Watch Dogs: What The Year's Biggest Game Learned From Smartphones

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“We felt like the phone was kicking our ass at connectivity.”

Jonathan Morin is talking about technology. The creative director of Watch Dogs has spent five years working on a videogame about technology’s encroachment into almost every aspect of our lives. It’s a multi-million dollar project designed for the cutting edge of gaming hardware, and it hinges on the fact that the thin, passport-sized phones we keep in our purses and pockets can connect us with our friends more easily and seamlessly than the expensive boxes in our entertainment centers.

Watch Dogs is an all-purpose paranoia engine. It’s set in a Chicago where almost all tech is connected to a central network called ctOS. Its lead character, the gruff street thug turned hacker Aiden Pearce, wields a phone like a deus ex machina, accomplishing anything the plot calls for with a tiny touchscreen. (He probably doesn’t have a family plan, for tragic reasons that become quickly apparent.) With his profiler app Pearce collects information on every person he passes in Chicago while also commandeering almost every imaginable type of technology, all through hacking into ctOS. His phone turns him into a superhero, or at least the anguished vigilante at the center of a big-budget, mass-market videogame. If you’re already worried about what people can learn about you with an internet connection, Watch Dogs will make you want to toss your computer into a bonfire and move into a bunker far removed from any kind of a signal.

At its earliest development stages in 2008 Morin saw Watch Dogs as an opportunity to explore technology’s relationship with contemporary society and how those concepts could be incorporated into an open-world videogame. Those plans intensified and found a new focus as Morin’s team increasingly adopted smart phones early in development. They quickly realized how significant social media and constant internet access would become for society.

“We were discovering this thing, this smart phone, that would seem to exponentially multiply social media and hyperconnectivity in terms of impact,” Morin says. “That’s where we decided that exploring the mechanic of hyperconnectivity would be the core.”

For Morin, whose livelihood depends on technology, it was important to not paint technology as inherently hurtful. “We didn’t want to go the 1984 route, the Orwellian evil corporation, ‘technology is bad’ type of thing,” he says. “We wanted to go more subtle, so we decided why not just give the control to the player, why not have him be invited to his desire and what he wants to do to exploit the vulnerabilities of those systems so he can solve his own problem. That way we’re using technology as a mirror to watch the player so he can feel his own take on the subject and he doesn’t feel like the game is being overly judgmental about it all.”

Using Pearce’s phone, “you communicate with other people within the game in a very natural way, because people are interacting like that in their lives,” Morin continues. And although the thought of strangers learning personal details of your life with a simple phone scan is worrisome in real life, Morin sees it as a humanizing element in Watch Dogs. “Being able to access information of [non-playable] people around you helps you relate with them, it helps you care about not shooting them, depending on who you are. Even if you sometimes steal money from those people you realize that at the same time you’re stealing it from a single mom that just had a car crash. Some players have asked us if they can give the money back in those situations. It changes player behavior quite profoundly. It allows us to treat interactivity in an open city and how you interact with NPCs and other players in a completely new way that remains quite natural for people because of how they interact with each other now through that technology.”

Phones also crucially impacted how multiplayer operates within Watch Dogs. As Morin noted, it’s far easier to connect with friends on a phone than in most videogames, and that doesn’t mean calling someone. Hopping into a session of almost any multiplayer game on your phone is simpler than wading through the multiple online menu screens of most console games. And for games with substantial single-player components, like Watch Dogs, the wall between single-player and multiplayer can be a head-scratching example of how unnecessarily obtuse and user unfriendly modern videogames can be.

To break that wall down, Morin and his team created what they call a “seamless online” experience. “The main thing is you trigger online activity the same way you trigger offline activities,” Morin explains. “One of the big problems with the way games have been treating online the last couple of years is that we’ve continued outdated practices and design principles of how to activate them. Sometimes it’s almost two different games where you launch the single-player and the multiplayer and you keep them very separated which always divides the player. And then, worse, if the player has the courage to try the online part, he ends up in a lobby with a lot of options and a lot of steps before he can step into a game. It’s very intimidating.

“And while we’re looking at that reality on the other side the same people who aren’t intimidated by that are texting on their phones while they’re at a restaurant,” Morin continues. “They’re connected to 600 places at the same time through their phone. We felt like the phone was kicking our ass at connectivity. So Watch Dogs works like a phone. We’re trying to remove all those steps from being connected. You walk around the game, you just did a main mission, you had a bit of story, and then you turn the corner and suddenly there’s someone invading the game who’s trying to steal information from you. And that happens just like you would’ve crossed another NPC on the street. It skips all the steps that could generate intimidation of trying the online mode, and instead you just live it. It just feels like another moment that you have in your game, and then you can judge whether you like that or not.”

Watch Dogs’ online modes are like texts you get during a lunch break. You can respond as needed and then return to your sandwich or your run to the bank. It’s both second-hand nature for our smart-phone addicted culture and also a smart manifestation of Watch Dogs’ core themes. Like your phone, Watch Dogs is essentially always connected, both to the ctOS of its fictional Chicago and to the real world around you.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and reviews games for the Boston Herald.