Watch_Dogs Interview with Lead Story Designer Kevin Shortt

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Kevin Shortt (Left), Danny, Lead Graphics Designer (Right)

Thanks to Ubisoft Australia, we were able to interview some very special guests who flew in from across the globe to attend EB Games Expo 2013. Firstly, we got to speak with the Lead Scriptwriter/Story Designer on Watch_Dogs, Kevin Shortt. Topics covered included Dedsec‘s relationship to Aiden Pearce, his main motivations, how the timely U.S. government surveillance ‘scandal’ reinforces the messages/themes within Watch_Dogs and much more.


So, we’ve heard bits and pieces about Aiden Pearce’s backstory as it relates to a tragedy occurring to members of his family, but what are his true motivations exactly?

I can tell you some things you probably haven’t heard before. Aiden is a former fixer; before the game starts, that’s what he was doing. A fixer is like a freelance mercenary who works for a contract – which he could get from anybody, from government agents, corporations or individuals – and fixers know how to shoot, handle themselves in combat and they know how to hack. So that’s what Pearce did. That was how he made his living, and then a tragedy happened with his family because they were trying to get him… somebody was trying to attack him, and his family was hurt as a result – quite severely – so he became obsessed with protecting his family, making sure that never happens again and also finding the people responsible.

So, at the start of the game, he’s not working for a contract anymore, he’s working for himself. He wants to find out what happened and that becomes his main drive through the whole game. He’s obsessed with protecting his family; he monitors them through cameras and surveillance, and it does become obsessive to him to the point that, even when he’s seeing other people […] the catch is when he sees something happening to somebody else, he is the kind of guy that just can’t let it happen; he has to step in. So he’s this guy who almost by accident turns into this vigilante.

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So, do we get to see how Chicago transforms into this “smart city”, or is it a case of ‘this is where the story is set, and it’s already established’?

You are certainly going to learn a little bit about how ctOS came to be. The game starts where the city has had this system for about a year. So we start it, it’s fully up and running, but you’ve got forces that are up against it. Groups like Dedsec – a hacker group that doesn’t like what’s happening with ctOS. They’re raising questions about how far ctOS is going with privacy and how integrated they are into everybody’s lives and how good or bad that is. So, they’re trying to wake up citizens and say ‘hey, what the hell is going on. This isn’t right. We should be shutting this down.’

Bloom is the corporation that created ctOS, and I think their goals, initially, were noble goals; they wanted to bring a system that centralises everything, and it does. For the civilians, they’re like ‘this is great; my commute is faster, I’m paying lower costs on my hydro bills, things run more efficiently, I get free Wi-Fi through the whole city’, so on a simple level like that, citizens love it. I think I would love a ‘smart city’ to be honest. But, you know, I think there are elements that are trying to abuse that. Just like any new technology, we love it, it’s great, but you’re gonna find somebody who’s gonna find a way to screw with it and abuse it to their advantage. And that’s kind of what’s happening in Watch_Dogs.

In regards to Dedsec, what is the relationship between them and Aiden? Because back when first story details were trickling out, I think many assumed that Aiden was a part of the hacker group, but then in later promotional and viral videos released to market the game, it revolved around Dedsec declaring that they do not support or condone Aiden’s actions. So what’s their dynamic like?

Yeah, it’s a good question. I’m glad you brought that up, because Dedsec […] Aiden does not work for Dedsec, and they do not work for Aiden, right? But I think they both see… Dedsec sees that they can learn from Aiden; they can help him out a little bit, but there’s a very clear distinction. Aiden works alone. [Vigilantism, like you mentioned earlier] He’s a vigilante, right? And he works by himself, but he’s not like this lone wolf. He’ll take help where he can get it. And so he tries to get some help from Dedsec, and they will accommodate him, but it’s not like they necessarily have the same beliefs, the same philosophies… they are definitely separate entities in the game.

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I’m interested to find out what your personal reaction was to the whole U.S. government surveillance/privacy controversy that came to light in the last half-year. Because, obviously this information came out after way after the game was revealed, but considering the subject matter, how surreal was that?

It was pretty amazing. I think I had two reactions when I heard that. My first was, ‘wow, I just can’t believe that they’re doing that. I can’t believe they’re so embedded in the way they are’, and my second reaction was, ‘of course they are, of course they’re that embedded, of course that’s going on.’ When we started creating the game, we had no idea what was going to happen. We always felt like this game was the near-future. We’re sort of speculating where things might go. We’ve been on this game for about 5 years, almost 5 years. So it’s been a long time…

It was kept secret for a long time too. Maybe the best kept secret in a long time.

Yeah, thank you. We worked hard on that. [Laughs] So, we’ve been on it for a long time, and we can’t anticipate where things are going. But what’s interesting is, we always thought that this was near future, but as the years have gone by, we’ve watched everything that we’ve been imagining coming to life. So suddenly this game – even though there’s still near-future elements like ctOS – we’re still surprised to see how close to the present the game actually is. As for everything that’s going on in the U.S. in the news, we couldn’t imagine that. I always said, [Laughs] it could have been the greatest Ubisoft promo ever!

