It’s interesting how video games take a phrase like ‘non-player character’ for granted. This unwieldy phrase has become a ubiquitous term of art that highlights just how limited we are in most games by taking the point of view of a single protagonist (or a maybe a small team).
Then along comes a game like Watch Dogs: Legion, which aims to blow up that dichotomy with a simple question: what if practically every non-player character could become a protagonist?
The results of Ubisoft’s ambitious attempt are a little sloppy at points, and it doesn’t fix the open-world genre’s problems with repetitive quests. Still, Watch Dogs: Legion earns points for weaving together a coherent open world game where no one is the protagonist and everyone is the protagonist at the same time.
Everyone’s a hacker
Legion takes players to a version of London that has been utterly transformed in the well-established techno-dystopian near-future of the Watch Dogs universe. Things start off with a literal bang when a terrorist hacker collective known as Zero Day sets off a series of massive explosions around the city. Dedsec, the “good guy” hackers from previous Watch Dogs titles, get framed for the attacks, leading the city to grant sweeping police state powers to mercenary mega-firm Albion in the name of “security.”
Dedsec’s membership is quickly decimated by deportations and killings under this new regime. As one of the last remaining members, it’s up to the player to recruit new members to Dedsec and fight back against Zero Day, Albion, and other tangential criminal and government groups in their orbit.
That recruitment process, as presented in Legion, requires the player to suspend more than a little bit of disbelief. You can go up to literally any random person in the game, push a button, and start a completely unprompted conversation about potentially violent overthrow of the system.
Almost without fail, that person will be instantly on board with joining Dedsec’s shadowy, distributed hacker collective. Only, could help them out with a quick problem (read: sidequest) first? Forget about the hard sell, in the London of Watch Dog: Legion, everyone seems just inches away from joining the resistance in exchange for a simple favor.
You also have to accept that the random assemblage of average citizens you recruit are ready to immediately become the master spies, hackers, and counter-mercenaries needed to take down this entrenched fascist system. Sure, there are some potential recruits whose backstories provide them access to special skills or high-octane firepower—uniformed officers, for instance, can walk around sensitive areas without being instantly noticed as out-of-place.
But even the most out-of-shape, underskilled schmoe on the street still has to have the basic ability to perform the stealthy infiltrations and complex hacks that form the basis of the game. Once again, you just have to suspend your disbelief more than a little bit to buy into the game’s core concept.
The hacker melting pot
Once you can accept that premise, though, this conceit creates a veritable explosion in the diversity of character choices in the game. My Dedsec cell looks like a true melting pot of London society, in terms of race, gender and even class. Forming a team where a college professor and chess champion can fight for the same goals as a cockney-speaking construction worker (who takes out enemies with a giant lug wrench) feels refreshingly cosmopolitan, especially as one character gets immediately called in to help when the other fails.
These characters aren’t just interchangeable ciphers, either. Each one has their own personality that comes through in the fully voiced lines they deliver during the game’s many cut-scenes and mid-mission conversations. While the overall story plays out the same no matter who you’re controlling, individual conversations can play out very differently depending on what character happens to be the current protagonist.
Unfortunately, the seams for this system do show through in many places. In conversational cut scenes, your character’s model often falls into an uncanny valley of standing awkwardly and making semi-random facial expressions in response to their partner (oddly timed changes in camera angle don’t help in these situations).
The intonations behind your character’s lines often feel just a bit off, too, like they were cut and pasted from a set of generic responses rather than from an actor responding to a specific story beat. That’s a shame, because the few named characters that can’t be controlled by the player generally give pretty good and nuanced performances—the foul-mouthed, joke-cracking AI assistant Bagley is a particular standout.
Still, it’s a wonder that this system of interchangeable player characters works at all. Despite the warts, building your own ragtag group of resistance fighters from across society makes a strong statement about the power of collective action that would be hard to get across in another medium.