New video game plays on fears over US surveillance techniques

Watch Dogs features protagonist who hacks into various city systems

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 10:27pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 10:27pm


Hacker-themed video game Watch Dogs makes its hotly anticipated debut today in a world grappling with real-life fears about privacy in the internet era.

France-based Ubisoft's new title features a protagonist who controls the world around him by hacking into systems and has generated intense buzz for eerie parallels with the storm about US surveillance.

Games typically use weapons ranging from guns and swords to lasers and special powers to defeat enemies, overcome obstacles or simply score points.

But in Watch Dogs, the player-controlled anti-hero can access everything from the cellphone conversations and medical records of passers-by to computers which control traffic lights, to advance through the game.

"We knew we had a relevant topic," Canadian Ubisoft developer Dominic Guay said as the game was previewed at the E3 video game trade show last year.

"I turned on CNN and the first sentence I heard was 'invasion of privacy', switched channels and on Fox they were [talking about] 'surveillance', and I said to my creative director, 'Those are all our key words'."

Set in Chicago, the game centres on Aiden Pearce, who uses his smartphone to access the city's central operating system, which controls everything from power grids and traffic management technology to bank accounts and telephone networks.

That kind of hacking evokes the stunning revelations about electronic surveillance by US authorities, revealed by exgovernment contractor and whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who is in hiding in Russia.

Ubisoft said the game, originally set for release last year, had seen strong pre-orders, suggesting it would be a big seller.

"The teams have worked tirelessly to ensure that players will enjoy a top-quality game with enormous scope, and we can't wait to get the game into their hands," Ubisoft senior vice-president of marketing Tony Key said on Friday.

Guay said technology was now making it possible to foresee a world not unlike that in British writer George Orwell's novel 1984, in which Big Brother watches and controls everything.

Orwell "had an extreme view of that dystopian world at that time", he said. "I think we're seeing a time where the technology has caught up to his views."

In Watch Dogs, Pearce starts off seeking revenge for a loved one, but as he finds out more about the city, through hacking into its systems and inhabitants, he becomes a "vigilante".

"Most of the hacks that we have in the game are based on stuff that's happened in the real world," Guay said.

"We just happened to give them all to a single player."