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June 2021

Watch Dogs Legion is ensemble comedy trapped in a dystopia

When I first started playing Watch Dogs: Legion, the game gave me the opportunity to pick who I wanted to help to rebuild DedSec, this universe’s inexplicably large and suspiciously benevolent hacker collective. Naturally, I selected a wet noodle of a human being named Gavin or Steve, who’s defining characteristics were that he had failed his motorcycle license test, and that he spoke like he was always five seconds away from a well-actually. He really sucked; like, as a person, he was a lousy example. This set the tone for everything that came after in that particular adventure, given that he was doing the recruitment. I found a middle-aged man with irritable bowel syndrome, a street hypnotist who couldn’t stop flirting with everyone, an esports champion. These were not the best and brightest London had to offer, but it was the best Steve (or Dave, or Mike) could do on short notice.

All of this was very funny and ridiculous, but the problem is that Legion isn’t trying to be funny. It’s not a comedy, and the story is arguably the furthest from comedy you could imagine, what with all the fascism, murder, corporate overreach, fascism and government corruption. So there’s a bit of a disconnect between what the game does, and what it is; what tools the player has at their disposal does not fit with what they are asked to immerse themselves in.

What’s worse is that the emergent comedy of Watch Dogs Legion is—despite being very secondary—what the game is best at. It is genuinely and unexpectedly hilarious that the game’s procedural algorithms decided to give Dave his own personal motorcycle, but also make it canon that he failed his license test, as if he so disagreed with the test result that he went and bought a fancy racing bike out of spite. It’s very funny to watch a man in a purple dinner jacket take time out from saving London from the oppressive jackboot of fascism to earn a few extra crypto-dollars playing his trumpet on a street corner. In comparison, it is aggressively uninteresting to break into a gang base to steal files for some reason, again. There is nothing at all exciting about making sure the bad guys can’t do that horrible thing they want to do with technology, or guns, or whatever else. Legion’s systems are bristling with the potential for comedy and emergent gameplay, but its story and world are less interesting than a Netflix Original Film.

They also clash, badly. Despite the well-meaning intention by the narrative to create an evolving cast of ordinary people who rise up to save the city from evil, the goofy characters are often at complete odds with the story being told. Marceline the construction worker who likes gambling should not be thrust into the centre of a human trafficking conspiracy, where organs are being cut out of the corpses of immigrants. She’s going to lose her goddamn mind. She’ll have nightmares forever, and be unable to relate to her friends and family due to the darkness she witnessed and the lives she took. You can’t just focus on how fun it is to have a remote-controlled spider robot and electric knuckles when a scientist is threatening to upload humanity into the cloud, or the government is putting people in prison camps. Legion jumps the shark twenty times an hour, flipping madly between deadly serious fate-of-the-world business and the frankly nonsense people who are supposed to fix it.

Despite the narrative intentions, Watch Dogs Legion wants to be an ensemble comedy; and it would be better for the change. Exceedingly boring main characters like The Woman Who Gives You Missions, The Deeply Annoying Computer Voice, Angry Fascist Man and Powerful Hard Lady Who Runs a Gang want your attention, but never really do anything to demand or deserve it. Every story mission feels like an interruption, and they’re all painfully rote open-world busywork.

Imagine what this game might look like as a real comedy, for a moment. Currently you can do all sorts of tiny, silly things to disrupt the fascist society around you. Distract police officers* who are interrogating innocent citizens and watch the citizen beat the hell out of them; use hacking powers to control army vehicles and cause havoc; steal from authoritarian jerks and then make them look stupid chasing after a housewife in a pig mask. These should be the core of the experience, rather than side activities. When you have systems as potentially interesting as Legion, the narrative should be about those systems. As it is, the story feels like a corpse at the centre of this dynamic world.

I’m not saying you can only tell a happy, fun tale filled with rainbows and robot butterflies, the meal just needs to match the ingredients. Part of the reason a guy whose farts alert the enemies to his position is such good comedy is the contrast between the seriousness of the situation and the ridiculousness of the outcome. But wow, it does not have to be so unrelentingly edgy and dark. If the Ubisoft writers need some assistance, kid’s animated shows are practiced experts when it comes to pairing light, fun times with serious topics. An episode of Justice League Unlimited or She-Ra is undeniably skewed toward a young audience, but they also manage to balance the talking horses with references to war crimes—without ever resorting to literally showing a surgeon about to cut out someone’s heart.

