City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

‘Watch Dogs’ and world creation

Written in


‘Watch Dogs’ (2014)

The no-narrative narrative of a videogame city

(Ed. This piece was originally published at on 22 February 2013.) It seems to me that there are hundreds of interesting things about these clips from the forthcoming game Watch Dogs (2014). None of those things particularly concern the plot, characterisation, narrative, but rather the creation of worlds, especially urban worlds.

I would love to stretch out into a post here about ‘world creation’, but there’s little time now, on a late Friday night in Treviso, with my head already sporadically nodding over the backlit keyboard of my Macbook as the Duomo bells count midnight beyond the shutters.

But the nice thing about having one of the older blogs is that I’ve written about all this before, in this case around ten years ago, mentioned in a piece on Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York. And Grand Theft Auto, San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto 3, The Warriors and Grand Theft Reality. So I can simply point.

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Watch Dogs feels hugely appealing, as it was with a short clip of another game based in Paris 2084 posted to The Verge the other day, simply because it suggests the possibility of wandering around in a semi-fictional city as escapist pastime. No plot, no narrative, just exploring something which is a parallel urban universe (temporarily, dramatically, architecturally.)

Partly this is appealing as urban walking is an occupation of mine in real cities, from Geneva to Los Angeles to many more yet to be written-up. And partly as the other narrative forms I enjoy the most often create a world—and often an urban world—as a core character.

For example, and purely at random, Bullitt and Collateral and Will Eisner and Bleak House and Chavez Ravine and Warren Ellis’s excellent recent novel Gun Machine, which Watch Dogs appears to share some similarities with. World-building more broadly, outside of cities, also seems a characteristic of compelling narrative formats, from West Wing to Borgen via Lost and Eastenders to Swallows and Amazons.

These are story-forms that suggest a map, an architecture. Old videogames used to present sudden walls or inexplicable roadblocks curtailing streets at the edge of the game’s map; the action within the map is so vivid because it is contained. Similarly, when characters appeared outside the White House in West Wing, or outside the few key locations in Borgen, or at the allotments in Eastenders, it always feels slightly odd, as if the characters are trespassing in another world somehow; as if they’ve briefly escaped.

I suppose I wrote about ‘world creation’ most directly in the post Video Game Flaneurs, in 2004, speculating about the possibility of using game engines to create particular urban scenes to experience: New York in 1980, Manchester in 1830, Weimar Berlin, and so on. Entirely facile, vicarious simulacra for sure, and in no way comparable to genuine urban experience. But still … something. Why are these experiences so strangely compelling?

There are lots of luscious details in these short sections of Watch Dogs, from the satirical take on the opening of a clichéd media arts exhibition through to the mis-en-scene being delicately traced with the digital exhausts of the city’s populace.

Yet the key thing for me comes in another preview video for featuring a voiceover from the game’s creative director. He says:

“Everything you’re about to see is just another day in the city. There is no mission and no objectives … You’re creating your own experience by tapping into peoples’ lives. What’s cool about it, is that the possibilities are endless.”

That’s it. No Mission, no objectives. But the endless possibility of the city generates the experience. Just as with a real city, essentially, albeit in rather different ways.

Of course, this being a game, there is a plot. And the main protagonist has ‘super-powers’ that are not really that ‘super’ at all, but a gentle extrapolation of today’s consumer tech, in which he can access any digitally-mediated infrastructure in the immediate vicinity.

“You’re going to control the entire city of Chicago …”, says the art director, noting how you can access and redeploy any infrastructure lying around, from ATMs to air-conditioning units, traffic lights to bollards. And then, this being a game, he says “Even the smallest thing can become a weapon.”

But while the idea of hacking the city’s tech clearly presents strong narrative possibilities, it looks like Watch Dogs will be enjoyed on a whole other level: that no-narrative narrative of the city unfolding itself for you.

(Watch Dogs was brought to my attention today by Fabrica’s head of interaction, Aaron Siegel, and these thoughts also follow conversations with one of our designers at COLORS, Ivor Williams. Thanks to them both.)

Ed. This piece was originally published at on 22 February 2013.


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