E3 2012: “Watch Dogs” could be the “Breaking Bad” of video games

Ubisoft's Watch Dogs from E3

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By Michael Rougeau

LOS ANGELES, California — The video game industry is normally plagued by the same “sequelitis” that’s afflicting the rest of the entertainment world, but once in a while something comes along that reminds gamers just why they get excited about new games. At this week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo in LA, that something was “Watch Dogs,” a game unlike anything that’s come before it.

Publisher and developer Ubisoft (“Splinter Cell,” “Assassin’s Creed,” “Far Cry”) has been secretly working on “Watch Dogs” at its Montreal branch for two years, and the game’s creative director, Jonathan Morin, was excited to finally be able to show it off.

“Watch Dogs” takes place in a dystopian near-future that’s eerily similar to the current reality of everyday life. US cities are monitored and controlled by central computers known as ctOS systems, and citizens have sacrificed their last shreds of privacy for connectivity, convenience and a paper-thin sense of security. In this world exists one Aiden Pearce, a man “shaped by violence”, said Morin.

Living in a Chicago under siege from technology, Pearce “started to become a little bit obsessed and fucked up in his head about surveillance and protection,” the creative director explained. “He’s a guy who monitors his own family without them knowing.”

Pearce possesses the singular ability to hack into ctOS-controlled systems, which constitute practically everything in the city. With the tap of a button on his familiar-looking mobile device, he can listen in on nearby phone calls, control traffic signals, peer through security cameras, and discover deeply personal information about anyone he sets his eyes on. In games like “Bioshock” and “Deus Ex: Human Revolution”, hacking something means completing repetitive and arbitrary mini-games, but Morin said he’s not selling the fantasy of being a hacker. Accomplishing the same thing in “Watch Dogs” without all the fluff makes it better-paced and more immersive.

The game calls each citizen’s ctOS profile a “digital shadow”, but the denizens of “Watch Dogs” seem to possess an almost Orwellian disregard for their own privacy. Like “1984”, it would have seemed like pure fiction as recently as ten years ago. But these days, when amassing user data is the rule for most companies and not the exception, it’s completely plausible. It’s uncanny how relevant “Watch Dogs” is to the current relationship between technology and privacy.

Despite its relevance, Morin said he has no agenda in creating “Watch Dogs.” “It’s not about shoehorning a message or pressing a thought into the minds of people,” he said, though he added, “If people can learn a bit more about where technology’s leading us, and what exactly can we do about it, and if you can make them think and have their own opinion on the subject I think it’s spectacular.”

“We’re tapping into this, but we’re using stuff that we use every day. We press a button on the phone. Everybody understands that,” Morin continued. “Ten years ago that would have been a nightmare to explain. Today, it seems like everything is connected, and it seems like everything works that way anyway.” He said that the idea for ctOS came from Rio De Janeiro, where tech giant IBM is installing “Smart City” technology to help prepare for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

But that technology doesn’t simply provide a backdrop for “just running around shooting and driving,” Morin said. “We’re providing you access — easy access — to your surroundings,” he explained, and that access will factor into every facet of gameplay. Driving won’t just be driving — it will be using the city, as well, by changing lights or raising drawbridges to impede pursuers’ progress.

Pearce won’t have to threaten someone with violence to get what he wants. Instead, players will spend hours observing a target’s life, meeting with his family, learning his motivations and, hopefully, his secrets. Then “he gets in a room, he can sit down, slide a little envelope toward the guy, and look at him in the eye and say, ‘You’re going to tell me everything you know or I’m gonna destroy your fucking life.'” Presumably this will be more effective and believable than a typical games’ bullheaded, strong-armed tactics, and it will allow Pearce to undermine the most powerful forces in the city.

Morin was hush-hush on story specifics, but the level that Ubisoft showed off during their June 4 conference and later behind closed doors on the convention floor sees Pearce infiltrating an art show on a personal vendetta. His ultimate goal is the elimination of the gallery’s patron, the powerful Joseph Demarco, but how he achieves that goal will largely be up to the player.

For these demonstrations, Pearce enters the gallery by disrupting the bouncer’s phone call, causing him to stray from his post and allowing Pearce to stroll through the front door. He plans to use himself as bait for Demarco, and sure enough, Pearce quickly learns (by eavesdropping on the target’s assistant’s phone call) that he’s on his way. He watches Demarco and his entourage of heavily armed goons approach on his GPS, then hacks a traffic signal to cause a massive pileup.

