Watch Dogs 2 – A Tale Told Before Its Time

I don’t remember much about the 8th of November 2016. It was the middle of the week so I probably went to work like any other day. In hindsight, what I should have been doing is taking note of every moment since it was, theoretically, the last time human society seemed to make sense. Obviously that’s a bit of healthy hyperbole because any person living in any era could say that about a previous rose-coloured heyday but as of this writing, this desperate feeling rings true. Mainly because it was that one day in November that Donald Trump was elected US President and as far as I can recall, the world as we knew it went off the fucking rails.

Modern society has always had its problems but there’s something about the last eighteen months that has kicked it into overdrive. Personally, I’m still in the “Really? Donald Trump? You elected Donald Trump as President?” stage of shock and I’m not sure that will ever subside. I assume numerous other people also have similar feelings however it’s safe to say a majority of people have moved beyond shock into denial, numbness, anger and then finally to being completely dead inside and bereft of any exterior emotion except for constant bewilderment.

Waking up every morning like you’re Doctor Emmett Brown after Marty McFly tells him Ronald Reagan ‘the actor’ is President in 1985 is quite an unhealthy way to live your life. But instead of screaming “Then who’s Vice President? Jerry Lewis?!?” and running away from our problems, we as a society have no real escape from just how exhausting life has become if you’re paying regular attention to what’s happening around the world. Corruption, injustice and bigotry have been around as long as dirt but now they’ve been promoted into a new realm of social acceptance that is truly disturbing.

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Insanity has become normality and it has happened so much in such a short period of time that a distinct sense of powerlessness has now enveloped the globe.  So with that in mind, one of the worst aspects of the current state of affairs is seeing no visible light at the end of the tunnel. Are we even in a tunnel? Or is it a drain? A drain pointed downwards into the depths of Hell? Because right now, there seems to be no end to the cycle of world events that leads us to believe rocking in the corner of a room while rage-crying might be a good career choice. We have no idea when it will end or at the very least, return to what we consider to be normal. What even is normal anymore? When will this lunacy be over? When as a society will we be able to finally shout “Goodnight, Future Boy!” and slam the door in Marty McFly’s face?

But let’s turn the clock back to 8th November 2016 again. Trump is elected as US President because of three things: 25% of America votes for him, 25% of America votes for Hillary and 50% of America chose not to vote at all. The world’s jaw drops to the floor. Everyone underestimated this gibbering, damaged man-child and now he’s got his finger on the button. Nobody is in a state to comprehend everyday life because nobody is talking about anything else.

Every conversation inevitably turned to Trump and how this could have happened. What do we do now? What could we have done differently? How badly will this affect everyone outside of America even though the rest of the world had no say in this catastrophe? What we took as normal is thrown out the window and we begin to contemplate just how crazy everything will become. The entire world has changed.

One week later, Watch Dogs 2 is released.

Two years after the nihilist revenge tale of Aiden Pearce, Ubisoft Montreal switched gears for the 2016 sequel. Rather than a monotone unlikable vigilante stalking the grey and brown streets of Chicago, Watch Dogs 2 focused on a small antagonist group who made only a brief appearance in the first game.

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Hacker group DedSec run their small but effective operation out of the basement of a tabletop games store in the Mission District of San Francisco. While in possession of almost the same tools as Pearce in Watch Dogs, DedSec’s youthful bravado comes packaged with way more flair, colour and downright fun. They also know exactly how they want to change the world and who they have to bring down in order to make it happen.

But before they can really get up and running, they need to recruit a new member. The player character comes in the form of charismatic young hacker Marcus Holloway who is fully aware what it’s like to be racially profiled by authority from an early age. He is recruited and after a successful break-and-enter to delete Marcus’ criminal history from official channels (all DedSec members must be digitally anonymous), they all get properly drunk on a beach. Marcus wakes up in a stranger’s house in Marin with a mean hangover and no clothes and his career in DedSec begins.

