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June 16, 2014

The Problem with Watch Dogs (Part 3 -- FINALE)

So.  Have you seen the new Godzilla movie?

I haven’t.  Plans were being made at one point, but they fell through when time ran out (i.e. we would rather play video games).  Just as well, though; I wasn’t in any rush to see it, because it would have meant I’d have to take time out to do at least one post on it…not to mention that I’d have to sit through it.  And the MovieBob review -- among others -- told me pretty much everything I dreaded would happen: 1) Godzilla is almost (not quite, but almost) marginalized in his own movie, 2) Bryan Cranston isn’t in it as much as trailers and promos would suggest, and 3) the story follows some generic soldier with a generic story instead of anyone interesting.  Like Ken Watanabe’s character, for one.

Maybe I would have cared about the movie more if I hadn’t seen the trailer -- or had thought it was “amazing”, since that was apparently enough to get plenty of people hyped.  But I guess that trailer, and the movie at large, offered more than enough.  It must have, seeing as how it’s become a runaway hit, and there are already mumblings of a sequel.  So if people are happy, then maybe that’s good enough. 

But maybe it isn’t.

Which brings me back to Watch Dogs.


I still think Watch Dogs is the trash left behind by the trash of trash, and that opinion isn’t going to change anytime soon.  It’s a misfire in virtually every regard, with gameplay and story alike doing their best to undermine one another.  By design, it’s a flawed and poorly thought-out product, because it refuses to say, do, or be anything definitive.  And by trying to be realistic, it only highlights how cartoonish the proceedings are.

Ubisoft might have created a virtual representation of Chicago (even though they added mountain ranges that are nowhere near the windy city), but setting aside the fact that they’re only using new technology to make what anyone with a camera or access to Google can get, the incongruent elements only serve to plunge the game deep into the uncanny valley.  We know what’s real, and by trying to be real but coming short -- as is usually the case with video games, especially those that pine for “photorealism” -- it makes the divide that much more obvious.  One step out of line is all it takes.



The promise here has not been delivered.  Not even close.  I know that the game has garnered some goodwill by virtue of its E3 showing and the fact that it’s a new IP in an industry full of tired franchises and point-missing reboots, but that goodwill has long since been taken behind the back shed.  First of all, the box art boasts that the game has gotten “over 90 E3 awards and nominations”.  Okay, soooooooo…why does that matter?  Why was that so important that it needed to be on the box?

I would think that those were A) based on glimpses and slices of a game that was nowhere near release without the proper context, B) based on footage that would ultimately be non-indicative of the final release, which has taken PLENTY of flak for being a visual downgrade, and C) awards and nominations that only said that it was “best in show” or “most interesting”.  Given the competition in E3s past, a Popsicle stick could stand head and shoulders above the rest.


As I’ve said, WD is a game that tries to do everything, and ends up doing nothing as a result.  It tries to be Assassins’ Creed, Far Cry 3, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Deus Ex, Grand Theft Auto, Infamous, The Last of Us, and Beyond: Two Souls all at the same time.  And beyond that, it tries to be some sort of virtual Frankenstein’s monster by being an amorphous blob of movies -- The Dark Knight, Taken, the Bourne movies, and Swordfish, to name a few (with the TV series Person of Interest for good measure). 

Now, being comparable to or treading the same ground as other products isn’t automatically a game-breaker, because in this day and age it’s pretty hard to be 100% original.  And indeed, a lot of good products are good because they either managed to capture the best essence of an older item, OR they added enough of a creative spin to justify another go.  (See: Okami.)  But what’s important is that a product should do something to set itself apart from others.  It has to act on its vision.  It has to be willing to say something.  It has to prove its case.

This game does not.


