I never finished the game Shadow Complex. The gameplay was fine, level design fine, but I hit a point where I just couldn’t put up with Jason Flemming anymore. I remember clearly exactly why I put the game down: one of the nameless faceless soldiers yelled something like “Who is this guy? Is it just one man?!” And I thought… yeah, he really is just one man, and, in fact, not a particularly interesting or special man. Not Batman or Samus Aran or Solid Snake or even Sam Fischer or someone actually cool. He’s just this dude Jason, and he frankly bores me to tears with his white-boy blandness. The most interesting thing Jason Flemming ever did is in the alternate ending, where he just gives up and goes home. As far as I am concerned, this is the canon ending to Shadow Complex, the only ending that makes sense. As a bonus getting this ending means spending way less time with Jason.
Unfortunately Jason’s crown has been stolen. I have a new least favorite. Aiden Pearce is just the worst.
Aiden Pearce is the protagonist of Watch Dogs. Watch Dogs itself isn’t terrible. Some parts are clever, maybe even fun. But Watch Dogs is a serious game about a serious man, so joy is not permitted. To support this mandated joylessness, it weighs the entire affair down with its protagonist. I hate everything about Aiden Pearce.
I hate his douchey name. I hate his hoarse put on “tough-guy” voice. I hate his outfit, with the like-six layered shirts. But mostly I hate how he’s never owning up the awful stuff he’s doing, or at least admitting the possibility of having fun doing it.
Let’s get this out of the way: I realize that most video game protagonists are sociopaths. The minute controller meets hand, the fictional protagonist’s humanity drains away in the name of creating a fun sandbox for the non-fictional player. The Khajiit I spent the most time with during my stay in Skyrim was absolutely a sociopath. Heck, look at what they’ve done to Luigi lately.
A Skyrim character is a blank slate; no action makes less sense than any other action, which makes the game’s narrative uneven, but not broken. It’s choose-your-own-sociopath. However, if a game has a specific protagonist in a sandbox environment, especially a destructible one with cars and guns, they have a challenge ahead of them to justify the player’s behavior. There’s two basic ways to handle this in a game narrative, both of which involve some actual writing skill. The game can ignore it, the way Uncharted does, and cast the character as an everyman in spite of his mounting kill count. This causes ludonarrative dissonance but is otherwise meaningless in the course of things, and will make the story work anyway. Another thing the game can do is just own the madness, Saints Row the Third or Prototype style, and confess the character is a bit of a monster. According to all reports, the best part of Grand Theft Auto V is that it finally tried this, creating in Trevor a character who finally seems to be the right guy to enact all the crazy mayhem the player was going to do anyway.
Watch Dogs takes the middle road, which doesn’t work. It acknowledges all of Pearce’s horribleness, but then tries to justify the things he does with the narrative it builds up about his vigilante activities. Conveniently and lazily, that narrative mostly involves slamming women into refrigerators. Bad things just keep happening around Aiden! Poor baby. Just gonna have to get some bigger guns and mow down another dozen men.
What kicks off the narrative of Watch Dogs? Aiden’s niece is dead, killed by a hitman who was targeting Pearce to, supposedly, scare him. Telling: when he was driving his niece around on their final fateful day together, he says they weren’t even going anywhere in particular. For him to have had a place to go, he might have needed some kind of hobby. Or maybe the niece would have to be something other than a token, who also had a place to go? Ha ha, sure, that’s a pretty thought.
It’s trivial to steal everyone’s money in the game, so you, the player, are going to do this, probably even if the person you’re stealing from is labeled a poor retiree and you’re picking out their last pension. Maybe you find this satisfying: too bad Aiden doesn’t. Stealing cars? Doing sweet takedowns? Nothing entertains this man. This would be okay if he had some other motivation, even something like a solider’s duty or a love for humanity driving him forward, but he does not appear to. Instead, there is grim revenge.
To emphasize this, Aiden has a “conspiracy wall” in his hideout where he has noted all the evidence he has about who tracked down his niece. Check it: the conspiracy wall has the look of cut-out photographs and clippings pasted onto a map, but it’s a digital projection. So Aiden Pearce, instead of just push-pinning newspaper clippings onto the wall and drawing with chalk like a proper conspiracy hobo, painstakingly assembled his conspiracy evidence in… Photoshop? doing little paper tear effects? and then set up a projector system just to project that file onto the wall.
What an asshole.
Aiden Pearce is on his phone, like, all the time, even when he’s in the presence of people he’s supposed to care about, like his sister. I know we all do this sometimes. But, geez, look her in the eye why don’t you?
