By now, you probably already know about Ubisoft’s upcoming open world blockbuster Watch Dogs. In the game, you play as Aiden Pearce who has the ability to hack into the city’s—in this case Chicago’s—infrastructure and the informational database it keeps on its citizens to bend the city to his will. The key to the game’s success will be how well this actually works. In all of the existing demos and previews, the player has what appears to be complete control over countless different aspects of the environment: cameras, cell phones, trains, ATMs.
Lesser (and perhaps most other) titles would limit this functionality to combat programming limitations. For example, most people talk about how great the open world possibilities are in the Grand Theft Auto series, but I’ve always found them limiting. In GTA, you can do anything that causes destruction, but little else. The inability to walk into any random building just to investigate the décor is a clear indicator of the game’s focus and gameplay-driving motives. These games are not about experiencing a wide-open world. They’re about killing things and causing destruction in a world that vaguely resembles your own, which is why the recent comments by Watch Dogs senior producer Dominic Guay are so encouraging:
“One of our hopes is that the best moments players will have in the game won’t be scripted events. My hope is the thing they talk about at the office or with their friends is the thing they created themselves,” Guay said. “It’s the scenario where they had a plan and they tried to pull it off, and something wrong happened and they have to improvise. And they know — gamers know when that happens; it’s their moment. They made it happen.
“So that’s what I’m hoping — that the best memorable moments in Watch Dogs are unique to the player.”
Personal storytelling has dominated my motivations to play games over the last three years. In that time, I’ve spent well over 70% of my gaming time dedicated to a handful of games: Battlefield 3, the NBA 2k series, and to a lesser extent Skyrim. The latter of those has received the most press regarding storytelling. The possibilities of the land of Skyrim are seemingly endless, from interactions with NPCs to battles with roving packs of giants and dragons. But Battlefield has been my standby during that time.
The single player of Battlefield 3 is just as terrible as all other modern FPS single player campaigns: scripted sequences and dull storylines combine to make monotonous gameplay. But the multiplayer in Battlefield, with its emphasis on vehicular warfare and large-scale maps, is ideal for the creation of one-of-a-kind moments. (Why else would Dice run the “Only In Battlefield” campaign asking for people to send in their wildest videos?). Though my moments are never quite as spectacular as some of those on YouTube, I’ve spent countless hours talking with my friends about unbelievable, long-range headshots or moments of unlikely good fortune that have come my way in the multiplayer sessions.
What sets Battlefield apart from other modern FPS multiplayers is that these moments are inherent in the game’s infrastructure. In the Call of Duty series, players will have rounds of legend that they share with their friends, but it ultimately comes down to one thing: I killed a bunch of dudes and didn’t die. Battlefield eschews this with the addition of vehicles and large-scale moments. Some of my most memorable Battlefield moments are completely nonviolent: rising over a mountain range in a helicopter to see two enemy choppers hovering nearby or lying in wait as a tank rolls mere feet away from my ill-equipped sniper.
These moments are possible because they’re entirely unscripted. All jets and helicopters and tanks in Battlefield multiplayer are driven by human players. If an opposing tank sees you hiding in the weeds and mercilessly blows you up, good on that player for being perceptive. But there’s never a chance for some AI glitch or game malfunction (“I thought I was concealed behind cover but the AI always seems to find me”). Everything in Battlefield is organic, and this is what Guay’s comments promise regarding Watch Dogs’ potential: open world, organic moments in which the AI acts independently of your presence in the world. It’s like going unnoticed in the Matrix or Inception. Shit just happens and you’re around to see it.
The problem is, as Battlefield has aged, those moments have become more and more seldom. Players have gotten so good at the game that exploits are easier to find. In addition, most players are so familiar with the relatively limited number of maps and typical user attack patterns that one-time grand moments have turned into rote skirmishes. It’s a classic case of diminishing returns: the better everyone has gotten at the game, the more enjoyment and wonderment has been stripped from its structure.
I’ve written here before about the difficulty of video games, but one aspect of the discussion I omitted was the suspension of belief. At their best, games consume you. No longer are you sitting on your couch in Doritos-stained boxers holding a plastic controller. You’ve been transmitted into the game itself and care for the outcome of your character. This is one of the reasons FPS have come to dominate the marketplace. Aside from their lowest-common denominator rhetoric and content, the games offer a perspective that’s unmatched in the suspension of belief. Add to that the perfection of the control scheme, one that is effectively one-to-one between onscreen action and player control, and the suspension of belief becomes nearly impenetrable. That is, unless you die.
Enter Elizabeth and Bioshock Infinite. Much has been written—though not here—about Bioshock Infinite and the player’s interaction with the AI phenomenon Elizabeth, but her real value to the game is in her combat usefulness. A player is supposed to grow connected to Elizabeth throughout the game. She observes things about the environment and far-too-often tosses you a small handful of shekels. And despite trashcans and dead enemy corpses having far too many uneaten sandwiches contained in and on them, the game is relatively withholding of ammunition. With Elizabeth, you have the ability to suspend your belief in the heat of battle when other games would have you frantically searching the floor for discarded weapons. She tosses you ammo and salts (used to sustain your magical Vigor powers) in times of need. This allows you to manipulate the world of Bioshock Infinite in any way you see fit, building moments of grandeur without the fear of running out of resources.
This is why the infrastructure of Watch Dogs is so intriguing. Unless the designers implement gameplay breaking aspects like WiFi and cellphone jammers—which they no doubt will during at least one mission in the game to limit your capabilities—your ability to manipulate the world with seemingly endless resources promotes both complete suspension of belief and the creation of your own journey. If the AI truly is independent of your actions, Watch Dogs may be the truly revelatory open world urban environment that its hype promises.