Story is, to my immense joy, increasingly becoming one of the defining factors in quality video games. If a game wants to be considered great it must have a story that is, at worst, coherent and at best the foundation upon which the game is built. Heavy Rain, Spec Ops the Line, The Wolf Among Us, just a small selection of great games that have story at their core and are paving the way for games of the future. The best games are those that can strike the elusive balance between story and gameplay. Ubisoft’s latest blockbuster, Watchdogs, tries and fails to do this.
It is really a great shame that Ubisoft bothered to attempt to fashion a proper storyline for Watchdogs. This is a game with excellent mechanics, a plethora of content and fantastic quality of execution that would have sat nicely around a clichéd and ignorable nothing of a story. But great games need a story, and Ubisoft wanted to make a great game, so a story has been forced in where it doesn’t belong. Completing the campaign missions of Watchdogs was, for me, a slog and it is only on reflection that I can recognise the many things I enjoyed about playing the game. As I worked my way through Aiden Pearce’s tale of retribution and soul searching I increasingly hated the man under my control. He is selfish, immoral, cruel, reckless and, despite his many statements to the contrary, appears to feel no remorse for the chaos he causes. As Pearce a player will commit crimes from privacy invasion all the way to murder with Pearce reassuring himself of the necessity of these actions to further his mission for justice.The creators desperately want you to care about him too. The crux of Aiden’s moaning is that his niece was killed by an attacker who was sent to kill Aiden. The game bombards you with reminders of this, including areas on the map where you can trigger chunks of Aiden’s memory on the subject, and one “mission” where you are tasked with getting to the cemetery so Aiden can look sad and his sister can comfort him. It is all boring and pointless and it in no way makes you feel sorry for the protagonist as I believe is the intention. Fun as his hacking powers are to wield the fact remains that I hate Aiden Pearce, he is a dick and I have spent a lot of time with him (which perhaps says something about me).
The problem with the growth of story driven games was never better illustrated than here. Watchdogs is so close to being a good game, so close that I genuinely believe I could write a story that would better suit it. I’m not claiming that I can write an excellent video game script, on the contrary, my point is that I can’t, but Watchdogs doesn’t need one. Had Aiden Pearce been nothing more than a vigilante (a title that he is given in Watchdogs, regardless of the ratio of crimes stopped to crimes perpetrated), a man using his abilities to fight crime in a city where corruption prevents crime from being fought, Ubisoft would have had a really nice game on their hands. In fact, some of the best parts of Watchdogs are when you have no agenda other than fighting for justice. Having completed the story I find the game much more enjoyable as I can freely pursue the side missions without the gloomy shadow of Aiden’s background hanging over me.
There are also problems with the story that go beyond the writing. The way that aspects of the tale have been portrayed sometimes borders on the comical. At one point Aiden is blackmailing a gang member (yes blackmail is also on his moral fails list) and he ends a phone conversation with: “We’ll talk soon”, presumably to intimidate the target but then proceeds to immediately call him back which, to Aiden’s credit, at least suggests he’s never blackmailed anyone before.
At the very end of the story (after some of the credits have rolled in fact) you are given a kill-or-let-live scenario. In other games I have played, such a scenario causes genuine questioning of what to do. Usually the target has done something bad but the player has been through some serious shit and is questioning their morals and the morals of the characters by the end. In Watchdogs, however, I had no doubt what so ever that a real Aiden Pearce would redecorate the room with brains and not lose a wink of sleep over the extinguished life before him. I honestly think that any video game can be enhanced by a well written and well implemented story, but that doesn’t mean that one is necessary for a game to be good. At some point in Watchdog’s development a brave soul should have raised their hand and said that maybe a rewrite was needed, maybe the player doesn’t have to empathise with the protagonist, maybe he doesn’t need this weird hypocritical story. Sadly, what we have is a game with many excellent qualities that are overshadowed by an appalling story that I highly doubt anyone has found interesting or engaging. If nothing else, Watchdogs has shown us that, while a storyline can push a game to greatness it also has the capacity to pull it into mediocrity.