City in a Bottle: Designing the Story of Watch Dogs

Jonathan Morin of Ubisoft Montreal discusses how Watch Dogs will balance a cohesive narrative with the chaotic structure of an open-world video game.

Facebook. Twitter. YouTube. These technologies and others have made it possible for humans to connect to each other with incredible ease. But where will this growing need for constant connectivity take us in the next 20 years, and what lasting impact will it have on our society? Jonathan Morin, creative director at Ubisoft Montreal, doesn't have all the answers--but he knows the question. And it's a question he and his team are inviting players to reflect upon in their upcoming open-world action game, Watch Dogs.

Watch Dogs' vision of an always-on society draws heavily from issues we're addressing today, but the structure supporting this tale is much older. "When I started this project, I reminded myself of the games I enjoyed as a kid and realized I really miss the 8-bit character," Morin said. "When I was young and playing Final Fantasy, I saw those little drawings on the screen and was able to convince myself they were badass knights--that was my own interpretation of those tiny sprites."

"I've always felt technology isn't the problem; it's how humans use and interact with it that becomes an interesting subject to talk about. Most often [new technology] brings side effects people just didn't expect."

As years passed and games replaced those simple sprites with 3D models, Morin found himself disappointed when his imagination didn't align with what was onscreen. Games were no longer just showing; they were telling. Does this mean Watch Dogs will make a surprise shift to an abstract, 8-bit art style? Not likely. However, this idea of interpretation--of inviting players to think about and question what's happening--left a strong impression on Morin and shaped the fundamental way his team approaches storytelling.

"I don't want to force any message on the players," he said. "Instead, I want players to discover the message for themselves. What's important is that narrative, gameplay, and our world all reinforce this message. Without sounding too pretentious [laughs], I see Watch Dogs as a painting: it's a centerpiece of work, built in such a way that everyone has their own interpretation. It then invites players to reflect on [those interpretations] as they explore and interact with the world."

Aiden Pearce, the game's protagonist, is one example of interpretative design. "We paid a lot of attention to how we designed Aiden's motivations, versus the tools you have to interact with your surroundings," said Morin, acknowledging that players can, technically, go on a shooting spree at any moment. "For us, Aiden is, say, 80 percent predefined, and the other 20 percent is how the player's actions shape him. Instead of overly describing how Aiden is supposed to act, we're using the world to react to what the player does in interesting ways."

"Instead of having a good-or-bad system, we're going more into a gray area talking about media and communications. The media will talk about what they think of Aiden Pearce, and as the player, you will feel a disruption between your motivations for what you've done, versus what people, and the media, believe they saw--which is a reflection of what the media can cause due to a lack of information. And this is just one example; we're making sure every system screams back at the player how he plays, without being judgmental."

Condemnation is not Morin's goal. Regardless of how you play Pearce, what's important is that you're making decisions and dealing with the consequences. "This feeling of being lost between [Pearce]'s problems and society's problems--which is the typical tragedy of a vigilante--is something the player will feel as they play. As you get more powerful, you're enticed to seek out more side-mission content; you're going to have these temptations to help others or otherwise intervene in situations that have nothing to do with Pearce in the first place. Will you intervene, or not? Will you pull the trigger, or not? And who are you to make these sorts of decisions? Those are the types of issues players could experience, should they seek them out."

When the credits roll, Morin hopes players will discover that their decisions--good, bad, and otherwise--form a mosaic that says: this is our world; what do you think? "Watch Dogs is about human beings and their relationship with technology. It's not judging either directly, but instead gives tools to the player so they can reach their own conclusions. We're going to talk equally about the positive and negative aspects of technology to help the player bring their own reflection of what's going on."

"Not everything you do connects back to a single story. I don't think it's a good idea to make an entire city about a single story; we want to make sure it feels broader than that so that it's something we can continue exploring for a long time."

Asking players to take a more tempered, introspective approach to Watch Dogs is a tall order considering they can go and do what they please. Restricting the player is not the answer. Instead, the key is offering context. "One of the first things we decided after starting Watch Dogs was: if you're walking around a city, draw a gun, and start shooting bullets in the air--that's a big deal! It's a significant event that people will be talking about, the media will be talking about, and people will be scared. In short, gunfights in the middle of a city are a pretty serious event."

As seen in the game's extended trailer, firefights, chase scenes, and other exciting set pieces won't be uncommon in Watch Dogs. However, Morin feels he can't ask players to take his world seriously if he doesn't bring some gravity to all the violence. "In the end, we [want] to make sure the repercussions of your actions are always present, but at the same time we don't want to frustrate players by putting them in an environment that isn't fun and isn't interesting to interact with." Using the in-game media to comment on your actions is one solution, but striking the perfect balance remains an ongoing challenge for the development team.

Since the game's announcement, Watch Dogs has drawn comparisons to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, the cyberpunk genre, and more. While Morin and his team enjoy reading their fans' reactions and interpretations, they have always strived for just one thing with Watch Dogs: believability. "In the end, what we're presenting is today's life, with a bit of an extrapolation on top of that. One of the big things we've been careful about is making sure the fantasy we sell and show in our game is at the heart of the gameplay experience and reflected in the progression of the world."

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148 comments
notjustin
notjustin

cant wait to play on the wii U

botsio
botsio

people are trying to attack my style of writing!say whatever!i'm not fazed at all!

