I dislike reviewing a video game’s writing, particularly when it’s delivered neatly in cut scenes and audio clips beyond player control. The inclusion feels extraneous to the game, a narrative there to generate a compulsion to play I don’t need. I, and I think many other people, can enjoy a video game on the merits of the game itself.
However when you’re witnessing something like Watch_Dogs 2, a line must be drawn. When you’re aware of the sheer weight of the time, money, and human endeavor invested in making something so utterly cack-handed as the writing of Watch_Dogs 2, you reach a limit. People were paid to write this. Someone decided that this level of ineptitude was not only acceptable, but should be financially rewarded. If you want a critique of the actual game, head here. This one is dedicated to the writers at Ubisoft.
Watch_Dogs 2 places you in the shoes of Marcus Holloway, a young hacker and all round cool-cat. He has mad parkour skills. He fights with pool ball on a robe (a needlessly complex weapon – you can achieve the same results with a roll of pennies in a sock). No doubt Marcus has been furiously focus tested to be as ‘hip’ and ‘with it’ as possible.
After the tutorial mission, Marcus is drafted in to cool-kids hacker ring DedSec, which operates out of the basement of the most insultingly fake nerd hobby store I’ve ever seen (it sells regular Monopoly, for Christ’s sake), to wage cyberwar against malicious corporation Blume and its corrupt usage of ‘ctOS 2.0’, an operating system connected to the entirety of San Francisco. Marcus is himself a victim of this system, having been given community service in relation to a robbery despite being innocent, solely because ctOS 2.0 found him to be probabilistically suspect. Marcus comes forward as a liberator, aiming to expose the corruption of this system and the tech companies that have partnered with it.
The Diary of The Night of The Dawn of The Evil Living DedSec
DedSec is formed from four (later five) other members, each of which is badly written in their own unique, colourful way.
Sitara is the artist/propagandist in resident. Sitara constantly espouses the importance of art having ethical purpose, yet seems to only produce meaningless graphics or visual parodies on zombie film titles (Dawn of the DedSec is a common one). She also talks about pursuing art for art’s sake and not being concerned with money or brand-popularity, but quite happily sets up vending machines in all the hacker bases to sell her t-shirts and freaks out when someone misuses DedSec branding.
Josh is the autistic in resident. Someone at Ubisoft must have watched MR ROBOT and realized people who spend all their time on the internet tend to not be that good at ‘banter’, as Marcus is, incessantly. Hence, token neuro-atypical. Too bad the best they could do to convey that autism is have the voice actor sound like he’s half asleep. Aside from Josh being unable to understand metaphors (something he seems to ‘get over’ later on), none of the autistic tics are conveyed. He even seems completely fine with physical contact. I know the whole autism-as-a-superpower thing is getting stale, but if the replacement is autism-as-bad-acting-and-writing, then please pop-culture, regress.
Wrench is meant to be the engineer of the party, building the fancy hardware for DedSec. Wrench is nonsense. His magical mask that reflects his emotions in real time is an expression of his techno-punk aesthetic that is actually a piece of pretty good design, except for a single mission where his wearing of it is a product of an insofar unmentioned social disorder, which is forgotten as soon as the mission is over. He often waxes lyrical, yet is incredibly inept at it, belying a lack of practice. We’re told he likes to break things, but all we ever seem him smash is a toaster.
I wanted to like Wrench when he was introduced. Violent anarchist meets jury-rigged hi-tech fashion statement? Sign me up. But all the balls Ubisoft attempted to juggle are dropped, despite Wrench being, along with Sitara, one of characters pushed to the fore. The at-first-excruciating, later numbing back and forth he has with Marcus is too clean and desperately referential to pop-culture to be immersive, while too phony and forced to be wacky or humourous.
A later addition to the crew is Ray, an unnecessarily enduring character from the first Watch Dogs. I cannot comprehend why Ray is in this game. Was he really popular in the last one? We don’t need him to here to create continuity between the games – DedSec members talk enough about the events of Watch_Dogs to establish that. Maybe the person at Ubisoft who saw MR ROBOT also figured Watch_Dogs 2 needed a parallel to Christian Slater’s character? Ray does just about fill those sinister-hobo-come-mentor shoes, but the writing is so half-hearted and sloppy that Ray’s positioning as Marcus’ mentor never really matures beyond his character introduction in Watch_Dogs 2. The later conflict the writers attempt to set up between Ray and other members of DedSec is poorly executed, having personal disputes set up and absolved at the start and end of single missions, preventing any worthwhile narrative arcs of internal conflict actually playing out. Overall Ray just seems to add nothing to the group dynamic that is followed through enough that it legitimizes the late introduction… so why introduce him at all?
