Watch_Dogs, And The Line Between Variety And Dilution
We didn’t know it at the time, but at E3 2012, we were seeing the future. Ubisoft used their time at the conference to show off a new game, the first of what the publisher hoped would be their next big franchise, Watch_Dogs. The trailer was impressive for two reasons – it looked absolutely stunning, better than anything previously released for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. This was because Ubisoft had, unbeknownst to many, unveiled the first eighth generation title, a year before the Xbox One and Playstation 4 would make their debuts. But Watch_Dogs was also impressive because it seemed to pose an interesting question – what would a Grand Theft Auto-like game be without guns? The trailer showed off a hero who didn’t need assault rifles and rocket launchers to take down villains – all he needed was a cell phone and the ability to hack into any system in the game. Watch_Dogs was not only a glimpse at a future with better graphics, but a future of game design that didn’t rely heavily on guns to solve conflicts.
Unfortunately, Watch_Dogs was a bit of a letdown on those two fronts. The final game featured graphics significantly scaled back from what was shown at E3 2012, and by the second mission, the player was chasing down criminals with gun in hand. It felt like a missed opportunity – there are so many Grand Theft Auto-like games on the market, and Watch_Dogs initially looked like it would put a spin on the formula that would make those games seem exciting again. When the game proved to be just another open-world shooting gallery, it landed with little more than a thud.
But this is Ubisoft, and the premise has too much potential to toss away after one title. Fast forward to E3 2016, and Ubisoft came back with Watch_Dogs 2. Against my better judgement, I got my hopes up – what if Ubisoft learned their lesson, and featured a game that forced players to solve conflicts with something other than a weapon? What if we had to rely on our intellect and cunning to take down the bad guys? But all of those hopes were dashed with the first footage of gameplay, and a promise from Ubisoft to “support all different types of play.“
This philosophy speaks to a problem the video game industry still faces. There is a difference between designing a game with a variety of activities and play styles, and forcing a game to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. The line between the two is thin, but when crossed video games suffer from dilution and, ironically, end up appealing to no one.
This One’s Not For Me
When it was first released, BioShock Infinite garnered mass critical acclaim, and was a commercial success. However, shortly after its launch, articles began appearing which criticized the violent tone of the game. The argument was that Infinite was so close to being a game that could wow non-gamers, convince them to take the medium seriously, right up until the violence, at which point non-gamers would roll their eyes and walk away.
It’s an argument that I can understand – I have long discussed my desire to see games become more inclusive, to see equal representation, all for the benefit of opening up video games to more people. And I’ve also argued against the use of violence as a way to solve conflict, and cautioned when and how to use violence within games. While all those things remain true, there is one final aspect to consider – not every game is made for every player, nor should it be.
I couldn’t bring myself to finish Mirror’s Edge. I find Japanese RPGs to be boring and monotonous. I can’t be bothered with the story or characters in Metal Gear Solid. And although I have many issues with all of those games, it doesn’t mean that the developers should change their games just to make me a fan. I have come to accept that those games aren’t meant for me, and that’s OK. That might seem like a no-brainer, but in a time when game development costs are skyrocketing, publishers think the best way to ensure success is to make one game appeal to everyone. But maybe the violence in BioShock Infinite was an artistic choice? Maybe developer Irrational Games knew it would turn off some people, and were OK with that decision. Maybe a third-person version of Mirror’s Edge wouldn’t provide the same level of intimacy that fans of the game found appealing, and maybe Metal Gear Solid is about more than its story and characters. These games are all made by artists with artistic visions, and bold artists know that their work won’t appeal to everyone. In turn, this makes those artists even more focused on their vision, and the end result tends to be successful, memorable games. Even if they don’t quite stick the landing, their failed experiment can lead to another developer’s success.
Not every game has to appeal to every single gamer or non-gamer. Trying to do so leads to lifeless, shallow games that do everything OK instead of one or two great things. But even if a developer could make a magic game that appeals to everyone, a focused game that provides a singular experience is still preferable.
Doom and Gloom
The beauty of the video game industry is that it can provide a wide array of experiences over multiple platforms. I can sit down in front of my TV and get lost in an epic fantasy world, or I can play old-school arcade games on my Playstation Vita. I can even play simple puzzle games on my phone. Because of the variety of experiences and the numerous ways to play them, there are more video games now than ever before. It seems like I cannot go more than a week without discovering a new game to add to my radar, or buying a game on sale and adding it to the list of 75-plus unplayed games I already own.
