17 Interviews

Can Watch Dogs make you care about NPCs?

By Nick Cowen on Thursday 6th Mar 2014 at 5:00 PM UTC

Ubisoft has finally settled on a new Watch Dogs release date. the publisher's tech-noir thriller in which players wield the power of a demigod with a smartphone is now set for release on May 27.

During its overstretched PR campaign, Ubisoft has shown off the game extensively, allowing us to learn about its mechanics, its structure and its paranoia-inducing atmosphere.

But one of the most striking elements of Watch Dogs' design has so far gone largely unmentioned; how its core mechanic is aiming to seep searingly human depth into its non-player characters - and make you think twice before shooting them down like empty AI drones.

Every NPC profile in Watch Dogs is unique and Ubisoft hopes this meticulous attention to detail will prompt different reactions from players.

With the touch of a button you can hack a civilian's phone and help yourself to their bank account. Pay more attention though and you might discover an SMS chain in which your victim worries about his finances. Did you just steal the last of his cash? Are you putting this guy out in the street?

It's the first time in an open-world game where we've actually felt some sense of self-reproach for our treatment of the NPCs in our vicinity. Sure, we know deep down these are pixels and code, but the way they're presented makes them resonate as individuals.

Ahead of the release date announcement, we were offered the chance to sit down with Watch Dog's lead writer Kevin Shortt to discuss the game's unique approach to narrative.


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Kevin Shortt, lead writer on Watch Dogs

While Watch Dogs looks very impressive, Ubisoft Montreal has released very few details concerning the game's plot. How much can you tell us about it?

It's a story about a guy named Aiden Pearce who is a hacker and a vigilante who made some mistakes in the past. He started off as a thief who was on a job that went bad. People came after him, and in trying to get to Pearce, they killed his niece.

So when we meet him he's on a quest for vengeance. He's consumed by guilt but he needs to know who was responsible for killing his loved one. To do that he needs to infiltrate cTOS - the City's Central Operating System - and use it find out who attacked his family. While he's digging into cTOS, he starts uncovering secrets that paint a bigger picture of events than he knew.

Watch Dogs starts off as a personal journey; Pearce is very self-focused at the beginning, but gradually he undergoes an evolution. He realizes there's more to the sequence of events in his life than just him. He has more to look at beyond himself.

How did the story grow? Was it an organic part of the game's conceptual process, or were you brought in at a later date to provide a narrative backdrop to what had already been designed?

We started at the core idea. We knew we wanted to set the game in a city the player could control to some degree. You can hack into it and use it as a weapon or a tool. That was the fantasy we wanted because we knew it would be an amazing playground for players.

From that point, the writers, the designers and the producers started planning where we wanted to take the main adventure. So we worked on the story while at the same time working out how gameplay would fit into the narrative. Once we had the story, we were able to get into the specifics of level design and mission design and general flow.

It's the first time I'd done that on a game - working so closely with the design team. I've worked on games where I've been brought on later - sometimes too late - but this was a new experience for me to join the designers as early as I did. I think it helped a lot!

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As a writer on Watch Dogs you're tasked with making a hacker believable as an action hero. How do you go about that?

Well, Pearce's story is that he grew up in the poorer suburbs of Chicago and since his father ran out on him, he felt he had to become the man of the family early. That meant having to toughen up quickly in his environment. He started out in gangs - he ran with a tough crowd - but as technology developed as he was growing up he realised that hacking was just another means to better his situation. It became an addition to his pool of streetsmarts.

Hacking is something Aiden grew into. He knew how to handle himself on the streets and hacking just became another skill-set.

Ubisoft puts a lot of emphasis on importance on detail - you see it in the hardware that has its essence in real-world prototyping in Ghost Recon and the historical accuracy of the environments in the Assassin's Creed games. What sort of research did you have to conduct to ensure Pearce felt authentic?

We wanted to make sure we weren't turning Aiden into an emulation of any of the hackers we met [in researching the character]. What we realised very early on was that hackers are very unique. They have very different personalities. There's the one idea that society has of 'a hacker', which is some guy in a hoodie hunched over a laptop in some basement, but then there's the reality, which is very different to that.

Their personalities aren't tropes, they're kind of all over the place. So we didn't feel bound to emulate [anyone we'd met in that community]. We found we could be just be true to Aiden; he's a guy who feels guilt, he's protecting his family. He's someone you can identify with. He's actually a pretty likable guy. At times he's doing some pretty questionable things, but he connects with people.

He has a strong moral code. When you meet him and you get a sense of his personality you realise he's a good man. He's not just this guy who hacks from a distance.

Some of his methods are questionable - that's part of the process he has to go through, he has to work out how far he's going and whether or not he's going too far to get what he wants. But he has a strong moral code. That's why he questions if he's going too far to get what he wants. Because what he wants at the start of the game is just so singular. He just wants revenge. That's it!

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Is that why you provide all the NPCs with their own mini-backstories? To pinprick the player's conscience? The power you give them in Watch Dogs is so potent and they can just use to cause endless chaos. Are you trying to steer them away from that with Pearce's narrative?

Well I hope so. Look, we always want to make sure that the player has the freedom to do what they want. We're not telling the player 'hey! Should you really be doing that?' We're not trying to cage them. That's not what Watch Dogs is.

But we're hoping they realise how potent the powers we give them are. They can take really personal details from someone's life from their phone really easily. Hopefully that gives them pause for thought about the availability of their own data - and what someone else could use it for.

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The purpose of The Profiler function (that allows Aiden to steal data at will) was that we wanted to give our NPCs personalities - beyond being just figures the player bumps into. Every one of those profiles is unique - because they're all on a huge database - and the hope here is to prompt different reactions from the player.

For example, you'd learn one NPC has Bi-Polar Disorder and that may influence how you act towards them.

I don't think I've actually cared so much about NPCs in any other open world game.

That's it! You learn that your power has consequences for other people. You can affect a lot of people. The more we can make those characters feel more than pixels, the better.

In open-world games, NPCs are just obstacles or background noise. They're not real. In a way that's pretty similar to the attitude demonstrated by a lot of hackers. Would you say then, that this is the game every hacker should play?

(Laughs) I would! I would say this is the game every hacker should play! I'm curious about what hackers will think of the game, actually. Hackers are very exact - when they see something in entertainment based in their culture, they dig into whether or not it's authentic. The hackers we've spoken with have told us they're not expecting Watch Dogs to be exact. They know it's a game. But the response from them has been good - and I'm interested to see what the community at large thinks of it.

And now it's locked and loaded for release!

Yeah! That's great! When we delayed we felt that the game was nearing completion, but we needed to make sure we were delivering the game we had in mind. We couldn't compromise. It's great that Ubisoft gave us the time to do that.

I'm excited for the game to get out there. I'm really proud of it and I'm confident in what we've put together.

And now a bunch of hackers know who you are!

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Yeah, but that's okay! I have the most complex passwords you could imagine.

Don't say stuff like that.

Oh my God! You're right! I didn't think of that! Now there's a bunch of people going 'Oh, really? We'll see about that!' Oh God! That's the first time I thought about that! I'm not issuing a challenge, I'm really not!

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