An average person creates a “data ghost” of more than 2 gigabytes, the trailer for Ubisoft’s newly announced Watch Dogs tells us. A data ghost is a collection of all the logged data that can be attributed to a person, from medical records to online browsing habits. In aggregate this data can be used to create a speculative picture of who a person is that can then be used to manipulate them in a variety of creepy and hideous ways.
Watch Dogs is a kind of third person observation game with periodic outbursts of violence built around this idea. You play as Aiden Pearce, a fugitive who can instantly connect to a person’s data ghost while traveling around in the world, which turns him into a stealthy invader and observer. He also has a cell phone tool that allows him to disrupt various electronic signals. The demo showed him sneaking into a night club and using his abilities to track down an informant out of the massive crowd on the dancefloor.
The searching gameplay, which just adds a light overlay on the screen that adds faint white lines connecting a person with an information box that reveals a few personal curiosities about them, is both hypnotic and horrifying. It’s the sum of all the speculative fears about privacy compromises in the age of digital selves. Once some magical computer widget can connect you to a data profile as you’re out in public and without your consent, every distinction between public and private personhood will have been violated.
In the club a contact gives Pearce a gun and he heads back outside where he sees his subject, a wealthy media executive who’s in need of punishment, in a passing car. Pearce shorts the stoplight in the intersection, causes a big car accident and commencing a gunfight. As ever, videogames punish evildoers with outburst of gunfire, and Watch Dogs easily reduces into a cover-based shooter where a lone gunmen (you!) kills a half-dozen people before delivering deathly retribution to the man in the bad guy suit.
In spite of its gunplay Watch Dogs offers a fine example of how persuasive non-violent gameplay can be. Just moving through a place with an ability to learn more about the people in it can be transfixing. Which is the final ironic twist in Watch Dogs, implicating players in the wicked indulgence of spying on people while at the same time recoiling in horror from the thought that such a thing might one day be possible.