The first Watch Dogs, first released in 2014, looked exactly how you might imagine a typical hacking game to be: dark and gritty, with the action taking place in and around rain-soaked skyscrapers and cars with mirrored windows.
It was a dramatic and tense setting, but one that perhaps took itself too seriously, erring more on the side of dystopian cyber-cliches -- less about the actual realities of digital espionage and more about stock images of men in sunglasses staring at screens while Matrix-esque code strings cascade down them.
Watch Dogs 2 is much less fictionalized, taking place in the laid back Bay Area that's an actual locus of technological innovation and hacker culture. The game is focused on real-life, modern issues that are roiling the tech industry, like doxxing and data mining.
It’s not just the hacker culture in and around San Francisco that influenced Watch Dogs 2, either -- the city itself made for some new, varied mechanics. “The wider streets helped the driving experience,” says Jonathan Morin, creative director on Watch Dogs 2, “and the verticality provided brought some very nice jumping, as well as an interesting mix of hacking and parkour to explore. The water setup helps give more meaning to boats, [and] the landmarks offered a stronger sense of both orientation and exploration as well.”
Of course, the Bay Area, which encompasses San Francisco as well as a variety of other locales like Silicon Valley, known for its culture of futuristic inventions, start-ups and tech giants like Facebook seemingly springing up out of nowhere.
With the sinister overtones of that whole industry -- rogue AI, like Microsoft’s teen Twitter bot, Tay, that turned into a neo-Nazi within hours, and Facebook’s own fake news issue -- it’s the perfect setting for a game that’s about tech vigilantism and taking on manipulative and secretive corporations.
“The San Francisco Bay Area represents the birthplace of the tech revolution,” says Morin. “It brings something entirely fresh since it’s less about surveillance and a lot more about the new economy of information, data mining and advanced analytics.”
This new setting, which is near Silicon Valley and very much entrenched in the modern innovations and worries of technology, allowed Ubisoft to mine real-world issues for their story and surroundings. The controversies surrounding National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange have had obvious influences on the plot, as have “hacktivist” groups like Lulzec and Anonymous.
Marcus Holloway, the game’s protagonist, is the victim of data manipulation that leaves him wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit; corrupt tech giants that parody Google and Facebook, both headquartered in Silicon Valley, pull off dodgy dealings at the expense of their users. It might be funny if it wasn’t all horribly real.
The game is still slightly fictionalized for the sake of entertainment and ease, because although it’s possible to hack cars, traffic lights and cranes in real life, Morin admits: “it involves a lot more work.” But recent technological advances -- and the rise of the “Internet of Things”, which gives everyday objects like kettles, thermostats and vehicles the power to connect and network with other objects -- means that it’s becoming easier to imagine a future where someone could hack your kettle.
Why anyone would want to is not the question; the fact is that they can, and San Francisco is the hub of the Internet of Things. If it can be made into a smart object, it will be.
Is this Watch Dogs 2 world, in which everything is hackable and no one knows how to protect themselves, a future reality? With the way things are currently, yes, says Morin. “We’ve learned that pretty much everything can be hacked and that most connected objects that are supposed to be secured aren’t for various reasons -- mostly user mistakes.”
But Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t only draw from the doom and gloom of the tech industry as it grows too quickly for us to control it. San Francisco is not just the “birthplace of the tech revolution” -- it’s also a beautiful and picturesque city that has been lovingly and photorealistically recreated in the game.
People have found their own locations and comparisons of the game to real life photos stand up pretty well. Ubisoft have said that the game represents 36 different architectural styles in attempting to recreate San Francisco’s muddled melange of buildings.
Like with other games that are set in real cities -- Grand Theft Auto V’s Los Angeles; Assassin Creed’s Paris and London; Fallout’s Washington D.C. and Boston -- the topography and geography are more of a best fit than an exact replica.
Some buildings can’t be added in for various reasons, and some areas get squashed together to save space. It’s all about making sure the sense of a city comes across without having to be totally perfect -- because that would take forever, and make the game far larger than it needs to be.
San Francisco’s vibe is many things: cosmopolitan, vibrant, dominated by landmarks and colour. It’s also known for its verticality, which allowed the developers to come up with new, fun ways to play. “[It] brought us more analogue lifts and cranes,” he says, which have made for some rather hilarious captures.
Watch Dogs 2 also stands out for its approach to soundtrack. “Music plays a big role in the game,” says Morin. “We always tried to meticulously choose tracks to convey a driving force and a rebellious vibe, always trying to get that head banger.”
It’s highly unlikely anyone actually from San Francisco would refer to anything as a “head banger”, but nevertheless, the music helps set the Bay Area vibe, with a mixture of modern hip hop like Run The Jewels, and older, angstier punk from early ‘90s Californian bands like NOFX, Dead Kennedys and Rancid.
Those vibes are, admittedly, from two different generations: millennials, if you want to call them that, listening to Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean, and the generation before them that listened to homegrown punk like Green Day and The Offspring when everyone else was rocking out to Nirvana.
Likewise, the fashion in the in-game shops is varied and realistic, from the hipster waistcoats and cable-knit jumpers of Stache and Vine to the almost-ironic socks, sandals and Crocs of Plainstock.
While Watch Dogs 2 does turn hacking into a game, it approaches the subject and the setting with enough respect and research to create a realistic, inhabitable world.
Taking the risk of transplanting the series to a totally different place enabled the team to “explore new creative grounds”, as Morin puts it. It’s worth taking that risk, sometimes, to push yourself to new and unexplored limits -- and to bring out different facets of your story.