Let me start off with a question: at what point does a topic cease to be relevant?
I only ask because time and time again, it feels like I’m jumping on the train late. By the time I come up with something substantial to say, I always end up thinking, “Man, does anybody even care at this point? Isn’t the topic played out by now?” It’s a mental block for me, whether it’s a real issue or not. So even though I consider Watch Dogs to not only be the most abysmal game of 2014, but also one of the worst games I’ve ever played, explaining as much in a timely manner seems like a fool’s errand. I can go on for thousands and thousands of words, but I’m always worried that I’m obsolete by word one.
But there’s hope. After all, there’s nothing more relevant and timeless than hating on stupid bullshit. And -- in the most brilliantest segue ever -- there’s never a bad time to bring Kamen Rider into the discussion. For comparative purposes, and not just solely to push a secret Rider agenda.
Kamen Rider as a whole may masquerade as a shill for toys and merchandise (and let’s face it, it is), but in my eyes that’s always struck me as a byproduct of a genuine attempt to tell good stories -- albeit stories married to over-the-top costumed combat. It’s little wonder, then, that there are plenty of TV Tropes regulars that seem to get into it so regularly. That’s how I got into it, at least -- and a quick search told me that Kamen Rider W was one of the more popular -- and presumably high-quality -- installments. So I watched it from start to finish ages ago.
Needless to say, I enjoyed it. It’s not my favorite in the franchise -- that honor goes to Kamen Rider OOO, which I SWEAR I’ll bring into a post someday -- it’s still great. Given the chance, I’d watch it again. But the reason I’m linking it to Watch Dogs is because I feel like there’s a lesson in there that needs to be imparted. Not a moral for impressionable minds; no, there’s a moral in there for anyone with aims to tell a story. Or just plain enjoy it.
One of the most notable things about W is that it banks HARD on the detective theme. The story, the music, the characters, the concepts -- hell, one of its most common phrases is “hard-boiled”. It helps lend the show a different air from its franchise compatriots, though that’s also helped by the setting having more of a presence in W overall. Still, what really clinches it -- and what probably helped it become a real fan favorite -- is what should typically be the deciding factor. That’s right, it’s the main character: Shotaro Hidari.
He’s the private eye of the Narumi Detective Agency, and takes on jobs for the people of Fuuto whenever they come marching up to his doorstep. The show being what it is, that usually has him getting involved with the monster of the week and resolving crimes with liberal amounts of punching. In this installment? He’s up against the Dopants, monsters born from using USB-stored data from the planet -- Gaia Memories -- that wreak havoc, commit crimes, and “fill the city with tears”. Naturally, Shotaro ain’t havin’ that, so he uses his own Gaia Memories along with the Double Driver to become Kamen Rider W. Or HALF of W, at least; he handles the left side, while his partner Philip beams his consciousness into the right so they can fight as one.
Yep, it’s that kind of show. But that’s to be expected when this is one of the first Dopants they go up against.
Thankfully, not all of them are that goofy, but…man. Somebody had pretty shit luck to draw that.
Like Fourze before it (well, Fourze came years later, but I watched W after Fourze), the successes of the show are bred from the lead and the people around him. But there’s something interesting about Shotaro that’s worth noting -- and like I said at the start, there’s a lesson shown off with him that everybody looking to make a story should take to heart.
See, when I first heard about the show on TV Tropes, I checked out the character page. I knew that W was made from two guys instead of just one, but I think I might have misread or misinterpreted something. So when I started the show in earnest a while later, I went in with the wrong expectation. I went in thinking that Shotaro would be a cool, unflappable, suave and stylish guy; meanwhile, his partner Philip would be the bright-eyed, spirited, passionate one. Imagine my surprise, then, when the reverse turns out to be true; Philip’s actually the cool one, while Shotaro is the one who’s relatively hot-blooded. I say “relatively” because there’s a facet to him that really makes the character work. And THAT’S what others need to learn from him.
Here’s the crux of Shotaro: he’s a character who tries to be cool, but is decidedly uncool. But paradoxically, his uncoolness is part of what makes him cool.
