Video game publisher Ubisoft recently unveiled their newest work of art Watch Dogs at E3 2012 and from the footage it looks like a beautiful masterpiece of contemporary-set science fiction mixed with technology people interact with every day. In it, the would-be antihero protagonist, Aiden Pierce, wanders a noir city controlled by a master supercomputer (a “smart city” perhaps) that interconnects the entire population with cameras, cell phones, vehicle transponders, all the necessary elements of a modern-day surveillance dystopia.
The trailer is a beautiful rendering of open-storytelling with a great deal of immersive qualities—perhaps the best part of it is that the cyberpunk elements presented are all currently plausible: jamming the signal of all cell phones in a certain radius; using augmented reality to determine the status of a person in visual range; even causing a traffic accident by manipulating traffic lights.
The clever conceit of the game is that all these disparate systems are interconnected and therefore easily cross-referenced and hacked.
“Watch Dogs goes beyond the limits of today’s open-world games by giving players the ability to control an entire city,” Jonathan Morin, creative director, Ubisoft said in a statement. “In Watch Dogs, anything connected to the city’s Central Operating System becomes a weapon. By pushing the boundaries, we can provide players with action and access to information on a scale that’s never been seen in a video game before.”
To those of us in the early part of the 21st century, the mobile phone is an ubiquitous device that contains a great deal of information on us as a person. In fact, they’re becoming such a central source of personal information now mobile devices are the target of hackers and malware looking for an easy payday. In the footage from the video game, the protagonist uses his iPhone-like device with augmented reality to gather information about people around him, identify affiliations, and perhaps as fluff-text, view significant traits about them.
The premise behind the story, and Aiden’s foray into the highly open-world of the game, is a “who watches the watchers,” premise of surveillance and Big Data societies. A central computer, called the “Central Operating System” controls and tracks all the city resources; but who controls the central computer and therefore the lives of everyone in the Windy City? As an apparent underground mercenary, Aiden moves about missions, completing them using the technology he has at hand to disrupt, track, gather intelligence, and leverage whatever information resources he has on hand.
In a way, Watch Dogs feels almost like a video game about how humanity copes with technology and its inevitable corruption of the human spirit—a theme at the core of many cyberpunk works. As a cyberpunk author myself (my book Born to the Spectacle: The Anti-Nokia Experience covers one of these themes) I see elements of other masterpieces we’ve seen in recent years such as Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain and recent sequel Edios Montreal’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
All of these stories have been video games about how technology will affect humanity—although the cyborg affect from Deus Ex is far less subtle than that apparent in Watch Dogs. It is important to remember that we are all part cyborg now, each device that we add to our toolset increases our cyber-footprint, a cell phone, an Android tablet, a laptop. These may not be cybernetic prosthetic replacements for body parts; but they are in fact cybernetic extensions of ourselves—extra memory in the cloud on our mobile devices, a smart agent working to filter the news for us while we sleep, asynchronous communication when we’re out of contact.
A game such as what Ubisoft is offering may be just the thing to entertain and amaze with just what we could do with what we have right now given the right circumstances. After all, that’s what fiction does best.
Watch Dogs is currently slated for release across PC, PS3, and Xbox 360; but no release date has been announced.