Watchdogs Legion: Can open world games realistically do messy real-world politics?

Watchdogs Legion, released on the PS4 in 2020, developed by Ubisoft

By Neil Merrett

“The London of Watchdogs Legion is truly a marvel of open world engineering and design – an anarchic playground for the player to hack and sabotage through in the name of liberty.  Yet the game is less satisfying as a form of interactive satire, especially when providing consequences for the difficult decisions it sometimes asks the player to make around technology and accountability….”

Even by the complicated and messy standards of London’s storied history, 2020 proved to a unique year for a city that has faced its fair share of challenges over the last few millennia.

The global chaos and disruption wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, not to mention several UK-wide lockdowns, saw some of the British capitals’ busiest streets and locations going almost empty for weeks, if not months at a time in order to try and limit the devastation of the virus.

Ultimately, over 150,000 people have died at the time of press as a result of the virus, according to official statistics.

For the majority of the UK populace then – at least those not required or forced to work the city’s streets to keep others sated and safe – the country’s capital was largely a no-go area for most of the year, with its pubs, restaurants and cultural venues of varying repute being shut.

As fate would have it, 2020 did give gamers the opportunity to explore a digital copy of Central London in Ubisoft’s cyber-hacker open world sequel, Watchdogs Legion.

The game allows players to skulk the rooftops, hover over the landmarks and joyride around the roads of the British capital.

Although not exactly a like-for-like replica of the real thing, the game provides a faithful enough recreation of the city. This is the case whether recreating the Queen’s house and opulent parks, its numerous train stations, as well as getting the basic feel of its emerging and more deprived boroughs which provide the setting to battle, sneak around and cause chaos in.

A little piece of home

This isn’t quite modern London as you know it, however.  Yes, it is possible to perform a daring drone-led raid on the Shard or engage in high-speed chases around Old Street and Aldgate and even Wapping with some level of photo-realism – but this is a near future London lurching towards a fascist police state. You can insert your own joke on that here.

Watchdogs Legion is a game that is seemingly intended to serve the dual purpose of functioning as photogenic form of virtual sightseeing and drone sim, while also being a kind of Orwellian satire on the subtle and not so subtle ways fascism can manifest itself over time.

It also attempts to consider the destabilising and disruptive role technology can play on a nation’s psyche for good and bad – all whilst letting the player recruit foul mouth grandmas and fashion them into dangerous cyber criminals/revolutionaries.

While the satire is often broad, it isn’t always a million miles from the dilemmas that real-world London, and many UK towns and cities, face in balancing progress with the betterment of civilisation.

You do not have to be a literal saint after all to question why a supposedly rich and civilised world city cannot do more to help those with nothing.

Some of the game’s more profound, engrossing and thought-provoking moments are often delivered most effectively in subtext and in longing for a city to go back to a more simple, feel good era that may never really have existed.

This is particularly true when tied to a player’s own real-life experiences with London. Someone familiar with the Capital and desperate for a reunion with their fave pre-pandemic hotspots will likely find those important ‘hidden gems’ and treasured places that define their relationship with their home town repurposed for the worse.

Building on the long-established approach taken by the Grand Theft Auto series, the game seeks to build a sense of place in part by also incorporating a variety of musical genres into the game. This is most often realised by tuning into a number of radio stations playing real world music and in-game talk shows whilst driving around in the game’s vehicles.

This is done by bringing together everything from fictional podcasts on the moral quandaries of technology and civic responsibility to musical stylings ranging from popular early 2000s pop rock acts such as Busted, to British punk legends such as Stiff Little Fingers and more modern London-centric sounds such as Grime music.

There is also the occasional use of unofficial national anthems such as the 1996 English football song, Three Lions. Its use in the game serves as an almost haunting elegy to a sense of national pride that, within the game’s world at least, has long since been tarnished by very different interpretations of nationalism, identity and belonging when compared to what the arguable intent of the song originally was.

Much like the song, a treasured real world location, restaurant or social hub that has long been loved by the player is often warped within the near future setting of the game.

These landmarks to the player’s personal triumphs, tragedies – or even just an amazing breakfast – can suddenly be transformed into a torture centre, drug lab, or maybe something even worse. 

Liberating these personal landmarks in the game from monstrous gang members or a megalomaniacal military contractor is morally the right thing to do. But it also also lets the player indulge a nostalgic whim to bring back the places and things they once loved as an ode to a simpler time.

The core mechanics of the game are built on sabotaging a patently unjust and fascistic power structure that has taken over London in the name of safety and security.  You must ultimately bring down five ‘evils’ that are corrupting London and thankfully this can be a lot of fun.

Classic gameplay tropes such as upgradable superpowers are instead represented by gaining new hacking or combat skills to help the player wage their guerrilla war against the military contractors and corrupt and complacent officials now running the in-game London.