And lastly, Horatio is the token ‘black male who dies in the second act’ in resident. That isn’t even a spoiler – the fact that he never chimes in during side missions, despite being amongst a very talkative cast, is an obvious death-flag from the get-go. Of course, his resultant lack of presence means when he does die, tragically (in Marcus’ arms no less) we don’t care because we barely know him.
And all these poorly written characters chatter in your ear throughout the game, exchanging banter so full to the gills with pop-culture references that the try-hard atmosphere is often cloying.
Suffice to say the cast of Watch_Dogs 2 aren’t reflections of real hackers, let alone real human beings. So what are they reflections of? The more quirky, ‘colourful’ cast is quite clearly an attempt by Ubisoft to set themselves apart from the moodier tone set by Watch_Dogs – which is fine. It might be coming entirely from a place of corporate greed rather than artistic purpose, but let’s be honest, artistic endeavor is the exception, not the norm, in this era of video gaming. The issue with Ubisoft taking this route is that much of the gameplay and narrative runs completely counter to this light-hearted tone Ubisoft purports to strike.
The Hypocritical Oaf
The secret theme of Watch_Dogs 2’s narrative is ‘contradiction’. Marcus and DedSec positions themselves as liberators, having been victimized by ‘the system’ and aim to free others by exposing corruption. However the game presents mass murder of civilians and security guards just doing their jobs as a perfectly acceptable means to achieve this. It’s alarmingly jarring that so many of the game’s guns are lethal, let alone that guns are offered at all. Not only does the shooting part of the game suck, but giving the player the capacity to murder to achieve Marcus’ ends while DedSec watch in stony silence is so dissonant with the narrative that the inclusion of this lethal play style is not just an oversight, but a detraction, especially when you consider the game’s experience points are supposed to be followers keeping track of DedSec’s actions. On top of this, DedSec and Marcus seem to have no problem intruding on people’s personal data to suit their ends, something they seem to despise in corporations.
Even if you manage to play the entire game without ever harming an NPC, a cut scene later on will still force you to take out a power grid, risking the lives of tens of thousands, which is quickly brushed away with a single comment of doubt before being never touch upon again.
Marcus isn’t just a hypocritical psycho because he kills the people to liberate the people. His central motivation is contradictory. His very reason for going after Blume in the first place is because their ctOS 2.0 labeled him as 84% likely to commit a cyber-related criminal act, and yet his response to this wrong is to prove it right by committing cyber-related criminal acts, on top of massive property damage, mass murder, grand theft auto (not the game, idiot), and a series of other crimes. Marcus’ motivation is a blatant hypocrisy.
Lastly, the game’s ‘enemy’ is a wide range of corporations and institutions, partaking in ctOS 2.0’s exploitations, crushing the little guy underfoot for profit. We all know Ubisoft would quite happily engage in such malpractice if it meant increased profit margins. Furthermore a few pieces of the random NPC dialogue in the game’s rendition of San Francisco deal with people being distracted from the misdeeds of the financial elite with vacuous culture and social media apps. How ironic that is. If there were anything to distract people from the real misdeeds of a “1%” it would be something like Watch_Dogs 2. The game’s maker is the very enemy it pits you against.
Give me Liberty, or give me DedSec
There are other parts of the writing that are bad, such as some suspect implications about afro-americans, a consistent sycophantic tone, the lack of understanding of how hacking works or what the terms mean, and just how unhappy the people of San Francisco are, but these are all just extraneous pieces of evidence. The rootkit of the problem is clear; the writing in Watch_Dogs 2 is terrible, and should be denounced as such.
Perhaps I’m being harsh. Perhaps the Ubisoft writers kept getting pressured by higher-ups to cut, change and rearrange storylines and couldn’t get storylines to be coherent or characters to be complex in that environment. Great! Add spineless to their list of failings, and incompetent to the failings of the higher-ups. I won’t hear it. I will not hear it. Watch_Dogs 2’s writing is a giant middle finger to creative endeavor, and the world is worse for it being made. DedSec should have stayed BuriedSec.