urbanDNA: Where did the idea of using the “city as a weapon” originate?
Danny Belanger: The core inspiration was connectivity. We wanted the player to be able to connect with the world and with others in a very efficient way.
Every time we added something to the city, we wanted to interact with it and create gameplay with it.
There are about 100 interactions the player can engage in with the infrastructure, ranging from trains, the electric system, to traffic control.
The main character can control traffic management systems, communications infrastructure, power supply, and transportation systems.
Can you name some more examples of what options players will have?
Players will be able to manipulate communications systems including the phones of civilians; heating systems;
the player can manipulate surveillance cameras and use them to infiltrate a sector.
The main character breaks into WiFi systems. The police chopper can be hacked.
There’s just so many elements that can be manipulated… the challenge for us as designers was not to
make it too easy for the player.
In general, how do you personally view the types of infrastructure and technologies that are exploited in the game? Are they inherently threatening?
I definitely think technology has both light and darkness. It’s in the way we use it and what we are ready to accept, as people.
Lately, people are more and more willing to be public through social media, many of the WiFi systems in our homes are linked to cameras...
all of those are, in a way, vulnerabilities, but they are also ways to reach out socially.
We wanted to highlight a “what-if” situation: What if you’re the type of person who has a very active public image and you’re leaving a lot of digital data out there,
and this character can use that data? It’s definitely a concern.
So would you say there’s a tradeoff between the benefits and risks of fully integrated systems?
For our game design, we studied the concept of centralized infrastructures. Certainly there are huge benefits to being able to coordinate within those systems in a very smart way.
We’ve pushed that concept very far with the premise that a single individual can manipulate all of that.
The point is that if someone can hack those... well, you want to be sure that they’re really safe.
It’s one thing to hack someone’s phone, and another thing to hack the whole traffic system of a city.
Our goal in designing Watch Dogs was to make the best possible game using these tools, not to pass moral judgment on the infrastructure systems that are coming, inevitably.
But obviously, there is collateral risk associated with these systems, and that’s something to think about and be careful about.
Was there any specific reason why you chose Chicago as the setting for the game?
At first, it offered a lot of great features for Watch Dogs: A fantastic, rich architecture that is a mix of modern and older styles;
the Chicago River passing through the city center, spanned by bridges; other great infrastructure
elements such as the “L” rapid transit system – all of these aspects are very good for building rich gameplay.
Chicago also has the most advanced surveillance system in the US. And also, it’s just a nice canvas for storytelling because it has a rich history.
Would it be fair to say that cities are especially attractive settings for game designers because they offer so many opportunities for manipulation?
For us, that was definitely the case. It’s the world we live in today. As a player, it’s easy to feel connected to a story that is happening now in modern cities, because it feels
like our own lives and is very relevant to our own environment. That’s one of the strengths of Watch Dogs: All the scenes, the tone, the text… it all feels very relevant. We were a bit
afraid at first that we were going too far, but it appears that reality is catching up with us very quickly. Nevertheless, although our story is set in the near future, it’s not a dystopian world;
we wanted it to feel like our lives might be in a few years’ time, when centralized infrastructure is put in place. It has to feel like it can happen to all of us just a few years from now.
You live in Montreal. Has the game changed your own outlook as you move around the city?
Oh, definitely! I see a lot more things now. I’m much more aware of making information public and have second thoughts;
I notice how many cameras there are that are connected to WiFi systems, which I find quite troubling. How hard is it to gain
access to those cameras? I really don’t know.