It is as a fairly faithful, if condensed down version of London that stretches from Brixton to Camden and is beautifully programmed and designed by an army of developers. 

AI politics

Watchdogs Legion’s politics is perhaps less convincingly built into the game’s programming though.  For your opponents are almost always unquestionably in the wrong – with state institutions having been tainted by a ‘few bad apples’ rather than being systematically unfit for purpose.

London’s Met Police have almost entirely abandoned their posts, with the remaining organisation being ran in name only as an extension of a private military group with a few good apples left trying to fight the good fight from the outside.

Digital London, with its skyscrapers, palatial gardens and repurposed industrial warehouses and shopping precincts, is essentially a giant playground to refine your hacking skills and enjoy some principled criminality in. It is a nice setting to speed around in while listening to some classic British punk track or R&B banger on the in-game radio, or to sabotage remotely from the safety of the skies.

Coding satire

Like any good satire, large parts of Watchdogs Legion’s game world and narrative have direct parallels in the very real world we live – sometimes painfully so.  There is a public forced to get its head around weaponised information and dis-information and determine how best to live their lives around it.

There is rampant homelessness as huge swathes of usable houses lay empty due to unaffordable rents that are exacerbated by the use of the market for widespread offshore money laundering. Elsewhere in the game, desperate people willingly and unwillingly agree to varying forms of modern slavery for some shot of a life for their families and loved ones.

Many of these themes have been explored in videogames for the last decade – if not always very successfully. They’re particularly pertinent in a range of ambitious cyberpunk titles such as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided or more recently, Cyberpunk 2077.

For all the escapist pleasure of turning security systems against the brutal overlords who devise them – Watchdogs Legion – like many of these cyberpunk titles, can still only offer simplified and brunt force solutions to the complex and conflicting urges we have as a society.

In building a satisfying gameplay loop of risk and reward, Ubisoft’s solutions to London’s problem are far simpler and more satisfying conclusive – at least in the short-term – than any likely resolution we have in the real world for society’s ills.

Should the public be in the thrall of a power-mad private military company, then uncovering footage of their abduction of a pioneering journalist and exposing them to the press will bring them down. If a shadowy intelligence agent is manipulating public sentiment against you, simply break in and hack MI5’s servers on the Southbank after engaging in a protracted shoot out and drone battle.

The chance to be a morally righteous agent of chaos in the highly ordered open world that Watchdogs Legion has built is almost like being in a superhero game where the player uses their superpowers to punish an army of cartoonish bad guys.

Among one of the game’s more amusing pieces of satire for instance, is the ability to take over and weaponise ubiquitous airborne delivery drones for your own advantage and amusement.

You can become a kind of Fed-Ed Robin Hood by precisely lining up a parcel drop directly on an enforcement solider as they are attempting to harass one of the ‘good people’ of London.

Later in the game, the player can build entire strategies around making use of counter terrorism drones on London’s streets to take their war directly into the barracks, bunkers and boxparks of your enemies.

Playing real world Watchdogs

But this satire only works part way. Because the central conceit of the game; the idea that only right minded liberators can undermine and turn disruptive technology against institutions and people is a charming, if naïve fantasy in our current age. In reality, there is not just one single morally upstanding player using our current technological marvels to meet their own ends. There are many individuals playing Watchdogs in the real world, all with their own views on what is right for them or ‘us’ as a city and society.

Any one of these players with the money, means or even just an influential social media presence, can use or undermine our technological infrastructure and civic institutions to their own ends.

Whether via engaging in cronyism and corruption or questionable ‘lobbying’, creating opaquely funded new media organisations or sometimes just frothing up an online mob under the pretence of a moral panic – there are lots of so-called watchdogs in modern life.

For all its charm and playability, the game has arguably more in common with a game such as Goat Simulator than it does with 1984. You are more an agent of anarchy, free to sabotage and disrupt organisations any way you see fit than a driver of substantive social change.  

Ideally, this disruption will often involve hovering high above your opponents, while safe from their view and retribution on a hijacked cargo drone and using hacked security cameras to perfectly time a trap or drone assault.  The more that you play – the more sophisticated the hacking and sabotage skills that a player can unlock and the less the player has to get their hands dirty on the ground.

Should the player have the right abilities for instance – they might decide to hack and turn the automatic vehicles of Bethnal Green Police Station against its corrupt and compromised occupants.  You can literally rain down justice on your enemies from the sky, safe via the magic of sci-fi technology.

It is an experience akin to being the kid out of the movie Home Alone, only with remote control machine guns and an entire city infrastructure to hurl at the ‘bad guys’.

A less satisfying element of the gameplay, however is when the developers take the player out of this exploitable open world for the sake of set piece showdowns.

In these forced confrontations, the player is often shorn of their technological support they have been encouraged to exploit for the majority of the game.

