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Saturday, April 13, 2024

'Watch Dogs: Legion' Tackles Dystopia—That It's a Part Of

In a mission from Watch Dogs: Legion, the third in a series of hacker-focused sci-fi action games from Ubisoft, a Polish immigrant shrinks before a woman with a striking resemblance to Cruella De Vil. This woman, Mary Kelley, is the leader of London’s most powerful organized crime family. With theatrical nastiness, she taunts the immigrant, who’s been imprisoned in a newly formed European refugee camp.

The Polish woman has been cutting herself in despair. Kelley says that she shouldn’t do this, not out of any kindness but because the woman’s body is more valuable if it’s left unmarked when she’s sold into sex slavery or harvested for her organs. A body sold in parts makes the immigrant more valuable to society than she would be if living off government welfare, Kelley explains.

Mary Kelley is an outrageous villain. She waves a knife around as she talks. Her catcher’s mitt face is twisted in a permanent sneer. Her plan to harvest organs from British society’s most vulnerable demographics is just as exaggerated—it’s comic book brutal. But Legion doesn’t position Kelley as its narrative’s ultimate evil. Instead, she’s the visible, revolting eruption of a deeper-seated infection of modern right-wing populism that’s shown, with surprising clarity, to be the real enemy of the game’s heroes.

As a member of the in-game hacker-collective-turned-resistance-movement DedSec, Legion’s player explores a near-future, dystopian version of London. The city is held in the authoritarian grip of a government maintaining rule through a private military force, the invasive technological monitoring systems of corporations working alongside British intelligence, and the collaboration of the Kelleys’ vicious crime family. Following a terrorist attack that framed DedSec as culprits, London began rounding up dissidents with arbitrary arrests and, in the case of the city’s immigrant population, imprisoning them in refugee camps.


Podcast episodes heard while traveling the city detail how the United Kingdom has completely alienated the European Union and now suffers food shortages in response; the hosts giggle over gallows-humor jokes about how ordinary people invited the construction of a surveillance state by gladly accepting the conveniences of big tech products. There are obvious parallels here to modern nations, like the Brexit-era UK, sliding into a 21st-century version of fascism. Though the sci-fi action of the game and the overt monstrousness of its villains may be too ridiculous to read as totally plausible, the reasons given for creating Legion’s vision of dystopia are all too realistic.

There’s nothing immediately remarkable about the in-game scenarios mentioned above. They wouldn’t be out of place in any film, TV show, or book about the inhumanity of far-right governance, and they’re notable mostly for the (frequently uncomfortably glib) absurdity they employ in depicting heightened versions of real-world issues. But for Ubisoft, a game publisher and owner of international development studios including Legion creator Ubisoft Toronto, these scenes demonstrate an uncharacteristic willingness to engage directly with real-world topics too often glossed over or distorted into unrecognizable forms in past releases.

Legion’s enemies aren’t just cartoonish villains like Mary Kelley. They’re also the real-world ideologies and institutions that animate Kelley’s understanding of a world where another human being’s worth is weighed in purely economic terms—of the racists in UKIP, sure, but also of the conservative viewpoint that sees welfare cuts, the privatization of essential services, and corporate tax breaks as logical, Darwinian paths forward for a society. The success of Legion in confronting these issues is hit and miss—why, for instance, don’t actual modern British political parties, movements, and institutions get named directly?—but the bar for identifying a clear point of view is low enough in video games that it’s notable that Legion is so forthright at all.

In a CBC interview, creative director Clint Hocking describes Legion not as a game whose dystopia is “caused by Brexit” but rather as the result of issues “caused by the things that caused Brexit.” He references “real issues like what’s happening with immigration with Europe and … the rise of authoritarians.” He echoes this point in The Washington Post, emphasizing that the game is concerned with what happens when “the controls of public infrastructure and public service” are governed by “private interests.”

“Every creative work takes a political stance,” Hocking says. “That’s not even a question. Either you’re making explicit statements or you’re just accepting implicit statements, maybe in the status quo or something like that.”

Ubisoft is well known for publishing games that try their level best to obfuscate any discernible political position, even, incredibly, in games about the United States’ war on drugs or the modern shape of its religious and nationalist extremism. The militia and warlords of Far Cry 4 and 5 are given fictional motivations even as they operate in real geographical and cultural settings.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands takes place in Bolivia but willfully ignores important historical context to turn the nation into an empty stage for a pantomime covert war between American special forces and a wholly imagined Mexican cartel. It’s refreshing, in light of this precedent, that Legion is willing to describe its villains as motivated by something more relatable than pure criminality or some nebulous, baseline notion of evil—and that it recognizes the modern United Kingdom’s past and current political landscape. And yet, the game is still defined by its existence as an expensive, corporate product, its edges seemingly sanded off in deference to its design as a crowd-pleasing action romp, and, just as importantly, the fact that its creation is intertwined with the practices of Ubisoft itself.

While able to point fingers at evil tech companies within its narrative, Legion’s creators are also employed or contracted by a company that, as recently reporteded, has allowed apparently endemic, company-wide sexual harassment and misogyny to take place across its international studios. It’s also, just like the corporations DedSec rails against, a participant in the erosion of privacy that’s become a given for modern tech businesses. Writing about Watch Dogs 2 for the Los Angeles Review of Books, my colleague Will Partin describes the game’s middle finger to big data and mercenary tech companies as compromised by its extratextual status as a “a program designed to extract as much information as possible about its players.” Before players can access a story about rebellious characters working to overthrow nefarious tech companies, they must accept the usual video game EULA agreements that grant access to entertainment through the twin prices of buying the game and allowing Ubisoft to gather their personal information. “This is a game about surveillance that exists in part to surveil you,” Partin writes.

None of this necessarily compromises the creators of Legion itself or the integrity of their work. It does massively complicate how that work is received, though. Ubisoft is a large company whose practices likely vary from studio to studio and internal team to internal team. But the game’s existence is owed to the money and logistical power of a corporate entity that is responsible for causing systemic personal and social harm. Like Legion itself says, the individual people who enacted damaging company policies are worth fighting against, but they’re only a symptom of larger issues. The products of harmful institutions can’t be cleanly separated from the institutions themselves. By focusing on real-world politics, Ubisoft ends up implicating itself as a participant in some of the same systems its game rightly criticizes.

Legion raises a basic question about whether it’s possible to separate the intent and effect of art or entertainment from the corporate structures it’s created within. The answer to this is never going to be satisfactory to everyone. The people who brought Legion’s vision of a London ravaged by social, political, and economic entropy to life are not Ubisoft, but the thoughts they communicate in the game do, in the end, belong to Ubisoft. While it’s hard to imagine this was what anyone involved wanted Watch Dogs: Legion to leave as its ultimate message, the nasty ways in which individual morality and political conviction end up subsumed by corporate malevolence end up being the strongest impression left by the game.

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