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DID YOU READ

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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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.