It’s frustrating, because Legion is very clearly a game that doesn’t know what it wants to be, hamstrung by what it thinks the market wants. The narrative is about the evils of absolute power, but it creates a third-party villain and mostly absolves the real government of responsibility. Unchecked technology is supposed to be a villain, but your partner is a perfect AI who gives you infinite access to autonomous robots. For every serious moment there are a hundred ragdolls flying comically from bikes or characters wearing hot pants and skull masks. Ubisoft wants to tell a story about fascism that mirrors the current rise of similar movements in various countries, but it also wanted to advertise that story by showing everyone how hilarious it would be to see an old lady do a stealth takedown. Discussing anything about Legion feels complicated and difficult precisely because it cannot pick a damn lane; every part of it is messy, it’s difficult to see what the purpose of one idea could be without catching a dozen other ideas in your peripheral vision.

All of these problems could have been solved by making it a proper comedy. Giving it a real focus. Lightening up the tone would have given the game more freedom to tackle more serious issues without the cognitive dissonance that infests the experience now. It would have strengthened the concept of a group of ragtag nobodies attempting to overthrow the government, because they genuinely would have come across like underdog weirdos instead of superheroes with the equivalent financial backing of a hundred James Bonds. Being less beholden to the false idea of realism and more free to build a world that suited a tone—any tone—would have given the universe a direction, context, the space to use subtext instead of painfully blatant text all the time. And it would have been truly funny, instead of a very boring, ordinary story punctuated by farts.

*Yes, I’m going to refer to the Albion troops as “police” even though Ubisoft is too cowardly to have the police be the bad guys.

Genshin Impact builds a better, more connected open world

The blacksmith’s name is Wagner. This isn’t information I had to research, nor is it useful to know, it’s just a fact about the city of Mondstadt in Genshin Impact. At a very basic level, I know there’s a blacksmith because I need to use a blacksmith to play the game. Everyone in Mondstadt knows Wagner, though—the knights and guards go to him for their weapons, the food stall owners run into him at work, random residents see him hammering away near the gates—and as a result they bring him up in conversation now and then, or ask me to go speak to him while I’m doing a side quest about ghosts or potato supplies. Rather than being just a faceless NPC, he exists; Wagner is a three-dimensional piece of the Genshin universe.

Everything in the game follows this philosophy, a desire to make sure each person, object, concept, god or piece of fruit has a place to be and a role to play in the ecosystem (literally or figuratively). Often when players enter an open world playground they’re presented with a thousand disparate pieces, shiny characters and places that serve their purpose and then step politely back to make room for the next piece. Go here and find this item, speak to the man at the corner to get a quest about the old shack on the hill, climb a tower and search for the next man on the next corner. In the world of Teyvat (where Genshin Impact is set), all things are part of the greater clockwork of the universe, because that’s how it works in the real world, more or less. Genshin achieves this not with one silver bullet solution, but by using myriad mechanics and writing tricks to draw the player in and constantly feed them more information about—and empathy for—the world.

Through ordinary gameplay and dialogue, Genshin is constantly reassuring you about the continuity of the world, and making sure to organically merge the two sides. Upgrade materials include all sorts of flowers, rocks, plants and seeds from around the map, but these aren’t just items to be collected; characters frequently reference the fictional fruits, flora and fauna in quest dialogue and friendly exchanges, reinforcing the idea that this is a real world you’re living in, not just a sandbox for video game adventures. When characters talk about their favourite food, or discuss going out to eat as part of their interactions and quests, the food they mention always exists as a recipe the player can obtain and make themselves. There’s a constant flow of practical and narrative information, back and forth, keeping you from losing that belief in the reality around you.

It brings to mind the potions and mutagens of The Witcher’s universe, where Geralt calmly discusses the ingredients he will need to do his job, but now writ large over an entire open world ecosystem. You can easily imagine NPCs being able to direct you to the crafting ingredients you need if you could simply ask, without the need for layers of abstraction.