If you’ll let me borrow the lexicon of Chef Gordon Ramsay once more, I don’t feel the passion in WD.  Oh, sure, there’s no doubt that a lot of effort and man-hours went into making the game, so I can’t doubt or decry those that toiled day and night to make the game ready…well, ready-ish for release.  (I miss the days when I could play the next big game without seeing a glitch in my first session.  And those poor PC gamers…)

But there are too many checked-off boxes to suggest that conscious thought or creative ambition went into the game -- especially when those checked-off boxes are miles away from their optimal state.  Ripped wholesale from other games, and torn to shreds in transit.  As much trouble as I give DmC, even that game had a vision.  It was a stupid-ass vision, yes, but it was still something.  They had a story to tell, a game to offer, and something to prove.  WD does not.



So that’s it, then.  WD wins.  Ubisoft wins. 

The triple-A model, one that would put more effort and imagination into marketing than the game itself, wins.  So you know what this means, right?  The self-fulfilling prophecy has come to pass; WD is going to become a franchise because it’s going to become a franchise.  And gamers in droves bought into it.  Ubisoft got to put out a half-assed, painfully-confused product…and they still won

I don’t even know where you go next from here.  I mean…look, I don’t like to go on the attack and accuse others --i.e. consumers -- of doing wrong, especially if they’re justified fans, and DOUBLE-especially if they’re readers here.  But…really, people?  Really?  You want more sequels to this?  It’s a new IP now, but before long people are going to be wailing that “they’re milking Watch Dogs!” Or “They just want to print money!”  Setting aside the fact that Ubisoft should have to earn the right for more games, they shouldn’t have earned it from this one just by being “good enough.”  With “good enough” in this case meaning “well, it works” -- a game inherently flawed, but not a game with flaws balanced by a genuine spark of creativity and potential.  You know, the way it should be when offering a second chance.  The way it used to be.


Do you have any idea how fucked up it is when “good enough” or “they’ll do better with the sequel” becomes the new threshold?  When that’s what we accept?  When we all know by now that when these big triple-A franchises are allowed to go on, they run the risk of becoming -- and often do become -- worse and worse the further they go?  Have we not seen it in CoD, Gears, Halo, and God of War, just to name a few?  And now we’re giving the okay to a game that’s so designed-by-committee that a loaf of bread is more dynamic?  Let alone better put-together?

But you know what?  I get it.  I totally get it.


Ubisoft won because they knew their audience.  They knew that people would buy into their latest and “greatest”, as long as they made the right moves.  And they aren’t the only ones that cracked the code.  Creators all across the medium (and mediums) have figured out the secret to success.  It’s not by relying on effort, or talent, or vision.  They think that they can succeed by giving the audience exactly what they want. 

That’s a horrifying mindset, but time and time again it’s been proven right.  They don’t have to try.  As long as they adhere to formulas and surefire bets, it’s not about telling a good story.  It’s about making the audience happy in the most superficial way possible.  And that, beyond anything else, is what Watch Dogs does with any sense of competence.  In fact, I’d say it’s flat-out brilliant how well they pulled it off.  The only issue is that in doing so, Ubisoft revealed in full the problem with Watch Dogs.  And it’s the same problem across the board.  The same problem we’ve all known about for a while, but were content to shrug off.

So let’s go ahead and give it a name, shall we?


This is why I brought up the new Godzilla in the intro.  I would imagine that people wanted to see it because of one major reason: because it has Godzilla in it.  Or, to be more precise, it has Godzilla (and therefore the promise of monster battles, widespread destruction, and booming roars), and it has Walter White Bryan Cranston.  That’s it.  By and large, that’s all people need.  Their needs are being met.

But that’s not enough anymore.  Or rather, it’s not enough if you want to earn more than just money. 

I’m one of those strange and apparently-stupid people who think that a product -- a piece of art in this case -- is used for more than just sapping a person’s wallet dry.  That’s part of the relationship, sure, but it’s not the only part.  The respect and loyalty earned is a lot more important than the money, because that means that they’ll stick with you no matter what -- because they know you have the capacity to make them happy (and emotional, and eager to think), and they want to support you so that you can continue to make them happy.  And you do that by putting out a product worthy of their time, as well as one that respects them.  The idea is to make people willingly want to get a firsthand account of your story, not just trick them into playing or watching or reading or whatever by dangling candy in their faces.