I played Watch Dogs 2 upon release in 2016 and enjoyed it but it never really stayed with me. In 2018, I recently started a new playthrough and after roughly 70 hours of the main game plus two DLC add-ons, I see no signs of stopping. Built upon a typical modern open-world framework, the story of DedSec tells an engaging and unique tale that parallels so much of how modern society right now functions. It does it in a way that resonates with my personal emotions and frustrations that few pieces of entertainment, let alone video games have ever approached. Written and shaped with several hidden layers of outrage, despair and celebratory elation, Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t assume the person playing is less intelligent than its creators.

A lot of big-budget games touch on surface-level themes and stop short before going any further. In service of gameplay mechanics or cool set-pieces, any storytelling momentum either gets lost or completely betrays the foundation it was laying in the first place. Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t seem to do this. The young kids (and one old man) of DedSec are focused on their goal and spend the entire game achieving it with storytelling and mission design that makes sense and remains consistent to who they are as human beings.

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However, nobody really talked about this at any length in 2016. When it was first released, Watch Dogs 2 was generally regarded as “better than the first one” and then ultimately forgotten. That’s a universal concept in video games I’ve been grappling with after putting dozens of hours back into this world. Watch Dogs 2 is essentially over. Two years out from release, its version of San Francisco still exists but everybody is basically done with it. It’s a universally accepted norm of video games in general but especially triple-A titles to simply move on to the next shiny thing.

Developers spend years making a living, breathing world bursting at the seams with the tiniest details that a lot of players will never even see. Once the initial release window comes to an end (regardless of downloadable content), a game like this is put up on the metaphorical shelf and added to the bookcase of history. In the case of Watch Dogs 2, I’ve come to realise this is a small tragedy since everything about it – from its story, characters and locations to the aesthetic designs and voice acting – works way better now than at the time of its release. Which is simply a result of the world around us giving it a new lease on life beyond its supposed expiry date.

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Everything about Watch Dogs 2 seems like it fell out of 2018, not 2016. Apart from a now-slightly-dated early mission about a selfish pharmacy millionaire purchasing the exclusive rights to a hip-hop album and keeping it all to himself, every mission that DedSec completes contains more emotional resonance now that we’re living in a Two-Years-Of-Trump world.

Thinly veiled mirror versions of real-world brands populate this virtual version of San Francisco. Nudle (Google), INViTE (Facebook/Twitter), Tidis (iRobot/Boston Dynamics), Haum (Alexa/Echo), Umeni (Blackwater), New Dawn (Scientology) Galilei (SpaceX) and Driver San Francisco (Uber) are all under the umbrella of Blume, the communications tech firm that owns and runs cTOS, the software responsible for control of much, if not all, of San Francisco tech infrastructure. Everything from security cameras and ATMS to personal webcams and devices can be accessed by cTOS and controlled by Blume. Sold as a ‘smart-city’, the citizens of San Francisco (and Chicago in the first game) bought into Blume’s marketing and as a result, sold off their privacy and personal lives without their knowledge.

DedSec’s ethos is to expose this corporate web of lies through mostly illegal but necessary means. With their youngest member at the age of 21, this youthful call-to-arms instills a sense of fresh hope that didn’t feel 100% necessary in 2016. Two years later, their passionate dedication to exposing injustice and dismantling corporately-funded overlords hits home with much more impact.

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This week, we learned that Facebook were silent since 2015 about an analytics firm harvesting their customer’s data and using it to influence the 2016 Presidential election and the UK Brexit vote. In the Watch Dogs 2 mission ‘Power To The Sheeple’, a corrupt congressman works together with Blume to use INViTE’s user data to influence votes.

In another mission entitled ‘Automata’, the vice-president of Nudle announces a ‘smart car’ that drives itself and is connected to cTOS. Dedsec then discover that the car uses biometrics to calculates a person’s ‘lifescore’ – which basically means if you get in an accident, data algorithms compile your race, gender, income and criminal background to determine if you’re worth saving. After reading about one of Uber’s autonomous vehicles killing a woman crossing the street, the possibilities of this technology become terrifyingly plausible.

Overall, the concept of a group of young people being fed up with widespread corruption and leading the charge to tear it apart can’t be ignored in this day and age.

