Watch Dogs vs. Sleeping Dogs: Narrative In Open World Games

I started playing Watch Dogs not long ago, and decided within about 20 minutes that Aiden Pierce was a combination of Batman and The Doctor.

It made a surprising amount of sense: He’s a vigilante who hides among the shadows following the death of a family member. He can interact with any electronic device from a distance. He steps into the light only when he has the upper hand. And most importantly, violence doesn’t seem to be his end goal. Pierce is disdainful of the killings his colleague Jordi carries out so easily, and spares the life of his niece’s killer when he could have shot him dead.

My Aiden Pierce is Batman. My Aiden Pierce is The Doctor.

Then I started encountering the forced combat sequences. Watched helplessly as my efforts at stealth collapsed the moment I was spotted by a lone enemy. Realized the game kept leaving guns lying around at key points, as if to suggest “Pierce is going to need this now”.

No he doesn’t, Watch Dogs. My Aiden Pierce is Batman. My Aiden Pierce is The Doctor. You promised me complete freedom, and if that means I want to be a pacifist, by God I’m going to be one.

Several excruciating hours and dozens of deaths later, I’m entering a room to save a hostage from armed guards. They immediately spot me when I enter the room. Stealth is not an option. The majority of hackable objects will not disable targets. And when I finally defeat them (by turning down the game’s difficulty) an armored Enforcer enters the room who can’t be taken out with a melee attack.

Watch Dogs’ marketing promised complete freedom. Its cutscenes implied the option of being a non-violent character. Even assuming I read the character wrong, my experience still runs counter to what I expected going in. So what’s happening here?

The term “ludonarrative dissonance” gets thrown around a lot when describing these issues. It refers to the idea of story and gameplay in a video game not really synching up — like a character being opposed to murder in cutscenes, but the player then gunning down thousands of enemy soldiers during playable portions. The term itself has arguably been overused by game journalists in recent years, but it’s incredibly useful for open-world games, a genre that is increasingly common across all platforms.

But gameplay alone isn’t enough.

Player agency, the freedom to complete missions and side quests in any order, and sheer wealth of gameplay in open-world titles are certainly impressive. But gameplay alone isn’t enough. If you’re also telling a story, you need a narrative, even a basic one that provides some context for the player’s actions. And as soon as narrative is introduced to an open-world game, your character’s personality should reflect the range of actions they’ll be completing to maintain consistency. In a truly open-world game, that’s harder than it sounds.

In an open-world city, your default actions usually amount to a Grand Theft Auto level of freedom. Players can go anywhere in any vehicle, and are free to start a mass rampage in-between missions if they get bored. The problem is that early Grand Theft Auto games weren’t about complete freedom: They were about freedom in context to a very specific narrative. Player characters were lowly criminals making their mark in a corrupt city, so gameplay choices highlighted how awful the protagonists were capable of becoming. Playthroughs focusing on missions and avoiding the police addressed career criminals. Those about destroying city blocks in Liberty City addressed sociopathic monsters.

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3 Comments on Watch Dogs vs. Sleeping Dogs: Narrative In Open World Games

Kontarek

On July 22, 2014 at 2:51 pm

I felt Sleeping Dogs suffered from the very same problem you described in Watch Dogs: forced gunfights increasingly shoved in your face. The best part of SD by far was the beginning when you were spin kicking mobs of triads in every mission, learning new kung-fu moves, and seeing the introduction of Wei’s internal Cop vs. Triad dilemma.

But then the game starts throwing guns at you and everything goes downhill. Missions turn into bullet-spraying massacres, kung-fu sections become much less prevalent, and the lack of any interesting new melee opponents or moves mean that the kung-fu sections that are still around become stale (although that one bit where you fight the monks was pretty awesome).

Not to mention the fact that all that unavoidable gun-murdering ends up pretty firmly putting Wei on the Triad side of the spectrum as far as I’m concerned. An ambiguous protagonist like you’ve proposed here shouldn’t be forced into having a three digit body count by the end of the game.

The main issue I had with SD’s story was that you never felt as if Triad/Cop actions had any sort of consequence on the story or Wei’s character, and the forced gunfights in the latter half of the game really reinforce that. Have you been Batmanning it the whole time like a good cop? Just spin-kicking suckers into submission with your godly form? Too bad. Here’s an assault rifle, now kill everything in sight.

If anything, I say the sort of in-between/not really in one camp or the other direction they tried to take with Wei just made him bland. Either have a silent protagonist you can fully project on, or make it so that the choices you make affect the behavior of the character in cutscenes. Or just take Saints Row’s route and default to bat insane.

Just another player

On July 22, 2014 at 3:44 pm

I never read the pre-release promo material so I can’t say what the developers did or did not promise. But it’s clear from playing the game [SPOILER WARNING] that it is impossible to play the game as a non-violent protagonist. When the Vigilante needs to save his nephew Jacks, he is required to kill all the bad guys at the gang location. There is absolutely no way around it. Saw a lot of ppl complaining about this on various forums [END SPOILER].

So I walked away with a different take; namely, the game was about Pearce coming to the understanding that he was naive to think that he could take on the role of vigilante/righter of wrongs while also avoiding danger to his family and avoiding committing some violence himself. The criminals were simply too bad and too well connected — and the stakes were too high — to allow the possibility of Pearce being able to keep his identity hidden; and for him to completely avoid any violence.

Really the story started out with Pearce trying for justice in response to violence to his family that he had not anticipated. That theme was there throughout the story. But by the end of the story, it became quite clear that violence was absolutely part and parcel of the role he had taken on. His sister repeatedly warned him but he didn’t believe her/believed he could protect her. By the end he/ and we/ understood that having a family and keeping them safe was impossible in the Pearce scenario,

I didn’t like the absence of my ability to change the character and the story. I was a viewer of the story as it played out and had no possibility to change anything. But the story of a hacker taking on the internet of things was interesting to me and the game by and large did a decent if not pretty good job of allowing interaction with those things in the internet of things.

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bob

On July 23, 2014 at 7:00 pm

how can you compare watch dogs to sleeping dogs man you guys are just lowly little maggots