GetafixOz
GetafixOz

Preordered like 12 months ago lol

AceBalls
AceBalls

Geniuses. Legends. Masters of game design. 

ffspyda
ffspyda

Looking back at last year's E3's voting polls of the Player's Choice- Most Anticipated game, I always almost couldn't vote whenever Watch Dogs came up against The Last of Us. Now this year I'm finally going to find out the better...Can't wait

cuppy22
cuppy22

AWESOME GAME..ICANT WAIT FOR THIS GAME TO COME OUT

Bolgernow
Bolgernow

Can not WAIT! Chicago looks amazing Take my $

stan_boyd
stan_boyd

I was stoked on this originally, but the last trailer made it look like just another GTA clone, guess I will wait and see what reviews look like.

Brandon Pongrujaporn
Brandon Pongrujaporn

@alex filipowski ac can still be good but this is a new ip and have alot of cool things in it, ac may have been here for a London time with some new changes in each game but its still an old ip. This new ip got enhanced graphics, interesting game features and able to have open world with good story telling.

gtandiono
gtandiono

kinda reminded me of Person of Interest

DarthLod
DarthLod

One of the only games coming out I am interested in.

Williambatson
Williambatson

Ubisoft, take my damn money now and give me the game...........give me ACIV:BF as well, please. :D

Gamer_4_Fun
Gamer_4_Fun

I am really interested on this in-game media. I hope the media AI system is complex and doesn't dish out simple views to events.

robert83a2
robert83a2

But realistically, it kinda looks cool, nomater what the name is, it looks like a Modern Take on Assassins Creed, which is a welcome change :) , if it will be like Assassins Creed... then it'll be cool... hope it will be available on PC as well, I'm not planning on buying a PS4 or XBOX720 any time soon....

PlatinumPaladin
PlatinumPaladin

I'm liking what they're saying about how they're presenting the narrative. The absence of a 'black 'n' white' personality gauge is very welcome. Those things plain stupid, and never contribute to the narrative like they're meant to.

I just hope this game lives up to 1/3 of the hype.

dnguyen3
dnguyen3

Damn, sitting on the fence of whether its worth getting this on current gen or next gen. Boy oh boy i'm gonna be spending a long time at Best Buy trying out those next gen demos, boxing day might get ugly XD.

bcoolrob
bcoolrob

This looks better then Grand Theft Auto V

Kyrylo
Kyrylo

Everybody talks about narrative nowadays...to bad it ends as flop often than it should. 

I_ArCh0n_I
I_ArCh0n_I

Hope its like Hitman: Blood Money in that you can read a newspaper and see all the minor details of your actions take shape as a story, perhaps even the headline if it is extravagant enough.

G-Man4ever
G-Man4ever

The plot is good, the gameplay is(or looks) good. They kind of got me on the statement that there are no missions, you just walk around and find them. The thing is that every RPG player out there knows that when a game allows you to start/play multiple missions at the same time, it often leads to conflicts (not bang bang, but ERROR 404).

mr_indiff
mr_indiff

Feels like Ghost in the Shell, put into modern times.  Hopefully the main story spans for several hours, with a lot of (free) bonus content/sidequests.

Verenti
Verenti

This game is going to be a huge disappointment, because my expectations are through the roof. Especially after the James Cameron-eske all-fx-no-plot ship wreck (ha-ha.) that was Bioshock Infinite.

snaketus
snaketus

This looks very interesting. I hope they don't rush it or mess it up some other way. And I also wondering is PC version current or next gen? I really hope it's next gen version, or even better if you can set it up by choosing, like some Tomb Raider game few years ago. I'd go for PS4 version for sure if there's finally the support for keyboard and mouse controls, I doubt it though. If so it would lessen my PC gaming drastically.

stealthyninja81
stealthyninja81

sort of what I got from deus ex, lots of grey areas and stuff to think about while your playing.

snake3rules
snake3rules

As someone born and raised in Chicago, this looks too good to pass up... City looks amazing, and the gameplay and ideas on display are top notch... Can't wait til November!

unam10122
unam10122

looks awesome, cant wait for watch dogs 2 next year and watch dogs 3 the year after that

freedomspopular
freedomspopular

I feel like there's a lot of potential stuff here that's gonna be held back by current-gen hardware. Should have just stuck with next-gen.

RustedTruck650
RustedTruck650

I'll definetly get this one if it ends up being like we are lead to believe in the trailers.

petez34
petez34

I will be holding my breath for this one. K, not really. Hope it's good though. 

Daniel Courtney
Daniel Courtney

yes it can exist in real life, technology is already capable.

couchtater12345
couchtater12345

What I really want out of this game is an engaging story. This has the potential for a riveting plot; I just hope it doesn't degenerate into cliché and predictable plot twists

Xavier Durand Coleman
Xavier Durand Coleman

It's already in progress. They already have computer chips in everything from a phone to a refrigerator. All you need to do is wait 10 to 15 more years where the technology will be so cheap everyone can afford one. If someone successfully hacked your smartphone they would know basically every detail of life. Hence why there are so many apps and services that exist now that will allow you to remotely delete all of your data if you happen to lose your phone.

Ramkumar Nadar
Ramkumar Nadar

yes hacking is possible of course, rest all seems convincing