“I don’t look back anymore. I don’t regret. I look forward. Everything is connected, and I’ll use that to expose, to protect, and if necessary… to punish.”
Aiden Pearce, Watch Dogs
The Art of Watch Dogs
Author: Andy McVittie
Published: May 2014
From Titan Books, publisher of The Art of Dead Space we reviewed last year and author Andy McVittie comes another video game art book, The Art of Watch Dogs a compendium text exploring the world and mythology of this near future, open world presentation of the Windy City and a review of the art work and character development that brought this new franchise to life over the generational console divide. As with the game of its namesake the tone and presentation alludes to a complex technological narrative, the limited text and information presented in an almost coded binary fashion with the various subsections and chapters broken down into a functional manner. In contrast to The Art of Dragon Age and other books based upon Bioware titles for instance, there is a more limited range of information and world building available on show. Supposedly I would imagine this title benefits to a greater degree having been based on a real world location that doesn’t require to as great an extent to show the foundations of the city. Instead the focus on the book is weighted towards focusing on the character design element, the clothing and art design used for the various characters encountered with some focus highlighted on the various regions of the game.To summarise this book in its entirety, it very much comes across as a selective presentation of the various different elements without delving to far into the design and creation process. I’ll openly admit my satisfaction from these art books has been derived from peering behind the curtain and shining a light on how the worlds were built, the reasons one direction was chosen over another. I gain some enjoyment from seeing the creative process of the final product, but ultimately, when I invest in a book such as this, I want to journey down the path less chosen.
From a subjective and open standpoint whenever I purchase a book such as this I do approach it as fan of a series, hoping to gain some insight into how and why a certain direction was taken over another. The game itself has a great deal of references or allusions to other subject matter or media. Having the central protagonist be known as the vigilante for the majority of the game brings the Dark Knight of Gotham to mind, indeed one of the first indulgent purchases of mine when playing the game was to buy the stealth sports car through the uplay online store with my Ubisoft points, if I was going to act like the Batman I needed a car that looked the part. However, as with any open world title there is rarely the opportunity to describe why your character appears as he does, for that you need supportive text or media and traditionally this is where an Art Book of this type has supported and furthered the readers knowledge of the open and shared universe. Released at a consistent price of around £30 after a short while they do tend to hold a greater value or price than the software they are supporting, intentionally or not following the release of the main game they do need to provide a certain level of consistency around the content of the product. Whether it was my own expectations or the book charting a different course I did feel ultimately it was lacking somewhat in the design evolutionary process, the final form of Aiden Pearce for example highlighted and discussed. Equally however there was a balanced approach to showing both the characters and world and design aspects, broken down succinctly into relevant chapters and sub chapters, there was an efficiency of information and whether intentional or not suited the format and general message of the game. Let’s go into detail and crack the code of this open world techno-thriller that both maintained the Ubisoft formula whilst challenging elements of the status quo.
In the creation and design of any open world title of this kind the appearance of your central protagonist is of paramount importance, predominantly with the exception of Grand Theft Auto V which opted to shift the narrative between three main characters in Watch Dogs the action follows Aiden Pearce on his quest to free his family and maintain and continue his duty as the Vigilante around Chicago, meaning, your main focus will be on this character. One aspect of the game I did appreciate whether intentionally or not was the absence or subversion of altering and amending your characters appearance to appeal to some vain form of commercialism and realism. Nothing will break me from a game as quickly as a life and death narrative, pursuing your family’s killer for example and finding yourself distracted dying your cape or changing your armours appearance. If the game necessitates a costume change then by all means, thankfully for the majority of the experience you are dressed in your trench coat, cap and bandana. As such on completion I was curious how and why this particular specific look was chosen over more traditional alternatives. Within the game Aiden’s walks openly around the city and depending on your criminal status the civilian population will either turn you in or allow you on your way. Given this seeming recognition you would presume there would be at least some attempt to shield your appearance. Without any other documentary evidence you just have to accept the designers had an optic in their mind they wanted to accomplish, as such you are provided with a number of digital models of Aiden in his various combat and action poses but no real attempt to describe or provide access to development sketches that may have shown a different path. I like what their is of this hero, I would have liked to have seen more.
