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A Major Challenge To the Clumsy Way Video Games Handle Right and Wrong

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The creators of the huge new video game Watch Dogs reject the black and white choices video games often give you when they want to give you a moral dilemma and make you feel something.

They’re striving to go beyond that, to color their new game about hacking, driving, shooting and being an urban vigilante in a Chicago with a morality that is gray.


Lofty words.

I tested them last week and wound up having one of the most interesting and, at times, challenging conversations I’ve had with a game developer in a long time.


I’m going to take you through this one in order, so you can experience how Watch Dogs’ challenge to conventional video game good and evil was presented to me—so you can experience what was promised by the game’s senior producer Dominic Guay, what was shown and then what was said when I presented Guay my strong skepticism. All of this happened during a demonstration of the November 2013 console and PC game at a conference room in a PR firm in Manhattan. (If you want more info about what Watch Dogs is, I wrote a lengthy preview of it; but you’ll understand what follows just fine even if you skipped that.)

What They Promised

Early in a speech about Watch Dogs, I heard something that perked my ears up. “We’re not that interested in opposite, extreme moral behaviors,” the game’s senior producer Dominic Guay of Watch Dog’s development studio at Ubisoft Montreal said. “We’re fundamentally exploring the gray area.” He was saying this right after boasting about the game’s graphics engine and the game’s wind.


Who hypes ethical dilemmas and shades of gray? Game developers.

This is a thing that might strike non-gamers as a bit weird. I think outsiders see games as being about violence or play, about strategy or vicariously experiencing exotic thrills. I don’t know how much people appreciate how many times game designers have tried to give us hard ethical choices, if they’ve seen or appreciated the ability to veer toward the light or dark side of the force in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or choose a benevolent or nasty approach to saving a city in Infamous while attaining certain super-powers because of those choices. I don’t know if they get what was going on with the Little Sister choice in BioShock or the Paragon/Renegade system in Mass Effect. All appeared to make us think and all rewarded some sort of perk or power or, at least, achievement for our decisions. None were games Guay mentioned, but I’m pretty sure he had some, if not all in mind when he was making Watch Dogs’ morality pitch.


I don’t know how much people appreciate how many times game designers have tried to give us hard ethical choices.

“If I look at the past 15 years, this is the context most games have put us on,” Guay said, unfurling a believable situation possibly plucked from some old classic. “In a very nuanced and subtle situation, we’re offered two kinds of responses. I’ll give you an example. You come up to an orphan boy and basically the game allows you to either give him all your money or kill him. Well, I’m not really interested in those extreme answers to a subtle situation. It’s not relevant and it’s not the thing I would do.


“What we’re really interested in exploring the gray area. So the player is going to be able to make those choices, but it is going to be reflected back to him [through] what [in-game characters] say on social media, what they say to each other and also by the formal media, which is going to start reporting about what Aiden Pearce does in the city and the consequences of those actions.”

The word “consequences” stuck with me. I felt like I was hearing a sales pitch that was missing something.


What They Showed

About 10 minutes after Guay talked about Watch Dogs' coolest-sounding features, he booted up a build of the game. His colleague, Colin, played it. They showed us Pearce’s Chicago, a modern metropolis full of security cameras, criminal organizations and citizens just trying to live normal lives.


The game is set in the fall. Our protagonist, Pearce, is a vigilante, a man, as Guay would later describe to me, “with a pretty shady past.” Bad things had happened to some of Pearce’s friends, leading Pearce to see vengeance of some sort.

“That’s his initial angle, if you want, but then what happens is, as he starts investigating this and as the player grows Aiden’s obsession with surveillance, so to speak, he’s going to be hacking more and more things. He’s going to be aware of more crises and crimes, and he will almost lose himself in trying to intervene in those things and fight the corruption in the city that is linked to him.”


Guay avoided saying whether anyone in particular was the bad guy. He certainly didn’t say if Pearce was “good.” As Colin played, Pearce came upon a facility used to connect a portion of Chicago’s online infrastructure. For some reason, Pearce was going to hack it and take it over, something the heavily-armed guards didn’t want him to do. As Colin was surveying the scene, he moved the game’s camera across two of the guards. Little messages popped up identifying some of the guards’ pasts. Guay pointed these out. One had survived a car bomb explosion. One was acquitted of a weapons charge. “They have shady pasts,” Guay said. Soon, they would spot Pearce. Soon there was a gunfight. Soon, Colin was making sure these guards were dead.

And then, later, came the scene in the alley. This was the scene where we’d be able to see how the game handled its moral dilemmas.


