The easy answer is right there: Chicago is one of the most surveilled cities in the United States. But, believe it or not, that wasn’t the primary reason Chicago was picked as the setting for Watch Dogs. Instead, this quintessential American city was selected because of its distinct vibe and intriguing sense of mystery – a unique urban feeling that fit well with the themes being explored in the game, according to senior producer Dominic Guay.
“It’s a beautiful city,” Guay says, referring to the stunning architecture and the rich diversity of Chicago. “There’s a river flowing through downtown. It’s also a city that’s been involved in a lot of crises. There’s a history of crime and corruption. There was the Great Fire and the city was basically rebuilt on top of itself.”
For Kevin Shortt, lead story designer, Chicago’s ability to survive and thrive in the face of adversity was key. “We love Chicago because it’s got such great history,” Shortt says. “They had the Great Fire. They had the ganglands crimes and troubles of prohibition. It always undergoes these issues and conflicts and it always steps up.” That urban vibrancy extends to the residents themselves, according to Shortt. “The people there have got a unique vibe and energy about them,” he says.
But Chicago isn’t just a city of history. It’s a city that always looks forward. “It’s got a big history of technology,” says animation director Colin Graham. “They had the World Fair there. They reversed the flow of the river so they wouldn’t have to drink their own sewage. I mean that’s not an un-technical feat!” And, of course, it’s a hyper-connected city. “You wouldn’t know it to look at it, but there’re a lot of gameplay opportunities with the way the infrastructure is very visible from the surface,” Graham says. “When we were looking at cities, we could easily see hackable gameplay elements on buildings that would fit our game. It really works well.”
Land, Water, Air
Which leads us to the big question: What does Chicago offer in terms of Watch Dogs’ gameplay? Aside from all the hacking opportunities, that is…
“It’s a great city for a game,” Shortt says. “You’ve got the fantastic bridges and roads. You’ve got the Millennium Park. There are all sorts of areas you can roam around that make for great gameplay.”
Chicago is also one of the most vertical cities in America, which plays a prominent role in the gameplay. “You can’t fly planes or anything like that,” Guay smiles. “That’s not really relevant to what we’re trying to do with Watch Dogs.” That said, the team was definitely inspired by Assassin’s Creed when it came to vertical gameplay. “If the player sees that he can climb somewhere, we want him to be able to do that,” Guay says. “He can go pretty high if he wants. As long as the player can figure out how to go higher, the technology can support that.”
“You saw me go on top of the roof to hack into that building,” Graham says, referring to a recent preview showing. “There’s always a vertical component like that. You can kind of do parkour and free-run, and you can get on top of some of the roofs. You’re not going to be doing rooftop chases, but you can hack the L train and ride it around. You can train surf!”
Verticality isn’t just about reaching for the sky, though. Chicago is also a very dense city, with vast undercity. “Chicago was built on top of itself and there’s actually this second layer to the city where all the trucks are going by and distributing stuff, and the shops are being filled from the lower side,” Guay says. “There is actually commerce, like bars, that you can access from the undercity. That’s something we’re playing on as well – going from the city above to the city below.”
Chicago is also famous for its river that bisects the city. Crossing the river are plenty of hackable bridges, and along the river is another peek at the vast undercity. The river is also navigable – but that’s not the only body of water that comes into play in Watch Dogs. “You can access the river and the [Lake Michigan] lakefront, and we have a whole system of boats that works with the dynamic simulation for the water and the wind,” Graham says. “It’s actually quite dramatic on the water when it rains at night.”
Diversity and Disparity
Chicago is also a city of contrast. The wealthiest areas stand in stark contrast to the bordering blue-collar working-class neighborhoods, with the poorest areas providing an even greater contrast. “You have those neighborhoods that inspired the Wards, which are very poor and they have about 30 times the crime rate of the richest neighborhoods,” Guay says. “Those extremes are very interesting and we want to play off that. We want to distinguish those areas both visually and with the people on the streets. Once you start profiling people you see their income levels are quite different and their occupations are very different. So it’s more than just the graphics. The information flow in those areas is going to be very different.”
That mix of tough inner city toughness and uptown refinement is partly what defines Watch Dogs’ Aiden Pearce as well. “This is a raw game,” Graham says. “It can be brutal and it can be intelligent. For Aiden it’s always the balance between being smart and being violent. Stupid people resort to violence because it’s all they really understand. Smart people realize they can think their way through a situation. Really smart people who are willing to cross that line understand it’s a balance between violence and intelligence, and sometimes in a desperate situation you have to be extremely violent to get what you need. That’s the kind of guy Aiden is. He gets results. He’s a survivor and he has a mission and a lot of good reasons to behave the way he does. It’s a pretty tough story, actually.”
Of course, we can’t forget that Chicago is also one of the most surveilled cities in the States. “There are over ten thousand cameras, all networked together, managed from a central point, and they can use those cameras to track people around the city,” Guay says. “They can read what’s on a piece of paper just by zooming in. So that’s an interesting context to inspire us in Watch Dogs.” But that’s not all that Chicago has to offer. It’s a unique but profoundly American city, with bountiful gameplay potential, all of which will be tapped to bring Watch Dogs to life.