Whilst the detail provided on the main protagonist is somewhat limited there is a great deal devoted to a broad spectrum of the secondary and background characters, I did find the omission of your sister and nephew a curious decision however your partner in crime is given her due attention with a focus on her tattoos and final appearance an interesting moment to take in. The focus on the games villains such as Iraq and Quinn were an interesting inclusion to see however without any sketches or design choices available they simply came across as a static image of an individual you encountered during your playthrough. Where the book would have benefited from which we have seen a greater example of this in our Dragon Age review is a greater focus on the background characters who do indeed play such a crucial part and in fact serve as one of the games fundamental differences from other similar games. In the world of Watch Dog’s, given your characters ability to hack into any gadget or device in his immediate surrounding all the background non playable characters, NPC’s, have a brief individual description about them appearing on the screen. It brings life to them, the range of key facts ranging from life models, part time criminals to porn addicts, certainly its far more disturbing to hurt these people when the game does its best to personify an otherwise seemingly forgettable character. Very deliberately the design and clothing of Aiden is similar to that worn by the people around you, creating a sense of resonance to the people of Chicago. I liked that small design touch but equally it would have been interesting to break down and go into detail about these characters, especially given the prominence of the civilian population in the recently announced Legion.
In contrast to open worlds transpiring in original settings such as Inquisition or even historic real world locations such as Syndicate which featured a number of known landmarks around London whilst being afforded the opportunity to fill in the blanks with generic architecture of the period, focusing a game in a modern contemporary setting opens the developer to the prospect of having to pay significant legal and licensing fee’s for the use of real world locations in and around the setting. As discussed previously, as a company Ubisoft have always shown a high degree of dedication in preparing the foundations for how a city is brought to life in this way with a significant amount of preparation and planning. We saw this with the almost perfectly scaled portrayal of landmarks such as St. Paul’s cathedral, but as a concept this was offset with a high use of fictional locations and generic housing. In Chicago, despite presenting a far easier method of bringing the city to life with the opportunity to do design in a real world setting, to a large extent this has to be offset against licensing cost and so, as a result we have buildings and structures that have the flavour of life in the city without the strict use of landmarks and buildings. They are of course references, the opening chapter transpires at a Cubs baseball game, one of the more intriguing moments of the game as you are quickly introduced to the various mechanics. Given the need to recreate with a notable difference, existing buildings and structures I was hoping to see some of the design that went into how and why these changes were implemented. I enjoy seeing the ingame art and final presentation, I just I could have seen more of it.
There are a number of locations featured within the game that reflect the various neighbourhoods and areas of the city. From the urban dockyard area, the old quarter to the more modern skyscrapers and to the north with roads leading into the suburbs. One of the issues I’ve felt with games of this type and genre, including GTA V was the feeling of experiencing an incredible amount of climates in a short space of time in comparison to the real world. Which is to say, I can travel for an hour from one side of London into the city and see little besides houses and buildings. In contrast, within the modern open world games you can be by the dockyards, drive past the skyscrapers and be driving in the forests and woods within 10 minutes. I understand the need, its just a creative decision that breaks the immersion fairly consistently for me. Watch Dog’s suffers from the same issue, being able to reach a number of habitats in short order, I do feel the transition is somewhat smoother given their experience and you never feel as if you are jolted from one part to another. Each area has been methodically researched and presented, with a very different feel as you traverse the islands from the dockyards and warehouses to the more affluent city centre and further north into the suburbs. I do love viewing the research into the design of these eclectic range of buildings as that does feel like something you would experience on a city break, drinking in an old fashioned bar to driving through the bright lights and clean lines of a financial city centre. Despite its near future setting, it is a world I could relate and as such did feel a greater level of immersion. Because of the time period used, I would have liked to have seen public open areas that influenced the design team perhaps pictured or featured to show the differences between the digital and real world environment. It’s not a city I’ve visited so I rely on the game to have some measure of authenticity to the city it was based on, from the photo’s included it captures the spirit of an urban American metropolis, the inquisitive part of me is just fascinated to see what specific areas were based on.
