Coming away from some hands-on time with Watch Dogs 2, what struck me most was just how vital the city of San Francisco is to Ubisoft’s hacktastic sequel.
From the way the huge variety of NPC’s react to your actions, to driving through familiar locations and colourful sun-drenched streets, everything about the game screams California – and after chatting to key members of the team, it became clear that for them too, Watch Dogs 2 simply couldn’t have been set anywhere else.
According to Senior Producer Dominic Guay, the choice of location for the sequel was the first decision they made, and something of a no-brainer. As he put it, ‘we started talking about it, and it was like a virus in the team’. Guay noted that San Francisco was his favourite city in the States, but there were plenty of factors beyond personal preferences.
It’s a beautiful place. Because we have a studio here, a lot of us in the core team have been here many, many times. It is personally, my favorite city in the states. It’s so colourful… it’s so beautiful. I mean, the vistas, the way the sea blends with nature, which blends with human made buildings… but beyond the brick and mortar it’s the people. A lot of movements started here. Culturally, it’s so rich. People aren’t necessarily born in San Francisco… they move to San Francisco.
Naturally, having such variety in one locations makes for a brilliantly interesting open world. A location that also happens to include Silicon Valley – perhaps the beating heart of tech culture in America, if not the world – makes it an obvious choice for a game like Watch Dogs 2.
As Audio Director Olivier Gerard explained to me, it was pretty important to have a city that felt as different as possible to Chicago, the setting of the original Watch Dogs.
[San Francisco] allows us to tell a different story to the one we did in Chicago. They’re very different cities, with very different vibes about them. We wanted to be sure that we were able to translate the trademark Watch Dogs gameplay to a different setting, to San Francisco, and take advantage of the opportunity to use a much more colourful city – a city with a lot of diversity to it, so that played a huge part.
One of the biggest takeaways I got from meeting members of the team and attending a short panel was that they were keen to get San Francisco right. They didn’t just head to the pier, drive across the Goldengate Bridge, high five and call it a day – they ate at weird places, made sure to talk with locals, and (obviously) got drunk at strange bars.
They even made sure to thoroughly explore Tenderloin – a neighborhood in downtown San Fransciso with a reputation for… not being the nicest place in the world – there’s even painted directions on the floor there to show people the safest way through.
However, it’s this commitment to reality that Ubisoft and the team seem so keen on that makes Watch Dogs 2 a genuinely interesting project.
Without spoiling anything, I played one brief mission during my hands-on that serves as a very obvious parody to one of the most unbelievable and enraging stories of the last year – it offered such an immensely satisfying conclusion that I had to ask Guay how much of that kind of real-life parody we can expect from the game.
He told me:
We tried to ground our ideas for stories in newspapers clips and things happening in the real world, which doesn’t mean that we didn’t give ourselves liberties and we didn’t invent things… but sometimes reality is such an inspiring thing that you don’t need to invent from thin air. It was interesting for us, especially in those kinds of stories that are blended in the open world, to explore some ideas we thought could make a cool 10 – 15 mission rather than a big operation of four hours.
Even putting together the soundtrack is something that took a ton of work and careful effort. Gerard explained that when it comes to music in a videogame that he’s working on, he really tries to nail the ‘sound’ of that place.
As he said:
I always try to showcase the scene, so when it comes to music selection, I try to skew what we choose to be a bit more representative of where we’re actually at in any given moment in the game. It was an interesting process. The first time we did it was in Watch Dogs 1, and with the second one we wanted to be sure that we could top our playlist and make it even better – and to do that we figured maybe we need some help.
Naturally, as with everything in San Francisco, diversity is key, so the team worked with indie record labels both in the UK (such as Warp Records) and SF, partnering up with the likes of Fat Wreck Chords to get an authentically curated Californian sound for the game.
While Gerard is personally a big fan of punk (obviously a vital component of the San Francisco sound), he was sure to include a good variety, include some of the best up-and-coming hip hop and electronica – I can’t really give away anything regarding the soundtrack, but I can say that it’s pretty fucking great.
Of course, as I would hope you know (or this entire article will probably be massively confusing to you) is that Watch Dogs 2 is all about hacking – specifically the ‘hacktivist’ culture, and it was important for the team to make sure we see a side of hacking that we might not usually.
Personally, the majority of my (admittedly limited) experiences with hacking have been with the likes of PoodleCorp and Lizard Squad – ‘hackers’ in the loosest sense of the word, who don’t really do anything beyond annoy people by shutting down servers.
For Guay, making sure we see what ‘white hat’ hackers can (and often do) do was a big deal:
The reality is the black hat hackers are the ones who in some ways in the mainstream are represented as the only type of hackers – those who hack, prank, and steal for the sake of being annoying. And that’s a bad way of representing a culture. It’s thousands of people and innovations that are being made, there are even big corporations now embracing the culture of hacking, and the spirit of hackers. For us it’s interesting to bring a different perspective. In Watch Dogs 2 it’s hacktivists – people who use hacking to build a movement and push forward ideas.
Really, the entire concept at the heart of Watch Dogs 2 is about ‘building a movement’, and pushing forward ideas. It’s a game about community and diversity – as evidenced in the seamless online multiplayer and massive open world, which is packed with colourful locations, stunning vistas, and a wide array of interesting characters.
It’s a game where ‘art’ can be anything to anyone, from music, to graffiti, to being a skilled hacker. It’s a game where (based on what I’ve played so far) there isn’t much you can’t do.
In other words, it’s a game about San Francisco – a city that is absolutely vital to Watch Dogs 2 in every way.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.