If you want to see Kevin Shortt, lead story designer on Watch Dogs, geek out a little, bring up how Ubisoft completely shocked everyone when they revealed their open-world actioner to the world during last year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo.
“Wasn’t that fantastic?” says Shortt. “We couldn’t believe we surprised everybody. We were putting it up [on the show floor] and thinking, ‘It’s gonna leak, now it’s gonna leak,’ and it didn’t!”
That’s no small feat for a game centered around stealing secrets. Watch Dogs (releasing November 19 on PC and all available consoles) follows career hacker Aiden Pearce on a high-tech path to revenge in modern-day Chicago. Only this windy city’s been upgraded to a so-called “smart city” run by a central operating computer (ctOS), a system Pearce exploits to dispatch his targets … and to invade the private lives of ordinary citizens.
It’s one hell of a playground for a writer like Shortt.
GamesBeat: So you guys started out with this idea of an interconnected city. How did that become Watch Dogs?
Shortt: At the time, four years ago, we were just hearing small murmurs about smart cities. We thought, “Wow. What would that be like, if it’s in a whole city?” There are the opportunities it would give you from a gameplay perspective, but also, there are the questions it raises about privacy and information. It raises a lot of interesting issues that we wanted to explore in the game.
GamesBeat: Then you add this hero, Aiden Pearce, or an anti-hero–
Shortt: Definitely an anti-hero.
GamesBeat: He’s taken advantage of these systems in the past, and now he’s using them even more to his advantage. How do you balance that aspect?
Shortt: He’s a guy who has questionable morals. Aiden comes from a past where he’s done things wrong. He’s always been on the other side of the law, but now I think he’s trying to do things right. We don’t want people to come away saying, “Okay, he’s the guy with the cape. He’s the hero,” or “He’s the evil villain.” We don’t want those extremes. We want to find a middle ground. That’s what’s great about an anti-hero. You understand why they’re doing what they’re doing — they’re caught in a situation — but they’re willing to take steps that cross a line. Then it becomes debatable. Is he crossing the line for the right reasons?
GamesBeat: Or crossing too many lines.
Shortt: Or crossing too many lines. Part of what’s cool about our game is that the player is going to define that. They’re going to decide how many lines they’re willing to cross. A good example I can give you is in the demo, there was a husband whose wife was attacked, and he says, “I want to kill [the rapist].” So [the demo player] gets there and he said, “Well, I don’t really care what happens to him.” He lets him die. I couldn’t do that. I don’t know if this husband guy’s telling the truth. He just sent a text message to his buddy. Maybe there’s another reason here.
GamesBeat: And how does that chnage what happens next?
Shortt: Had [the demo player] stopped the crime, your reputation would have gone up. People would have heard about it and that affects how they respond to you in the future. If you’d just let him go, well, that’s one of those things you have to live with. You didn’t commit the crime. You just turned your back on it.
But I can give you another good example. Remember the guy with the baseball bat? He takes off, and Aiden chases after him. We could have intervened much earlier and knocked him out, just stopped it right there. That would have been positive across the board, because you stopped him from beating the crap out of the other guy. [The demo player] let it go, the guy started shooting, so we had to use more extreme measures. You pay for those extreme measures. Yes, we saved the other guy and Aiden got a positive reputation out of that, but he had to kill someone to do it. That gave him a bit of a negative hit.
GamesBeat: Is there a different between the public’s perception and the government’s perception?
Shortt: For sure. Aiden’s a vigilante. Cops never like vigilantes. They’re always going to try and stop Aiden. The public fluctuates depending on how you act.
GamesBeat: With this huge canvas to work from, where did you want to go with the storytelling?
Shortt: The main story follows a pretty straight line. We saw opportunities to explore different things in these micro-stories that you see, these micro-opportunities. Like when you hack into somebody’s house and you see a guy cuddling with a mannequin. You’re getting a window into his life. You can explore the e-mails on his laptop. That could lead you to other opportunities.
GamesBeat: That was one of the really interesting aspects. When Pearce hacks someone’s cellphone, you see these micro-stories — “Failed CPR class,” or “Related to Dutch royalty.” It’s like a six-word story.
Shortt: The great thing is, you can just go downtown inside the Loop, turn on your [cellphone-hacking] Profiler, and spend 15 minutes standing there on a corner. You’re getting information. You’re getting opportunities. You’re getting these great stories that you can listen in on. That helps create a sense of this rich, big world around you.
What’s cool is that the system works in such a way that we ourselves don’t always know how things are going to align. You often end up with interesting situations where the profiler says one thing, and then the phone call you listen in on is giving you another story. The player is bringing their own interpretation into what they’re hearing from that story. We try to make it as rich as we can.
We’re making sure that there’s enough storytelling and enough opportunities in there that it just goes on and on. You’re never going to exhaust what we have.
GamesBeat: You’ve told me about the kind of story you’re telling. What do you want to say with it? What do you want people to experience and come away with?
Shortt: We’re becoming a hyper-connected world. We have our cell phones, and we have our computers. What does that mean for how we live our lives? Where is our society going with that sort of information, that sort of connectivity? We’re not saying that this is evil or that this is good. We have our own thoughts, but we want players to come away with their own opinions. We’re just posing the question.
GamesBeat: Where do you fall on that scale?
Shortt: I love how connected we are. I love that I can now fly on a plane and get the Internet in the air. That’s great. But I’m hyper-aware, especially after working on Watch Dogs, of what information I’m putting out there and how easily things can be hacked and what that can lead to. We want to be this connected in the world. We just have to be smart about it.