Good God, Aiden Pearce is boring. Another one of those characters who mistakes having a growl for a voice and a long list of cookie-cutter grievances for being someone with depth and drama to their persona. Aiden isn't a particularly interesting character, he doesn't inspire empathy, sympathy, admiration or anger. I tried to sum up some of his more notable qualities and I ended up staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page for a good ten minutes.
Chicago has a good crack at trying to make Mr Pearce more interesting by association -- constantly serving up opportunities for him to simply be a cipher by which we can live out our own hacker-centric flights of fancy, but then that Christian Bale-esque voice creeps back in with another stab at gritty narration, and Ubisoft try to convince us that Aiden is someone who matters via Tom Waits impressions, and all I want to do is give him a Strepsil.
The comparison with GTA is coming up a lot, thanks in part to Ubisoft's Big Mass Market Decision to quietly sideline the more original aspects of Watch Dogs in favour of traditional open world staples (guns and driving, yo!). But I actually think Watch Dogs as a franchise has the potential to go further in terms of game world interaction mainly due to the level of playful control you can eventually exert over the city's systems. That can't be said for the game's story or characters, mind, Aiden in particular. Rockstar revel in phenomenally detailed character studies (consider how fantastically crafted John Marston was as a complex character), but Ubisoft Montreal, though they can hit heights, have a Connor for every Ezio.
To be fair to Connor, mind, even he's better company than Aiden.
Creating gaming protagonists is a tricky thing, though. How do you balance out character design with the desire to remain open and accessible for as wide an audience as possible? After all, players actively engage with and steer these characters through their stories. And when it comes to open world games, or other titles with an array of agency and freedom, how do you craft personalities that can encompass the possible range of player actions?
For many games, you don't. For some games, story and character development are secondary concerns. Games, like any art form or piece of entertainment, inform their audience of how they wish to be perceived. If a game doesn't make a big deal of its story, chances are we won't notice the cracks. I never had to despair of Sonic as a character, for example, until he started engaging in interspecies romances. Samus was a badass female bounty hunter and that was that, until Team Ninja turned her into a simpering tween.
Perspective counts for a lot too. First-person games always tend to suffer in terms of character development because quite often the whole point is that you -- the player -- are the protagonist, but the result is that you don't care quite as much. Silent protagonists keep quiet because the disconnect might be offputting on one hand, though the tradeoff is that spoken exchanges tend to be a little one-sided. That's not to say that first-person games can't deliver strong main characters -- there's a world of difference between the wonderfully wrought Booker DeWitt, for example, and the pinnacle of bland template design in Nathan Hale. It's why Bad Company's singleplayer is so much more engaging than anything BF3 and BF4 had to offer.
But it's more difficult to forgive design lapses when it comes to third-person titles that insist on yanking you from the action to facilitate a narrative, forcing you to spend time in the company of a central character that you're stuck with, well-crafted or not. Prototype is a wonderfully cathartic game, filled with satisfyingly destructive opportunities, but Alex Mercer is one of the most lamentably boring characters you could possibly imagine.
It's why I don't really get on with Gears of War unless I'm playing locally with a friend. I hate spending time in the company of the COGs -- Cole is a borderline racist stereotype, Dom's soapy drama in Gears 2 is like watching a pebble try to emote, and Marcus Fenix is a brick with hands. Again, though, it could be worse. It could be Inversion.
This never really used to matter, but that's because the means and ways of telling a story in this medium were severely limited, so fewer genres were even suitable for strong storytelling. Now, however, an attempt at an engaging, meaningful narrative is a must-tick box on nearly every developmental checklist. That's no bad thing, necessarily, context is always welcome, but there are good and bad ways of doing it. Sadly, if you mess it up, it's there for all to see, even more noticeable than ever before.
In open world games, that visibility is even greater still. A poorly integrated narrative can prove fractious -- making the modular nature of such games even more apparent, and ruining cohesion. The story and the characters have to fit your world and the actions that can be performed within it. Sleeping Dogs did a fine job of keeping that balance taut, helped along by a relatively brisk script that dispensed with filler, trading on myriad cinematic inspirations and blending them together similarly tight action, driving, and world design.
It's horses for courses, mind. Watch Dogs is a lot of fun in parts, though you certainly have to meet it more than halfway at times, such is its apparent disdain for its best features. Ludonarrative dissonance is something that often isn't necessarily a problem if the gaming aspects are super engaging and fun. But that's settling, and we shouldn't have to do that. There's no excuse for not breaking the mould of gravelly-voiced, nondescript, male, thirtysomething, production line protagonists with limited character arcs.
Especially when we know Ubi Montreal can do better.