So let’s stick with movies for a minute -- and let’s use this one as a point of comparison.


I admit that I had my doubts going into Pacific Rim, because I thought it wouldn’t offer much in the way of a good story.  Just shallow spectacle -- a bunch of noise to delude me into thinking cool stuff was happening.  But I was wrong, and it ended up being one of my favorite movies of the year.  (Slim pickings, admittedly, but still praiseworthy all the same.)  It’s a shining star in a post-Michael Bay, post-Transformers world.  It’s proof that not everything is about dulling an audience’s senses, and sense of reason.  

As discussed, it was a movie with brains as well as heart -- inherently simple, yes, but it still managed to tell a compelling and thoughtful story with interesting characters, interesting themes, and interesting turns of the plot.  That way, when the time came for all the spectacle and monster-punching, it actually served a purpose.  It had weight.  Meaning.  Something to get excited about before there was something to get excited about.


So yes.  Pacific Rim was a movie about using giant robots to fight giant monsters -- and in that sense, it’s an inherently-indulgent movie.  But the same can be said of a lot of movies, and a lot of products.  That goes for me and the stuff I’m making as well; speaking in terms of I Hraet You, Lloyd is a handsome young man whose story (however partially) revolves around him using what are effectively psychic powers to mend the hearts of the fairer sex (for now) and add them to his vaguely-defined harem.  That’s indulgent in the sense that it’s got elements of wish fulfillment, not to mention the potential for an armada of pretty ladies for him to have at his beck and call.  That in mind, there’s an important element to keep in mind -- one that sets good indulgence apart from bad indulgence.

And that, my friends, is the almighty BUT.


Pacific Rim is a movie about fighting monsters, BUT it’s also about honor and loyalty to one’s family, a group of chosen individuals being tasked with and clashing over how best to ensure humanity’s safety in a desperate situation, and understanding the potential perils of taking risks.  I Hraet You is a story about a handsome idiot guy trying to build a harem, BUT he has to bear the emotional weight and responsibility of women, men, and animals alike despite being horrifically ill-equipped for the task, to the point where he may very well be the most broken member of the cast (or at least heading there). 

It goes further than that.  Metal Gear Rising is about a cyborg ninja slicing his way to vigilante justice (or revengeance, if you prefer), BUT it’s also about a former child soldier forced to re-humanize the enemies that stand in his path while simultaneously realizing that war and conflict at large are full of pragmatism, hypocrisy, and feverishly-pursued ideals.  The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is about a sleepy hero who ends up getting thrust into the role of Hero -- and overall Cool Guy -- to save his main squeeze, BUT it’s also about how destiny and fate are shackles that would strangle any mortal man to death, not to mention saddle countless innocents with the threat (and eventually promise) of pain and bloodshed.


All those things and more may have elements set to cater to audience tastes -- at the basest, allow for some wish fulfillment -- but what sets good indulgence apart from bad indulgence is that the former is about more than just giving an audience something to fill their proverbial bellies.  The examples I listed are all story-based, but in terms of games it goes further than that.  The mechanics in their own right are how a product -- any given game -- expresses itself as art.  So yes, Metal Gear Rising may let you play as a super-cool cyborg ninja who can cut everything save the odd psychic cat, BUT that’s counterbalanced by genuine level of difficulty that demands you to hone your skills, learn how to attack and defend, and kill efficiently so you can stay alive.

It’s a nuanced approach.  Thoughtful.  Not just a metaphorical glutton, and because of that, it’s not demanding players to be the same.  As is often the case, it’s all about balance -- working in those elements effectively without causing one of the scales to crash against the ground.  Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of creators these days aren’t mindful of that, and seem to go out of their way to resist that unspoken rule.  Transformers: Dark of the Moon is about giant robots fighting, BUT [blank].  Call of Duty: Ghosts is about a team of ultra-skilled soldiers taking on threats to America, BUT [blank].  Twilight is about a girl who falls in love with a vampire, BUT [blank…excluding all the accidentally-horrifying implications built in].


