For all their talk of realism and authenticity, video game developers rarely seek to reflect modern society, or the lives that most of us are living. Grand Theft Auto V produced a ribald, frenzied pastiche of LA, complete with vacuous movie stars and social media millionaires, but most of its skits and giggles were just dirty jokes wrapped up in the veneer of social commentary.
Watch Dogs was sort of different. In Ubisoft’s 2014 action adventure, hacker Aidan Pearce lives in an “alternative” modern Chicago that is heavily monitored by CCTV cameras, its computerised systems ripe for sabotage. Players are able to gain control of traffic lights and swing bridges in order to escape enemies, while hacking the phones of passersby to access mini-quests. The game is effectively an exploration of our highly connected, privacy-free society, where shadowy authorities wrestle with hi-tech con artists for control of our data.
The game was interesting but flawed. It promised to provide a totally hackable city, but it turned out that the player’s powers were extremely limited to specific instances. It fell short of the dark satire it wanted to be.
Announced on Wednesday night, Watch Dogs 2 looks to be a far more interesting prospect. Now set in San Francisco with a new protagonist, the game is promising a dissection of the city’s tech-obsessed culture. Marcus Holloway is a member of the anonymous-style hacktivist network DedSec who has been wrongly accused of a crime and n wants to clear his name – or get revenge – by hacking the city’s operating system.
But it’s the little details in the game’s opening trailer that look intriguing. Ubisoft Montreal has packed in dozens of little references to recognisable San Francisco and Silicon Valley foibles. During the trailer, we see a guy in a virtual reality headset annoying fellow tram passengers – a clear reference to the “Glassholes” who briefly embraced Google’s augmented reality spectacles. There are also remote control drones and personal robots; cool social media companies called things like Bloom and Nudle, and dead-eyed businessmen clutching smartphones, walking past homeless people slumped on the streets.
Ubisoft has said that with this game it wants to portray San Francisco as “the Wild West of technology”. So we have a hacker group in Dedsec that evolved from internet troll culture and permeates its messaging through visual memes; it’s also a group that makes its own weapons using 3D printers. We even see a house being raided by armed police, which could well be a reference to the online phenomenon of swatting.
The game apparently deals with the consequences of handing all our data to social media companies – who are open to hacks, opening a black market for customer information. It lets you use your hacking tech to gain access and control of any phone in the game – or indeed any car. Marcus has a drone, which the player can take control of to gain aerial surveillance; he even has a sort of remote-control robotic arm to remotely hack doors. It’s all tech that we’re on the cusp of.
It’s interesting stuff because this is an expensive mainstream video game that looks like it’s interfacing with real-world problems and concerns. It isn’t abstracting the tech way out into the future like the latest Deus Ex or Call of Duty games; it’s a contemporary setting. Whether that makes a good game or not is, of course, a whole different question, but it’s just refreshing to see a major publisher watching what’s happening in the world and reacting – as great movies and television do almost instinctively.
While HBO’s Silicon Valley has certainly skewered the sociopathic personal failings of San Francisco’s geek glitterati, video games can put players right into the middle of the scene as active agents. And of course, we all are active agents in the San Francisco tech story because we’re buying and using the products, and it’s our data they’re fighting over. Watch Dogs 2 may well fall short of what Ubisoft is promising but it’s an exciting prospect, and as with Assassin’s Creed 2, there are hints it will get closer to what its predecessor aimed for. Whatever, seeing memes, drones, robots and VR headsets being used in a big game, not just as “hey aren’t we cool and up-to-date signifiers” but as symbols of a troubling culture, is refreshing.
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Thursday 9th June 2016 12.56 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010