Watch Dogs is an open-world game, like Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed. Players can roam through it and find side-missions. In this game they can also hack stuff, including people’s phones. Hack a phone and you can read its text messages. This is what Colin, who was still manning the game, did.

Pearce hacked the phone of a drug dealer. “This guy is telling one of his contacts where to find a dealer that he believes raped [the contact’s] wife,” Guay said. “So this is pretty serious stuff.” This was all optional, Guay pointed out. We could drive there and then decide whether to intervene. The man controlling the game grabbed a car and headed over. He came upon an alley. He spotted a homeless man and then the man searching for his wife’s supposed attacker. The man was approaching his target, who we’ll call “the other dealer.”


As players progress in the game, they attain the ability to see biographical information about any character Pearce sees. The mini-bios hover over the characters. The one that popped up over the other dealer indicated that he had faced sexual assault criminal record and was a loan shark. “I don’t know about you,” Guay said, “But I don’t really care what happens to a recidivist rapist.”


The man at the controls decided not to intervene. The angry husband confronted and killed the other dealer. Pearce just watched. The moral code you play by is your own, Guay said. “You have to live with the consequences.”

Again, the “consequences” thing. I was going to have to ask him about it. About an hour later, I did.


What We Talked About

Guay and I sat down at a circular table in a smaller room at the PR firm. We were joined by a PR woman from the game’s publisher Ubisoft. We talked about the game’s story, the game’s wind, and then we had the following exchange. We turned to this as I asked about the “consequences” and the “gray” morality. I told Guay I was skeptical. I was clear on what he and the Watch Dogs team didn’t want. I wasn’t clear on how what they were doing was so different.


Guay: When you think about morality or moral choices [in games], it should be in your head. It should be going through your own filter of morality. The problem is when you have the game do it for you.

Take the orphan example. If I go and say, ‘Kill him or give him all your money’ I’ve seen this so many times, I feel like [sighs in disgust]… I’ve seen this so many times and I wouldn’t actually do either of them. And, actually, games do this. You go and say, ‘Oh, I give them all my money, which will give me plus-five XP which will give me the next Angel skill. And plus-five bad will give me the new Nuclear Skill. I want the Nuclear skill! It’s got nothing to do with morality. I’ve just made an optimization of a skill-tree like I did when I was a kid playing Dungeons & Dragons.


"When you think about morality or moral choices [in games], it should be in your head. It should be going through your own filter of morality. The problem is when you have the game do it for you."

If we take the example we showed in the demo, there’s something going on here, I can go investigate. This guy is a recidivist rapist and this guy is an honest blue collar guy and he’s going to kill him, because he’s raped his wife. Or did he? Because he actually only sniffed that out in a text [message]. So maybe actually he didn’t. He’s guilty as suspected? That’s a moral question.


On this topic alone on the team, we’ve had arguments. One of the guys was saying it’s too obvious he’s guilty, that’s not fun anymore. I’m like, Why? Because the guy suspects him? He’s necessarily guilty? I don’t agree. And then our writer is like, ‘Even if he is, I would intervene.’ So now we have three different moral stances on an action.

Me: You said that, after that moment, the player would deal with the consequences, and I thought, what is he talking about? Consequences? The game is fake, it’s virtual. There’s no actual consequence. A person didn’t just kill another person.


Guay: Of course.

Me: So what in your mind are the consequences of letting that happen?

Guay: There’s a few layers to it. I was talking about how people will try to optimize based on results, and I think, as soon as we go there, we’re kind of losing things.


Me: Right. So the consequences shouldn’t be score.

Guay: Yeah, exactly, but we have a layer… I’ve been challenged on that. ‘Yeah, but you give points for reputation. Isn’t that exactly the same thing?’ Not really. It’s not like we’re trying to get you to become either black or white. It’s mostly about giving you a reflection of what you did. It’s mostly about taking a mirror up and saying, ‘This is what you did, are you happy with what you did?’ And, yes. there will be an echo of what you did, but it’s not like, ‘Oh, cool, now I’m able to do triple jumps.’ It will mostly be done to give you a feedback loop. Now, what are the consequences? For us it should be what’s going through your head.


"It’s mostly about taking a mirror up and saying, ‘This is what you did, are you happy with what you did?’"

Honestly, the first time I played that little thing there I didn’t feel right when the guy got killed. And that’s me. Maybe another guy would be like, ‘Yahhh.’ That, for us, is the first win for us. We have the player reacting to what happened…


Me: The consequence is what you feel in your gut.