That’s indulgent design.  It -- either the creators or the executives pulling the strings -- aims to succeed not by virtue of vision, or skill, or heart.  It only aims to succeed (and does) by virtue of casting out a lure with something people want…or think they want.  Do you think it’s any coincidence that Man of Steel 2 has metamorphosed into Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice?  No.  Because the assumption is that people will come see it because it’s got Batman, and Batman is a character people can indulge in (even if they have to look past his faults, AKA the things that could make him a potentially-interesting character instead of just a meaner Superman). 

And people HAVE indulged in Batman; I’m under the impression that Arkham Origins is considered the weakest entry in the series so far, and with good reason, but people still bought it.  And the turnaround from that game to the REAL sequel in Arkham Knight was damn near instant.  And borderline sickening, but that’s neither here nor there.  Apparently, you should just be excited that you can drive the Batmobile now…and that the Batmobile can turn into a tank.

Er…doesn’t Batman have a strict no-killing rule?  So why would he drive a machine designed specifically to kill?


Almost by default, video games have it extremely bad.  Part of the reason they exist is to offer fun to consumers (Zelda offers all the fun of exploring without having to leave your chair or swat away terrifying annoying bugs, for example).  Their mechanics are all about satisfaction, and as such, indulgent design for them means trying to give the player nothing but unrestrained, unconsidered fun. 

In many instances, it’s all about giving the player fun by way of something very specific: power.  That’s the undercurrent that makes my oh-so-beloved “predator games” come into being.  Unleash combos that last for days with the touch of a button!  Beat down everyone without even breaking a sweat!  Cause destruction at your leisure!  Be as epic as you wanna be!  Buy our game, and you can be better than everything and everyone! 

Which brings us back to Watch Dogs.  Namely, the fact that there is no Aiden Pearce.


You know how in blurbs and synopses there’ll be something like “You play as X”, or “The story follows Y”?  Well, that’s Watch Dogs.  You’re not playing as Aiden; you’re playing as you.  Everything about him -- his personality and appearance chief among them -- are so bland that you’re not supposed to even think about his presence.  Well, besides the fact that he looks like a masked Tom Cruise at best, and just another brown-haired white guy at worst.  (Infamous: Second Son gave its leading man Native American roots, and was stronger because of it.  What’s wrong with embracing different cultures?)

He’s a stand-in with an excuse of a plot that gives you just enough context to push you forward.  Merely the fact that we’ve regressed to a point where a multimillion-dollar, 2014 production has a plot no more advanced than the first Mario game is a failure state if I ever saw one, but whatever.  What’s important is that, however consciously, the player has no filter or wall between him/herself and the game’s mechanics. 


And that’s where the indulgent design really shines.  Climb on top of everything some things like a ninja assassin!  Target and kill enemies with your brilliant hacker skills and your unrivaled marksmanship!  Drive around without paying any attention to the rules of the road and slide around like you’re in The Fast and the Furious

Go wherever you want, whenever you want, because you’re a free-spirited rebel drifter!  Get rich with the press of a button!  Look at how much porn people are watching!  Laugh at them!  And play vigilante because you’re morally superior!  Now go outwit the bad guys!  Now go play with a spider tank!  Now do this, and that, and this, and that!  Be a cool guy!  Be a badass!  Waltz right into a gun store and buy a grenade launcher even though people know you’re “the vigilante”!

I don’t know what’s worse -- the fact that there’s something vaguely masturbatory about this game, or the fact that a number of your most meaningful interactions vis a vis hacking are usually just means to hurt or kill someone.  Remember when games were about more than just murder?  I miss that.


As you can guess, that approach isn’t one I approve of.  Yes, video games can be (and usually are) indulgent.  But there’s a line that you just shouldn’t cross, unless you want your game to go from being something truly impactful into something genuinely disgraceful.  WD wasn’t even aware of that line.  Everything in this game has been added to make sure that the player gets to indulge.  Sure, you could say the exact same thing about GTA5 or any other sandbox game, but the key difference is that those had a vision.  They had something to say, and justify both presence and existence alike…on top of notably-higher quality.  Plus, they had one element for indulgence, not ALL OF THEM. 

