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LOS ANGELES — Jonathan Morin likes to compare games with painting. “You can craft something finite and precise,” he says. “You need to know exactly what you want to say to create something that the player will feel is elegant and makes sense, but it’s important to not say it directly. If you say exactly why you’re doing it, the player doesn’t get their own shot at it.”
Now, as creative director of the open-world actioner Watch Dogs, Morin’s canvass is privacy and exploitation in the cyberage. Anti-heroic lead Aiden Pearce can access and manipulate any electronic device in modern-day Chicago … all the better to destroy his enemies. Or maybe help some strangers.
It’s a big picture to put together. When I sat down with Morin at a special pre-E3 event, the first thing he told me was how it all began with small talk.
GamesBeat: What was the idea behind Watch Dogs?
Jonathan Morin: It started as, “OK, what are we interested in? What are all of us passionate about?” We realized that we were constantly talking about our phones and what impact that was going to have on our daily lives. We also knew we wanted to do a city, something bigger to explore. Those two ideas connected in a very natural way. If we do a modern-day city environment, it would be a crime to not talk about hyperconnectivity. It has to showcase the impact.
In a lot of ways you could compare WikiLeaks and its consequences to moment where we decided to create public libraries. It’s the same kind of insecurity. Suddenly, a lot more people have access to knowledge. It scares a lot of people.
GamesBeat: The Catholic Church illustrated stories from the Bible in stained glass windows because they were dealing with an illiterate population. The population was supposed to be illiterate.
Morin: Exactly. Instead of forcing a judgment call, I think our game is all about bringing players to interact with it. On one side, be careful about how you use these things. On the other side, you might glorify this whole thing. It makes us evolve in a lot of ways. If people play Watch Dogs, it’s a lot more powerful if it makes them ask questions.
GamesBeat: What kind of questions do you want people to ask after playing Watch Dogs?
Morin: I want people to think about the relationships that they have, and that humans in general have, with technology. Take social media. It’s a spectacular idea. It embraces communication. On the other side, we start to see psychologists talking about social media addicts. People are becoming addicted to what other people think about what they do.
GamesBeat: I’ve heard it described that [lead character] Aiden Pearce has an addiction to information. As soon as he starts hacking into people’s lives, he can’t really stop. He has to get more and more involved.
Morin: To be a little bit more precise, Aiden Pierce has an obsession with overprotection. There’s an interesting disconnect between what Aiden does and what the player perceives. Aiden is motivated to protect his family. It starts with monitoring his own home — which they don’t know about. It’s a bit creepy. There’s an interesting motive for why he’s doing that, though.
Progressively, he goes from the house to monitoring the neighborhood and then the district. Things get out of hand. He uses the only thing he knows, his grasp on power, to solve his problems. Once he gets to the point of monitoring the entire city, you can start to confuse Aiden Pearce’s drama and everybody else’s drama. You start to explore what I call the vigilante tragedy. It’s your own needs versus the needs of others.
GamesBeat: Your description of Aiden reminds me of a movie called The Conversation, where you have the surveillance expert who becomes intensely paranoid about being watched.
Morin: It’s an interesting comparison. The same could be said about Rear Window. Hitchcock explored the same kind of idea in a different way.
GamesBeat: There’s definitely a progression. Rear Window is a guy with a camera pointed out his window. The Conversation was microphones and CCTV. Now it’s the Internet and everything connected to it. It seems like you’re tapping into a fairly primal fear — that someone is watching you. Someone knows something about you.
Morin: Making games, you always stumble on a lead who’s at every meeting, then you end up moving that person into a position where they’re not in the room anymore. After a few weeks, they have those moments where they’re at their desk and they look through the window. “I used to be in there. I used to know what was going on.” So you’re right. There’s that fear of being watched. There’s that addiction to information that a lot of people have.
GamesBeat: So what had to happen to make Watch Dogs work as a game?
Morin: I’d say the profiling system. That has a huge impact on how people play the game. Being able to tap into the information of everybody around you changes the player’s perception, especially for people who pay close attention to it. The game might tell you that you can hack some person, but because of what that person represents, you might refuse to do it. Some players will do it – actually a lot more than we thought.
GamesBeat: We haven’t heard much about these people Aiden’s after. Can you talk a bit about them?
Morin: There are definitely different layers to his enemies. He’s going to interact with local crime figures and deal with how they’re changing based on the way that connectivity works today. Let’s just say that it starts with Aiden’s problems and escalates into something a lot bigger.
GamesBeat: Once you finish the campaign, presumably you can go back in and roam the open world.
Morin: Yeah, absolutely.
GamesBeat: The side missions and crime-fighting, things like that … will those be procedurally generated? Will we ever reach the “end” of Watch Dogs?
Morin: That would be hard. You can finish the campaign, but there are certain systemic elements in there that are endless. If you add online multiplayer to that – which we’ll talk about in the future in more detail – that’s even more true. You can end up continuing to invade other players, too. After the entire story’s finished, a lot of people will be able to use what they’ve consumed so far to come to a conclusion. Others might want to spend a lot more time before they settle on their own ideas. It doesn’t have 10 potential endings. We’re saying, let’s not reduce your perception to 10 possible outcomes. This story is finite, but open to interpretation.