I haven’t yet played a lot of Watch Dogs. Mostly, I’ve experienced the game vicariously through my husband, who bought it for himself. I watched but did not participate in this portion of the game, which is at the maybe two-thirds mark, and which I will now very slightly spoil: the sex auction sequence. In order to get through this mission in the game, Pearce has to go to an auction, which, as it turns out, is for sex trafficking. To get in, Aiden decides the easiest way would be to pretend to be someone else who is already scheduled to be there. Aiden phones in to his handler looking for an identity he can reasonably assume, gets one, and says in so many words, “well, I guess I have to kill this guy, then.” He says this on scant details, sight unseen. He could feasibly just knock the guy out and lock him up for a few hours, but no, death it is. It turns out the other guy is a monster, but that’s just convenient, a way of post-hoc adding “yes this attitude was totally justified” to Pearce’s offhand murder.
Aiden calls himself “The Vigilante,’ but he isn’t a superhero. He’s just… some guy… and we don’t really even know much about his past, other than the time that little girl died, and his previous history of black-hat hacking. He doesn’t seem to like anything, or even hate anything. He murders grimly and in great numbers because murdering must be done. I do not like him much, except when I see things that pick fun of him.
Even just a few hours in the game, I heard a thug say something to this effect. “Who is this guy?! Is he just one man?”
Dear All Video Games: that line alone does not make a character a badass. Please, please stop.
In order to get another perspective on this, I enlisted my husband, the person for whom this game was made. As he spent a lot more time with Aiden than I did, I wanted to get his take, and he wanted to share it. Beneath this jump, a short guest essay from my husband Ryan. This contains a lot more spoilers for specific moments in the game.
I played Watchdogs all the way through. I cheev hunted a bit so I did all of the out-of-the-box sidequests, collected all the stuff I could, etc. I squeeze every bit of content out of video games I buy because I do it relatively rarely. Here is my reflection on the experience.
Watchdogs is a fun game. It was designed for 14-year-old me who devoured dystopian cyberpunk fiction with zeal. 20 years later, I felt obligated to buy the game my past self wanted. Fortunately, Watch Dogs is a polished experience with interesting mechanics. The game-ness of Watch Dogs is great, and the difficulty curve is forgiving once you get the hang of the basic systems. Hacking through extensive security is a Pipe Dreams minigame, but most of the time you can just take over cameras or mess with traffic lights without having to do anything more than push a button. Skilling up lets you mangle the environment even more, which is essential in late game action.
I agree with Amanda that Aiden is awful. 14-year-old me would write this character unapologetically, but 20 years of these kinds of protagonists has taken its toll on me. I had no sense that Aiden had any particular call to justice when I first picked up a controller. Vengeance, sure. You pick up Aiden and he’s beating the tar out of Maurice, the hitman who caused the fateful car wreck that ended with Aiden’s niece Lena dead. That’s about all we know when Aiden uses Maurice as a basic combat tutorial. Aiden has already beaten Maurice all to hell when you get control, and the poor dumb thug stays pathetic during your interactions with him later. Instead of vigilante justice, I felt like I was playing a super-criminal retaliating against a rival. OK, cool. That’s something I can get behind.
I decided to start running up the score once I got out of the opening mission. I began walking the streets hunting for people to rob. To do so, I had to keep the “Profiler” open to track down people with active bank accounts I could hit. Beyond telling you if they have something to steal, the Profiler reduces humans to about an index card of bullet points. You always get their name and their yearly income, but sometimes you’ll get other things.
Game journos have spilled ink talking about people using the Profiler to kill various types of people. The only thing I was looking for as I was using the Profiler was whether I could suck money out of somebody’s phone and put it into my pocket. It didn’t matter if somebody had recently adopted a child or were recently talking to a criminal. Everyone was equal as a source of revenue. I stole from the poor. I stole from the rich. I stole from everybody. Why not? It was a pickup without any consequence, so I did it constantly. Mr. Big Time Vigilante never flinched no matter how long I kept it up.
I spent an entire day hunting for big paydays. When I bought the skill that made the high-value targets highlight on my Profiler in blue, I could even more cavalierly tear around and cherry-pick people out of crowds. I eagerly ran up the score to a million dollars, expecting a cheev. When one didn’t come, I built my way up to 2 mil before I got bored, but by then I had more money than I’d ever need. Unlike in real life, money in Watch Dogs doesn’t do a lot for you (at least not in my stealth-heavy play style). But hey, I was a multimillionaire. Life was good except for what’s-her-name being dead and all.
I glutted myself like the NSA by tapping into phones to eavesdrop on conversations to break up the tedium of hunting dollars. Why wouldn’t Aiden randomly invade your privacy just because he could? There’s even a whole category of sidequest missions where you break into people’s networks and stare at them through their webcams. Those were among the first sidequests I did. Aiden clearly doesn’t care as he never remarks about any of your acts, no matter how heinous.
