It's not often we see games set in Northern California, particularly the San Francisco Bay Area. With such an expansive population and a deep history encompassing the artistic and counter-culture movement, you'd think there'd be more games mining the history of the tech capital of the world. And yet, besides Driver: San Francisco and the close-but-still-fictional city of San Fierro from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, I can’t think of any.
Thankfully, Ubisoft is about to set things right.
With the upcoming release of Watch Dogs 2, the Bay Area set open-world action title aims to recreate San Francisco and the surrounding areas in vivid detail. But instead of just taking some panoramic shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and tossing in some cable cars, they're showing a different side of the city – the one that's currently experiencing a clash of cultures. Here in SF one group is slowly phasing out the other in favor of the tech revolution pushing gimmicky start-ups, egomaniacal billionaires, and tech-bros looking to prove themselves.
With the city and its culture in flux, the city's underground hacker movement is aiming to take some cues from the counter-culture of the past and use their cutting edge hacking skills to make change happen.
During a special hands-on showing at an incredibly private venue in downtown San Francisco, I was given the chance to play the first four hours of the game, and it's clear that the talent at Ubisoft Montreal have a lot planned for the next entry in the series, which they refer to as a true 'San Francisco story'.
A San Francisco story
Set sometime after the events of Watch Dogs, the Blume Corporation has expanded ctOS to the west coast, launching the 2.0 version in the Bay Area. In addition to controlling city infrastructure, law enforcement is able to use ctOS 2.0 to gather more data from citizen's daily activities and 'predict' who is more likely to commit crimes.
When Marcus Halloway, a young african-american hacker from Oakland, is wrongfully accused for a crime he didn't commit, he realizes that ctOS's surveillance of the Bay Area causes more harm than good, and repurpose it to his own ends in order to dismantle Blume Corporation's influence. Teaming with DedSec, he works with other like-minded hackers to use the same tech against its creators and stop their control of the Bay Area.
With the move from Chicago, the developers chose San Francisco not only for its rich and diverse cultural history, but also because of the current climate of the tech renaissance. With the Bay Area essentially serving as the laboratory for the world's tech innovations, the culture war between old and new lifestyles certainly makes for an interesting backdrop for the corporate espionage and the hacker group's guerilla tactics. San Francisco is a city that prides itself on history and preserving the old, but in Watch Dogs 2 (and in real-life), technology and the people and businesses it attracts have shifted the balance.
Speaking with Brand Content Director Thomas Geffroyd and Violet Blue, the author of The Smart Girl's Guide to Privacy, they talked rather openly about how they sought to portray hacker culture with authenticity, but also how they show off a side of San Francisco that's becoming more lost in the current social and political landscape.
"We often hear about a breach every other day, and these conversations are happening and people are just getting hammered with that," said author Violet Blue about hacker culture coming more into the light. "When hearing about these breaches, like with facebook screwing around with privacy and stuff like that, I think a lot of us really want to believe that there are people out there that can help us or that there's a way we can empower ourselves."
From out of the basement and into the streets
Nowadays, the general public's understanding of hacker culture is much stronger than during its infancy during the 70s and 80s. With shows like Mr. Robot, Halt and Catch Fire, and movies like the very dated and but still vastly enjoyable Hackers and the recent Snowden, we're not short of fiction detailing the exploits of hackers.
In Watch Dogs 2, you'll be taking a more hands-on approach to resource gathering and field work, as in stuff that take you away from the keyboard.
"What really nailed it was that it really captured the way the hackers move through the world which really surprised me, because hanging out with some of my friends who are hackers is very different from hanging with people who don't hack," explained Blue while talking about how hackers are different from the average user. "Everything is something you can interact with, and everything is something you can move around. Hackers can view the world differently, and the game really nails that."
The hacker group DedSec has to acquire more resources and support from the online community, and to do so they have to pull off more ambitious and daring hacks and stunts. During one hilarious, and very self-aware mission, the DedSec crew witness the trailer for the upcoming hacker film called 'Cyber Driver', an action-thriller with a 'badass' hacker who drives a talking car. With the film being shot in SF, they immediately plan their next move to hijack the car and broadcast their joyride online.
As one of the early missions, this helps to set up the tone for which WD2 is going for. Unlike its predecessor, the tone is far more satirical and … well, fun.
Humor plays a big part in the general story, but when things get serious, it gets really serious. I'm impressed with how they portrayed the hacker group in particular. In recent years, hacker culture become more out in the open, and with that increased attention, comes more ambitious plans. We all got a taste of that last week with the rather timely dox attack on Twitter, Netflix and other social media sites. These are groups that are more conscious of getting public attention and proving a point.
"There's this new archetype of the hacker that's of the alternative that we've seen," Geffroyd said. "Basically it's linked to the fact that technology is everywhere, we use it all the time. In the old days, the hacking idea was so underground and people didn't have such easy access to that sort of technology. It was a small and dedicated group of people who weren't scholars, but dedicated people who made it all happen. That's why we felt it was so important to portray it right in Watch Dogs, because we have to have more contact, more dialog with the community."
Just before our session, the developers had to explain the process of implementing hacking mechanics into the game. Recognizing the fact that actual hacking can be boring to watch, they had to design a single press system that would allow for ease of use – but, that said, they also to give players an immediate understanding of what the hell they just did.
"It's all about being creative with the tools you have on hand," Geffroyd said. “It's not necessarily about the technicality of the hack itself, but more so about what you're going to do with the systems and playing with them to do something unexpected and something that interests you. It's all about repurposing."
I left my (C:\heart) in San Francisco
While this is a bit of a tired saying, the city of San Francisco is very much a character itself in Watch Dogs 2. Spread across a fairly compressed version of the Bay Area, with San Francisco, Oakland, Marin County, and Silicon Valley serving as the key places to explore, the main city itself is very much the most active and expansive area of the game. With DedSec's headquarters across the street from Dolores Park, I got a kick out of exploring and check out how faithful the devs were in recreating the various locales and styles in SF.
One thing they certainly nailed is how tech's influence has shaped the city in such little time. Some areas such as North Beach are fairly clean and feature the more elaborate architecture and layouts, while other places such as the Tenderloin are cramped and have dirty streets. The culture of the city, in addition to the atmosphere, is faithfully recreated here.
"It's definitely a really stylish game, and it's very attractive game in that regard [speaking to the setting of the Bay Area]," said Violet Blue. "I'm glad you brought that up, because it really speaks to the culture war of this city right now. We've got all of these people that are homogeneous and bring a lot of conservative values with them, and also a lot of money, versus kind of the rest of us – which have made the city so attractive for them. We're also the ones that are the victims of the technology that they're creating. We end up being the at risk people that get targeted by this stuff. It's a very San Francisco story."
I was an admirer of the last game, but I felt it missed the mark in portraying the impact of a hyper-connected world with its by-the-numbers revenge storyline. Fortunately, Watch Dogs 2 feels like a more tangible and true to life portrayal of the consequences of a overly connected city that's in the middle of an invisible crisis. Hopefully that means the story won’t be afraid to explore that darker theme, and not pull too many punches when it needs to.
Set for release on November 15, Watch Dogs 2 is certainly looking to be a game that has style and substance to spare. With the change in exploration gameplay, and featuring more places to see, Ubisoft's next foray into the open-world hacker series is shaping up to be one of this year’s most fun – and most culturally relevant – games.