Random Loot is a new series in which I get to focus on one particular game, movie or even comic, be it relatively old or quite new, and then ramble about it, often going off-course in the process or using it to make a point about something else entirely. This series is far less critical than my reviews or even standard opinion pieces. I’m less concerned with being entirely fair, and more with just presenting my personal views or ideas in a quick, easy format. You’ve been warned.
Writing these Random Loot articles at some forsaken time in the morning seems to be becoming a worrying habit of mine, one often fuelled by copious amounts of Haribo and Pepsi. This time I’ve just finished off another session on Watch Dogs in order to try to get the review out soon, since review code didn’t arrive until launch day and it’s a sizable title. It might seem strange to focus this piece on a game I’m away to write about anyway, but there’s some things that I wanted to talk about that would simply take up too much space in a review, and would probably not be relevant anyway. That topic is morality, or more specifically the lack of tools to do good within Watch Dogs.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to focus on the obvious big moral questions that something like Watch Dogs can and does raise, like the concept of a city where privacy is non-existent – a worrying look at where we’re already heading – or of a main character who does some pretty bad things, steals and is comfortable with hacking and invading the privacy of others. These questions along with the broad topic of morality in videogames could only be tackled in a mammoth article and I’m far from skilled enough to even comprehend taking something like that on. No, I’m going to focus on a few smaller concepts that are far easier to talk about.
The things I wanted to say here have been drifting through my mind since starting to play Watch Dogs, but it was a single moment that brought them into sharper focus and made me decide to sit behind the keyboard. Here I was in a quiet suburb, hacking into somebody’s house in order to spy on them. There’s a whole host of morality questions that this action alone raises, but that’s not the point I’m going for. As hacker Aiden Pearce this is pretty much par for the course and I’ve already seen some pretty weird stuff while invading other people’s privacy. The citizens of Watch Dog’s world are a strange, strange bunch.
But this time I hacked into an apartment and was greeted with a phone lying on the floor and a man nearby, also lying on the floor, either unconscious or dead. At a glance I wondered if I was witnessing the aftermath of a murder. I hacked into the phone, and sat transfixed, listening to a voicemail from the man’s son, talking about how the kids have already picked out Christmas presents for their granddad. The son is obviously worried about his father, and offers to come pick him up and take him home with him. The son quietly speaks into the phone, saying that he knows his father thinks he’s a bother, but he isn’t, and never has been. The son finishes by saying he’ll be round after work to pick him up, the worry cracking his voice just a little. Why isn’t his father answering his calls?
Because he’s lying on the floor. I can see him. My initial assumption was wrong – this doesn’t look like murder. There’s no blood, and no signs of any struggle. No, the most likely answer is simpler: a heart-attack, or possibly a stroke. It’s a thought that terrifies me since just a few years ago my own dad had a massive heart-attack, deadly enough that the ambulance crew lost him, and brought him back mid-journey.
Back to the topic at hand, though. The unconscious/dead man is fully dressed, and outside it’s the middle of the day, probably around noon. Furthermore his son clearly has not been round yet. From those simple clues I can therefore say that it’s fairly likely the heart-attack was recent, although it is possible that the man has been lying there for days. Still, there’s a chance I can save him, a chance to use my illegal spying activities to do just a little bit of good. A simple phonecall could get an ambulance here fast, and potentially safe this man’s life, giving him his christmas back and his son a father and his grandchildren a grandfather . Aiden Pearce is clearly not a good guy, but nor is he a completely heartless murderer. Given the way he’s written in the primary storyline missions he would be more than willing to help the possibly dying man, and as a sandbox game it surely makes sense to allow the player to make a choice here, to help define who Aiden is.
But the game instead chooses to leave you powerless, to leave you staring at the screen until you decide to press the quit button and get back to whatever you were doing. This is hardly the only example of the game’s lopsided morality. At your disposal are a variety of tools with which you can ruin lives. You can quietly siphon money from those who can afford to lose nothing, steal cars, shoot people with relative impunity, cause massive traffic accidents, commit vehicular manslaughter, blow up steam pipes, invade people’s privacy, cause cars to slam into metal blockers, black-out entire blocks and much, much more. And yet when you come across a homeless man suffering, you can’t give him the very money you just stole from a rich asshole? You cannot choose to become a modern-day Robin Hood by robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. You can’t give a beggar money, or help somebody in need by changing a few digital documents. You cannot choose to balance out your many questionable acts with a small degree of charity. In a game driven by hacking there’s missed potential to influence people’s lives not just in a bad way, but also a good way. There’s the potential to do good through a morally questionable act, and through that add another layer of morality that players can, if they so choose, consider.