Do you know why the phrase “hard-boiled” keeps popping up in W? It’s because Shotaro keeps spamming it. In his eyes, being a hard-boiled detective is synonymous with being a Cool Guy™, so he’s done his best to style his entire persona around it. He wears the clothes. He types out the reports (and narrates to himself and the audience alike) in a detective style. He does his best to be as hard-boiled as he can. The problem is that A) he kind of sucks at it, and B) the universe would rather make him look like an idiot. Though to be fair, he does that himself more often than not.
As early as the first episode, you see the mile-wide chasm between the ideal and the reality. Shotaro does some hard-boiled narration and sets himself up as a Cool Guy™ almost as soon as the opening is done playing…but then it turns out that his Agency is facing bankruptcy, and the fact that he spends so much money on detective novels doesn’t help matters. His attempts to do something cool are thwarted on a regular basis, too. Tracking down a bus as part of a case lead? He loses it and does his best Darth Vader “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Trying to consul the daughter of his MIA mentor? She leaves long before he even finishes his cool speech. Gets an offer to protect a young starlet? Skips down the street and jumps to click his heels together.
It’d probably help Shotaro’s case if he wasn’t delusional and being some tryhard detective. But then again, I suspect that it’s a commonality for every Kamen Rider to be in sore need of a few therapy sessions.
Don’t worry, Eiji. You’ll get your post someday.
Now, all of that and more would suggest that Shotaro is some moron for an audience to laugh at (plenty of characters justifiably call him “half-boiled” instead). And in a sense, you’d be right. It really says a lot about a character when people can point out how his actions and his words don’t match. But that’s not to say that he’s some clown dancing with his pants around his ankles. This is a Kamen Rider we’re talking about, and he gets plenty of opportunities to show that.
Even if he is put-upon and rarely taken seriously and constantly undermining his attempts to be a Cool Guy™, he’s still more than capable of ruining anyone’s day -- in and out of his suit. As W’s left half, he’s the one in charge of the actual offense via his Gaia Memories; Philip acts more as support and gives W different elemental properties. That, of course, sets aside the fact that in nearly every instance W’s based on Shotaro’s body instead of Philip’s…though of course, one can take the lead as needed.
As a Rider, it’s a given that Shotaro’s a professional ass-kicker. But what I find really interesting about the character is that even if he’s a delusional goofball, he’s also one of, if not the most level-headed and emotionally mature member of the cast. He ends up learning a lesson or two in the show’s run (there’s a reason why one of the show’s songs is “Nobody’s Perfect”), but all told he’s a source of stability and strength to other characters -- incidental or otherwise. Even if the universe is constantly booting him face-first into a brick wall, his Cool Guy™ lines come in when he’s offering emotional support. Well, that, and when he actually DOES get to prove that he’s a detective for a reason.
If you’ve seen my stuff before, you should know I’ve been talking about “highs and lows” for a while now. Here’s the gist of it: in order for the beats of a story to have maximum impact, there need to be moments of joy and levity and good fortune and the like to offset (and highlight) the downturns. Likewise, defeat, sadness, misfortune and the like keep an audience on their toes, and keep the story from resting on its laurels. But if Shotaro is any indication, it’s not just a story that needs highs and lows. A character needs them, too. It’s what lends them a sense of dynamism. It makes the strengths visible as well as the flaws. It’s what makes them surprising, interesting, and in a lot of ways, human.
Which brings us back to Aiden Pearce.
Now, I’ll be fair. Aiden Pearce is probably not the only or worst example out there. But he is semi-recent, and an outstanding example. So I hope you don’t mind me piling on the hate even more than I already have.
Like I said, I consider Watch Dogs to be an absolute embarrassment of a game. It’s barely even a game; it’s just a great big package of things to do, a fraction of which are connected to a plot that has you, “the vigilante”, running errands for damn near everyone else. It would help if said vigilante was even remotely interesting, but alas. ‘Twas not meant to be.
The devs got as far as “hat and trench coat” and “magic phone” before they called it quits and went on an indefinite lunch break. Aiden’s the weak link of the game -- and while I’ll accept that maybe there are other interesting characters in the game (hopefully beyond just throwing in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo X Catwoman), it doesn’t change the fact that they have to orbit around -- and ultimately get sucked into -- a narrative black hole like Aiden. I know writing a story isn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world, but sometimes it seems like people make it infinitely harder than it needs to be.
