Video games task us with killing so many things. Human beings, aliens, animals, giant bugs, small bugs, demons, robots, and more. Mostly, we just kill until our objective is reached or when the mission is over. The abundance of player ascribed death in games can be seen as a point of concern, but it also depends on how each specific game frames the act of killing. Most hardly think about it beyond “game feel” and those that do often miss the mark—Call of Duty Modern Warfare (2019)’s thesis of doing death as realism gave way to rewriting history through the noxious and racist lens of military complex-prescribed jingoism, and The Last of Us series, as a treatise on death and struggle and pixel-perfect bodily harm is woefully misguided and cruel in how its violence says nothing. The conversation around killing in games and the fact that it is a core verb in this space is vast and endlessly varied, so for the sake of the argument I am about to get into, I will be honing in on Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs series.
The Watch Dogs series frames the taking of a life as a choice. Would the character we inhabit be okay with taking a life? Well, that depends on the game. Watch Dogs puts players in the shoes of Aiden Pearce, a gruff and revenge-driven father who hacks, sneaks, and shoots his way across Chicago. He is okay with killing from the get-go and thus we are tasked to do the same. Suppressed pistols, assault rifles, shotguns—these are just tools of his trade. But he kills half of Chicago by the end of the game. Aiden is an irredeemable asshole and the first game in the series is more cruel than fun—plus its politics are abysmal. The way it frames impoverished individuals, urban othering, and more are just so, so bad. Aiden might as well have a badge and a police officer’s uniform. He is less a savvy hacker and more so a blunt object that slams its way into things until something happens. The series starts with a bang, literally. Thirty hours of gunfire and neck-snapping lead to nothing. While one might read the fact there is not a nonlethal approach to the game as a wholly thematic choice—it is, but only partially—I see it as more than that. The act of killing in Watch Dogs is indicative of games in general, specifically games at that time, where gunplay and killing were just how open-world GTA-like games were. I don’t even think the developers anticipated the fact that players wanted a nonlethal approach.
Along came Watch Dogs 2 which is more-or-less a fresh start for the series. The windy city is left for sunny (and hilly) San Francisco. Aiden Pearce is tossed in the trash and now players controlled Marcus Holloway, an Oakland resident who was falsely accused of being a part of a high-tech robbery. Marcus is a black man and well aware of how white folks, cops, the government, and structures that be view him. So, with the help of his compelling group of Dedsec hackers, he fights back. The story is a lot more than just that and that simplification is just that—a simplification. The story is mostly great, and while it occasionally stumbles, Watch Dogs 2 is one of the best GTA-like open-world games of this generation. Marcus is not a killer—players can make him. that—but he is a hacker. And he is incredibly talented. When he gets in a bind where there is no turning back, he has his wits, a makeshift melee weapon, and a taser. You can go through the game without killing anyone, and it feels like the canonically consistent way to play. Characters will die though and the bad ones deserve it while the good ones never do. But Marcus does not kill unless you choose to make him take a life. His taser can be swapped for a pistol and he can be kitted out with assault rifles, submachines guns, sniper rifles, and the like. But why? Well, that is up to the player. Watch Dogs 2 lets us choose if a life is worth taking. And I think the players who chose to play that game guns blazing need to come to terms with just why they did that. The game makes the nonlethal approach obvious, attainable, and honestly just a hell of a lot more fun. Each encounter becomes a puzzle—how can I get Marcus from point A to B and C without taking a life or getting killed? Usually, the answer is a lot of crouching, hacking stuff, using drones, and knocking people out quickly and quietly. The opportunity space to do things when taking the nonlethal approach is far more vast and complex than that of the firearms approach. Those are loud and final. Marcus pulling the trigger of an assault rifle only ever leads to one type of encounter, regardless of the space the player is in or who they are up against. Take cover, shoot bad guys, flank them, toss a grenade, and take cover again. Rinse and repeat for thirty hours. Marcus doesn’t want to kill nor does he have to. Situations hardly ever call for it. So, don’t.
