Thursday, November 26, 2020

‘Watch Dogs: Legion’ Tackles Surveillance Without Humanity

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Back in 2015, when creative director Clint Hocking and his team began crafting the near-future world of Watch Dogs: Legion, some of the biggest tech companies in the world were confidently predicting skies buzzing with package-delivery drones and streets full of autonomous vehicles. Everyone would be using cryptocurrency, playing AR games, and making stuff on 3D printers. So into the game they went.

Technology moves faster than game development. For a speculative fiction game about mass surveillance, that creates some problems. “Technology companies—Tesla, Amazon—had started talking publicly about pretty aggressive timelines, schedules, and regulations,” Hocking said in an interview with WIRED. Navigating the marketing babble, his team overshot the mark. On October 29, Watch Dogs: Legion will release as both a game and a time capsule from 2015, back when a couple of big, stock-inflating daydreams painted a picture for 2020 that’s still far from materializing. It’s cute, like remembering how in the ’80s, your geeky friend wouldn’t shut up about how Star Trek’s holodecks would so totally happen. Except these forecasts are from just yesterday.

Hocking’s team didn’t have a crystal ball, or an all-knowing AI, to tell the future. But even pushing aside the unpredictable, like the Covid-19 pandemic, Watch Dogs: Legion’s vision for the impending surveillance dystopia flounders because it tracked tech, not people.

Watch Dogs: Legion takes place in a painstakingly reconstructed, sometime-in-the-future London, now a lightly gritty surveillance state. The government has done a poor job responding to years of economic turmoil, and a private military-surveillance organization called Albion has essentially replaced the police with combat drones and shiny checkpoint scanners. You play as an operative in the chaotic-good, anti-corporate hacking collective DeadSec, recently framed for a mass bombing attack.

You’re not just an operative, though. Watch Dogs: Legion populates its world with over 9 million playable characters, procedurally generated with faces and bodies matched through algorithms to animations, voice lines, and backstories. In a little box above them, you’ll see where they’re going, along with their relationships, jobs, and proficiencies. As a DeadSec operative, you can tap passersby on the shoulder to recruit them to your cause.

“In earlier Watch Dogs games it was fairly superficial. Your ability to profile people was shallow,” says Hocking. “You could see a couple facts about them, a couple things in the storyline. It was much more about the story. Now in the game, the people are much more simulated, much more deeply real.”

Two of my starting character options were podcasters. (The future is full of podcasters.) I went with podcaster Sebastian White, a milquetoast delinquent type who hacks into online video games and likes to swear. He, or somebody else I recruit, will eventually go up against the real villain, a terrorist entity known as Zero Day, whose avatar early on in the game told me, “It’s time for a hard reset.”

Playing for several hours, I never once felt like I embodied Sebastian White or receptionist Margit Horvath or anyone else on my team of recruits, whose epistemic status exists somewhere between heroes, nonplayable characters, and toy soldiers. Watch Dogs: Legion’s humans are difficult to connect to when a new recruit’s origin story is, unwaveringly: You walk up to a random person on the street, hit a button, candidly profess membership in a reportedly violent terrorist group, ask if they want to take down the government, and then drive across town to do them some hazardous favor. Afterward, they suddenly reach commensurate levels of anti-government sentiment and are indebted to you forever. Oh, and they’re all competent hackers.



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