Aiden Pierce is a complicated man, or at the very least he likes to think he’s a complicated man. After his niece was killed in a drive-by shooting in retaliation for a recent hack on a bank in a hotel , Aiden has turned vigilante and decided that Chicago needs its criminal element cleaned up. After the cutscenes that set up Aiden’s motivation are finished at the top of the game, we are given control of him. Aiden is in a backroom of Wrigley Field torturing a man named Maurice Vega, who he believes is the man who shot his niece in the drive-by. The literal first thing that the player is tasked with doing is to shoot Maurice.
*Spoilers for Watch_Dogs ahead*
No I’m not kidding. The very first bit of controlled gameplay we get as a player in Watch_Dogs is to kill a man in cold blood. We pull the trigger and wait that split second for the man to die. Only he doesn’t. The gun was empty and Aiden just wanted to scare Maurice. The game waited to let the player know this until the trigger had already been pulled. Maurice freaks out so Aiden knocks him out and leaves him to be collected by Jordi Chen, his hired “Fixer” friend.
Not a great start.
Watch_Dogs is not a good game. I was excited about it before it came out like a lot of people. Then I got my hands on it and was disappointed by the blandness of it all. The ctOS powered Chicago, for all it’s elaborate hacking minigames and standard Ubisoft map-unlocking radio towers dotted about the city, felt completely hollow. In addition to that, the missions are frustrating because of the extremely bad controls. I more than once shut the game off in anger after crashing my car one too many times and losing the target I was chasing. The story isn’t exciting or interesting either. In fact Maurice is carted off to the background for the rest of the game, only to pop up again after the credits have rolled. This is an interesting decision to make with the only man who Aiden can definitively link to the murder of his niece. And perhaps the worst detail of the game has to deal with its protagonist: Aiden Pierce is not a good person.
This is actually a detail that I found intriguing at first. Throughout the game the question is raised about whether or not what Aiden is doing is the right thing. From a storytelling standpoint, I liked this. By the end of the game even Aiden had alienated the family he became a vigilante to protect. He had been in denial about the fact that he has been killing people, not “bad guys” or “enemies,” but People. It didn’t matter if the men Aiden was killing were hired mercenary hackers or thugs from rival gangs, he was still indiscriminately murdering people and the rest of the people he cares about in the game made sure to remind him of that.
But the game plays this like an origin story. The first of presumably several Watch_Dogs games sets Aiden up as a vigilante who will do anything to combat ctOS in any city it pops up in. This does a horrible disservice to the narrative that precedes this ending. By posing the question of whether or not Aiden is a good person, the game has made me accept the fact that he is not and nothing he has done justifies his decisions. There are several examples I could bring up to prove this but for the sake of this argument I am going to stick to Maurice.
After the end of the game, after the credits have rolled and the story is over, the game returns to Aiden’s perspective. He has returned to deal with Maurice, who has been locked up this entire time in a dingy garage being tortured by Jordi. Maurice chides Aiden, insulting him and daring Aiden to kill him. Then the game gives us a final “choice.” I wasn’t expecting the kind of choice that Telltale or Bioware games give me, the ones that change the story depending on my actions. Even without this expectation I was nonetheless enraged by the final choice I was presented with. At the end of Watch_Dogs, we as the player are asked to choose whether or not to kill Maurice once and for all.
Let’s discard the fact that Aiden has already killed hundred of people over the course of the game, or the fact that he coldly watched an old man slowly die of heart failure after shutting off his pacemaker. Let’s even forget that there was an entire mission of the game which ended with Aiden shipping his family off to another state not only because they were in danger but because they didn’t want anything to do with him anymore because of what he had done in Chicago as a vigilante. What are the implications of this so-called “choice?” What happens if we let Maurice go?
Maurice has been attacked, kidnapped, and tortured because of Aiden throughout this game. Yes, he was the man who murdered Aiden’s niece. But he didn’t do it out of malice. The world in this game makes it clear that people like Maurice are killers-for-hire. It was just a job to Maurice. This doesn’t make what he did better, but it can be used to understand his psychology a little bit. Imagine what he is feeling right now, having been kidnapped and tortured for doing his job. He’s pretty pissed to say the least. If he is let go, who knows what would happen? For all the hope that Maurice has learned his lesson and won’t retaliate, there is very equal chance Maurice will attack Aiden again. Maurice could even go to the cops and tell them what happened to him because of Aiden. In short, leaving Maurice alive is a gambit. This is especially true since Aiden has not seen him since he first abducted him. Jordi was not once characterized as a reserved person and could have inflicted all kinds of sick torturous interrogation methods on Maurice since then. In the end, Aiden could be forced to eventually kill Maurice anyway.
Think again on the man Aiden has come to believe himself to be. His family is gone, his “friends” having betrayed or died for him, and the only person he can consider an ally any more is T-Bone, the half-crazed redneck hacker. Even that relationship is tenuous. Up until this point, Watch_Dogs has portrayed itself as the slow descent of a man into Punisher-style vigilantism. He didn’t believe he was doing anything 100% wrong on his quest until it dawned on him that he was and that in order to succeed he had to reconcile that fact with himself. So how are we to believe that this is a choice at all? That Aiden wouldn’t simply kill Maurice for the simple fact that he wants revenge for his niece? Aiden has killed the men who paid Maurice, why should he feel bad about killing the trigger-man? If Aiden is the man who must accept the blood on his hands to continue his crusade, how is this choice even of any significance?
I recall a choice I made in video-gaming long before this that I felt like Watch_Dogs was deliberately trying to evoke: the choice of whether or not to kill Darko Brevic in Grand Theft Auto IV.
Throughout GTA IV, Niko Bellic had been portrayed as a man who didn’t want to continue his life of violence. He was simply good at it, so he used those skills to track down the man who had betrayed him in Serbia. Late in the game Darko Brevic is found and Niko is faced with the choice to kill him. This choice has no effect on the game whatsoever, in fact the actual endgame is yet to come later and is a direct result of Niko’s actions earlier in the game during his mission to find Darko. But the choice effects Niko emotionally. The game is not posing the question of whether or not Darko should die, but whether or not Niko—our Niko, the Niko we as the player decided he was as a man—should take his revenge. It’s a marvelous moment in the game. Darko is a pathetic man who sold his friends out for a pittance. Niko is disgusted by the very sight of him. In my playthroughs though, I always let him live. My Niko, when faced with the opportunity to get his revenge, relents. He lets his hatred go in order to try and live a normal life now that he has closure. Of course, this is almost immediately upended later in the game, but it was who my Niko was in that moment that mattered. My Niko, regardless of all the dead that lay in his wake, was nonetheless a good man.
Aiden Pierce is not a good man. He tried to be a good man, but in doing so he descended into the darkness and accepted himself for who he was: a hacker-style Punisher.
That is why the last choice of the game infuriated me so much. It wasn’t a choice at all. Letting Maurice go would go against everything that the game had made me believe about Aiden up until that point. So, moments after the credits rolled and I was given back control of Aiden, the game proposed this choice to me and I shot Maurice. Not because I wanted to, in fact I didn’t want to deal with Maurice at all. But in that moment I did not for a second believe that the Aiden I had been playing as would let him go.
And in that moment I missed Niko Bellic. I missed my Niko, the one who I had last left in an opulent apartment in Liberty City, grieving the loss of his girlfriend but happy that his niece will be named in her honor. I missed the Niko Bellic who had traversed the criminal underworld of Liberty City and come out the other side scarred by violence. And yet through all that violence my Niko had managed to remain something that my Aiden had deliberately refused to be: a good man.
That is the hero I wanted to root for.