Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Orwellian Superheroes of Watch Dogs and inFamous: Second Son Sony's PlayStation 4 reveal brought a double dose of dystopian action.


Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed -- no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull. -- George Orwell, 1984
Ever since George Orwell published his dystopian masterpiece in 1949, people have compared it to the current state of national or international affairs. But in the always-connected, always-public world of 2013, perhaps the novel's themes hit closer to home than ever. We're living in a time of fierce debate over privacy concerns, an era where government and law enforcement argue for the right to GPS-track citizens without their knowledge. And like any form of art, video games are influenced by life.

During the PlayStation 4 event, Ubisoft and Sucker Punch gave the world a glimpse of their upcoming titles. And while there are clear differences between Watch Dogs and inFamous: Second Son, it's hard to ignore the overriding sense of paranoia and fear over a totalitarian state. Superheroes don't always wear a cape, and in the case of Aiden Pearce and Delsin Rowe, the rise of the anti-hero is a consequence of an oppressive regime.The most recent gameplay demo provided by Ubisoft depicts protagonist Aiden Pearce as a sort of hacker-vigilante; roaming the streets of Chicago freely, eavesdropping on digital data to protect victims of crime. He's like Batman in a trench coat, a clearly vulnerable human with enough tech-smarts to outwit bumbling criminals. And much like Batman, some authorities are made uneasy by Pearce's presence, trying to apprehend him anytime he rears a masked face.

But it doesn't seem like petty street thugs are Pearce's main priority. This future version of Chicago is monitored and controlled by the Central Operating System (CtOS), a Big Brother supercomputer keeping society placated -- or at the very least, pacified. Pearce's power resides in his ability to use the very technology meant to encumber revolt as a means of protest. He probably doesn't keep personal information on his Facebook account, either.

"You are not in control," says inFamous: Second Son's Delsin Rowe, speaking into some type of surveillance monitor. The monitors are watched over by an authoritarian overseer, seemingly always watching, looking to spot a perpetrator. Seven years after the events of inFamous 2, the world has changed. A government organization, the Department of Unified Protection, has labeled anyone with special abilities as "bio-terrorists."

Unlike Aiden Pearce, Second Son's protagonist does have a super-power. After saving some kids from a burning bus wreck, he's suddenly able to transform into fiery smoke. Rowe's situation is resoundingly similar to the themes of nationalism and xenophobia explored in X-Men. Rowe is essentially a mutant, with the DUP taking on the role of enforcing a Mutant Control Act-like government mandate. But the big question is how this anti-hero will use his power, given the duality of previous inFamous titles. To quote Orwell, "We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it."
Of course, there is a subtle irony in these two games -- published by corporate entities -- commenting on the ever-increasing lack of privacy in the world. Ubisoft has led the way in regards to always-on DRM, requiring anyone who wishes to play many of its titles to remain constantly monitored. And Sony, like so many giant corporations these days, is tracking your every move online. They're watching your buying habits, working with Google to serve up ads, evaluating your interests to make sure games like inFamous will appeal to a core demographic.
A segment of society would say video games themselves are a form of mind control, keeping players distracted by virtual worlds instead of dealing with the very real issues happening around them. But in reality, games -- or any art -- always have the potential to make us think; to question our plot in life. Watch Dogs and inFamous: Second Son are still too early in the process to figure out precisely what each is trying to say. But to the developers, and with apologies to Mr. Orwell: we'll be watching you.

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