Coming Home, part of the 404 Not Found questline in Watch Dogs: Legion, is one of the game’s most unique and darkly memorable missions. Tasking you with investigating a long-neglected mansion owned by reclusive tech billionaire Skye Larsen, it doesn’t feature a lot of action or sneaking; in fact, apart from subduing a lone guard and hacking a puzzle to unlock the front door, the bulk of the mission feels like a calm scavenger hunt for key items that reveal more about Skye’s past.
And yet, from the moment you’re greeted by the house’s glitchy, suspiciously friendly AI, it’s clear that something isn’t quite right here.
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR WATCH DOGS: LEGION’S COMING HOME MISSION AND 404 NOT FOUND MISSIONS. CONTINUE READING AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Descending into the basement, you discover not a laboratory but a cavernous room, dazzlingly lit and built to look like a lush outdoor garden at twilight. At its center sits a picturesque cottage, the walls of which hide a series of increasingly macabre revelations meant to pull players first toward sympathy, and then toward horror. It’s not until the mission’s climax, in the cottage’s basement, that understanding finally dawns: you’re in a ghost story. You have been this whole time.
All-seeing AIs and AR reconstructions are commonplace by this point in the game, but here they’ve been used to create a tortured spirit and tell you her story. To “save” her from a terminal illness, Skye uploaded her terminally ill mother’s unwilling consciousness to a machine – but then stripped apart her preserved mind and trapped its remains as the house’s sentient security system. What began as snooping becomes a high-tech exorcism, as you end the “ghost’s” suffering and free her from her lonely, computerized prison.
To find out how Coming Home came together behind the scenes, we spoke with Associate Producer Owen McIntosh, who managed the team of developers behind its creation.
What was the initial pitch for the Coming Home mission like? What did you want it to achieve?
Owen McIntosh: When we first came into making [the 404 Not Found] set of missions, we really wanted to make the whole mission line feel like this creepy tech storyline, to see just how far we could push it. And then this mission in particular was a moment for us to get into the head of the villain. We wanted you to come in and feel a little weird; something feels kind of off as you enter the mansion. We wanted it to be a little bit disturbing, and we wanted the player, as they were going through the mission, to learn more about Skye Larsen and really get a clear view of the threat she poses, and why they need to take her down.
How did that initial descent into the basement laboratory take shape, when you exit the elevator and discover a whole other house? What did you want players to feel, walking into that for the first time?
OM: When we pitched the mission, the big thing that got us really excited was this idea of “iceberg” mansions in the UK, how all these rich millionaires and billionaires had these places that had deeper and deeper layers underneath, and we thought, “what would this tech genius do?” Well, she's going to recreate her home, her old childhood home, in her basement – but even that's not going to be what you expect, right?
We first wanted you to walk in and you have this feeling like, “OK, this house makes sense. This fits our character.” But something feels a bit off, and then you go down the elevator, and your initial reaction is just, like, “what the fuck? What's going on here? This is so strange.”
We really wanted the player to suddenly feel as though they’re in a totally different world, and pause for a second, and go, “OK, what's happening?” And also, we wanted the player to really want to start exploring on their own volition at that point.
One of the things that makes that moment so striking is that it looks very different from the rest of the game. It's lit differently, and the cottage doesn't look like a lot of the buildings you see around London, even once you’re inside it. How much of what we’re seeing was created just for this area?
OM: A ton of it. The house upstairs and the cottage downstairs used a lot of custom meshes to get that specific feel, because like you said, we didn't have it anywhere else in the game. And then the lighting in the holodeck-like area was juggling a lot of different pieces to try and get that really specific mood. For a long time, all the vegetation was holographic, but I think we actually ended up getting a much cooler look with the “real” vegetation, and with really intense and different-feeling lighting. But yeah, it was almost all new. It’s a very custom piece.
Did you encounter any pushback against the idea that those resources should be devoted to a relatively short, action-free mission, because it's very important to the story?
OM: Not at all, actually. The cool thing with this one was, as we pitched this set of missions, we all knew this one sounded really exciting and really cool. And Clint [Hocking], our creative director, outright said this is one of the most important missions in the game for him. So we got to work on it really, really quickly, and got the base stuff in super-fast. That made it feel a lot less scary to try and achieve, because so much of it was already in, and we all were aligned on how cool the mission was, and how important it was going to be. We all just went all-in on it from very early on, and then when we got to the last year of the production, this one was already just so fun every time we played it that every review just became about, “how do we throw more cool details in it and make it even cooler?”
And I'm really happy that it paid off and ended up being one of the most-liked missions we had.
Let's talk about what’s in the garage. You foreshadow it outdoors by showing the grave of Ada, Skye’s family dog, and then you enter and see this caged spiderbot making these pitiful dog noises. Why use a dog to set the stage for the bigger reveal?
OM: Jared [Schincariol], the writer on this, was really, really motivated to give a bit of a horror story here, and make you just really hate the villain. That's it more than anything; you see the dog, and it's whining, and you've seen the grave. Your reaction is, at first, empathy; you see the grave, and you're like, “oh, that's sad.” And then you see the dog, and you're like, “man, that is evil! That is evil with a capital ‘E!’” That was the point where we want you to be, like, “OK, there's something super-twisted going on here, and this person that we've been following, we get why she's the villain. We get that there is no ambiguity here, this is the villain.”
