This is a surprisingly bold move for Ubisoft; last year Ubisoft Massive, the developers of The Division 2, told gamesindustry.biz that politics in games is “bad for business” and that the company doesn’t want to “take a stance in current politics”. Company CEO Yves Guillemot explained to The Guardian that the developer’s games are politically impartial, a situation that could be seen in Far Cry 5, which was criticised for having nothing to say about the state of modern America, despite employing many of its most troublesome elements.
So why does Ubisoft Toronto want to make a game that focuses on political problems when other studios within the company have shied away from them? “I believe that it’s our responsibility as creators of culture to talk about stuff that’s real, and that matters to people,” says Hocking. “I think Ubisoft is a bold company and has a willingness to explore issues and allow creative teams to engage with challenging subject matter.”
“And that’s what I like to do,” he adds. “And Ubisoft always supported me earlier in my career when I tried to do those things. So it was a wonderful opportunity for me to come back and make a game that I think really matters and contribute to that broader conversation about culture and the role of games in media today.”
While discussing the game’s fiction and backstory, the subject of Brexit inevitably arose. The game is set in a near-future version of England’s capital, and the country has broken away from the European Union. Yes, actual Brexit is real part of Watch Dogs Legion; in the game’s lore it happened on the original scheduled day of March 29, 2019, and the years that come after it are less than rosy. As we explore in our Watch Dogs Legion preview, the government has all but dissolved, and private military forces rule the streets.
But Hocking emphasises that the situation is bigger than just Brexit. “Brexit is part of our backstory in our in our world fiction, but the game is really about much broader themes than that,” Hocking says. “The kinds of things that we see happening in the UK today are happening all around the world, in different forms and different ways. And those are the themes that we wanted to explore.”
“We say that Brexit isn’t the cause of the problems in our world, but that the causes of Brexit are the causes of the problems in our world,” he elaborates. “And these are issues that we have to address collectively. People have to come together, put aside their differences, and try to build a better future and a better tomorrow. And that’s really what Watch Dogs Legion is about.”
But what are those grander issues that Hocking wants to explore in Legion? “We really wanted to focus on some of the things that are going on in the world today: the rise of authoritarianism, economic problems, political challenges, all of those kinds of things, and use that as a backdrop. London is a perfect setting to explore those themes and those tones.”
Hocking and his team’s conduit to exploring these elements is a simple one, but it’s key to the entire Watch Dogs Legion experience: people. “London was really attractive to us because it’s an opportunity to not just talk about a city, but to talk about a culture and a people, and all of those things together,” says Hocking. “People are a very core part of our game.”
“London’s people are the people who never surrender,” he adds. “It was really exciting for us to be able to embody those people in those characters in that context.” It only takes one look at a history textbook or today’s news to see why this sentiment has inspired Hocking. From standing tall against the threat of Nazism in World War II, to the protest rallies against Brexit, London has long been a city where dissenting voices are heard the loudest.
Hocking points out that London is the case study for a wider problem that Watch Dog’s fictional hacktivist group Dedsec is fighting across the globe. “Dedsec in Watch Dogs Legion is really focused on enacting global change, like trying to fix the world,” he says. “Some of our side stories deal with other Dedsec cells around the world. So it’s not just a bad day in London, right? There’s a lot of global things happening.”
“Dedsec is here to fight for a better future and a better tomorrow by bringing diverse people together and diverse viewpoints, and fighting back against the real threats to our freedom and our democracy and our liberty, and all of those kinds of things,” he continues.
It’s with this sentiment that Legion’s ‘Play as Anyone’ feature, where you can make any person walking London’s streets your playable protagonist, really makes sense. Beyond being an amazing technical achievement that allows for emergent storytelling and strategic choices, it allows you to bring together multiple communities to fight for what’s right.
Clint Hocking’s last game, Far Cry 2, delved into the political strife of Central Africa; how it’s a region of the world torn apart by collapsing government, civil war, and the arms trade. As such, it’s no surprise to see him tackling tough subject matter in his first game since 2008. Over a decade later, the world is a very different place, and the rise of authoritarianism is closer to home than it has been for quite some time. Indeed, in these times, it’s almost inevitable that Watch Dogs would turn its gaze away from Silicon Valley’s privacy invasion campaign and draw a crosshair firmly on the muddy political climate that affects us all.
Quite how successful Watch Dogs Legion’s commentary will be remains to be seen, but there’s no denying that Ubisoft Toronto have something to say with the game. It’s a bold statement in the wake of Ubisoft’s recent stance on games that deal with sensitive topics, but ultimately this is simply Watch Dogs doing what the series was made to do: to hold the world’s most powerful accountable for their actions.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Entertainment Writer. He wonders if Watch Dogs Legion will be used as a ‘How not to Brexit’ manual by the UK government.