The intersection of technology, privacy and surveillance has been at the core of Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs series of video games.
But the latest instalment, Watch Dogs Legion, is set in a near-future, post-Brexit version of London.
A politically charged — and current — setting as Brexit in London is relatively rare territory for big budget (or “triple-A”) video games, developed by hundreds of developers with budgets in the hundreds of millions.
Wesley Yin-Poole, deputy editor at the U.K.-based gaming outlet Eurogamer, says Legion’s announcement last month at the E3 games industry event was “incredibly well-timed.”
“It’s actually quite interesting for a video game to suggest a near-future setting for a city that is undergoing … pretty much the most tumultuous time in living memory,” he said.
In Legion, due for release March 6, 2020, wide-scale automation has put millions out of work, and the British pound has been supplanted by cryptocurrency. Private military contractors harass citizens on the street and lock protesters in cages. A crime syndicate is pushing cannabis laced with fentanyl on the streets.
The player takes control of a civilian resistance to take the city back. Unlike previous games, which each starred a single main character, players can recruit anyone in the city to join the cause.
According to Clint Hocking, creative director at Ubisoft Toronto, the company started working on the game about a year before the U.K. voted to leave the European Union in June 2016.
“At that point, you know, Brexit was a distant, ‘Ah, that’s never going to happen,’ and then suddenly it became real,” he told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
The team resolved to continue development, he says.
“Very immediately we thought pretending that it’s not happening is actually just really insulting to everybody who voted for it — and everybody who voted against it. It’s a real part of the history of our game world.”
Politics a third rail in big-budget video games
Prickly themes and subject matter have historically flourished in the smaller independent games scene. Games about Syrian refugees or LGBT romance may earn critical praise, but fly under the mainstream audience’s radar.
In March, Ubisoft released Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, which puts players in the shoes of a heavily armed citizen militia in a ruined Washington, D.C.
The Guardian’s Keith Stewert called it “typical Tom Clancy fare: paranoid, technologically driven and unquestioning in its understanding of the U.S. military as a force for good.”
When asked about the political implications of the setting, creative director Terry Spier told gaming website Polygon: “It’s not a political statement … No, we are absolutely here to explore a new city.”
With Legion, Ubisoft appears to be shifting its position slightly.
In a blog post on the company’s site, VP of editorial Tommy Francois said the company makes games with political settings, without making an explicit political statement of their own.
“[Ubisoft CEO] Yves [Guillemot] has told us that our goal is to give players all the information we can, and then let them choose which sides of our game worlds they want to explore.”
“We want them to decide what they like, what they don’t like, and if and how to change their minds or the way they play based on that information.”
Yin-Poole characterized the approach as a “cop-out.”
“I’m not interested in playing a game that presents ‘both sides.’ I hate that sort of phrase; I hate that sort of argument. I hate any sort of art that is like, ‘Here’s the two angles on this issue. What do you think?'” he said.
“I’m interested in art that has something to say; that challenges me rather than that takes a passive view. I’m much more interested in art that has an active message.”
Immigration, automation, authoritarianism
Hocking says players shouldn’t be any more surprised to see political themes in a video game as they would in a film or novel.
Neither is the game simply a commentary on the Brexit vote itself.
“The problems in our game world aren’t caused by Brexit. The problems in our game world are caused by the things that caused Brexit,” he explained.
“And so we’re speaking to those issues that everybody who voted either way for Brexit is very concerned about — real issues like what’s happening with immigration in Europe, and what’s happening with, you know, the rise of authoritarians.”
With the real-life Brexit story constantly in flux, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether Legion will feel relevant or out-of touch by the time it releases next year.
Yin-Poole notes that publishers usually like to keep a slow drip-feed of information about a game in the months leading up to release.
No promotional material released thus far, he says, have stated outright whether Legion is set in a “deal” or “no-deal” U.K.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about this game, still. And there’ll be parts of this game that will probably be quite interesting and quite impactful in the sort of overall discourse about Legion that we just don’t have any idea about.”
Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Ashley Fraser.