Instead they are forced to play through restricted and linear shooting sections that are probably a much more realistic about how we find ourselves having to navigate modern life. This to say that they evoke that sense of stumbling into the same old obvious traps with little choice other than to play by the rules of a game that is already unfairly stacked against you.

Forced into these shoot outs and trying to find cover whilst bringing down a seemingly endless number of technologically enhanced soldiers – the game’s escapism is suddenly lost for some small, but important sections of the later parts of the game.

It is initially amusing that one of the latter campaigns effectively involves having to out shoot an in-game surrogate for right wing politician Nigel Farage who has bunkered down in the Tower of London in a cumbersome and stationery mech suit after being exposed as a fraud and charlatan.

But after finding some kind of strategy to grind out the battle, you eventually get to shoot this fictional tin-pot tyrant in the head and his presence in the game is mercifully over. These often-simplified goals of the game and their binary outcomes of success or failure unfortunately run at odds with the more complex satire and open world that Ubisoft has worked hard to try and create.

By contrast, Watchdogs Legion excels both as a game and an interactive story when picking at the complexities of our modern life and the more nuanced moral quandaries we face.

Upon defeating and confronting one particularly unpleasant and powerful gang boss and slave lord – the player is forced to face the likelihood that she will ultimately escape justice via protracted legal wrangling.

Would it not be ‘fairer’ to therefore let her now freed victims decide her fate?  In this case, the option is not for the player to take, and justice is delivered with blunt weapons in a somewhat bleak but powerful end to a specific chapter. Free of the responsibility for bringing down a monster, the player is free to continue their righteous campaign. The game decides, in this case, on the right form of compromised justice and the player has to frame it within their own heroic narrative.

However, the central dilemma is an example of the more interesting moral quandaries that the game occasionally flirts with.

Likewise, another focus of the story is a tech visionary that has performed monstrous experiments on strangers and loved ones to realise her own dream of building an all-powerful AI that can effectively run a modern city.

At a later point in the game, the character seeks to make herself part of that very system she has built on the minds and lives of many others in order to control the machinery and systems that sustains London. She was a terrible human, but does that make her a bad AI?

In a rare moment of leaning into harder science fiction, a player – appalled by the character’s crimes – is given the choice over whether to allow them to realise their dream of being the mind of an efficient, automated smart city. They can alternatively shut down the system and rely instead on fallible humans to keep running an imperfect city, leading to her brain turning to mush as she begs for her consciousness to be spared.

It’s another visceral and affecting moment in the game as it doesn’t seemingly offer the player a particularly obvious and easy answer as to whether to let a dangerously misguided character have a second shot at life that could equally benefit society as much as hinder it.

Even in this case however, there is very little consequence for the difficult choice a player is asked to make.

Letting the brain die is technically the correct option to take within the narrative of the game. The other option of allowing the character to upload their consciousness and have untold oversight of an entire city doesn’t ultimately force the player to face any difficulties for showing possibly misguided mercy.

Other characters also quickly forgive the player after a few minutes of lambasting them for their actions.

Politics in an open world game

Strangely, humanity is the one thing missing from this technical marvel of a digital London.

Yes, there are people and citizens everyone on the streets and in its buildings.  Yet too often they are a passive voice in the player’s battle for the soul of London.

In reality, the quest for a fairer, safer and better city is really a battle for hearts and mind – one that London’s people must have a deciding role in realising.  Many of the game’s challenges are shared in our own real world struggles concerning issues of liberty, justice and the value of a human life.

But short of being able to recruit two dozen or so of these citizens and use their unique skills – such as a career as a human statue – for justice, the game focuses very little on the complex needs of these citizens and what responsibility they have for what happens to London.

Did these digital citizens originally vote in this quasi-fascist police state?  Do they regret seeing landmarks turned into garish displays of propaganda and persecution and what do they think of the often-brutal methods used by the player to bring down its police force, drug lords and tech moguls? Just how many of these citizens believe that the ends justify the means or question who the game’s villains actually are.

Your eventual liberation of numerous London boroughs is seemingly welcomed and reflected in a populace more ready to engage in street battles alongside the player. But surely not everyone shares the player’s belief.

By the game’s end, when London has been partially liberated from the various evils that have blighted it, its citizens continue to prowl the streets passively unaffected by the violence and moral quandaries that face them.  No one is tweeting outrage, baseless conspiracy or pining for the stability of a fascistic security force that seemingly supports their broader interests.

In short, the heroes have slayed the dragon and freed the princess, or at least let her bludgeon her morally reprehensible captor to death.

Liberating the world of Watchdogs Legions is a lot fun and perhaps it’s unfair to expect anything more of an already technically sophisticated open world.

But as we move into the next generation of games platforms and open world design, it will be interesting to see what scope there is for NPCs and a world that forces a player to face the consequences of their actions in more nuanced and complex ways.

What ultimately is a realistic open world without the politics and messy complications and conflicts of its citizens?

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