Guay: Yes, and I would counter-argument to your point, if you’re not engaged in the game, if you’re not immersed and don’t care, then why are you playing it? Gamers actually are engaged in what they do. We’re trying hard to make the game look good and be realistic, but, honestly, you could get engaged with something that is cartoonish.


Me: We’re engaged and we’re not. When [Colin was playing the game] I highly doubt he felt, when he was playing it—I don’t feel this way when I’m playing a shooter—like I’m killing those people or wondering if they deserved to be killed by me. In some ways, you’re trying to shift the degree to which I take the game seriously from the gunfight which I saw just a minute ago in the demo where you’re not asking me to think about consequences—I don’t think, not severely—and then having the moment with the recidivist rapist, you are hoping I’ll feel something in my gut.

Guay: It is true that there are moments in the game where when you want to engage in a gameplay activity, you don’t want to continuously try to judge what the hell is going on. There are certain areas where we are trying to focus more on this particular topic. I’ll agree with that. But just the way we treat police is somewhat similar. It feels wrong to kill police in Watch Dogs. Honestly, we were debating with that for a while, but when you do it, you feel, that’s wrong, because the guy doesn’t go bleep-bloop-bloop and out pops 5XP and so we did playtests and people don’t do it. They don’t shoot back at cops.


Me: Why do you think it is like that in Watch Dogs?

"It feels wrong to kill police in Watch Dogs. We did playtests and people don’t do it. They don’t shoot back at cops."

Guay: It’s a question of tone and the fantasy you are going for. Our fantasy is being a vigilante. From the get-go. We try within what we think is fun to have a relatively serious tone about how we treat things. This kind of creates a context for when I’m playing Heavy Rain I feel super-sad if a character dies. That’s me, personally. If I’m playing a cartoon game, that’s more about giggles I wouldn’t care. I think the tone has a huge impact…


Me: Right. I don’t feel bad for the Goombas in Mario when I step on them.

Guay: Yeah, exactly.

Me: What is it about the cops? You’re saying it’s because they don’t leave stuff behind?


Guay: No, that’s a simple way to illustrate it. Also, like, they hurt. We want you to realize…

Me: How do they hurt? Do they animate?

Guay: You’ll see that they’re in pain. They’ll ask for help. The other cops are going to say, ‘Cop down! Cop down!’ and you’ll feel the panic in their voice. And then you’ll see your heat going up and eventually you’ll see the feedback from the city itself. The media reports on it. They’ll say there’s a cop killer in the street. That’s you and we’re going to put a feedback loop in it. You saw how someone announced you to the cops because something happened.


There’s also a point where you start doing things as a more balanced vigilante that measures the collateral damage of his actions. And at some point if you run and you have your gun out and if someone sees it , [they’ll say] ‘My god, he has a weapon!’ And then he starts calling the cops and then says, ‘Oh, it’s him, I won’t call the cops. Go ahead, go ahead, I’ll cover for you.’ Because he has a good reputation. It’s not a game-changer, but it’s a little something. Yeah, now I’m cool, now they like me.

"There’s also a point where you start doing things as a more balanced vigilante that measures the collateral damage of his actions."

Me: When I was watching the E3 demo, I was Tweeting…

Guay: Everyone was [laughs]

Me: The person next to me was doing the work of liveblogging! The demo was long. We didn’t know what the game was when it started. It was intriguing and there was hacking and, I thought, this is great. I haven’t seen anything like this. And I said on Twitter that there were no guns in here…and people started responding really positively to that on Twitter. It was going on like that and then after he got out of the nightclub to the intersection he took out a gun. And there was sort of a groan on Twitter back to me when I said he had a gun.


The hacking stuff there looks totally fresh and innovative and all that. The gun stuff looks so much more conventional. I’m curious if you guys sense that divide internally. Did you consider doing the game with just hacking and no guns?

Guay: Yeah, so those discussions existed in the first months when we were crafting the vision and deciding how far we should go in terms of the various tools the players can use. Now, guns exist and they are a pretty efficient tool to deal with certain situations. If we don’t want to have guns, in a sense, it would almost be an effort in the sense that you can hack into anything, you can buy stuff, but you can’t use weapons, ok, sure. People shoot at you, you can’t shoot back.


Me: That would feel artificial.

Guay: In a sense it is and we felt it. We could still do it, but in reality we said let’s support all the player’s styles instead. There are many players who want to use weapons obviously. They want to use guns.


Me: Yeah, of course.

