Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Subversiveness of Aiden Pearce


Warning - this review will contain spoilers for the storyline of Watch_Dogs.

    Aiden Pearce is a controversial character from Ubisoft Entertainment. As the protagonist of Watch_Dogs, he has been derided by many as being boring or flat. I couldn't disagree more. In fact, I'd argue that Aiden Pearce is one of the most subversive characters Ubisoft has ever created. He is a character who challenges the idea of the video game escapist fantasy and illustrates how even a "successful" hero would come off as a monster or hypocrite to those around him.

    Before I get into my analysis of Aiden, I'm reminded of Roger Ebert's review of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. The premise of this very awesome movie is that a modern-day black man chooses to live as a samurai in modern-day New York, working as a hitman for the mob.

    Here's what Roger Ebert had to say about the movie:

    It seems strange that a black man would devote his life to doing hired killing for a group of Italian-American gangsters after having met only one of them. But then it's strange, too, that Ghost Dog lives like a medieval Japanese samurai. The whole story is so strange, indeed, that I've read some of the other reviews in disbelief. Are movie critics so hammered by absurd plots that they can't see how truly, profoundly weird "Ghost Dog" is? 


    The reviews treat it matter of factly: Yeah, here's this hit man, he lives like a samurai, he gets his instructions by pigeon, blah . . . blah . . . and then they start talking about the performances and how the director, Jim Jarmusch, is paying homage to Kurosawa and "High Noon." But the man is insane! In a quiet, sweet way, he is totally unhinged and has lost all touch with reality.  

    His profound sadness, which permeates the touching Whitaker performance, comes from his alienation from human society, his loneliness, his attempt to justify inhuman behavior (murder) with a belief system (the samurai code) that has no connection with his life or his world. Despite the years he's spent studying The Way of the Samurai , he doesn't even reflect that since his master doesn't subscribe to it, their relationship is meaningless.

The protagonist is actually crazy. You may miss this despite the fact he's a black samurai hitman living in the 20th century.
    This is the, essential, story of Watch_Dog's Aiden Pearce except the character chooses to live as Batman in the ostensible "real world." He doesn't wear a giant Batsuit nor subscribes to Batman's code against killing but he has a costume, a utility-belt equivalent in his near-magic iphone, and styles himself the Vigilante with a-little-too sadistic glee. He is, in short, a thoroughly normal video game protagonist.

    Gamers are conditioned to accept a lot of things which are utterly insane, of course. When Max Payne decides to put down his badge and murder every criminal in New York, we treat this as a perfectly normal action. When Batman chooses to put on his iconic suit, we act as if this is a heroic act. Even Grand Theft Auto's protagonists live in a world where their evil is just part of a larger cultural tapetry. Indeed, their worlds justify the choice to be something other than the "normal" person we all are trapped in our lives as being. This is an important part of the narrative.

    And Aiden?

    Aiden lives in the real world.

    Or something damn-near close it.

Aiden wants to be Batman but, at the end of the day, he's always Bruce Wayne.
    The fact Aiden Pearce lives in what is, ctOS and powerful Irish mob aside, "our" Chicago throws this entire cliche narrative out of whack. When Aiden suffers the horrific loss of his niece to a drive-by-shooting aimed at him, he thinks of revenge. His sister? The girl's mother? She advises him to go to group therapy, clean up his life, and to be there for his surviving nephew. But Aiden doesn't do that because of two factors:

    1. There would be no game.
    2. Aiden is crazy.

    Aiden's seriously mental and so wrapped up in an adolescent fantasy he doesn't see it's not justified by the game world. Not in the narrative or the assumptions of the setting. His insanity is an understated sort of thing, he's not delusional and doesn't hear voices. Aiden, however, does react to events in a manner which is dissonant with just about everyone else depicted in the game.

    He's also a rampaging enormous hypocrite.

    Even as Aiden is playing the Vigilante, he is also engaged in numerous "Fixer" contracts which consist of him doing work-for-hire illegal activities. These things happen in-story so they're a canonical part of Aiden's character. There's also the fact Aiden's best friend and biggest ally, Jordi, is a professional criminal every bit as bad as the kind Aiden chooses to fight. Aiden acknowledges the hypocrisy of this relationship but needs Jordi to get closer to his revenge.

    The duality of Aiden's character is best exemplified in one of his main activities for gaining money. Aiden funds his war on crime by draining the bank accounts of the individuals he scans on the streets. While gamer who wants to veer Aiden closer to the moniker of "good guy", despite the fact he does Fixer contracts, will only steal money from the most disreputable of clients, nothing prevents Aiden from doing so to the public at large. He claims he's doing this for the sake of his family and he's reformed but is either true? Has Aiden really changed at all?

Is Aiden saving people for atonement or to make himself capable of living with the guilt of his actions with Lena?
    Aiden was a career computer criminal and implied Fixer well before the events of the game. The opening events of the game, indeed, are him emptying the accounts of Chicago's rich and famous for the benefit of both himself as well as his mentor Damien. Aiden begins his actions as the Vigilante because of the death of his niece but, to an outside observer, it's very clear these actions aren't terribly different from his previous nighttime activities. The allure of money, violence, and excitement are a drug which Aiden is drawn to--even when he's supposedly pursuing his relative's killer.