This begs the question – if there are so many games readily available, why try to make every game accessible for every person, mood or interest? If I want to go on a destructive rampage, I’ll play some Grand Theft Auto V, and if I want a much more relaxing affair, I’ll play Flower. And if I want to feel sad and spiral into an existential depression, there’s always The Last of Us.
But for every game that offers a focused, singular experience, and does so well, there are games like Assassin’s Creed, which throw in so many unnecessary side quests and activities, all in an attempt to appeal to every single imaginable player. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning also suffers from throwing in every idea the developers had, and not scaling back and fine tuning only a handful of elements. Those games may have experienced varying degrees of commercial success, but both franchises have suffered long-term consequences as a result of these design decisions.
Compare this to games like the recent DOOM, which unapologetically focus on being an old-school first-person shooter. DOOM isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but to those gamers that it does appeal to, it has found a tremendous level of success. But imagine the reception if DOOM featured long cut scenes, or forced co-op, as seen in Halo 2, Halo 3 and Dead Space 3. Imagine if there was a robust RPG system, or if it was a nonlinear open-world game filled with sidequests. All of those elements can work great in games that prioritize them, but the priority of DOOM was to deliver fast-paced old-school action. To add more to that formula would detract from what makes it such a success in the first place.
Variety Is Different Than Broad Appeal
That being said, I’m not advocating that each game is designed in such a linear fashion as DOOM. That approach worked for a game that wanted to harken back to the days of old, but it can’t work for every game. Accommodating a variety of play styles that are internally consistent with the world the developers have created is the goal, and it’s one that Ubisoft seems to not understand when it comes to the “made for everyone” design of Watch_Dogs.
One of the best examples of a game sticking to one type of experience but also providing variety in play styles is Dishonored. Developer Arkane Studios set out to create a game in which players were dropped into a massive level, and given a simple goal, but a multitude of ways to accomplish that goal. I’ve played through Dishonored stealthily, not killing a single person from start to finish. I also hid in the shadows, murdering everyone in sight without ever getting caught. And I’ve also barged through the front gate, guns blazing, causing chaos and havoc around every corner. Perhaps most stubbornly, I was able to complete the game without using stealth and keeping casualties to a minimum. The point is, Dishonored provided a variety of play styles, which led to me sinking countless hours into a game that can be completed in a matter of hours.
But Arkane Studios never shied away from their primary focus – to tell a story about revenge. No matter which playstyle the player chooses, bad things will always happen to the citizens of Dunwall. Sure, the people who conspired to frame the protagonist and take over the country from the rightful heir will meet a grisly fate, but no matter what choices the player makes, the plague of rats will kill thousands. The poor will suffer, the rich will go on having parties and living in excess. Dishonored will always be a violent, tragic story, as any story about revenge should be. This is where Dishonored succeeds, and where Watch_Dogs fails – video games can and should offer variety, but the artists behind them should always stick to a singular vision.
Only The Mediocre Are Always At Their Best
Video games are powerful pieces of art, and there is still a part of me that hopes I can be transported to a version of San Francisco, where a simple hacker can take over an entire city and clear his name of any wrongdoing. But if I do decide to give Watch_Dogs 2 a try, I will always know that, should a situation intensify, I can just whip out a pistol, mow my enemies down without consequence, and move onto the next mission, all so Ubisoft can appeal to fans of shooters in their stealth-based game. Therein lies the rub – being a Rambo-like super soldier doesn’t fit with the character and world Ubisoft created, but now this out of place element can take center stage, all so everyone can be accommodated, creating a disconnect and diluting the impact of the overall experience.
I do wish to see the video game industry become more inclusive, attract more people to this wonderful form of artistic expression. And the fact of the matter is that there are so many opportunities for developers to make games to such a wide variety of audiences that this notion that a game has to cater to every play style, to every demographic, needs to be put to rest. Forcing a game to do so only dilutes the final result, creating safe experiences where everyone only has a little bit of fun. And that’s not what art is about. Art should never be safe – it’s at its best when it’s daring and risky.