In the ensuing firefight, Pearce’s repertoire of hacking skills doesn’t help him, but his marksmanship does. Just before he puts a bullet in Demarco’s brain, he tells him, “You’re gonna deliver a message for me.”

Morin sees him as the Walter White (or “Heisenberg”) of “Watch Dogs”, referencing AMC’s “Breaking Bad” as one of his main influences. “When I think about it for a second, he’s the most self-centered motherfucker on the planet, right?” he said, speaking of Heisenberg in terms that could, it seems, easily be applied to Pearce as well. “And then I go back and I say, ‘Oh my god, he’s awesome, he needs to win.’ And what’s great about that is it’s true for all the characters in the series, right? It’s the same in our game.”

In the E3 demo, trees sway in the breeze, car bumpers fall off when sprayed with bullets, and characters actually look and speak like real people. From a purely technical standpoint, it seems too advanced for the gaming hardware that’s currently available, and Morin didn’t deny that Ubisoft is considering releasing the game on the next generation of consoles (which have yet to be revealed by Microsoft and Sony). “We want to push the content as far as possible,” he said. He did confirm that the game will be released on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, with mobile apps on tablets and smartphones to help monitor the city and interact with the game.

Regardless of where “Watch Dogs” eventually releases, Morin sees that cutting-edge style as something he somehow owes to his audience. “I think game developers need to listen to and recognize that people have been trained now to embrace something more sophisticated and more complex,” he said. “I think that entertainment evolves with its audience.” And games, like gamers, it seems, have evolved.

Are we headed toward a “Watch Dogs” future? Tell us in the comments section below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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Bro and Tell

BFFs And Night Court For Sports

Bromance and Comeuppance On Two New Comedy Crib Series

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“Silicon Valley meets Girls meets black male educators with lots of unrealized potential.”

That’s how Carl Foreman Jr. and Anthony Gaskins categorize their new series Frank and Lamar which joins Joe Schiappa’s Sport Court in the latest wave of new series available now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. To better acquaint you with the newbies, we went right to the creators for their candid POVs. And they did not disappoint. Here are snippets of their interviews:

Frank and Lamar


IFC: How would you describe Frank and Lamar to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Carl: Best bros from college live and work together teaching at a fancy Manhattan private school, valiantly trying to transition into a more mature phase of personal and professional life while clinging to their boyish ways.

IFC: And to a friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Carl: The same way, slightly less coherent.

Anthony: I’d probably speak about it with much louder volume, due to the bar which would probably be playing the new Kendrick Lamar album. I might also include additional jokes about Carl, or unrelated political tangents.

Carl: He really delights in randomly slandering me for no reason. I get him back though. Our rapport on the page, screen, and in real life, comes out of a lot of that back and forth.

IFC: In what way is Frank and Lamar a poignant series for this moment in time?
Carl: It tells a story I feel most people aren’t familiar with, having young black males teach in a very affluent white world, while never making it expressly about that either. Then in tackling their personal lives, we see these three-dimensional guys navigate a pivotal moment in time from a perspective I feel mainstream audiences tend not to see portrayed.

Anthony: I feel like Frank and Lamar continues to push the envelope within the genre by presenting interesting and non stereotypical content about people of color. The fact that this show brought together so many talented creative people, from the cast and crew to the producers, who believe in the project, makes the work that much more intentional and truthful. I also think it’s pretty incredible that we got to employ many of our friends!

Sport Court

Sport Court gavel

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Joe: SPORT COURT follows Judge David Linda, a circuit court judge assigned to handle an ad hoc courtroom put together to prosecute rowdy fan behavior in the basement of the Hartford Ultradome. Think an updated Night Court.

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Joe: Remember when you put those firecrackers down that guy’s pants at the baseball game? It’s about a judge who works in a court in the stadium that puts you in jail right then and there. I know, you actually did spend the night in jail, but imagine you went to court right that second and didn’t have to get your brother to take off work from GameStop to take you to your hearing.

IFC: Is there a method to your madness when coming up with sports fan faux pas?
Joe: I just think of the worst things that would ruin a sporting event for everyone. Peeing in the slushy machine in open view of a crowd seemed like a good one.

IFC: Honestly now, how many of the fan transgressions are things you’ve done or thought about doing?
Joe: I’ve thought about ripping out a whole row of chairs at a theater or stadium, so I would have my own private space. I like to think of that really whenever I have to sit crammed next to lots of people. Imagine the leg room!

Check out the full seasons of Frank and Lamar and Sport Court now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”

Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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GIFS via Giphy

On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”

But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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