The phrase that gets thrown around a lot (for Watch Dogs, or for less-than-airtight products in general) is “design by committee”, and that’s probably the case for the game. Admittedly, I prefer using the term “indulgent design”; instead of following the whims of a creative vision or the passion to put something before an audience, creators would rather try to earn success by deluding potential buyers. That is, rather than giving them something truly exciting -- something they didn’t even know they wanted -- indulgent design would rather have them grow fat off pandering and appeals to the basest sensibilities.
Aiden is indulgent design personified. I hate to make assumptions about the devs’ intent, but even if they had the best intentions, they botched this character hard. The big issue is that I can practically feel the notes and outlines printed all over the vigilante’s virtual skin. I can see what’s scribbled all over, and it tells me that he’s only allowed to be two things: cool and powerful. It comes off as incredibly disingenuous; instead of letting the players decide and judge Aiden as cool, it’s as if Ubisoft tried to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. “People will think Aiden is cool because we made Aiden cool.” But vicious cycles don’t always work as well as intended; there’s no guarantee that hype alone will ensure --
Let’s…let’s just move on.
It’s my understanding of Watch Dogs that Aiden is supposed to be a scarred and hurting hero (relatively speaking, given his penchant for crime -- cyber or otherwise) by virtue of his dead niece in the backstory and his sister and nephew presently in danger. Clichéd as they may be, there’s potential to be had in those relationships as long as they’re used effectively...but in Watch Dogs, Aiden’s family issues come off as a carte blanche excuse to go do whatever the hell he wants, up to and including ruining -- if not ending -- the lives of innocents who undoubtedly have families of their own.
If the intent was to have Aiden deconstructed -- to show what sort of monster it would take to commit the acts he does in Watch Dogs -- then it’s botched from the outset by giving him some innocent and flawless family he has to take care of. It turns the game into an awful revenge fantasy that completely squanders its potential. But it’s a no-win situation; if the intent was to humanize Aiden and make him sympathetic, then it flies in the face of all the murder the player might end up committing just to get to the next mission, let alone what happens in it.
You don’t play as Aiden Pearce in Watch Dogs. You play as you. More than plenty of other characters, he’s just an avatar for you to indulge in whatever your heart desires. That was probably the optimal state in terms of the game’s design, but in terms of the narrative, the gameplay undermines the story and the story undermines the gameplay. But setting aside that discussion, there are three things that we can say conclusively about Aiden. One: he’s ruthless. Two: he cares about his family. Three: he has what he needs to fulfill his mission.
Only one of those definitively counts as a unique personality trait (because I’d like to think that lots of people care about their families). So if that’s the case, then it means Aiden is in the perfect state to wreak havoc as he sees fit. He’s a character ready and waiting, speaking in narrative terms, to do harm to others. And as such, the player is ready to do the same. No need to worry about others. No need to worry about collateral damage, especially when you end up killing a dozen innocent people just to catch one person.
Just smash and kill and hack and blow up, and don’t ever bother thinking about what you’re doing. Aiden doesn’t, so why should the player? For all the lines and grey areas Aiden crosses and treads through, he’ got nothing to say about cyber-crime and privacy invasions besides “these things exist”. What’s his stance? He doesn’t care. They’re just tools for him and him alone to use.
Aiden doesn’t give a shit about anything. I’m not even wholly convinced that he cares about his family; I’d argue that he only wants to protect and save them because they’re concepts to him. Things. HIS things. Nobody touches them but him. He’s figuratively and literally out to play big brother (subtle, Ubisoft), and what little comfort he offers feels token at best when he’s willing to lie and manipulate the people around him just to get what he wants. Given his unduly selfish nature in the game, isn’t that a fitting interpretation?
It is true that being a villainous character doesn’t automatically ensure a bad character (see: Grand Theft Auto and ostensibly BioShock Infinite). But the requirement for a character, good or evil, is that they do what they do with charisma. There has to be something that appeal, not just plays to indulgences. That’s where Aiden fails. He is, undoubtedly, a character solely designed to be cool…AND NOTHING ELSE. Denying that it’s his default setting is something I’m hard-pressed to do.
