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Thursday, April 18, 2024

'Watch Dogs: Legion' Tackles Surveillance Without Humanity

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.

Why would (… checks notes) old-lady opera singer Chioma Audu be trying to take down a human-trafficking crime organization? Why is this random production VP Yongyuan Chow immediately telling me his heist plan to steal cryptocurrency? How does he know the decryption key is in a mobile server in a car sitting at Dorrel Hand Car Wash? The human stories in Watch Dogs: Legion feel like a techno-dystopian game of Mad Libs.

The song “Bliss” by Muse plays softly as a construction worker you met on the street tells you, “I’m ready to join the resistance.” A cyberpunk mercenary player-character known as “the Leopard” says, “Wow, everything we do really is recorded in some way,” as he watches an AR reconstruction of a past scene. Thanks, detective. Some guy named Crypto King—again, very 2015—muses on the radio (not some YouTube-like) about DeadSec and conspiracy theories. Canned, spy-flick voice lines pigeonhole Watch Dogs: Legion as a pulpy action game, full stop, like a surveillance-state Grand Theft Auto. It’s fun, not deep.

Some of the stories have a whiff of humanity. One NPC might ask you to erase a medical debt notice from a server; another, to acquire some drugs to help wean a friend off addiction. But most of the quests I've played were terse and transactional, a bit of back and forth that invariably leads back to DeadSec recruitment, faces in my “Operatives” file.

Watch Dogs: Legion is in its element when it puts your point of view inside tech. I embodied a stealthy spiderbot and several drones, including a huge cargo drone I gleefully rode on top of to steal a server from a rooftop. To infiltrate organizations, I hijacked security cameras and used my handheld device to scan nearby areas and reveal dataflows, which appeared like airplane floor escape lights. I remotely disabled checkpoint turrets and electric door locks. I hacked into and controlled autonomous vehicles, which have no human drivers. Charmingly, a futuristic beekeeper wields a swarm of cyberbees that pollinate all of London’s flowers. (In Watch Dogs: Legion, bees have already gone extinct.)

“Of course, there's always a technology company that’s willing to, you know, profit off of everybody's misery,” said Hocking in a Ubisoft roundtable event for Watch Dogs: Legion.

In our interview, Hocking described how his team was largely bullish on its tech predictions. They wanted to be “a little bit ahead of where technology was," he says. “And I think we’re still nebulously far ahead. That wasn’t the goal. I think we wanted to be more accurate.” He views Watch Dogs: Legion as speculative fiction rather than science fiction, more 1984 than Foundation.

To get there, two dozen Watch Dogs: Legion developers took a multiweek trip to London in 2016, organized by Ubisoft’s “World Texture Facility,” or WTF—a dedicated research team that puts dev boots on the ground in locations they’re simulating. The group organized face-to-face meetings with former MI5 agents, urban explorers, hackers, the mayor of Lambeth, Nigerian immigrants, and some “not people you find by Googling,” says Hocking. It was around when the Panama Papers leaked, exposing David Cameron’s links to offshore holdings that would inspire protests around London. Ubisoft interviewed the protesters. In Scotland Yard, Hocking and his team met Super Identifiers, professionals capable of identifying people from wanted posters using just grainy security camera footage. Deep under the Bank of England, half-excavated Roman mosaics greeted them on their way to the cybersecurity division.

“A lot of the detectives and inspectors we met at the police department—they were men in their late ’50s and didn’t, you know, play or know much about video games,” says Hocking. When they asked Londoners about Brexit, they were told, “That’s not gonna happen, don’t worry about that.”


Hundreds of interviews, thousands of articles, and tens of thousands of photos resulted from the trip, says Hocking, all part of an effort to evoke that “day after tomorrow” feel in London, where today there’s a CCTV camera for every 14 people. The resulting drones, holography—these were “world technologies,” he says. WTF’s research resulted in world texture, and, at least to me, not much more. And for all that deep research, the team seems strikingly unfamiliar with real-world surveillance creep. When I asked Hocking how recent controversies around the Ring camera panopticon fit into Watch Dogs: Legion’s surveillance dystopia, he was unfamiliar with the Amazon-owned company. Later in the interview, Hocking mentioned that in Watch Dogs: Legion, brain mapping is a platform to enable artificial intelligence. I brought up Elon Musk brain-reading pigs for his Neuralink, which would do just that, and Hocking again seemed confused.

Ubisoft has long received criticism for infusing its games with political themes the way a cheapskate bartender might wave the vermouth bottle over an $8 martini: a little waft, for the aesthetic. In multiple interviews, Ubisoft execs have told journalists directly that they’re not trying to make political statements in games like The Division 2 (which takes place in a militia-overrun Washington, DC, ravaged by a terrorist attack), Far Cry 5 (about a cult of armed zealots taking over a county in Montana), or even Ghost Recon Breakpoint (about special US government agents investigating a military contractor).

For its part, Watch Dogs: Legion nods at questions of power and surveillance, invoking police militarization, xenophobia, and authoritarianism along the way. One thing Watch Dogs: Legion gets right is the collapsing lines between surveillance tech companies and government initiatives, and how corporate interests’ far-reaching data tentacles are broadly accepted as a fact of reality.

“There’s this central question in all Watch Dogs games about how this technology is there—are we using it for good or are we using it for evil?” Hocking says. “Are we using it to separate people? Are we using it to turn them against one another? Are we using it to profile them or isolate them or segregate them? Or are we using it to help one another, to bring people together? And there are definitely huge ethical questions about that. If the governments and the corporations aren’t able to regulate it responsibly, where does it come to us to be the backstop and demand accountability?”

Game developers like to answer questions about a game’s takeaway with more questions. At the same time, perhaps, those are the realistic limitations of the game. Perhaps it’s not equipped. Playing Watch Dogs: Legion, some of these answers feel obvious. The human stakes are not.

In these last five years, the global technology community has had difficult, necessary conversations about algorithmic bias, how surveillance reinforces racism, even the demographics of hacking. Big data surveillance giant Palantir is now a publicly traded company. Startup Clearview AI says it has sold its facial recognition tech to thousands of law enforcement agencies. But no matter how many millions of NPCs it throws at the problem, Watch Dogs: Legion doesn’t, and maybe can’t, make surveillance an issue of empathy.

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