One of the key themes of the game is around the rebellious nature of the underground society against the controlling presence of CtOS, the control system that operates the electrical equipment in and around Chicago. Given the American propensity towards civil freedom’s and beliefs, there is of course the challenge to natural liberties ingrained into the culture that doesn’t permeate to the same degree outside the United States. Certainly, for instance within the UK we are somewhat more accustomed to a wide level of surveillance through CCTV networks across our cities to a greater degree than America and as such the message of state monitoring doesn’t elicit the same sense of rebellion as it does within the game. The artistry that permeates the city in the Underground depicts the usual urban flair with imagery and text selected to allude to a conflict between state and society. There is a lot of attention paid to tagging which is always curious to see for those with an interest in the subject matter. To break it down somewhat, the developers will create and design an innovative system and then study and design a counter-intuitive rebellious message against that said system, which in turn has to translate and be understandable to some degree to a playing userbase. Who may in fact drive quickly or pass these messages scrawled on the walls without thinking. Why I appreciate their inclusion and the effort to show their portrayal, it’s an element of living within an urban city environment, the random graffiti sprayed on the walls challenging the authority of the area, a visible means of anonymous protest. It’s inclusion creates an element of grounded reality and expectation we accept and dismiss to an extent, it adds a layer of authenticity to the game and builds on and develops the message of a society rebelling against the technology prevalent around them.
The specific iconography used in the design process is reminiscent of the subversive epigrams designed and used by street artists such as Banksy in the UK and abroad. As with his work, there is a satirical aspect to the oppressive nature of the system that permeates through the cities digital architecture and systems throughout Chicago. I would observe, the book itself does a far greater job in showing the variation and type of this style of street art, not a criticism of its other content but it does, feel that the study of this in particular is more heavily weighted. As a stylistic choice I can respect that, and indeed the underground and counter-cultural ideology is one of the foundations of this game, the pervasiveness of CtOS amongst the broad spectrum of society and the implication of control of a private institution over the civilian population is a chilling one that unfortunately on this side of the Atlantic at least we seem willing to accept to a degree if the end result is an offset of the cost to the public purse. From a personal perspective you see this type of iconography more and more around certain areas in London so the natural correlation of rebellion against state surveillance and monitoring is one I can accept as a gamer and as stated adds a greater level of immersiveness to the game. In addition as shown there is also a great deal of street murals and paintings that hint or support many of these themes and it was interesting to explore these in more detail. Certainly they are ever present amongst the slums and poorer areas of Chicago in this game however the impetus to stop and reflect on their meaning is a lost one with a narrative pushing you forward. Books such as these serve to highlight work such as this to a greater detail, in this regard the book has performed.
Overall, an interesting art book that serves to support the game and focus on a number of key specific areas. In this regard, I did find it more structured and orderly in comparison to other gaming art books I’ve reviewed over the last six months. I enjoy the order of looking at specific areas, the characters, environment and artistry for example that we’ve discussed. Whether this was a editorial decision or a stylistic choice to reflect the structured approach of programming code, which is hinted at with the opening menu is open to interpretation. From a contents perspective, I do have say it is somewhat lacking in comparison to other books, it reminds me of a quote that’s always lingered from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it’s “all good things but you’re bringing me in a the end of the movie“. The character models are largely their final form with only slight deviations of appearance around clothing and attire. The environments are all largely digital versions of the final areas you explore without any detail around the design process. I’ll concede, in contrast to a fantasy setting where there may be greater interest in how a castle or fort is designed and why certain elements are chosen over another, by and large in a contemporary setting there is the argument you could just as easily read a modern architecture book if you want to see that aspect.
Whilst a subjective standpoint I would argue there is a greater weighting to the artwork used in the game, from the gang symbols and clothing labels to the more subversive iconography and epigrams prevalent throughout the city streets and back alleys. Given the importance of the counterculture, and arguably how the central protagonist is designed to blend into the surroundings structurally it makes a certain sense to focus the book around this element of the development. The consequence unfortunately is a limited presentation of the character development and environment design and that should influence your decision to purchase the book and to what value you hold for those various elements. As such, you do tend to find it hasn’t held its price in contrast to other art books of this type, as of writing it can be picked up for the ridiculously cheap price of £2.99 from Forbidden Planet in the UK, a stupidly cheap price for a product of this type. Whether you find any value of a book of this type is entirely up to you, for me personally it was the drive to explore this city in detail that drove me to it and for that cheap a bargain you can’t really go wrong. The break down of the art work is intriguing and does add a deeper element to the game that had otherwise largely passed me by during my playthrough of the first game. That there wasn’t a dedicated book for the series second title probably alludes to the success of this title and faith in the series but with a new game centered in London, should there be a supportive art book, I’ll be the first to purchase it alongside Legion. As for this book, for £2.99, you could do a lot worse.
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