    This would not, necessarily, be hypocrisy if Aiden was simply after his niece's murderer. Revenge, after all, is a values neutral motivation belonging to both heroes and villains alike. However, Aiden devotes much of his in-game activities to stopping crimes in-progress as well as criminal convoys as well as destroying gang hideouts believes he's the Vigilante and it's his job to clean-up Chicago. This, despite the fact he remains part of the criminal underworld he ostensibly fights. Whether Aiden has a High Reputation with the public or a Low Reputation, he is a person who strongly believes himself to be a force for good now.

    Whether it's true or not.

    The game doesn't shy away from the fact Aiden's statement this is all for Lena is a lie as well. Continually, throughout the game, Aiden's sister, Nicky, serves as the voice of sanity on his shoulder. She states that Aiden is not making the world a better place by going after Lena's killers. Indeed, she states that it's very likely Aiden's actions will cause further harm to their family. Nicky proves to be right when she's kidnapped and her son is forced to witness the horrifying actions of his uncle in fighting the local mobsters--leaving him traumatized. Aiden's actions force his only remaining family to flee the city, staying just ahead of retaliation for his activities.

    In effect, repeating the actions which got his niece killed.

Aiden can kill any number of civilians and continue his quest. Even the most pacifist Aiden, however, will wreck large sections of Chicago.
    The game's self-awareness extends to the very act of Lena's murder. The six-year-old girl wasn't, in fact, the target of hitman Maurice Vega. Maurice, a Fixer like Aiden and Jordi, was attempting to kill our hero for his actions during the prologue. Aiden has brought the most traumatizing thing possible down on his family in the death of a child, only to continue to make their lives worse by doing the same sort of thing again. Maurice's reaction to the event, an accident, is similar to the way Aiden might react. He is horrified and disgusted with himself, to the point of suicidal depression.

    Showing Aiden isn't so different from the criminals he fights at all.

    Even Aiden's successes, publishing all the activities of the Blume Corporation and killing Dermont "Lucky" Quinn, are questionable. The ctOS system is spread throughout the world because of the chaos created by Aiden's actions. Furthermore, Quinn is an old man who probably only has a few years left in him anyway. Aiden feels validated by his "successful" revenge but whether he's made the world a better or worse place is ambiguous. The only people who truly benefit from Aiden's actions are the victims of Quinn's human-trafficking network, which is Aiden's one unambiguous success.

    One the player has to follow up on with sidequests to get any real results for.

     This is not the first time which video games have tackled the issue of escapist fantasy being taken too far in a character's quote-unquote real-life. Spec Ops: The Line follows Captain Walker's deconstructive journey where he desperately tries to make himself the protagonist of a Call of Duty-esque shooter only to make things worse and worse. Grand Theft Auto V's Michael De Santa is a man who, ostensibly, wants to escape the life of a mayhem-inducing protagonist but, of course, fights only vaguely to becoming one again. Assassin's Creed: Black Flag's Edward Kenway claims he's trying to become a "man of quality" for his wife but abandons her for a decade in pursuit of pleasure and glory.

Poor Nicky is unaware most of the internet considers her brother's degeneration justified because he has a growly voice and an iconic outfit.
     Aiden desperately wants to cling to the image of himself as a hero and a good man. A man who puts his family first over his own needs. Yet, he refuses to abandon the criminal lifestyle which threatened his family and puts them in greater danger in pursuit of revenge, wealth, and glory. He fights crimes but sporadically and in-between committing it for his own selfish gain. When we look at Aiden, we are not seeing a plainclothes hero, we're just seeing someone trying to be one because he can't deal with the reality of his situation.

    Contrary to making Aiden a worse character, I believe this actually makes him a more interesting protagonist. The real-world is full of dubious justifications and motivations. The real cost and benefit of our actions is also often unclear except in hindsight.

     Why should video game heroes be different?

4 comments:

  1. This was an interesting analysis that makes interesting points and uses examples from its source material and other places, though one I'm not really sure where your coming from, since it seems to contradict a little bit what you said in the main review about Aiden and the game's writing.

    Was this analysis more to show how in your personal opinion Aiden isn't a flat character everyone thinks he is, or was just how you think Ubisoft got his character down? Since that was the mixed message I seemed to read from your post.

    I can see where your coming from with your thoughts and maybe that was Ubisofts attempts with Aiden, if it was it seems they screwed it up or as you said the developers and producers seem to have had different ideas on what Aiden was suppose to be.

    This inconsistency and as well how the family bits felt lazily done overall. compared to the Vigilante parts of the game along with Aiden's actor being too gravely in his voice and dialogue led to me feeling it just didn't work.

    Compared to how they wrote Maurice's character with his guilt, that was consistent I felt throughout all the tapes I heard from him in the game, or Jodi's sociopathic stuff or Damien's ego etc. These all felt consistent compared to Aiden's writing being all over the place.