Of course one would not be wrong to point out how you can intervene in crimes to save people, but that’s the game doing something very deliberate, rather than a piece of gameplay stemming from the sandbox mechanics. In a game that gifts you so many ways to cause mayhem and do bad, I find it oddly disappointing that there’s none for doing good past specific “crimes” The game is unquestionably at its most fun when you’re causing rampant mayhem, and the developers don’t skimp when it comes to ways of doing just that, but I would have greatly appreciated some ways to use hacking to do some good, however small. Let me choose to transfer money from a rich jerk’s account in order to pay off a woman’s debts or help a guy try to get out of a tough life by going to college.
Having said this, there are little touches of morality that I do enjoy, always handled in the heavy-handed manner I’ve come to expect of videogames but appreciated nonetheless. The constant stream of meta-date that the profiler provides creates a world with just a touch more depth than what we normally get to see, and if you’re willing to let yourself become immersed in the game and sink into the role then this can be used to make your experience a little more interesting. The stream of data can be used to help you decide who’ll you’ll be willing to hack out on the street. If you’re playing a hardcore Pearce then anyone is fair game, but if you’re aiming for a more likable Aiden then only stealing from those that can afford it or even not stealing at all is an option. It also makes the random act of murder feel…bad. In games like GTA and Saints Row mowing down civilians is no big deal, but here it’s just a bit harder, because for a brief second that little piece of text affects how you view the world.
But where I really allow the profiler to affect my gameplay is during gang hideouts. Occasionally my phone will inform me that a potential target is attempting to go through college or something of that ilk, and suddenly I feel the need to stop and briefly weigh up the options. Had this been any other game I would not have hesitated to just shot him, or take him out in a non-lethal fashion, not because of a morality reason but just because it offers better rewards or suits a set playstyle. Here this single little piece of text has sparked a little piece of emotion in me. What if this guy is trying to get out of the gang life? What if he’s trying to get through college and leave it all behind? S0 I knock his ass out or simply don’t touch him. The other guy across the yard, though, the one that did something terrible recently? Yeah, he’s screwed.
Likewise when I’m invading a CtOS tower I tend to leave the guards alone or merely knocked out because they’re just guys doing a job in order to pay the bills and feed the family. But there are rare instances when the profiler illuminates someone who has done, or been doing, something bad, such as weapons smuggling. In these instances there’s the immediate urge to dispense justice like the Punisher, but again I deliberately try to bring myself into the situation and actually consider it, to allow myself to become more involved. Sure, this person in question did something bad, perhaps even terrible, but does that warrant killing him? After all, as Aiden Pearce I’m hardly an angel. Yet only knocking him out means letting him get away with the crime, since as a guard for a completely legitimate business the cops won’t be checking him out. It’s also worth considering that while the profilers seemingly lets us learn intimate details about any given person, it’s really just a tiny piece of text given without any context. Maybe he did smuggle weapons or did something else, but how long ago was it? And has he or she spent their lifetime attempting to make up for that action? Suddenly I’m contemplating the morality of the situation, something which few games make me do. More impressively, because the heavy-hand of the developer isn’t in play, it feels like a more organic, real situation with no very clear-cut answer. It all comes down to the role I’m playing, and how he would handle the situation. Is dispensing justice via a gun really justice? Or is it just murder?
This small glimpse that the profiler allows us essentially replicates the very thing we do when walking down the street: our mind profiles and labels people at a subconscious level, making quick judgements based on clothing and mannerisms. Even people who pride themselves on not putting others in easily labeled boxes do this, as it’s an inbuilt survival mechanism, a method of quickly sizing up potential dangers from other humans.
In some ways Watch Dogs takes important steps toward portraying concepts like morality in videogames through the use of its profiler, and yet in others is stuck in the past, choosing to once again display your leanings on a simple black and white scale. Listening into that son’s voicemail made me wish that developers would give players freedom within a sandbox to do some good as well. We don’t need to become caught up in a vast debate over morality, what it means and how it should be used within the context of a videogame, it just needs a few little tweaks here and there to make a better game, and then from there a couple more, and then from there…who knows. Morality doesn’t need to be the centre of the game, what it needs is to stop being portrayed as a slider with black and white ends and become more natural in how it’s implemented, like using your illegal skills to save a man’s life. Like using the very human idea of morality to create emergent gameplay that stays with the player.