Feature Article

Watch Dogs: Legion Director Clint Hocking On Embracing Its Political Themes

From Far Cry to Splinter Cell, Clint Hocking came back to Ubisoft for Watch Dogs: Legion. He shares his thoughts on the game's politics, non-lethal weapons, and collaborative writing process.

It's been 12 years since Clint Hocking last had his name on a game that shipped: Far Cry 2 in 2008. He's bounced around several studios--LucasArts, Amazon, Valve--but has come back around to Ubisoft to take the lead on the upcoming Watch Dogs: Legion, which is set to launch on October 29 this year. In addition to a four-hour hands-on demo with the game, I had a chance to speak briefly with Hocking about how the development team have approached building its unmistakably political world.

Watch Dogs: Legion pulls a lot of inspiration from the struggles we've seen in the real world; in the game, you'll see protests signs and banners, messages of grassroots resistance to fight police brutality, and London quickly turning into a tech dystopia run by an authoritarian regime. Hocking has made the political connection very clear in how he's spoken about the game. During our preview presentation before Ubisoft Forward, he stated that "social inequalities are growing, partisan politics are stoking the flames of division, nationalism is on the rise, unemployment is up" to describe the backdrop to the narrative. And he provided more insight in our conversation below.

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Now Playing: Watch Dogs: Legion Hands-On Impressions: Character Swapping & Revolution

If you want impressions of the demo experience, be sure to check out my preview on how Watch Dogs: Legion's play-as-anyone feature opens up wild gameplay possibilities. You can also read about Watch Dogs: Legion's story and get a deeper dive into the political context it's working with. The following interview took place over Discord and has been edited for readability and clarity.

In your presentation to us, you stated that Watch Dogs: Legion touches on inequalities, nationalism, politics, unemployment, authoritarianism, holding those in power accountable. I think it's fair when people hear that and think the game is simply just using these themes. But is there a message that you are trying to send?

Yeah, for sure. And I've said this just as many times as I said those other things: I think the theme of the game is really about people, ordinary people, putting aside their differences and coming together to support each other and to fight together to rebuild a better future. It's not about the dude on the box who's going to save us all from evil, right? It's about all of us working together. I think the themes that we're seeing in the world today are really reflected in that.

The idea of the ordinary heroes that are around us, standing together in the face of incredible adversity is a really relevant theme today. But I think that it speaks a lot to what our game has been about from the beginning, that we see the importance of these themes in the real world today.

How do you and the writing team frame things like nationalism and inequalities to make sure you portray them realistically and in ways that reflect our real world?

We worked very hard on Watch Dogs: Legion to make sure we had a very diverse team of writers and narrative designers. So, we have a lot of diverse voices on our team, and it's a very collaborative team. It's part of the structure and the nature of the game with so many different narrative personas and the idea that it's not one author writing a story and a bunch of writers that are providing content. It's more of a team that has to collaborate to cover all of the story elements. And so the authorship is really shared across that team.

That's one part of it. There's another important part to your question, which speaks more to being responsible and diligent in doing our research. And we're very lucky to have had enough time to work on this game. We had a lot of time to do the research and to look at current events, geopolitics, and trends politically in the world and in the UK, specifically. And I think that our writers in particular have done a really good job of trying to understand the world that surrounds the themes of our game. It's really an impressive team that has done great work.

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Of course, these games take three, four years to make. Things have changed drastically just since the reveal at E3 only last year, though. How much room does the team have to pivot to account for things like that, if there's any case you've had to?

I don't think we had to pivot, and I'm not trying to claim any credit for this, because I think that [our game has] the themes that we're seeing--in particular with COVID and you can literally recruit nurses and paramedics and you can play as these frontline responders. And you look at the Black Lives Matter movement and people from different cultures in different organizations standing together for what's right. I don't think we needed to pivot to make our game be about those things, our game was about those things before. And the reality is, these things were there before they became extremely topical in the last several months as well.

Five years ago when we set out to make this game, we were looking at sort of speculative fiction trends. We were looking at what are the kinds of crises we think a Watch Dogs game should be about in 2015, 16, 17, 18. And then as we were making the game, we caught up with some of those things and some of those things came at us maybe faster than we anticipated. And that's sort of why we're up to where we are.

And of course, Occupy movements took place before today.

Yeah. It's funny you say that, because now Occupy seems like it was decades ago. But then I remember in the early days, looking at photos of Occupy and reading articles about Occupy, and talking about how those kinds of movements would be increasingly relevant. That was part of our inspiration and it was formative for when we were thinking about the game in the early stages.

In Watch Dogs: Legion, a PMC comes in to overtake law enforcement. I haven't played the whole game, so I don't know exactly how the story is going to play out. But I do have concerns about placing the theme of police brutality onto a PMC. Maybe it seems like dodging the overall concept that police brutality comes from the state as well. State-sanctioned violence is a very real thing that has very much come to surface today. To me it seems like putting a PMC in place so there's the easy entity to villainize. What would you say to that concern?

