostly private interests that are the enemies.
So, yeah, it’s different from the real world. And we don’t want people to think that we’re pretending that the real world is fine and that these problems are imaginary problems. It’s just that the particular tack that we took… while it does align with things that are happening in the real world it’s a little bit different.
GC: Sure, sure. One thing that caught my eye when the game starts is that it had a little disclaimer, similar to a lot of Ubisoft games, about how the game had been made by a diverse team of writers and developers, with different viewpoints. So does that mean you have someone that’s really right wing on your team?
CH: I mean, I’m not going to speak to the personal political leanings of people on the team but there are people on the team who… raise counterpoints and we’ve had to deal with those issues and have some design discussions and writing discussions for some of those things. And yeah, they can be… they can be difficult discussions.
As you’re aware, people are very divisive right now and it’s a very divided time. So it’s hard to… it’s hard to talk about middle grounds and balances. And in some ways, you know, part of the current argument is that even discussion about these middle grounds is problematic. So yeah, it’s not easy for sure.
GC: My other concern was the use of London and the UK setting. It reminded me of when Alan Moore got very upset about the V for Vendetta movie adaptation, not for the usual reasons but because he felt the American creators were being cowardly using the UK as a proxy to address issues that were more specifically about the US and ignoring the cultural differences of the UK.
CH: Back in early 2016 we did huge research trips back and forth to London. Probably over the course of months, probably 60 people or more went to the UK, often for two weeks or a week, depending on what their specific mission was. And we did a ton of research, not just taking pictures – we have tens of thousands of photos and video – but also meeting people.
We had handlers that would help us meet with different people from different cultures and different organisations in different companies, in different groups. Really sort of behind closed doors access. I mean, we were in the cyber-electronic security division of the Bank of England meeting with people there.
So a lot of our research was about, ‘What are the social and economic pressures that are happening in the UK today?’ But even when I was there – it was April, I think, of ’16 – but even then asking some of the people we were meeting, ‘What about this Brexit thing that we’re hearing about?’ Everyone, to a person, was, ‘Oh, that’s not going to happen. That’s just a squeaky wheel kind of thing’ and they were very dismissive of it.
And so we didn’t ask a lot more questions about it because every person we asked just sort of thought it was a non-issue. Of course, it became much more of an issue as the months went on. So I think that we did a ton of research but so much of how the world has changed happened since we did that huge block of research and, you’re right, we did have to figure out how to incorporate those changes and ask follow-up questions with our experts and our research to carry the game forward.
GC: And just finally, in terms of gameplay, how do you avoid being accused of just reusing the Ubisoft formula, when it came to open world games?
GC: Because you get to that bit were it talks about liberating London boroughs and I think, ‘Hang on, I’ve seen this before’.
CH: I think at the core, the play as anyone innovation… the whole thing we were trying to do was take the sort of systemic approach that Ubisoft games are known for but apply that to a population and turn that into a core gameplay loop. The very first Watch Dogs game, you look at a guy in the street and it says, ‘John Franklinson, newspaper vendor, wanted for dealing in firearms’ or something. And it creates this imaginary world in your head just for a taste, right? Just for a little snippet of a person’s life.
And then with play as anyone our goal was to make that real and make that part of the core experience. Everyone has a home, everyone has a family, everyone has a job, everyone has a schedule. And that’s a thing that you play with in the low-level gameplay in order to build your resistance and in order to rise up and bring the people together to fight back against these injustices.
So that was really the focus of trying to come up with a new angle and a new core gameplay innovation, and a hook that would get people excited.
GC: Okay, great. Well, it’s a fascinating game, thanks very much for you time.
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