Watch Dogs: stuck in the unfunny valley
Open-world games are often better when they lighten up.
Like many people - judging by Ubisoft's declaration of record day-one sales - I have spent the last few days driving around Watch Dogs' next-gen vision of Chicago, raising and lowering bollards and searching in vain for something to wear that doesn't make me look like Neo in chunky knit. I've had some fun but, as is often the case, I think the things I've most enjoyed have been the incidental details. No, not Aiden Pearce's "iconic cap", but things like the billboard signs hacked to show internet memes, or the snatches of stolen SMS traffic thrown up by Aiden's profiler. "I'm doing vaginas tonight... Oh crap! Fajitas! Fajitas!"
Funnily enough, I stumbled on that autocorrect-inspired gem while browsing Reddit on my phone during one of the game's many soporific cut-scenes. And the very fact that I'm still regularly looking away from blockbuster games at moments like these got me wondering: why are the things I find most memorable in open-world games often stuffed into the margins?
Watch Dogs isn't the first AAA game where the cut-scenes suggest the characters' clothes have had more time invested in them than the flaccid dialogue, of course, but this phenomenon of looking away during story bits is something I tend to notice more in open-world games, and I think it starts with the fact most of them are so enormous and expensively assembled. As a result, they often think it's important to play things straight in order to be taken seriously, when in fact the outcome is often that they are not taken seriously at all - or worse, that they fail to hold the player's attention.
"Watch Dogs typifies this breed of open-world game that refuses to be in on its own joke."
Open-world games are fun because they feel unbounded, and because broad systems are free to clash in ways that create a more convincing facsimile of real worlds, but as a result they can't contain all the variables, and so funny or contradictory things just have to happen. This makes them inherently absurd, but the open-world games I recall when I need help falling asleep all have one thing in common, which is that the more they try to gloss over this fact by injecting drama or gravity, the more they draw attention to it. Like the way Aiden Pearce is a vigilante who craves justice so much that he has to run over 15 civilians on the way to preventing every crime. Or the way he walks around in a serious world, angry that people are getting away with murder, while his phone tells him that everyone he walks past is a disgraced lion-tamer or a frustrated amateur proctologist.
Watch Dogs typifies this breed of open-world game that refuses to be in on its own joke, and it makes it hard to summon any great affection for them. When Aiden first meets Clara Lille, for example, it could so easily have been played for laughs. The grizzled vigilante discovers that his hardcore secret contact is a teenage girl. "Aren't you a little young to be out without your parents?" "They don't mind - they just watch me on the hacked cameras. So hey, why are you dressed like you just walked out of a sex shop in a Gap advert?" We could have emerged from that scene brimming with affection for two people we're probably going to have in our ear for the next 20 hours, but of course the situation is far too grave, so instead we get an adolescent standoff where both parties try to look cool by displaying as little basic humanity as possible. Come on, guys. Even Schindler's List had moments of levity.
Open-world games have often struggled to reconcile the absurdity and extremism of players' actions with their desire to be taken seriously, but it doesn't have to be that way, and it surprises me that this is lost on Ubisoft, because surely one of the main reasons people started liking Assassin's Creed was that they got rid of Altair and introduced Ezio Auditore, a main character with a sense of humour. The widespread preference for Black Flag over Assassin's Creed 3 was similar: who wants po-faced Revolutionary America when you can clown around as a pirate?
If Watch Dogs is to return - and I hope it does, because I will inevitably think of more jokes about Aiden's stupid coat and it would be good to have another excuse to use them - then I think the single best thing it could do to win people over would be to take itself less seriously. Not all the time, but just enough to bridge the unfunny valley it seems desperate to fall into. Look to examples like Crackdown, a tremendously coherent open-world game with a lively personality, where the only recognisable character is a disembodied voice in a tower throwing out one-liners. Or even Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes, the pinnacle to date of a series that has always understood the value of self-deprecation in helping people to look past naivety, limitations and contradictions.
Get Aiden to lift up his iconic cap and throw us a wink every now and then. The funny thing about the silly pedestrian descriptions and the billboards that say HERP DERP HERP DERP isn't just the content - it's that they are authentic moments of human connection within this insanely vast feat of art and engineering. At the moment they are relegated to the margins, and so I find myself looking away. But a Watch Dogs game that knows you can't drive straight and that you do stupid things most of the time you play it? Well, now that really would be something.