When I play video games, I like to be fully immersed. I want to get so caught up in the game that for a brief moment in time, I forget about everything else in my life. I forget about work, I forget about stalking people on Saturdays, I forget about blogging (harder than it sounds, because I am usually reviewing what I am playing at the time). In that fleeting period of time, there is nothing else but the game I am playing. It takes a really good game to achieve that status, especially for people with busy lives. However, if the game fails in making me connect with the character, story or universe at all, then I usually don’t have the patience to play through it. Thankfully games are getting better at this side of the industry these days and I rarely fail to be pleased at the gaming material I am given. My favourite game for immersion is the Batman Arkham games, because if you can make me feel so immersed in a game, I think I am Batman, then you have instantly become the perfect product. However, my latest game did one better. Watch Dogs made me become the tragic anti-hero than I always wanted Arkham to make me feel like.
For those of you that aren’t familiar with Watch Dogs, let me walk you through the relevant information for this article. The lead hero in this game is Aiden Pearce, a hacker who can unlock most of the city from his smartphone. Most of the hype generated from this game comes from that new layer of gameplay. During and, more importantly, between missions, you can use your phone to do pretty much anything. You control the traffic lights, electronic locks, ATMs. You can even scan anyone’s mobile to get as much information as you want on the random civilian walking by you right now. Aiden, for better or worse, likes to think of himself as a good guy. He does take on the government a lot, but only because they are depicted as villains. He also faces a dangerous mob boss and keeps the city free from other unsavoury figures. Whenever you like, you can search for the nearest mugging and stop it. If you forgive my misplaced arrogance in sharing the hero’s intelligence, Aiden and the player are the similar. We are all normal guys, who want to help a crime-ridden city. Watch Dogs simply gives us the tools to do that.
The moment I realised I had become a vigilante, was when I began judging the civilian figures in the city. I was driving to a mission, not really in any particular hurry to get there. My smartphone told me that I had the opportunity to remotely blow up a nearby electronic circuit. I lazily glanced over to it and, to my glee, saw a man, having a cigarette, right in the vicinity of the explosive. The gamer in me, fresh from Grand Theft Auto, only wanted to blow him up. The game handed me the perfect kill, untraceable to the nearby cops, and was demanding that I take advantage of it. However, I did not want to be that person. I had already destroyed a gang from the inside and had prevented several assassination attempts. My database was telling me that my character was beginning to be noticed as a hero in the city. Murdering random individuals would ruin everything I worked to build for my hacker figure. However, I couldn’t resist at least, scanning the target, out of pure curiosity. Each civilian will have a fact thrown at you from their lives that the game feels best helps you figure them out. The particular nugget of information this game gave my player was: ‘paedophile’. I had just been given my carte blanche. I pressed the button and the kiddie-fiddler disappeared in a burst of flames. Justice had been served.
But let’s break down that snap judgement. I had just learned one fact about someone, judged whether they should live or die based on that one piece of information, and carried out the execution. I had become more than Batman; Batman never killed, no matter how corrupt the city got. But it was a paedophile – you cry. It was deserved. Well, let’s use this example, and forget that I have carried out the same methodical assassination attempt on ‘gamblers and benefit cheats’ – what was that one mark of information ‘paedophile’ referencing? A movie I watched recently ‘Nymphomaniac’ brought up that only 90% of paedophiles sexually abuse children. The rest of them bite back on their sexuality, because they realise it is illegal. I really don’t want to get into a debate on paedophilia, because this is a light-hearted article, but what if I killed someone who hadn’t actually committed a crime? Maybe he wasn’t even a paedophile. ‘The Hunt’ is another movie that depicts a man’s life being destroyed, because he is accused of paedophilia by some careless kids and everything he knows crumbles around him, because of it. Maybe the man was a ‘suspected paedophile’. Maybe I had killed an innocent man. I was not a part of the investigation into his crimes. I just turned up one day, read a fact about him without a shred of context and decided that he should die, just like that. It took me a second to make that decision. And, even scarier, I made that decision with the push of a button. I was more powerful than Batman. I was Superman.
However, with great power becomes great responsibility. The downside of having an open world game where every mugging and crime is available for you to stop, you are being constantly bombarded with notifications from your smartphone. A crime leader is travelling between hide-outs and we could arrest him, right now! That van heading in the opposite direction from you is carrying weapons to an arms deal. If you turn the car around and stop heading towards your next mission, you could confiscate the weapons before they get to where they are going. All of these small missions often involve a car chase directly afterwards, which could accidentally take you miles away from the objective. And as you trudge back to where you started, you are likely to cross several more crimes that need your immediate attention. One early mission sees your sister ask that you come over right away. It is your nephew’s birthday party and he really wants to see you. You are one of the only family members he connects with, after the family’s tragic past. I went over there, glad to help, when I was notified that there was a suspected assassin a few streets over. Yes, I know it’s a game and that birthday mission will wait however long I need it to wait, but I will return to the word, immersion. I was immersed in thinking that I was given the choice of ‘being a family man’ and making those close to me happy or stopping a crime out of thousands of other ones across the city. I couldn’t not stop the assassination attempt – the vigilante inside of me refused to let an innocent man die. As it happened, I botched the rescue. The target escaped, but the police saw me chase down the assassin – who they assumed was an innocent civilian – and I spent the next half hour fleeing from them. In real life, I would have missed that birthday party.
But that is the choice a superhero like Batman must make each day. Family or the city. Arkham has never made me feel so conflicted, in between missions. Sure, a week later into Watch Dogs and I am exhausted and bored of the constant crimes, but I appreciated that for that small moment in time, I became too powerful of a hero and it nearly ripped my personal life apart. The thing is that the game didn’t give me that character arc; the universe of Watch Dogs did. The character did not develop, but I did. And I haven’t been that immersed into a game in a long time.