Guay: So how can we do something special while still doing something that’s been more done, let’s say. One of the ways is that we always want to combine something that’s more of a known mechanic with hacking. It’s also true with driving. We’re not the only game with driving, but the fact that you can hack while driving…


Me: …that looked cool, the grates are going up as you’re driving…

Guay: Yes, it’s a new thing with driving and we’re doing the same thing with …[Guay pauses and realizes what he’s about to tell me wasn’t shown in the demo the developers had just done] ...when he goes to the roof there are air vents and he could have hacked the air vents and now he’s made cover for himself. You could just as well hack that vent for cover and use it to stealth your way through.


We did a playtest a while ago [of a hub area in the game], and it was a guy it was his first time with Watch Dogs with a controller in his hand and he did the whole thing without killing a single guy there. It was his first time, so I was pretty impressed. He knew he had weapons. We’d shown him in tutorials. He didn’t use guns. He sneaked his way in. He managed to get down to the console and then get out of there without being seen, didn’t shoot a single bullet. I think he didn’t even take a guy down. That’s great. I’ll be honest with you, there are points where the game will force gunfights. I don’t think it’ll be possible to go through a game without shooting a bullet, but if you want to play it that way, you’ll be able to do many, many of the challenges that way.

Me: You mentioned that you can have IEDs (roadside bombs). You’re in an American city. In the real world, Boston just happened. You’re trying to give players a fantasy. You’re giving them rules and making them know it’s a video game. But I’ve got to say that the last thing I want to do in a video game now is put an IED on the side of a city street, so…


You mentioned that you can have IEDs (roadside bombs). You’re in an American city. The last thing I want to do in a video game these days is put an IED on the side of a city street.

Guay: Don’t do it.

Me: Is that event affecting what you guys are putting in the game or how you’re presenting that aspect of the game? It feels more uncomfortable than it would have felt a couple of months ago.


Ubisoft PR woman: It’s a work of fiction. I’m going to step in here for that. And so we can give you just to let you know that it is a work of fiction, just like movies, books and other entertainment properties.

Me: I would ask a filmmaker and an author the same question…

PR: And our thoughts and prayers go out to the families who are affected. And that’s all we’re going to say about this at that time.


[Note from Stephen: Things got a bit awkward here. I understood why the PR person had stepped in. They didn’t want their game tied to a national tragedy, and, really, there’s not a real connection there. Games take years to make. The plans to craft this Aiden Pearce adventure were hatched years before the recent bombings in Boston. The new game doesn’t encourage you to kill civilians, and yet I’d like to think that creative people can discuss influences and anxieties. As you’ll see, Guay did answer my question. Was I off-base or out-of-line? I don’t think so. After my preview of the game was published, I saw comments on Kotaku and Facebook. One stated: “I don't know about you guys, but isn't it usually the bad guys that go around using IEDs to blow up police cars on a crowded street?” Back to Guay…]

Guay: OK. I’ll say this. I’ll say this. We’re making a game where you’re a vigilante. That’s the core of our intent, right? And that’s what we’re focused on. A vigilante is a guy who delivers his own brand of justice, right? That’s what we’re doing.


If I interpret your question, I wouldn’t want to play a guy who is out there to create chaos and hurt people, well, I agree. That’s not what we’re trying to do. I think there are other games out there that try to do that, but that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make a game where you play a vigilante.

It’s always a fact that a player could interpret what’s in the game, but that’s in his head. What are his intents while doing that? Right now, Aiden is trying to impose justice on people and corruption in the city. That’s his intent, so we’re really talking about, if you want to make it simple, a super-hero is who you are playing.


I guess you could take any entertainment, say even Batman and say, he’s a bad guy, depending on how you spin it. I think that’s why [the Ubisoft PR rep is] nervous, also, because we all know how people want to do things like that, especially with video games. It’s the new heavy metal. I remember when I was a kid, Dungeons & Dragons was [supposedly] satanic. This is the same thing. But you know we live in this world as developers, as you do, where obviously we’re affected by things like that. Of course.

Well, that was all quite something, wasn’t it? It’s the kind of thing that makes me excited to play a game. I like hearing about games that have been designed to buck convention, and I like the idea of games that will acknowledge and indulge in the uncomfortable rather than rely on the coziness of power fantasy.


I’m not convinced that a game like Watch Dogs can deliver the weighty sense of ethical consequence that its creators are trying for, but I’ll be hoping it does. Of all things, I want Watch Dogs to make me uncomfortable. I want to play a game that makes me feel something in my gut.