At the forefront of DedSec are the characters. Throughout the course of the story, Marcus and the five other members of the gang grow into completely three-dimensional people with their own fears, hopes and dreams. Despite the occasional cringetastic conversations about nerd cred, their authentic desire to make the world a better place is what allows Watch Dogs 2 to strike its ultimate emotional blow.

Born to Indian parents, Sitara Dhawan funds the DedSec hackerspace and makes her art their official brand while Josh is the reserved but brilliant young coder who confesses that he is worried that if his Asperger’s ever went away, he wouldn’t like who he might become. Wrench wears a mask to hide his insecurities and as result, fans have taken his implied bisexuality and run with it in fan-fiction and artwork. Which leaves Marcus and Horatio, the only two black dudes in DedSec. Highlighted by Horatio’s day job at Nudle and the passive-aggressive racism he feels every time he goes to work, these two form an instant and legitimate bond right from the start.

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Every character begins to feel more believable the more time you spend with them. It helps that they are all incredibly charismatic. None more than Miranda Comay, a congresswoman who reported on the illegal activities of local cult New Dawn. She has no choice but to employ the help of her friends at DedSec when cult members released photos of her gender reassignment surgery to retaliate against her. Miranda’s relationship with Marcus is convincing and sometimes authentically hilarious. Being a transgender woman is simply part of who she is and never feels like a big neon sign around her neck. Every character in this world feels like someone you could meet in your city rather than a tired video game stereotype or caricature.

This naturalistic storytelling also gradually informs how the player moves about the world. In the past, these types of modern-day open-world sagas encourage the main character to murder without hesitation. While Watch Dogs 2 holds the same freedom (e.g. police wanted levels being the only punishment), the characters and purpose of DedSec transforms the act of random murder into something that rings extremely hollow. Killing someone while playing as Marcus felt incredibly incorrect and as such, I stuck religiously to my billiard-ball-on-a-rope melee weapon + stun gun combo. That said, there is a revenge mission that allows a window of rage and anger against a local gang and people certainly ended up dead on that particular afternoon.

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DedSec are the ideal spearhead a lot of people are looking for outside of the boundaries of a fictional story. Most groups of what can loosely be called ‘hacktivists’ in the real world turn out to be completely ineffectual or totally horrifying. Filled with racist bitcoin entrepreneurs or twisted deviants, any hint of a hacker gang that enters the news cycle typically end up causing more harm than good. DedSec however, is the dream scenario. They have the expertise and the tools to release sexist emails or incriminating videos and expose corrupt CEOs selling off their customer’s data until society is reset for everyone regardless of race, gender or social status.

As every day passes and every new breakthrough is made, DedSec continue to force corruption into the spotlight with a little bit of flair. Which in turn, gains them thousands of followers. Drawn in by their anti-fascist videos and manifestos, fans of DedSec are further seen throughout San Francisco wearing clothes emblazoned by their logo and art. Unlike the I’m-A-Very-Lonely-And-Angry-White-Man status that the Anonymous Guy Fawkes mask has now attained, the art and aesthetics of DedSec is perpetually exciting and original. Tagging the Golden Gate bridge in a multi-part side-mission did wonders for their social standing.

The non-stop satisfaction of Watch Dogs 2’s missions is something that just wasn’t entirely present at the time of its release. But now, it’s utterly compelling because the world has changed around the game. Life has now imitated art.

Watch Dogs 2 in 2018 shows that some big-budget games can hold value beyond when this industry deems them played out. DedSec’s crusade against injustice is told with an equal balance of confidence, swagger and credibility. It outlives its 2016 marketing in ways that nobody could have predicted and in 2018, it hits the exact emotional notes required to construct a completely memorable story of how the world could get torn down, rebuilt and be placed back on track.

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It’s just a shame DedSec only exist within this version of San Francisco and not in our own world. But with 2018’s trend of young people standing up against old traditions and making what feels like a real difference, perhaps time will tell. In the meantime, I’ll return to the DedSec hackerspace underneath that games store. There’s always more to do.