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I Don't Think You Deserve Redemption, Aiden Pearce

Watch Dogs didn't leave much of an impression during my 20 hours with it, but I can't stop thinking about the game's final choice.

(We're going to talk spoilers for Watch Dogs. Fair warning.)

At the end of Watch Dogs, Aiden Pearce and the player are presented with a choice. A man is tied to a chair, openly weeping and begging for his life. Want to pull the trigger? The player can end his life or walk away. The game doesn't comment on your choice, either. After, the interrupted credits keep rolling.

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You kill hundreds, if not thousands, of people in Watch Dogs. Though it's a game themed around hacking and technological subversion, most problems are solved much faster with a bullet. If you run over a civilian in Watch Dogs, it slightly alters how the citizens feel about you, but despite (accidentally) running over many Chicago residents, it didn't impact the game. The act of killing is routine, and Watch Dogs doesn't spend time humanizing the people around you. If anything, Watch Dogs deliberately dangles one-note stereotypes to ensure the bullets are spraying.

That's not true for the character at the end of Watch Dogs, though. The man in the chair is Maurice Vega. Watch Dogs opens with Aiden and his partner, Damien, during a virtual bank heist. But the two stumble upon a mysterious file, which alerts a nearby hacker, and their identities are discovered. Aiden tries to flee with sister, Nicole, and her two children, Lena and Jackson. A hitman, who we eventually learn is Maurice, is sent to take out Aiden. The attack ends up crashing the car, which sends Lena into a coma that she never wakes up from. Watch Dogs then follows Aiden tracking down those responsible for her death.

But Aiden is an asshole. I haven't violently disliked a character this much in a long time. Ignoring how the game never, ever tries to explain how Aiden is a master hacker who's also a gun expert, he constantly put his family and the citizens of Chicago in danger. Need to escape a building? Don't worry, just shut down power at a major sports game attended by tens of thousands of people. Cops on your tail? Bah, trigger a bridge while traffic's crossing! Aiden is directly responsible for Lena's death because he's a criminal. As the storyline in Watch Dogs plays out, the cycle repeats. He's responsible for hitmen going after his nephew, and he's responsible for his sister getting kidnapped. Aiden was not randomly targeted by an unjust system; he was being a dick.

Watch Dogs is not a game about players living with consequences, either intended or unintended. You're following a linear story set within an open world, and you're meant to accomplish objective A, B, and C while moving from D to E. Watch Dogs does not give the player many options when it comes to roleplaying. It's possible to make Aiden a bit stealthier and kill slightly fewer people along the way, but it's pointless. Aiden's arc has been determined by the game's writers, and players have little input.

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Yet, eventually, you are given a choice. That's what makes the final sequence with Maurice so interesting.

Aiden deserved to be punished for his actions. The ending tries to portray Watch Dogs as Aiden's origin story, events required to produce a hacking superhero that will use his powers for good. But nothing suggests Aiden earned redemption. He's not a hero.

When I play video games, especially ones with player choice, I'm Han Solo, the renegade with a heart of gold. I'm always trying to do the right thing, though unafraid to crack a few eggs along the way. But that wasn't an option in Watch Dogs. Aiden was going to act a certain way, no matter what. Destined to dickitude. Even if your version of Aiden tried to show restraint, that was never, ever reflected in the story. He was always an asshole walking around with blinders, oblivious to the chaos created in his wake.

And that's fine! Not every game needs to give players influence over character development, but Watch Dogs doesn't hand over the keys to Aiden's heart and mind until its final curtain call. It's an odd choice. If the game wants to tell the story of an everyman whose noble intentions go horribly awry, do it. (I'm not sure this is even true. The ending's tone points to writers sympathetic to Aiden's decisions.) But have the balls to make Aiden's final choice, too. Asking the player is an M. Night Shyamalan twist, a cop out.

To fully understand what's happening, we need to rewind to its opening moments, too. Watch Dogs begins with Aiden pointing a gun at Maurice, hoping the man will spill who ordered the original hit. Your first action in Watch Dogs is firing a gun. But the game subverts expectations, revealing there's no ammo.

Being confronted with Maurice a second time is Watch Dogs coming full circle. My Han Solo gut was telling me to let Maurice go. As with any criminal conspiracy, he was one pawn among many. Who needs more blood on their hands? But that's not what Aiden would have done. Up until this point, Aiden has killed without a trace of guilt, doubt, or hesitation. Me? I wouldn't pull the trigger. But Aiden would. Aiden wouldn't be able to resist ending the life of a person who had caused him so much pain, misguided or not.

So I made Aiden pull the trigger, and Maurice was dead.

It felt satisfying. Not because I was happy to see Maurice's body slump to the floor, but I'd subverted the game's storytelling. The ending wants you to believe Aiden to be good, and gins up a happy ending. But Aiden doesn't deserve one. He's a bad guy. In trying to do the right thing, he constantly did the opposite.

Screw off, Aiden. Good riddance.

Patrick Klepek on Google+