Published Jul 14, 2014Timing is everything in pop culture, but it's often as much about luck when it comes to capturing the zeitgeist. Terror-era TV shows like Battlestar Galactica and 24 may have been able to react to current events in what felt disquietingly like real-time, but movies and videogames can take years to complete.
This left Ubisoft on the wrong side of history last year when Splinter Cell: Blacklist came out in late August, only two months after Edward Snowden's world-shattering Prism revelations. Though the game aimed for cultural currency with locations like Benghazi and Gitmo, suddenly an NSA spy felt less like a good guy than Big Brother. It may've been impossible at that point to make narrative changes, but Blacklist's failure to address the morality of working for a surveillance state, even in its own defense, made it seem shallow at best and propaganda at worst.
Watch Dogs, on the other hand, nailed its post-Prism landing despite being over five years in the making, because it was presciently rooted in issues like bulk data gathering, online privacy and hacktivist culture. "We had this locked in before [Snowden] happened, which is weird for us because we kept seeing our game come to life," says Colin Graham, Watch Dog's animation director from the Ubi Montreal studio. "The systems we take for granted are all digitally connected, and because of that they're vulnerable. We're seeing the world catch up with our vision of Watch Dogs faster than we imagined."
Their vision is of a not-far-off future where our infrastructure is linked to a central computing system that collects all the disparate data, from police records, buying habits and pet licenses to occupation, income and facial recognition sourced from an all-seeing network of closed-circuit security cameras.
In the game, it's corporate-controlled ctOS, rather than the NSA's Prism, and localized in Chicago, but the real-world parallels are felt in a way they wouldn't have been a year earlier. As grey-hat hacker Aiden Pearce, you can access this information and the private details you have about every stranger you see are disquieting.
"What we'd really like people to do is think about all the information we have on our phones. We think of our phones as something that's private and secure, but imagine it's not," says Graham. "We want people to ask the question: 'How much am I really exposed? What's my digital shadow and who can see it?'"
The game — centered around Aiden inadvertently hacking information from powerful people, which leads to the death of his niece — was inspired in part by Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 film The Conversation. Starring Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert who suffered a similar fate, it came in the wake of the Watergate tapes and touched popular culture's raw nerve.
But that was a movie. Is it even possible for a videogame to have the same kind of cultural impact?
"A lot of people say a game is a toy, not a serious form of media to digest, but we're also affecting a different generation of people. I have a hard time believing that people won't be thinking about some of this stuff while they're playing our game," says Graham. "Will it change the way people think about privacy and their digital shadow? I honestly don't know. We can only ask the question, the result comes in the next six months or year. But I hope they do. I'd like to have participated in creating something meaningful."
Though the game includes the Anonymous-like DedSec, privacy-invading Blume Corporation and political corruption, story-wise it gets distracted by gang warfare and doesn't actually take a strong stand on surveillance. "It's really saying this is the power of technology, and it's a sword that cuts both ways — it helps us and it can hurt us," Graham explains.
This is a slightly disappointing departure from Ubisoft's 2003 cult classic Beyond Good & Evil, which used aliens, photojournalism and a pig BFF to create a powerful allegory about post-9/11 fearmongering by the military-industrial-media complex. But Watch Dogs' post-privacy setting does the heavy lifting here, anyway, just as with Bioshock Infinite's background takedown of American Exceptionalism and religious fundamentalism.
"The picture we're painting has a chance to get people to stop and think," says Graham, "but the conversation that they have after Watch Dogs is the important one. Provoking conversation is what every artist dreams about."