Yeah, speak about viral marketing!

But the weird thing is it’s real life! This is real life we’re looking at, and that’s what’s pretty shocking about it. And I think that’s what we like about the game; the game is so current. I would love it if players are playing the game, put down the controller, they go to head out and what do they grab? They grab their cellphone. And I would love if they’re kind of like, ‘okay, everything that’s happening in there – it’s fiction, sure – but it’s really connected to my real life’, and I hope we kinda get people thinking about ‘what does that mean for privacy?’. We’re not saying Watch_Dogs has the answers, but we’re saying we want to be part of that conversation. We want to be part of that dialogue that everyone’s having about ‘where are we going with technology, where are we going with privacy and what does that mean for the future’.

I keep going back to the concept that the whole thing is an elaborate Watch_Dogs marketing ploy. [Laughs] That would have been hilarious. It’s just so timely…

I think that everyone would have loved to realise that too, like ‘oh, okay good, it was just a viral campaign’. Sadly it is not.

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It would have relieved a lot of people. You know, we just walked past a guy in Aiden Pearce cosplay, and he was unintentionally standing in that poster hero pose, with his phone out and we thought ‘quickly, let’s snap a shot of him, he’s hacking something!’

[Laughs] Just working away. That’s it though, right? Like in the game, if you wander through the game, and you see people there, you can hack any phone conversation, any text message. We came to a bus stop, and we looked at it, and all we could see were icon, icon, icon, icon that you can hack, and we kinda laughed that they were all clustered together. And then we tough, ‘that’s real life’. That’s what a bus stop is, you just see everyone there and they’re all like this [motions his head buried into a phone].

So going back to the drive of the story and plot, and as a final pitch, what is the true lynchpin and what do you think will grip players? Is it the revenge tale of a man doing what’s right for his family, who were innocent victims? Is it the fight against oppression? What’ll keep people interested in the long run?

I think, if you’re thinking of story and what it is that’s gonna draw you in, I think it’s the fact that Aiden is on a personal quest – I’m hoping that’s gonna grab people. It’s a personal journey that should interest people for sure. If they buy into it, it’ll be something they’ll get excited about. I think what’s key about it is the characters you end up meeting along the way…

I was going to ask about that; for someone who is so focused on his singular, personal goal, he meets others who he can call friends in the process, right? And to see those origins, and why he can call on them or vice versa is a whole other layer.

Well exactly. And what’s interesting is we wanted to make sure that all these people you cross paths with, they have their own stories. They’re not just there to say ‘hey, I’m going to help you in this chapter and then I’m gonna go’. They’ve got their own goals, their own ambitions, their own problems and their own conflicts, and sometimes they clash with what Pearce wants. But, somehow it works together. So I think that’s something that’s going to be particularly exciting.

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I think characters like Jordi – he’s this fun guy, he’s humorous, he’s entertaining, but he’s dark. You know, he’s really dark and dangerous. You could end up dead if you handle Jordi wrong. T-Bone’s another guy; he’s a programmer, he knows the ctOS network really well and he’s a great resource. But the same thing – he’s got a whole dark past that you’re gonna get to discover, and realise that he’s a little more involved with ctOS than what we see on the surface. So I think those are the things that are going to be particularly interesting for players, on top of the fact you’ve got a whole city to explore, and roam in and hack into.

And then you’ve got the second screen experience with tablets and smartphones, which in a way introduces a secondary player story to the fold by adding another affecting entity into the world. We’ve seen that you can write messages to the console player…

Love it. Yeah, you saw that!

Yeah, a lot of people missed that detail in the demo, but you could see her typing out the message that then appeared on the billboard or whatever it was.

Well yeah, it’s hard. Those demos are very fast and you’ve got a short amount of time, but you’re right, that’s exactly what happened. I think the tablet is going to be particularly fun. The thing I love about the tablet is that, okay, with my girlfriend, when I play a game… she’ll watch, but she has no interest in actually playing with me. She’s just not into games as much. But I know, I hand a tablet to her and say ‘okay, there’s a map of Chicago. Try and screw with me in Chicago’. I’m gonna drive around, and then she can hit bridges while I’m trying to go over them, short-circuit traffic lights, she can send choppers after me or cops… and once you start playing it, it’s pretty addictive. It’s a fun, fun experience; it’s very different. [It’s so accessible] It’s very accessible. And it’s something that’s different from other games – I think our use of the tablet is something unique. And it just makes sense! We’re a game about hacking. Aiden’s weapon is his phone, so we had to get a smartphone application that you could use.

Awesome. Well thanks so much for your time and the opportunity, we greatly appreciate it.

No problem, it was a pleasure meeting you.


A big thanks to Kevin Shortt for making the time for us, it was a true pleasure. If you’re as excited for Watch_Dogs as we are, this was a treat of an interview. The game releases for the Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U and PC on November 22nd, and at launch for the PlayStation 4 a week later.

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I am a graduate of the Bachelor of Interactive Entertainment (w/ major in Games Design) course at Qantm College, Sydney.

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