The realization of the spiderbot dog came in a bit later, and was a bit of a surprise, actually. We had a bunch of different variations of that; one was a brain in a jar, and another was the body of a dog. And then at some point we put in the spiderbot, and it was clawing at the thing, and that was the point where, if you have a heart, you're like, “oh no, this poor dog!”
What did you want people to glean from this about Skye’s character? Did you want players to come away with some sympathy for her, or is it all eclipsed by the cruelty on display here?
OM: I mean, I think definitely in this mission in particular, it's much darker, and it's much more fueled by her ambition. I think there's a bit of cruelty in the way she handles her mother. You can see that she almost relishes the pain she's causing, and that she gets to be in control. But also, I think she's a person who really wanted to be a genius and show how smart she was, and she really wants, ultimately, to live forever and transcend humanity into this whole new era. And so I think, a little bit, these were the means available to her, and she just took any means necessary to get to her end goal.
I think what she's been trying to build and trying to do, she truly believes is better for humanity. And certainly, when you consider that Bagley was made by her, there is definitely an argument to be made that she's done some good, and certainly she's not all horrible or all bad. You might even go as far as to say she truly believes that maybe she's right, that the technology she's building – while it makes people uncomfortable – potentially is helping humanity as a whole, and her goal is to do that. And certainly, when we were first coming up with her character, the idea was for her to be a bit more ambiguous in that, potentially, there’s something to what she was doing, even if the way she was doing it was wrong.
The Coming Home mission in particular takes a view of transhumanism that isn’t often explored in sci-fi: You might be able to become immortal by uploading your consciousness to a machine, but by doing so you’re at the complete mercy of whoever controls the machine. We see that with the bodies in the basement, for example, and the notes about how their “software” was licensed to corporations.
OM: Yeah, totally. That idea kind of skips beyond this mission, but Coming Home touches on it, and you do see a bit of it. As you're walking through the last room, you'll see there's a bunch of bodies in cryogenic-like containers. And if you play the side quests from Nowt, it's almost all about that, right? It's like, a taxi driver whose brain has been made into the perfect AI to control taxis throughout the city. Another person is a drone pilot, and now their brain is being used to control drones in the city. The idea was 100% “let’s get these outstanding people, and then let's turn them into AIs that can serve public interest for profit.” And that, I think, really factors into Skye’s motivations as well. She starts to see these people – and this is just my personal opinion, an interpretation of it – less as people, and more as tools she can use to change the world however she sees fit.
Was there ever an idea to give players a choice over whether to shut down the AIs to end their suffering? Or do you see it as no real choice at all?
OM: It was really more the AI not giving you a choice, more than us not wanting to give the player choice. We really wanted the player to feel like this AI is going to trap you in here if you don't do what they want.Not in an evil way or anything like that, but definitely in a way where you're like, “this AI is desperate.”
What were some of the earlier permutations of Coming Home like? Was there much difference between the initial pitch and the finalized mission?
OM: This one, from paper into ship, didn't evolve too much. It certainly had some changes, but like this one was actually kind of cool for me as a producer in that we really stayed the course on a lot of it, and polished it like crazy over time. The initial pitch was very raw: We're going to find this house. It's going to seem really normal up top. You're going to go down into this kind of holodeck thing with the house, and it's going to get stranger over time.
I'd say probably at that time, the ambition of it was a much longer sequence, one where we're like, “OK, you're going to spend like 20 minutes in the house, get downstairs, another 20 minutes in the cottage area, and then you're going to get behind the scenes and see like how crazy and techy it gets.” Mostly, this was cool in that we got sort of the graybox elements in really, really early, and started the walkthroughs pretty fast. And then it was a lot more about messing with the tone and messing with the polish.
One really cool thing the audio team did is – in our game, you've got all these different types of characters with different personas, and they all have a bit of a different flavor to them. You enter the house, and the first thing the AI does is say she'll put some music on for you. Depending on the character you're playing, she actually puts different music on for you. One person is going to get a cool rap beat, another person is going to get more classical music. It’s a thing I don't think most players would notice, but it's a nice, cool touch, and it’s one of the things that we got to evolve over time that we didn't initially plan for.
And then of course, like I said earlier, the spiderbot dog and how that worked really came from a place of, we wanted to punch it up a bit, and we threw that in front of animation and audio teams and said, “hey, what can we do here to have this get a bit more impact?” And within a couple of weeks, they threw that in, and it immediately made that moment feel way more sad and touching.
Because I've got the mic, I’ll say how proud I am of the team on Coming Home. It was really cool for me, working on this, And from the start, us having a really, really clear vision on it, and saying, “hey, we want it to really hit this type of beat,” and for it to be universally seen in our reviews and our playtests as one of the highest beats of the game, speaks to the vision of the team and how they held fast to that. Then, of course, there’s the polish. And then it's probably my job, more than anything else, to be a cheerleader for the team, and I'm absolutely super-proud of the team and what they did here, and how they were able to make such a standout mission.
Watch Dogs: Legion is available now for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, Stadia, Amazon Luna, and PC, and is included with a Ubisoft+ subscription. For more on the game, check out our previous Watch Dogs: Legion coverage.