Let’s not forget about Wagner, though, or any of the random denizens of Teyvat. Characters are where Genshin Impact really shines, and, while they might not be blisteringly clever portrayals fit to put the stars of classic literature to shame, they manage to feel more like real people than most other games in the same space. Again, this comes down to respecting the ecosystem of the universe. Wagner forges weapons for many folks around town, including Noelle, one of the potential playable characters and a maid-slash-assistant to the Knights of Favonius. His weapons keep getting broken by Noelle and he eventually works out it’s because she’s ridiculously strong and basically shattering them with her raw anime girl power. Every quest you pick up, or piece of dialogue you scroll through, is full of these kinds of connections. One quest for Venti, the bard, involves him inventing a pair of goggles that let you see people’s imaginary friends, which leads you on a merry adventure around different NPCs, but makes one stop at the local pub to watch two of the male characters—Diluc and Kaeya—have one of their many sassy exchanges. This adds nothing to the quest itself beyond the satisfaction of knowing who these people are and enjoying the interaction. The value is in the context.

Genshin Impact fosters these connections to its characters by treating the players’ relationships with them as an ever-evolving, dynamic thing. Unlike in many open world titles, where NPCs primarily exist in their piece of the story, as part of their quests and narrative moments, before fading out of view, Genshin characters are always being constructed from several perspectives at once. When you unlock a character as playable and put them in your squad, they begin accumulating Friendship Rank, which is essentially a measurement of how much you’ve used them while playing. Higher ranks mean accessing more voice lines and backstory details, so you gradually get to know that person better, and they slowly become more well-rounded characters, even without any emotional dialogue scenes or dramatic moments. This slow-burn method of unveiling the details of a character feels truer to the way an open world game flows than simply dumping information into cutscenes; building a relationship with someone over the course of a journey feels more natural in a game than passively watching them in cutscenes.

As of the 1.4 update, Genshin added Hangout Events, which are essentially small outings you can go on with specific characters that have dialogue choices and multiple endings. Hangouts turn the game briefly into a dating sim of sorts, and they offer another way to get to know characters outside of a traditional quest. Also, crucially, while they do have multiple endings, the endings aren’t exactly mutually exclusive; rather than providing a series of what-if scenarios where you decide what might have happened if you said the right or wrong thing, the hangout stories play more like a set of possibilities that are all equally true. That means replaying them is less like creating an alternate universe and more like just learning more about your date. When singing deaconess Barbara meets you in the forest, it is equally plausible that you helped her chase off an over-eager fan and that you shared a quiet moment learning her recipe for alcoholic chilli. Both of these adventures happened. It’s another excellent example of how Genshin Impact takes advantage of the specific advantages of telling a story inside a game, where continuity is optional and time has no real power.

Now you can even invite your companions (unlocked playable characters) into your teapot for a nice, relaxing afternoon. At a certain point in Genshin, in case you’re confused, the main character is given a magic teapot, inside which exists a pocket dimension that the player can decorate like a tiny private estate. The 1.6 update added the ability to invite a couple of your friend in, and then wander over to speak to them about how they feel, or what they think of the magic teapot universe you filled with fruit stands.

How much they have to say while they’re visiting is tied to their Friendship Rank, and you can get into some reasonably meaty conversations with your favourite people. It speaks to the overall feeling you get while in the world of Genshin that this is a living space with characters you can spend time with, learn from, build relationships with. These aren’t simply cardboard cut-outs here to dispense sob stories and adventure hooks, they’re part of the same cities and stories and universe as you, they have agency and dreams, they have more to show you if you just take the time to pay attention.

That’s what sets it apart, really, that respect for the passage of time and how it interacts with a gaming experience. An open world game in particular is designed to be a leisurely experience full of discovery and immersion, but many games in the genre treat the concept as more of an excuse to checklist a bunch of cool experiences that have very little to do with one another. Genshin is a set of strings on a board, all connected to one another, and when you pull on one of the strings it shakes everything else just a little bit. The end result is a very satisfying experience, because it rewards players who invest in the world with more of the world they already love. Quests get easier because you understand the environment, stories become more engaging because you’re motivated to be engaged, not just for this piece of narrative but for all those in the future. Genshin Impact is a true open world, rather than a sandbox. And Wagner is going to keep being rude to me for a long time yet; that’s honestly so like him.