“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
– Anthem by Leonard Cohen
I really enjoyed the original Watch Dogs. Everything about its gameplay spoke to my nature as a gamer. It felt like a modern day Assassin’s Creed, one of my favourite series to date, high praise coming from me. The game did have a major flaw though, and it’s one that I didn’t realize until reflecting on the game weeks after playing the final mission. I never really connected with lead character Aiden Pierce. “Why is that?”, I asked myself. Why do I not have the same emotional connection with Aiden that I do with other video game characters like Lara Croft or Nathan Drake? As I was introduced to the characters of Watch Dogs 2, I scrutinized each and every one, trying to decipher the magic recipe for that connection, and I think I have struck gold.
So what makes up the character of Aiden Pierce? He’s essentially the generic jaded white male archetype that we often see in video games. A shell of a character, really. Beyond his raison d’être of seeking vengeance against BLUME for the death of his niece (and resulting guilt), there is no real hook to get us, the player, invested in the guy. I realize that it could have been on purpose, taking the ‘Bella Swan’ style of approach (yeah that’s right. I just made a Twilight reference. Feel free to judge) so that the gamer could insert themselves into the character to make it their own. It didn’t really work out, and poor Aiden ended up feeling more bland than was probably intended. He had no personality that we could relate to on an everyday level, no humor, nothing to bring the man to life.
Moving on to the second round, my hopes were high that Watch Dogs 2 would fall in line with the pattern Ubisoft set when going from Assassin’s Creed to Assassin’s Creed 2… that is that Marcus Holloway would be the Ezio Auditore da Firenze of the Watch Dogs series. I put a lot of pressure on the game’s character development when starting the game.
The crew that makes up DedSec, the rag tag group of misfits and anti-heroes trying to take down BLUME and ctOS, reminded me of other teams that we have seen in recent movies. The characters of the Fast & Furious franchise had to have been a reference for DedSec. My emotional connection to that crew throughout the previous 7 movies is legendary (ask my husband. I cried like a baby during Furious 7). Dominic, Brian, Mia, Letty, and the rest of the Furious crew, each have a role, not just their task in the crew, but also their unique personality traits which serve for character development and to move the story forward. You could see the building friendships, romantic relationships, trust and animosity as the stories progressed, not just the crazy situations that they were put in, but the little intricacies in their personalities and actions. How they did something, how they talked about it, how they carried themselves, their facial expressions and their self doubts brought the characters to life. Most of all, their flaws drew me in more than anything else. The internal struggles of the Furious team, their moral, physical and romantic anguish, made me relate to them beyond what any crazy car chase could do. In meeting DedSec for the first time, I immediately saw this reference, this attempt to make the characters seem more real than Aiden Pierce could ever be.
I gravitated towards Wrench first. Why Wrench? Beyond the superb voice acting by Shawn Baichoo, I think it was the mask that drew me in. Yes the mask is cool with its animated ascii art eyes, and I frequently asked myself “why does Wrench wear that mask? What is he hiding behind it?” Next, I was drawn towards Josh. His awkwardness is endearing and I am sure everyone grew up with a book smart kid who was totally awkward. Then with Horatio, seeing his struggle with race in the workplace and watching him go through the most pivotal moment in the game, which I won’t spoil for you, was intense. The only member of the team that I knew previously due to his appearance in the original game was Raymond, and I found his character pretty hilarious before so I knew I would like him again.
My connection with Marcus was established after experiencing the game progress and seeing his interactions with his team. Yes he also struggles with race issues, which is essentially the trigger that starts all of his angst against BLUME and ctOS, but it’s the way he treats his team like family that becomes his most endearing quality. And there is one tear jerking moment where he breaks emotionally, and you feel for him much more than you did at the beginning of the game.
That leaves the only girl in the group, Sitara. She was the hardest one to like. Why though? At first I thought her character was a cop-out and I was a little offended by her role in the team. Being the only girl in the group, I was a bit angered that she was given the gig as ‘graphic designer’. I know, that is my profession and I love it, but there was something about coining her as the artist that seemed too cliche. My annoyance confused me. Why was it that I liked all the boys so much but couldn’t get into Sitara’s character? Was it because she was a girl? No, I usually like girl characters cause I can relate more…. Then it dawned on me.
Weakness. I had not seen Sitara’s weakness. I saw every other member of DedSec’s faults. Marcus with his struggle with race and his connection with his crew. Wrench and the mask. Josh and his awkwardness, Horatio who also dealt with race issues and also his story line (sorry I am being obtuse). I have finished the story mode in the game and I don’t remember seeing one moment of weakness in Sitara. Her character does nothing to pull on my heart strings, to make her feel more real to me. She seems shoehorned in as an obligatory character and becomes a weak link amidst the other more intriguingly rendered male characters. Maybe if they had made her one of the hackers in the group rather than the designer I would have had more of a connection with her. Like Marcus’ and Harachio’s struggle with race issues, I could have been drawn into Sitara’s character by seeing her deal with gender issues as a programmer. But alas, she just seems like an angry punky girl obsessed with gaining social media followers.
What was it that drew me into the character of the Fast and the Furious? Their faults. Their issues. The struggles they faced. Yeah they got to develop their characters over 7 movies (and there’s an 8th coming) but it was that first movie that hooked me. Every single character in their tight group that they called family had something they dealt with that made them feel real to me, even though their situation was anything but. And that’s what the best video game characters do to draw you in. Look at Nathan Drake (Uncharted). Look at Joel (The Last of Us). Look at the current version of Lara Croft (Tomb Raider). They all have character flaws. Character flaws that we can relate to. Yes Aiden had his struggles, but they weren’t close enough to real life to make us connect with him on that level.
Moral of the story is that if a game wants us to connect with the characters that live in the worlds they create, to have us be emotionally invested in what they do and who they are, they gotta hook us in the heart to make us hyped to play the next iteration of their games. The best way to do that is through faults that we in the real world can relate to. In the words of the late great Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”, and when it comes to character development, it’s that crack that sucks us in.
DISCLAIMER: Watch Dogs 2 review copy was provided by Ubisoft. The opinions expressed in the article above have not be affected by, dictated or edited in any way by the provider. For more information please see Girls on Games’ Code of Journalistic Ethics.