    So it fits into how you said the tonal dissonance of the game. Personally these games that try to call out the escapist fantasy of video game main characters rarely do it well for many reasons.

    Both Spec Ops and GTA V I feel were very patronising and condescending towards it's audience in it's writing and arguments.

    Not to mention it reflected more on how these developers seem to ignore how they indulge on the same thing in the first place by creating these games and making a lot of profit off them. Since they put in the gameplay mechanics for players to play with i.e. GTA allowing players to have sex with hookers and then kill them.

    Or any of the stuff Trevor does, this is stuff Rockstar have allowed players to do for years without ever calling much to it. It's that gameplay/story Segregation that has affected the plots of Rockstar's games for many years no matter how much they try.

    Spec Ops makes the player follow through with the linear gameplay and actions the main character does, this was somewhat deliberate but it really undercutted the games arguments in may ways.

    It's like how a parent tells a child Do as I say, not as I do type of logic fallacy.

    If the people at Rockstar and Spec Ops really don't like what they are making, then really its up to them to change it, not blame their audience who brings them their paycheck at the end of the day.

    I am someone who likes it when any character of fiction has dubious motivations and justifications, as many people do have that and fiction should reflect that. It's a shame then that Ubisoft failed with that in my view with Aiden due to overall I imagine differences on the team of what Aiden was supposed to be.

    Sorry rambled on there, another good analysis and it has lessened my negative view of Aiden a bit and got me thinking as always. So well done on that Charles.

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  2. My general opinion on the subject is intent versus execution is a major issue. I liked Aiden a great deal more once I realized that what I was picking up as dissonance between the hypocrisy of his actions as the Vigilante and a Fixer and a family man were deliberate rather than accidental. David Theriault (product manager of Watch_Dogs) has since confirmed that my essay was, at least, something he considers an "excellent analysis" too. https://twitter.com/davidtherio/status/631261010473676800

    However, the problem is the game really isn't QUITE tight enough to pull it off. Say what you will about Spec Ops: The Line but it's impossible to confuse it's message about the subject. Ditto Michael de Santa gets called on his issues just like Edward Kenway. I think Aiden needed a little more "What the Hell Hero" moments throughout the narrative to highlight just how far off the bend he was.

    But I felt compelled to write this essay because once I did pick up on the narrative, I liked what it was trying to do--I just think they could have done it a little better. I don't think it's a bad thing also to "reality check" characters as well. I wouldn't want every shooter to be Spec Ops: The Line but didn't have a problem with the game reminding me, "You know, this is all pretty messed up, right?"

    Here, I think the game would have benefited from someone spelling it out, "Aiden, you're a mess and this is insane." Instead, the parody feels hazy because Aiden isn't quite so over-the-top as to really send up the characters he's doing similar actions to.

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  3. That makes sense it's more less contradicting now than I thought thanks for clearing that up, I do try to follow everything you put but sometimes my own views can cloud my writing.

    Congratulations on David's tweet on your analysis I hope it brings more people to your site and of this analysis as well. I do think Watch Dogs had some bits where they explored privacy issues, cellphone data etc. very well, along with how the real life Chicago is somewhat like that.

    Agree on the intent vs. execution part. That was where I felt Spec Ops and GTA fell down on, the intent I got and it isn't a bad one. The execution I felt from both was I felt was that both treated it's audience like they aware stupid and ignorant and that is a major no no for me personally. As well as looking like they are wanting their cake and having it at the same time.

    Watch Dog falls in the middle, intent was mixed somewhat and execution even more I feel.

    It feels very hypocritical and unprofessional to me for any company to bash the very people who bring them the business that allows them to stay in business and live out the lives they do.

    Assassin creed 4 and Rogue I felt did the execution on Edward and Shay right, the developers trusted their audience to judge for themselves and as you said gave Edward a lot of what the hell moments so people knew how Edward was seen in universe.

    Reality checks as you say aren't a bad thing not at all I enjoy them when they are done well.

    But only really good writers can do it without looking like they are just bashing their audience for something they produce, write or create. and that they don't trust the audience to know what exactly it is they are playing or seeing.

    It all comes down to personal taste and interpretation at the end of the day in whether someone thinks when a company or writer does reality check well or badly.

    Take Chris Avellone writing for Sith Lords, I thought that was brilliant due to matching some of my annoyances with Star Wars as a kid, while others thought he did a bad job and was simply bashing Star Wars for the sake of it.

    While I felt his writing for New Vegas fell into the latter camp of feeling he did it badly and went too far with his negative thoughts.

    I am looking forward to seeing how Watchdog 2 is if they do it, and if they use Aiden again. I hope they can do more with him and make him more interesting to players who hated him or like me who didn't find him interesting enough.

    But I will say again your analysis of him has made Aiden a bit more interesting in my eyes now.

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    1. Yeah, you can't make fun of people playing your game if you've gone to all the trouble of making the satirical work of art to begin with. I agree with pretty much all you said, though I liked most of those characters and games. I also hope Aiden is in WD2, though I hope they give him a fairly radical overhaul in personality. He has one, obviously, but I'd like a lot more emote than "generic rage!"

      Satirical or not.

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