It's a very fair question. And I think that it's one that, in the face of calls to defund police, is a thing that from my point of view has happened very suddenly and does challenge some of the preconceptions that our game was about. But again, thinking back to five years ago, when we started working on this game, the average Metropolitan Police officer in London isn't carrying a firearm.

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At the beginning, we were dealing with trying to represent a London where we needed to have the authorities be an existential threat to your characters. They needed to be armed and they needed to be aggressive and be able to use lethal force. And we didn't feel at that time that it would be reasonable to represent a heavily militarized Metropolitan Police force. And I still don't feel that would be a fair representation of the Metropolitan Police today, but that doesn't mean that there aren't real questions that need to be examined and addressed.

We have Albion in the game and that's the way the game set itself up for years, and that's the game we're going to ship. And I think if these are the kinds of questions that we'll have to confront, I hope we can confront them respectfully and with the diligence that they deserve.

One of the things that I really like in Legion is the arsenal of less-than-lethal options. And I think that's really important because when I played Watch Dogs 2, I didn't think that killing people in many cases fit who I thought Marcus was. So was that a conscious decision to make sure you incorporated less-than-lethal options that are viable? And do your actions, going less-than-lethal, is that reflected in any way in the game?

Yeah, absolutely. Making sure that the player had a wide range of less-than-lethal options was really important to us. Even before we decided we were going to London, and even before we started figuring out Albion and who the armed enemies would be. In the very beginning, we decided to build a melee system in order to be able to actually properly represent police who aren't armed with guns. So there's a whole melee system that was built in order to be able to enable the player to make decisions about whether or not to escalate force, and whether to escalate with non-lethal weapons or potentially with lethal weapons, depending on the context.

In the game, if you do not draw a gun, it's very unlikely that even Albion will draw a gun against you. They still will if they see you beat up five or six of their guys, eventually they'll go to guns and you'll get a warning, so that you know it's about to happen where drones will broadcast the warnings at you, telling you that they're going to be authorized to open fire. But still a big focus for us was always, if you play without using guns and you stick to melee combat, in general, you won't be fired upon. But even if you do end up being fired upon, you still will have plenty of non-lethal weapons and non-lethal options.

Then of course, we want it to [work] with play-as-anyone--some characters like a hitman, assassins, former commandos, and people who have lethal weapons and are trained to use them. And we want those to be the kinds of characters you can play as well.

The way you talk about not wanting to kill people because Marcus didn't want to kill people, and that's how you perceived his character, that's great. And I feel exactly the same way. And I feel we have, with play-as-anyone, a world with many characters who probably would never want to use a gun of any kind and can stick to just using their hands or willing to use non-lethal force.

There might also be characters that you would recruit in play as, who have no compunctions about using lethal weapons. And the way I like to play the game personally is, if I'm playing a hitman who has an assault rifle and a 50-caliber automatic pistol, I'm going to role play a character who's going to use lethal force. That's how I personally engage with the game, and I think it's a valid way to look at it.

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I know that play-as-anyone is a huge focus narratively and gameplay-wise, but one of my favorite aspects of Watch Dogs 2 was Marcus Holloway. Particularly, there's a conversation with Horatio, when they went to his tech job and he talked about how he was the only Black person working there, and how that's a social dynamic that affects Horatio every day at work. Marcus identifies with that because they're both Black characters. That's such a strong moment, almost my favorite moment in Watch Dogs 2.

Yeah. Me too.

With playing as anyone, I imagine the character you're controlling isn't going to have the same level of narrative focus because of just the way it's structured. Can we still expect those character moments in Legion or have you had to put that aside?

I think that Watch Dogs 1 and 2 had the luxury of developing those characters over the course of many hours through an offered storyline. Whereas with play-as-anyone, we have more of an ensemble cast who each have smaller moments in which they have to shine. They have to exhibit their personality and the meaningful parts of their character. I think that there are times, particularly in the recruiting missions, depending on the character, you get and the context of their mission and you can have story beats that give you a little bit of a sucker punch.

But you're right, because of the structure of the game, we don't have the same level of authorial control over how and when those moments land, and necessarily the context around those moments. Our belief is that it's the player's investment in those characters and the player's willingness to engage with those characters that makes those moments, if not as authored by us, hopefully as personal to the player. It's definitely a different approach to try to tell a story, but it's one that we really believe in and we think has the opportunity to be just as powerful if it's different from more traditionally authored story structures.


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Michael Higham

Editor and host at GameSpot going on 5 years! The venn diagram between Persona, FFXIV, Yakuza, and Nier is a circle. I am the circle. If it's JRPGs, I have it covered. Apparently I'm the tech expert here, too? Salamat sa 'yong suporta!

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