The evidence is all there. He can commit crimes without impunity (until the plot says so, maybe). He’s an expert fighter and gunman, and can engage in some light parkour. He’s a whiz with technology, to the point where almost nobody can touch him. Immediately after meeting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the sexual tension flares up to supernova levels of intensity. (I’m hesitant to count that given how their story ends, but said ending is troubling in its own right.) He gets to play hero if he (you) wants to, and he can bust the crimes that the big dumb police force can’t. He can hack anything, and make stuff explode just ‘cause. He’s a rebel who, by completely cutting ties with society, has become more than just an outlaw; he’s earned some ultimate sense of freedom, but has the strength to affect the world at his leisure. Just because he can.
You know, for all the planning (or lack thereof) that went into Aiden, there’s a question I have to ask: did Ubisoft actually think this character was cool?
Think about what the word implies. To be cool is to be stylish. Impressive. Admirable. Enviable. Aiden Pearce is a whopping zero of those things. He’s got no style on his own, because that would mean that he’d have a personality besides “generic gravel-voiced anti-hero”. He’s not impressive, because hacking stops being impressive fifteen minutes in, and the ease of it removes any sense of perceivable reward when it happens.
He’s not admirable, because he’s a complete shitbag who’s responsible for most of the problems in his life (but damned if he acknowledges his failings). And for all those reasons and more, he’s not even close to enviable. Is he supposed to be the good guy, or the bad guy? Because it seems like the game wanted it both ways, and ended up failing on both fronts. It all leads me to believe that Aiden only tries to be -- and is designed to be -- one thing. As it so happens, that’s the one thing he can’t do. Or hack…even though that’d probably just lead to him blowing it up.
I suspect that there are some people out there who would tell me to stop stressing out so much about a character like Aiden. They’d probably say something along the lines of “So what? He’s just a power fantasy, so just shrug it off and move on.” Or “What did you expect, dude? It’s a video game. It’s all about making players feel cool.” And I only have one response to such a mindset: FUCK THAT.
First of all, not every video game has had or needs to have some ego-feeding, desperate scrapes at coolness. Second, if a character’s going to be cool, then that’s fine -- but they have to earn the right to be called cool by way of doing something worthwhile. Third, regardless of the medium we can get something more out of any given character and any given story as long as they -- and their creators -- show respect for their audiences.
It’s a strange day, indeed, when a multimillion dollar game tackling modern-day controversies and aimed at mature audiences is somehow less substantial than a toy-shilling show that managed to work in promotions for CDs.
You know, I keep talking about the endless possibilities of storytelling, and how it’s a creator’s duty to explore them as best as he or she can. And while I stand by that, there’s one thing that I suspect is going to be a common byproduct of “a job well done”: someone, somewhere is going to look at a quality release and say “man, that’s so cool”. And that’s the way it should be. The people should be the ones to decide if a product is good or not. The creator should put up the strongest effort possible, but there’s always going to be a gap. It’s in the product’s hands -- and any number of elements it has to its name.
When all’s said and done, Shotaro’s just one of those elements of Kamen Rider W. Even if he is just a fabrication -- a character written on paper, and brought to life by an actor way too eager to make funny faces -- he succeeds and becomes cool by way of being credibly cool. Like any good character, he goes beyond just being the tool of his creators. The line between “This is someone’s character” and “This is my favorite character” starts to blur. As it should.
Posts like these may be obsolete in an hour's time. But a good character will ALWAYS be relevant.
But it doesn’t for Aiden. And that’s the clincher. For all of Ubisoft’s talk of making him an “iconic” character, they forgot to make him anything more than a stand-in. And by doing so, they failed to make him cool…which means the game failed as a result. Now, far be it from me to launch an assault on the creator, because I prefer to point fingers at the offending product instead.
So with that in mind, I’ve got one more thing to say to you, Aiden Pearce.
Now, count up your sins!
Oh man. Does saying the line make me a Cool Guy™ now?