Summer Madness; The Lingering Effect

Posted on: July 3rd, 2014 by Arie Salih

It’s late out. I’m dressed in an old rustic brown striped coat, and I’m quietly staring at the Chicago skyline glittering from the abandoned rooftop of an old warehouse. I went up here to hack a ctOS server in order to get the power grid back on, and numerous activities have now surfaced on my map of the city. Most of these activities involve “Fixer” contracts to take down a criminal on a designated set path before they arrive to their destination, or “Gang” missions to clear out a large number of faceless goons, to help stabilize the city.

But none of the modes of engagement in Watch_Dogs feel more fascinating than taking a stroll around the city and enjoying the ambiance. I’ve been following BLANK, a fellow insomniac that’s drifting about in the late hours. Observing the pedestrian behavior of the random inhabitants in the city is a marvel in itself. On our walk around the block, I stop and am transfixed by the sight of a freestyle battle, complete with a boombox. Two rappers are flowing back and forth about guns and cars, while a group of onlookers move robotically in rhythm to the verses dropped in succession. Across the yard, I catch sight of a man juggling a soccer ball with great skill – awestruck by his endless energy in popping the ball up without letting it hit the ground.

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I must’ve watched BLANK kick the ball for nearly five minutes, before realizing that the freestyle battle has been looping. The character behavior that can appear so wonderful, and completely immersive, is broken if you stick around too long. It’s the lingering effect – a rule in open world titles; it breaks credibility if you stare hard enough, or wait around to see if something dynamic will occur. Often times, following a unique individual halfway across Chicago results in nothing more than a beautiful walk as the day/night cycle marches on outside of scripted missions. I carefully nudge the soccer aficionado enough to stop the juggling, only to be met with an angry remark (“HEY WATCH OUT!”). I watch the man enter a walking animation as the ball drifts into the street, as if he and I both were pretending that he wasn’t Franck Ribéry’s spiritual successor in the World Cup.

The dynamic behavior of NPCs, and a player’s interaction with the world, can vary dramatically. And that’s a piece of the open world genre that is evolving, but very slowly. As I ambled about in Chicago, trailing the insomniac, I paused and witnessed two drivers get into a fender bender. The tires screeched as a car went slamming into the back of another. I stopped trailing to watch the drivers get out of their vehicles – each muttering some expression of their own disappointment. Neither seemed to acknowledge the other’s presence, and each were trapped in their own thoughts about being upset with the situation. After nearly a minute of yelling out loudly (not at each other, but to themselves), they both calmly walked away from the scene, carefree as their smashed cars lay deserted and smoking in the street.

And it’s precisely this – that even in the best roleplaying scenario, I’m invisible. Utterly, and completely. Outside of prescribed crimes to intervene in, or mini-map objective markers placed to engage in a chase or assassination, I’m Aiden Pearce – a blank slate of a man, willing to destroy and kill thousands to protect his sister and nephew. I can be a vigilante when the notification pops up, signaling that a crime is about to occur. I can hack into other’s phones, read text conversations or listen in on phone calls, but I can’t speak to anyone. I get yelled at occasionally for disrupting another person from incessantly continuing their animated activity – usually by mistakenly bumping into them. I start to forget that my character has a voice, until I fall from great heights to hear his howling, or him grunting from pain. I don’t utter words, or have meaningful interactions with anyone in the city. I’ve got a phone – a phone to be endlessly entertained by: live vicariously through the funny little messages of other people, or hear terse phone calls that occasionally end in a bit of surprise. I can use this phone to spy on the people walking around, or playing soccer for hours, or to go on scary digital trips. In one, aptly titled “Alone,” I’m being hunted by city dwellers (transformed into monstrous robots) in the darkness, and I’ve got to creep about in order to liberate sections of the city without getting attacked. It’s a silent nightmare.

It reminds me of Leigh Alexander’s critical piece concerning power fantasies and the lack of interaction in Grand Theft Auto V (Link !). She writes: “I drive my shiny car around Los Santos and I kind of wish I had a turn signal. Stranded in traffic, I honk the horn over and over again, and nobody moves. I am triangulated by some missions, none of which I really want to do, stuck in the city’s web of repetition.” It’s a similar situation – we’ve got guns, batons to beat down the bad guys, and this time around, a phone to manipulate the environment to kill more bad guys. At least in this iteration, there’s a new emphasis on stealth-killing all the “red ones,” in closed areas, if you so choose, even as the plot remains mired in family melodrama and superficial hacking psychosis. But there’s the rub – the story mission markers directly force you into closed areas to take out enemies. The more open, expansive backdrop of Chicago is there for you to peacefully enjoy how you see fit, silently. Just don’t linger too long.

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