Video games aren’t exactly known for smart send-ups of social issues. The “Grand Theft Auto” series is the most well-known example of cultural criticism as a video game — and its level of “criticism” veers toward the snotty teenager end of the scale.
A new game named “Watch Dogs 2” takes video games as cultural critique to new levels.
It’s a third-person, open-world action game, along the lines of “Grand Theft Auto.” What do you do in “Watch Dogs 2?” The same kinda stuff you do in “Grand Theft Auto” games: Take on story and side missions, occasionally shooting guns or driving cars/motorcycles in service of those missions.
There’s a main story that’s loosely important to what you’re doing, but it’s just a vehicle for your character, Marcus, to sneak into X location, hack something, and get out. That’s the main stuff you do in “Watch Dogs 2” — sneak and hack.
He’s a young black man from Oakland, Ca., and the game’s story takes him places he’s never been before — like the Google campus (lampooned in the game as “Nudle”).
The game’s story mission that brings Holloway to Nudle (Google) has him driving one of the Bay Area’s notorious Silicon Valley shuttle buses.
You know, the buses that bring tech workers from their homes in San Francisco and Oakland to places like Palo Alto, Cupertino, and Mountain View? The ones that sparked real-life protests in real-life Oakland? Yeah, those.
Parody aside, the real gem of this mission is a short conversation between Marcus and his friend Horatio. Horatio is a Nudle employee, a gifted programmer, and, most importantly for this conversation, a black man.
Throughout “Watch Dogs 2,” Marcus is portrayed as a fearless ideologue, galvanised in the face of adversity. The very first mission has him breaking-and-entering, hacking a computer system, and escaping dozens of armed security guards. He’s the embodiment of overconfidence.
But the first thing he says to Horatio when he gets off the bus is this:
“Hey, Horatio man. I’m scared bro.” Scared? Of what?
Marcus isn’t scared of street gangs, which he takes on repeatedly in “Watch Dogs 2.” He’s not afraid of scaling buildings, or riding motorcycles. He’s not even afraid to sneak into the game’s equivalent of Google, one of the world’s most powerful companies.
So, what’s he afraid of?
“Nobody look like us.” Indeed, all the people who exited the bus — other than Marcus and Horatio — are white.
This is a joke … kind of. Marcus isn’t afraid, but also he’s definitely afraid. Regardless of his ability to hack into security systems, he realises that he stands out dramatically on Nudle’s campus. Horatio, being an employee there, laughs off Marcus’ reaction with a fantastic joke:
Horatio: “Ha, man, welcome to Silicon Valley. Hey, what do you call a black man surrounded by thousands of white people?”
Horatio: “Mr. President.”
This conversation between Horatio and Marcus is intended to make players laugh, of course, but it’s one of the few moments in “Watch Dogs 2” that addresses the Bay Area/Silicon Valley setting of the game without kid gloves on.
Much of the game’s setting focuses on lampooning the kombucha-drenched, namaste-spouting frivolity of the Bay Area. But in this particular mission, Horatio and Marcus have a surprisingly real conversation about being a person of colour in a largely white environment.
“There’s only three other black people that work here. Two guys, one woman. We have our own mailing list,” Horatio tells Marcus, seriously. “That’s rough. But hey, you’re fighting the good fight, changing the face of corporate life in the Valley,” Marcus responds, trying to put a positive spin on the situation.
And that’s when Horatio offers the best cultural critique in “Watch Dogs 2,” in answering Marcus’ upbeat spin. Horatio says:
“Hah. You haven’t experienced corporate life until you’re the only brother in a meeting and have to represent all of blackdom. If I had a nickel for every time someone complimented me for being ‘well-spoken.'”
Another social critique “Watch Dogs 2” presents is how Horatio’s character changes dramatically as he enters the work environment. He becomes, for lack of a better word, corny. He’s ridiculously polite, and seemingly embraces the Silicon Valley mentality during work hours. Part of this is him (he’s actually into the silly sounding food in Nudle’s kitchen), but part is clearly an attempt to fit in somewhere that he stands out.
Games, especially on the blockbuster scale like “Watch Dogs 2,” rarely attempt this kind of critique. “Watch Dogs 2” both attempts and nails it. The game is out now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC — check out our full review right here.
And here’s the full video of that mission (starting at the 13:30 timestamp):
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