Aiden does remark on how much ctOS collects on people if you snoop around during the ctOS tower missions. What little he says then is mostly to ask himself what they might be doing with it all. If you follow enough leads, you eventually figure out that ctOS influences events in subtle ways for unknown ends. Aiden doesn’t care, focused entirely on his own problems. If Ubisoft depicted Aiden as selfish or at least disinterested in other humans, that might be a motivation for his assorted antisocial behaviors. Instead, like Cloud in FF7, extrinsic motivations (someone telling him to do this or that) direct Aiden through main quest rather than intrinsic motivations (get a hobby or something, dude).
While Aiden isn’t much of a character, he succeeds wildly as an avatar of hacker wish-fulfillment power. He can do anything he wants and does. I went off and did sidequests after unlocking my entire skill tree. During the side missions, it’s easy to forget that Aiden is motivated by revenge at all. Aiden’s quest for revenge doesn’t affect anything but main quest. Aiden fights crime during many of the sidequests, but it’s not clear why outside of hammering people who come into his hustle. Even when Aiden gets involved tracking down a serial killer or breaking up a human trafficking ring, there’s never any overarching ethos to it outside of the promise of hitting a guy. (He does seem to like hitting guys.)
Perhaps anticipating these complaints, the game attempts to stuff vigilante action down your throat. One of the things that made my side questing enjoyable was listening to my tunes on my phone while driving around looting and pillaging. When the ctOS detected a crime about to happen nearby, it would cut my music. I had to either leave the area to get my tunes back or resolve the crime. Often times I would be looking for a collectable, so I’d divert from my current task to deal with this interruption to my jams. This would mean stalking a guy, waiting for the ‘go’ signal, and then running at him to take him down. Taking down criminals gave me more XP, so this was important early game to get more hack power.
Later on, staying nonlethal(ish) helped repair my reputation after a main quest mission would get me into a situation where I’d crash through a crowd of civilians in a truck or misthrow a grenade. As I had developed a healthy fear of the police from their efficient ass-kickings in early game, keeping the city on my side by hitting poor people with batons became a priority. The love of the citizens became a source of perverse pride for me as the game continued. While I’d stolen a couple million from Chicago citizens, eavesdropped on their conversations and blown up city infrastructure while fighting my rivals, they loved me anyway.
My crime fighting sometimes didn’t go smoothly. Occasionally criminals would try to call reinforcements or start shooting back at Aiden, which necessitated Aiden blowing up transformers on them for instant death. Despite the fact that I was usually breaking up street muggings or domestic violence, I’d go lethal if it looked like the situation was going to turn into a pain in the ass. Let this be a lesson to criminals everywhere: Interrupting “One Mic” can be a death sentence in Aiden Pearce’s world.
Eventually I ran out of things to grab, so I had to stop listening to music and advance the plot. Damien, Aiden’s ex-partner, generates many of the emotional beats of main quest. (Subtle.) After Aiden refuses to help Damien solve the mystery of why the Merlot job went bad (the event that incited someone to hire a hitman to kill Aiden, ending in what’s-her-face’s death, etc.), Damien kidnaps Aiden’s sister Nicole to make him cooperate. During the middle of the period where Damien has Nicole in custody, the heat mostly evaporates in favor of a vague sense of menace along with bantering between all three characters.
Part of me hoped for a reconciliation — Damien’s no worse than you and you seem to have similar goals — but the tone of the game wouldn’t allow for it. Eventually Aiden gets his sister back by guile, prompting Damien to kill another woman you care about in a turn of events that surprises nobody. Naturally, you have to deal with it (with a brief interlude where you hunt down and kill Deadmaus for ruining house music^W^W^W^W^WDefalt, another enemy hacker). You know how this ends from there.
As a game, Watch Dogs is fun and is worth a play. As a story, Watch Dogs’ revenge-flavored narrative doesn’t have much meat to it. If the game had pitched Aiden as a super-criminal watching out for his own with his awesome power, it probably would have had more satisfying emotional beats. Trying to paper over Aiden’s antisocial personality disorder with a thin veneer of crime-fighting ultimately left me yelling complaints at the screen, particularly during the ending monologue.
I’ll go back to listening to”One Mic” now.
So there you have it. Not just one, but two votes for Aiden Pearce being the absolute worst. It’s gonna be tough to beat.
Also, Ryan informed me later, in the ending I didn’t watch yet, that the player gets the option of killing or not-killing one dude, in some kind of half-assed moral choice moment, after Pearce has already killed like a million guys already. Closure.
There is a hope I’m holding out here. Maybe I’m just not supposed to like Aiden. After all, the people he is supposedly protecting look on him with fear. The life he leads appears to be lonely and meaningless. He is obviously not a role model. At any rate, Ubioft is probably sick of people talking trash about their protagonists. They say in the future they promise to do better, so maybe the next Watch Dogs will have a stronger lead character instead of a bland hate machine.
It is now open season to discuss your least favorite video game protagonist.
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