There comes that moment in many open-world games when you’ve made your way through the initial story sequences, you’ve learned how to actually play the game, and then you just begin to… play. To explore. To meander through the streets and, perhaps, steal a car. Or help a citizen, then rob another. Or… well, whatever tickles your fancy. In this regard, Watch Dogs is indeed similar to other open-world games. The game’s colossal re-creation Chicago offers up a range of distinct neighborhoods, copious characters to profile, a generous helping of side missions and all kinds of activities to enjoy. But – again, like many open-world games – what’s to stop a player from neglecting the so-called critical path that’ll move the story forward and instead just getting lost in the world?
For Senior Producer Dominic Guay, that’s not even a worry. In fact, getting absorbed in Watch Dogs’ Chicago is, in some ways, exactly what a player should do in order to more fully understand the trials and tribulations that vigilante Aiden Pearce will face as he makes his way through his story. And that’s exactly what happened to us in a recent hands-on session with Watch Dogs. Everywhere we turned there were people in streets and sidewalks, each with a distinct story. Sometimes it was fun to simply “profile” these characters, getting a voyeuristic kick as we peered into their personal lives, uncovering everything from their intimate, er, tastes to their salaries.
Other times, we’d stumble into a possible crime about to occur, and we couldn’t help but give in to the urge to follow the potential victim (or, at other times, perp) and – spurred on by our own innate sense of justice – we’d jump in to prevent a deadly assault in a back alley. The game also has a wealth of other activities, including virtual games accessible via Aiden’s smartphone and Wifi hotspots that we could hack to gain access to people’s homes (via their laptop cameras and the like) – all of which kept us busy as we explored Chicago. Which raised the question: Is this what Guay and the dev team expect all players to do when the get hold of the game?
‘It seemed natural to let the player become distracted by injustices within the world if Aiden is doing the same’
Although Guay is quick to point out that there’s no such thing as a typical player (“I think people will all play it very differently,” he says), he’s noticed a consistent trend in their testing of the game: Many of the testers will start on Aiden’s quest, they’ll have a goal, and they’ll begin to move forward with the story – only to get distracted by countless other activities. “That’s what we hope for because not only is that happening to the player, but it’s happening to Aiden too,” Guay smiles.
In other words, the player’s natural progression will, in some ways, mirror Aiden’s. “He has this mindset in the beginning and gradually becomes a vigilante because he sees all these things happening around him,” Guay explains. “It seemed natural to let the player become distracted by injustices within the world if Aiden is doing the same. They will be constantly finding other narrative threads within the world that they’ll want to dig into. We see players moving forward in the core narrative of the game and then they start looking around and getting involved in side missions. They start setting goals for themselves instead of just following breadcrumbs.”
Those player-set goals? They will likely evolve naturally in Watch Dogs thanks to the game’s true-to-life main character and richly realized setting. “I think players are going to find that they share the same traits as Aiden Pearce,” says Lead Story Designer Kevin Shortt. “When you’re playing the game and you see a moment where there’s a potential crime that could happen, you can’t help but want to be the vigilante and step in. It’s hard to resist in the game. You find yourself becoming as obsessive as Pearce.” In fact, the game’s narrative will highlight just how obsessive Pearce will become in terms of his need to closely monitor what’s going on around him.
It’s almost as if Pearce’s behavior is a model for players, showing them how much you can uncover using the deep surveillance, profiling and hacking gameplay. “It’s just really cool to be able to listen in and then every once in a while one of those conversations is going to lead you on a new adventure to help somebody,” Shortt says.
‘You see a moment where there’s a potential crime that could happen, you can’t help but want to be the vigilante and step in. It’s hard to resist in the game.’
This natural bond that players will share with Aiden Pearce can also be attributed to Watch Dogs’ real-world setting and narrative. Aiden Pearce isn’t out to save the world. He’s not, say, stopping a nuclear bomb from destroying Chicago, only to take moment to help a hobo in an alley or hack into an unwitting citizen’s bank account to pocket a little chump change. Instead, Aiden is an everyman of sorts, motivated to right a personal wrong – so it only makes sense that when he sees other people who have similar problems, he might actually step in and help out. That sense of reality should also help Watch Dogs’ unique take on multiplayer feel more integrated into the overall experience. In the game, a player can venture into another’s world and naturally interact with that player in ways that make sense based on the game’s characters and setting. “It’s our wish people will get a taste for it pretty early on,” Guay says. “They’re going to be drawn into it and then hopefully they’ll get hooked. I expect most people are going to play online in the world for a while before they continue with their adventure. If that happens then we’ve succeeded because we want online to naturally flow in the game instead of sitting on the sidelines.”
All that said, Guay reminds us that Watch Dogs has a great story that’s always there for players when they want to return to it. “There’s a satisfaction that comes with a sense of completion,” he says. “So even though you could go on for a long, long time – you could play online forever, if you want – players still want a great storyline with a beginning, middle and end.”
Hack into the following UbiBlog features for more about Watch Dogs’ gameplay and setting: