'Watch Dogs' makes Chicago a digitized surveillance state

Chicago Tribune reporter Chris Borreli takes a look at the new video game "Watch Dogs," which attempts to recreate the city of Chicago.

MONTREAL

Books become TV series. Amusement park rides become movies. Pop songs become Broadway musicals. But how do you adapt a city into a video game? How do you digitize the essence of a major American metropolis within the framework of a playable experience? Can you hope to capture the geography and character of a real place in a game? Should you aim for accuracy? Or reinvent that place to make it work for you?

These are 21st-century questions. Several years ago Sony Computer Entertainment got into a tussle about this with no less than the Church of England: Sony's sci-fi shooter, "Resistance: Fall of Man," set a sequence inside Manchester Cathedral. The building was painstakingly rendered, but the church said Sony didn't have permission to use it in the game, and guns on hallowed ground, however digital, tasteless.

And that was just one building.

Over the past 51/2 years, at the north end of Boulevard St. Laurent here in the fashionably tattered Mile End district of this French-Canadian city, the not especially French-Canadian city of Chicago has been rendered in pixels and rebuilt — nipped, tucked and reimagined. Its neighborhoods were squashed together; its Northwest Side emptied of hot dog stands and replaced with the quaintest little fishing village.

Which made some sense: After years of research and design and fact-finding trips to Chicago, the Chicago that Ubisoft came up with for "Watch Dogs," its hugely hyped new video game, is partly an island.

Other than that though — and a few additional geographic liberties, including an ability to drive from Millennium Park to Goose Island via Cermak Road — not even Christopher Nolan's "Batman" movies capture Chicago as thoroughly as "Watch Dogs," which hits stores May 27. In fact, the Chicago created by Ubisoft, one of the world's most successful video game developers and publisher of such blockbuster franchises as "Assassin's Creed" and "Splinter Cell," often seems remarkably, and insightfully, like Chicago. Its Loop CTA stations have wooden platforms, and its South Side is relatively quiet. Its digital passers-by complain about losing their tallest-building-in-America claim to New York City, and its unopposed mayor has privatized city services.

"Let me ask," said Jonathan Morin, a Ubisoft creative director, "can a Chicago mayor stay in office forever?"

I laughed.

He blinked, stone-faced. "No, honestly," he said, serious. "Because in Montreal, they stay forever."

We were sitting in Ubisoft's massive production facility, which is something of an island itself: a former textile factory, five stories of red brick that dominate a city block and houses 2,600 employees. Outside, the last snowstorm of the season was blanketing the windows. But inside, on this early March day, Morin and Co., cool, calm and Quebecois, were deep into the last stages of work on "Watch Dogs," debugging and adjusting, confident that they would live up to great expectations.

When Ubisoft previewed "Watch Dogs" two years ago at E3, the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show in Los Angeles, it became the talk of the industry and gamers alike. "Watch Dogs," which tells the story of a hacker waging a technology- and information-based war, seemed to feature an intricately nuanced Loop and vast cityscape that appeared as bustling and crowded as the actual Chicago. It suggested no less than an evolutionary, next-generation leap in video game environments and promised to make Chicago not just a backdrop but integral to its storyline.

In the two years since that announcement, "expectations remained as high as expectations get," said Kris Graft, editor-in-chief of video game business website Gamasutra. "It's expected to be a blockbuster, partly because Ubisoft has a track record of getting huge, open-world environments right. But also, to create a game this big that's not an established franchise is so labor intensive and risky, they need it to pay off."

And so, Sony is developing a "Watch Dogs" feature film. There's also an e-book, collectible figurines and even a clothing line, all inspired by the game. Plans have been so big for "Watch Dogs" that 350 Ubisoft employees in Montreal alone were assigned to the game, with the rest of the 700-member development crew divided among four outside Ubisoft offices, including Ubisoft Paris and Ubisoft Bucharest. Ubisoft executive producer Stephane Decroix told a French business publication that even before the game was delayed last fall — it was intended to launch with the new PlayStation4 — its production budget was $70 million.

Then there's the use of Chicago, which brings its own expectations. As well-documented as the city has been in movies and TV shows, it's never been the focus of a major video game. (Unless you count '90s Nintendo dud "Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City," and I don't.) Certainly the timing is right for Chicago to make its digital debut: "Video games have gotten so much better at capturing the mood and the intricacies of a city as complicated as Chicago," said Jamin Warren, editor of the video game literary journal Kill Screen.

But even a creative director like Steve Jaros of Volition, the Champaign-based developer of such popular open-world games as "Saints Row," treads lightly here: "There can be a disconnect if you tell a player 'This is a real place.' We're inspired by Chicago, but we use fictitious places in our games because expectations change if a player is driving along (in a game), and there's supposed to be a Portillo's on that next corner."

And yet in "Watch Dogs" — as Aiden Pearce, the game's Irish-American antihero rebounding from a tragedy and seeking justice by hacking into municipal networks — you can drive past the Bean in Millennium Park. Or you can run into Loop traffic. Or you can race your motorcycle into Lake Michigan. It's what the video game industry calls a "sandbox" game: A player can play by the rules or simply go exploring. But while, geographically, the Chicago of "Watch Dogs" doesn't always follow real-world logic, the use of Chicago, Morin said, was quite pointed — and for the most intriguing of reasons.

"Our core theme was always security and technology and how it affects us," he said. "But we realized early on not to remake '1984.' Because Orwell was wrong: He was sure technology and governments would define people. Yet individualism is more present than Orwell expected. We wanted a player to get that it's not technology that creates problems but how individuals use technology. We thought: Let's give the main character a smartphone and the temptation to exploit flaws in a giant Chicago central operating system.

"We picked Chicago because it was the perfect playground for this, a city that has defined itself by crisis. The Great Fire resulted in great architecture, Al Capone redefined policing, the (1968 Democratic National Convention) riots in Grant Park solidified the authority of City Hall. Now with extensive use of surveillance cameras, it's redefining what it means to have security in a big city. Chicago is among the most surveilled cities in the world, with tens of thousands of public cameras, and while it's not a practice I necessarily back, as a guy from Montreal, at least Chicago is trying stuff! Montreal: We are a people who say 'no' to everything. In the game, security has been privatized. I think Chicago government would make that choice. Basically, Chicago made our story plausible.

"Funny enough, as we went along, that plausibility increased."

The windows on the ground floor of Ubisoft's main Montreal production studio — it has four others in Montreal, and 29 production studios worldwide, spread from Casablanca to Sweden — are frosted. This is to prevent spying, from fans and competitors alike. To pass from the reception area to its development floor, you push through turnstiles. Secrecy is paramount, so much so that if you knew nothing about Ubisoft, you might be fearful. When I asked an artist here what he worked on, he said, thinking back through his history, "Unannounced, unannounced, killed project, killed project, unannounced, can't say, can't say, can't say …"

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