And now there is Watch Dogs: Legion. Recruit anyone to fight against techno fascists who have taken power and asserted military control in London. Its politics reflect those of who are in power in the UK and the USA. Fascism is alive and in power. Legion tries to grapple with that. But this is a Ubisoft game after all so for every good thematic step it takes it has to take five more in the other direction for being relatively toothless. Yet, leftist politics, a disdain for fascism, and the positive framing of fighting at all odds for a better future are there. And that is nice to see, but Ubisoft could’ve done a hell of a lot more. Revolution gives way to Ubisoft’s pandering to all sides (though it is far less in this game, it still sucks to see) and open-world glut. I am not going to work through the game in a detailed way all too much beyond how the game frames killing—just read Austin Walker’s review of it for that, and it is one of the few reviews that showcases the untapped possibility space for game reviews, look, just read it.
Fascists run London. That is apparent within the game’s opening moments. You can still take a nonlethal approach, but I took the side of…maybe fascists shouldn’t just be knocked out. Yes, I did not go into any mission guns blazing and I spent the majority of my time not killing anyone. But the recruited Dedsec operatives I spent the most time with in Watch Dogs: Legion were a spy and a hitman. They both have suppressed weapons and can do gunkata takedowns. Most story missions pit you against Albion (the techno fascist private security group that runs London) operatives and I did not bother with knocking them out. Stealth kills were my main approach, but when things got loud then I fought back. The London in Watch Dogs: Legion calls for more than just knocking out fascists and I didn’t think these characters I was inhabiting would be too keen on letting any of these bigoted, violent individuals left breathing. So, I took back London in much the same way that Aiden Pearce fought through Chicago in the first Watch Dogs game. But now it felt warranted, and the nonlethal choice was still there. The choice to spare a life or just sneak into areas without ever being seen is still a huge part of Watch Dogs: Legion. I spent countless missions hacking into drones, sneaking through areas, and getting what I needed without ever being seen. But some missions called for more than that and my characters fought back. While Watch Dogs: Legion’s idea of revolution might not be more than spraypainting “Racism is sooooo 2010” onto a wall, it at least gives players the tools to fundamentally resist and dismantle (virtual and fake) fascism and it allows us to do so with the (often silenced) punctuation of finality.
But there is a flipside to that. Watch Dogs: Legion shows fascists openly killing and terrorizing innocent people in much the same way that cops in the United States do every day. But the private military contractors in this game can take it a step further, and seeing what can happen is harrowing. While walking one of my characters through a protest in Trafalgar Square, Albion opened fire on the protestors with automatic rifles and drones. People dropped forever still while others screamed and ran for their lives. It all happened in an instant and was over before I even fully realized what had happened. To see something like this in a Ubisoft game was unexpected and it left me quite shaken. Albion kills, but they have the choice to spare lives as well. They never do. So when it comes to them, why should Dedsec ever offer them such a choice?
When it comes to the act of killing, the Watch Dogs series has almost come full circle. The first game saw nihilism and harsh acts of violence as cool, normal even. The second game pushed back against that and showed that GTA-like open-world games can be made even more fun without ever touching a gun, and just how important ludonarrative dissonance is to making games like this work (Watch Dogs 2 understands how jarring it is to see Marcus shoot up the whole city so the game, at almost every point, pushes players to not do that…Naughty Dog could never). The most recent game in the series, Watch Dogs: Legion, shows how the choice to take or spare a life, to play lethally or nonlethally, is once again underpinned and fueled by thematics, and how the series can work where both options are readily available and meaningful. Maybe taking back London through a peaceful resistance would be moving, I wouldn’t know. My Dedsec chose to take back London through any means necessary, and that meant blowing up a lot of fascists with hacked power boxes and propane tanks. I have no idea where the series will go next, but all I know is I want to see Marcus again. Watch Dogs 2 is still far and away the best game in the series (and the best game Ubisoft has made this generation). Killing is a meaningful choice in games, and this industry plays it off as just another mechanic. But it isn’t and it never should be, every virtual death carries weight.
Ubisoft has a history of toxic workplace environments, sexual misconduct by high-level staff, and more. Yes, I just spent over a thousand words writing about their games, but their noxiousness should still be mentioned. When all of this came to light in the public eye during summer 2020, they chose to never directly acknowledge it at a scale in which folks not in the games media space would probably not notice. They chose cowardice. We should hold them accountable until an actionable change is outlined, made, and we can see the tangible effects of them. Until then, remain aware of that when playing anything they make. Also, so many Ubisoft games are politically bankrupt and morally unconscionable.
Further Reading on Ubisoft’s Misconduct:
Further Reading on the Horrid Politics of many Ubisoft Games: