Depending on who you are and what your job is, San Francisco is either the LED-lit city upon the hill, or an insanely expensive, increasingly stratified near-dystopia. It’s also home to a lot of the video game industry – so maybe it’s inevitable that the city would once again become the setting for a sprawling open-world video game.
Watch Dogs 2 is trading in the red-bricked rendition of Chicago of the first game for the contemporary Bay Area, with all its high-tech triumphalism. It makes perfect sense: What better sandbox for a game about the freeform hacking of a city’s computerized brain?
You might expect certain tropes from a game like this: A fine recreation of Lombard Street that you can zigzag down in your stolen vehicle; a cartoonishly rendered Chinatown that leans heavy on the Triad gang stereotypes; a soundtrack with Too Short, Operation Ivy and Jefferson Airplane. But one thing you most definitely don’t expect is an earnest attempt to engage with the multi-headed disaster that’s afflicting the region today. We have a housing crisis that feels downright apocalyptic, precipitated by mass gentrification and a meager supply of affordable rentals. We have renegade police running wild and departments imploding all over the Bay. We have tech barons who literally want to break up the state and retreat into their own fiefdoms.
In other words, the people who make games about the Bay are competing against a reality so bananas as to need very little embellishment. And judging by our first glimpses of the game, Watch Dogs 2 appears to be tackling these issues head on, and I don’t know whether to be nervous or excited. The game stars Marcus Holloway, a young black hacker from Oakland, which is kind of perfect as a way to encapsulate the Bay’s current struggle with itself. “When we started with Marcus, we listened to what the Bay Area had to say to us first,” says Jonathan Morin, Watch Dogs 2‘s creative director.
The character also seems like much better company than Aiden Pearce, the sullen, square lead from the first Watch Dogs. As you’d expect from a protagonist in an open-world Ubisoft game, he’s a master parkour practitioner as well as a hacker, and he appears quite adept at bludgeoning and disabling enemies with a makeshift flail fashioned from a billiard ball. In some footage, he’s also seen wearing what looks like an Oakland A’s cap, which isn’t nothing given their current, abysmal 29-42 record.
Marcus was born in San Francisco and moved to Oakland as a teenager after his family was displaced. His hacker awakening came following what Morin calls “…some questionable stuff [that] happened to him, some crime he was directed to because he was a smart kid who understood computers in the wrong area of town.” Given the super high-tech milieu, Marcus was probably into more than just simple credit card scamming.
Marcus is a member of DedSec, an Anonymous-style hacker collective, that seems clearly inspired by recent TV hit Mr. Robot, whose precise mission I can’t quite discern (which is likely the point). It definitely involves subverting and dismantling systems of oppression, though. They do this by hacking the urban fabric itself, effectively weaponizing the “Internet of Things” via ctOS, a city-wide operating system out of your worst Luddite nightmare. CtOS touches everything from cars and trains to phones and traffic lights. It was an instance of ctOS profiling that’s partly responsible for Marcus going radical. “Since the guy’s smart enough to understand how it works under the hood, he had everything he needed to understand it was wrong,” Morin says.
Morin wouldn’t talk much about plot, but you can infer from Watch Dogs 2‘s E3 presentation that at least one storyline involves a company called Invite, a fictional tech giant styled after Facebook that’s in bed with a corrupt, despotic politico. According to Morin, his team endeavored to get tech’s side of the story right during their research trips to the Bay (Ubisoft’s U.S. headquarters are in San Francisco but Watch Dogs 2 is being developed in Montreal.) “When we decided to zero in on the Bay Area, the first thing we did was go there and explore,” he says. “We listened to pitches from all the Silicon Valley companies that would talk to us, we visited hackerspaces, and [took in] the state of mind.”
Watch Dogs 2‘s keenest observation so far seems to be a no-duh focus on our misgivings over Silicon Valley’s influence – its quiet, profound reach into the data and systems that increasingly make our lives possible to begin with. “It’s no longer about convincing people that we are all connected,” Morin says. “The question now is, what are they doing with all our information? What is this new economy of information?”
It’s a whopper of a question, and perhaps even a generation-defining one, but when you’re talking about the Bay Area specifically – when you’re actually inhabiting it in an open-world game that looks and feels the part – an equal question is how these companies are materially affecting our lives by simply existing. Their disruptive influence registers beyond just how their products upend entrenched industries or enrich a lucky few. “If you go into Oakland, [we’re] going to talk about the gang wars happening there,” Morin says. I’m willing to bet that massive office Uber is erecting in Uptown Oakland is way scarier than the prospect of catching a stray shot for a large chunk of the city’s population. If Watch Dogs 2 is to do right by Oakland and the Bay, Marcus and his cohort should have a choice when it comes to which dragons to slay.