The recent Saints Row games come to mind here.  The third game pretty much had the Saints becoming wealthy, well-armed moguls in every industry, while the fourth one starts with you becoming the damn president, fighting off aliens, and gaining superpowers.  That sounds like indulgent design, sure.  And in a lot of ways, it is.  BUT that’s counterbalanced by SR being a farce.  It’s aware of its stupid fun, and has a laugh at everyone’s expense.  That’s its vision. 


Watch Dogs does not have that vision.  If it did, then I would think that there would be more to do with hacking besides “blow stuff up”, “steal money”, “distract guards”, and “play pipe minigames”.  No, WD only has things.  There’s a difference.  And worse yet, WD wants you to take the story and the game seriously, which is a lot harder when you’re wandering around in a consequence-free playground ready and waiting to give you access to the explosion du jour.   And it’s even WORSE when the game constantly throws optional missions in your face to try and distract you from completing the shit plot.  Because apparently, “having things to do” is the same as being fun in Ubisoft’s eyes.     

You know what?  You know that line I mentioned?  Let’s go all in.  Let’s go ahead and give it a name, and some tweaks.  We’ll call it…oh, let’s go with “The Hibiki Kuze Zone”, in honor of Devil Survivor 2.  I hold that game in extremely high esteem, because it said more on a tiny, underpowered handheld than most games released in the past decade.  It kept its indulgence under control, but I’ll be the first to admit that it threatened to cross the line by playing as a main character that was more or less the messiah.  It never crossed that line, but the potential was there.  And from here on, let it be known that any product that crosses that line -- that goes too far outside that zone, and lets indulgent design run rampant -- is going to get some scorn thrown its way.  Scorn it deserves.


So if a story has elements that lend themselves to indulgence?  That’s all right -- as long as it’s below that line, and doesn’t pass through the danger zone.  If it does, then it goes straight into the realm -- and with it, the failure state -- of indulgent design.  And as you can guess, that’s something that any product in any medium should strive to avoid.  Not barrel headfirst into just so it can earn sales.

And with that in mind, there’s a question that I think needs to be kept in mind: What happens when people say “I’ve had enough”?

Indulgent design assumes that the people will never have enough.  That they’ll give in to their base desires, time and time again, and they can be reliably counted on to restock the war chest.  A big explosion here, a recognizable name there, whatever it takes.  But I seriously doubt that it’s a sustainable model.  Okay, sure, they might earn more than enough money to justify their existence, but why not try to earn favor with a labor of love and an expression of ingenuity?  Why not win the hearts of fans with an earnest attempt at a quality product, not just pandering with things that they like?


I ask this because there’s going to be a point where indulgent design isn’t going to be able to satisfy people.  They’re going to see that “the next big thing” is coming, and instead of holding up fistfuls of dollars, they’re going to keep their money in their pockets.  If we haven’t reached that point already with people the world over recoiling at some of the dumber fare like Transformers and Twilight, then we just might soon. 

You can see it in the downward trend of the Spider-Man movies; the wall-crawler isn’t the hit that he used to be.  And going back to video games, bear in mind that Gears of War and God of War alike severely underperformed in their most recent outings.  Even the “venerable” Call of Duty has taken a hit, despite the promise of next-gen wizardry. 

It’s almost as if certain developers’ claims that next-gen hardware would lead to innovation and the overall health of the industry was all a bunch of horseshit.  But you didn’t hear that from me.


I would say that “creators all across the board need to do more”, but that feels almost unnecessary.  It’s easy to give into doom and gloom, but there’s been plenty of genuine good work and effort. And there still is, even today.  (Why do you think people keep going to the Marvel superhero movies en masse?)  But someday -- perhaps today, or one day very soon -- we’re going to reach a point where even the most indulgent product isn’t going to offer the same thrills as days past.  We’ve built up our tolerance.  We know all the tricks and traps.  We know what it means to be “epic”.  And it’s only going to be a matter of time before those that buy into the promise of “the latest and greatest” don’t.  They won’t be willing to mindlessly jump for tossed out treats.  They’ll know if they’re being respected, or just treated like statistics.  They’ll look for something that’s truly rewarding -- not just superficially.

