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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.