E3 2013: ‘Watch Dogs’ writer maps Chicago, morality of vigilantism

June 15, 2013 | 10:13 p.m.
Kevin Shortt, lead writer for Ubisoft's "Watchdog." (Jevon Phillips / Los Angeles Times)

Kevin Shortt, lead writer for Ubisoft’s “Watch Dogs.” (Jevon Phillips / Los Angeles Times)

Ubisoft’s November title “Watch Dogs” had attendees at the recently concluded Electronic Entertainment Expo lining up for an in-depth look. The Chicago-set game explores the world through the eyes of a technologically savvy vigilante whose motivations and intentions can vary according to the player’s wishes. To learn more about “Watch Dogs” and the history behind the project, Hero Complex spoke to lead script writer Kevin Shortt (“Avatar: The Game”).

HC: How did the concept for “Watch Dogs” originate?

KS: We started with a small core team very early on, four years ago actually, and mostly we just talked about what we wanted. We quickly zeroed in on the idea of having a cellphone and being able to use the cellphone to basically control the city, and what that would mean. For us, that then became, OK, there’s privacy issues in that — being able to hack into people’s phones, hacking into conversations — and it slowly grew from there.

HC: So then the concept arose…

KS: It’s about a man named Aiden Pearce who is a guy with a complicated past who has made some mistakes in his life, lived on the wrong side of the law — and he’s made enemies. Those enemies end up coming after him, and because of that, his family gets hurt. So when our story starts, Aiden Pearce is after vengeance, and he wants to get the people who hurt his family. At the same time, he’s trying to protect his family from anything like that ever happening again. The way he does that is he monitors then 24/7 with surveillance cameras. He’s a bit obsessive. He’s paranoid, over the top. As he’s doing that, he starts to see crimes elsewhere — seeing a guy getting mugged or a woman being attacked. He’s the kind of guy that can’t just stand by and do nothing, so almost by accident he becomes this vigilante in Chicago trying to stop crimes anywhere.

HC: So that’s where we come into the game as players?

KS: Yeah. We step into Aiden’s life while he’s trying to find the people responsible for [messing] with him.

HC: What challenges do you face in writing a game like this?

KS: With film and television you’ve got a single storyline … and that’s it. I’m not trying to make light of it, those are obviously very, very hard to write, but you’re dealing with one clear path that the writer controls. The writer controls exactly all of the twists and turns and all the moments. With a video game, the difference is that you’re adding a new element. You’re dropping a player into this equation, and now the player starts affecting certain things. We stuck with a pretty linear story in the game. It’s one main story, but where it gets rich for us is the world around that story. The opportunities to be the vigilante that you want to be in the game. What type of vigilante do you want to be? Are you the type that just recklessly goes after his own goals no matter what, or do you want to be more responsible about it? The city responds to you appropriately, so we have to write all that. We have to write how the city reacts to you as a vigilante. We have to write all the phone conversations that you hear in the game, and we wanted to create a sense that you’re in real world Chicago. Real world Chicago has over two million people, so obviously we’re not writing that many conversations, but we had to make it so that if you’re going to play that experience, you should never hear the same conversation twice. You have to get the experience of tapping into a huge world. So, there’s a lot of content.

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HC: So you went to Chicago and walked around and got the feel of the city?

KS: You have to, right? You can’t write it from Montreal. We’ve got to feel the city, experience the city. All the voices that you hear in the game in the city … all from Chicago. We had to go there, and they were great and were excited to be a part of the game. They’ve got a dialect and an accent that are very distinct in Chicago and we wanted to make sure that we nailed that. It’s a beautiful city.

HC: What do you think about the game’s reception so far — at E3 and beyond?

KS: It’s been very very exciting. Last year when we came here we were an unknown quantity. We were confident but we were very nervous. You just don’t know  how people are going to respond. Same thing this year. People know us, and we can see that people are excited, but you still don’t know. You’re still putting your baby out there and hoping that everyone connects with it. I’ve been very excited to see the reactions.

HC: The trailer, like many games out now, is very cinematic. What’s the latest news on movie plans?

KS: There’s talks right now. Ubisoft Motion Pictures is looking to partner for a feature film, or a movie project — I don’t know if it’s a feature film — on “Watch Dogs.” Then of course, in the game, we’ve got the cellphones, Pearce’s cellphone. So it’s a natural extension for us that we make sure that there is a cellphone app and a tablet app to the game that is integral to the experience.

— Jevon Phillips

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex



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