So, Ubisoft.  Congratulations on at least four million copies sold.  And good luck with your sequels.  But know this: you may have earned your justification for your sequels and your franchise, but you’d better be ready to deliver in spades come Watch Dogs 2.  Play it smart, pull in the reins, whatever.  Do what’s best.  Not what you think will earn the most money.

You’ve won the battle.  But the war is far from over.


And that’s about all I can say right now.  I…don’t hold Watch Dogs in high esteem, because it feels disrespectful in every way imaginable.  And I’m more than a little worried about the precedent it’s setting -- or if not that, then the precedent it’s continuing.  But the damage has been done, and what happens next is going to be important for the gaming canon.  Because I genuinely believe that if this is what we’ll accept as the new standard -- next-gen or otherwise -- then we’re ALL going to be in trouble.

But I don’t just want to make any apocalyptic forecasts.  I want to do something more productive.  Constructive.  It’s one thing to point out the problems of something, but it’s another to actually do something about it.  And while I don’t exactly have a crack team of developers to my name, there is one thing I do have: a decidedly-large head that thinks about stories and junk.

So check back soon.  Because I’m going to do something very...well, vaguely special.



2 comments:

  1. A few comments:

    1) Guillermo del Toro rules, and Hellboy rules too. INDISPUTABLE.

    2) Last of Us was worse, although the two share a problem through assholish, bland characters made appealing by the big assholes over the horizon.

    3) Play Rayman and you realize what should get the money this game rakes in.

    4) I actually like Assassin's Creed as far as 1, 2, Brotherhood, and 4 go, and I enjoyed 3 despite its problems.

    5) PLAY RAYMAN.

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  2. Oh, hey. I was wondering when you'd pop in again. I seem to recall you seething at the thought of a Last of Us movie...as one would do. But whatever. Let's take this step by step.


    1) I should probably get more in touch with the works of del Toro. Pacific Rim showed me that I need to get more in-tune with...well, now that I think about it, not just del Toro (though that'd probably help). Movies aren't my forte, and maybe it's time I change that.


    2) Yeah, Last of Us has a lot of problems. That much is obvious. But speaking solely in terms of preference? I have to say, I think Watch Dogs is worse. TLoU just struck me as a product that had an ass-backwards creative vision. That's a cut above Watch Dogs and its brilliant strategy of having NO vision. The asshole characters are a problem, but even TLoU had at least SOMETHING to show for it. With WD? It felt like pure auto-pilot.


    3) Oh, don't you worry. I've played Rayman. And in a perfect world, it would get the respect it deserves. And the attention. And the delicious monies.


    4) My relationship with AC is...complicated. I thought the first one was all right. Not revolutionary, but it worked. I saw the promise. 2 was a step up, least of all because it had a guy like Ezio at the forefront. But after that? Ehhhhhhhhhh...I just couldn't get into it. Brotherhood kind of turned me off after the first hour or so (IIRC, there's some big whompin' escape sequence that seems more fit for a straight action game like Uncharted), and I skipped out on Revelations entirely. AC3 did everything in its power to turn me away with its prologue, and succeeded -- so I didn't even touch 4.


    I like the core concept behind the games, but I kind of feel like the point's gotten lost along the way. If Ubisoft would just take a year or two off to come up with new ideas, then maybe it'd be for the best. Maybe I'd get back in without a salty taste in my mouth.


    5) While we're on the subject of Rayman and Ubisoft, don't you just love how they used sales of Rayman as ransom for Beyond Good and Evil 2? And then released the first game in the middle of a jam-packed holiday season without any fanfare so it could pretty much get buried? And don't you love how they did essentially the same thing with the sequel (up to and including delaying the Wii U version because reasons) so it could compete with Grand Theft Auto 5?


    To paraphrase a popular saying...


    Ubisoft
    Wat r u doin
    Ubisoft
    STAHP

    ReplyDelete