Watch Dogs: Legion’s Play-As-Anyone game design allows players to recruit and play as any one of the thousands of characters wandering futuristic London. It's a system that required a dramatic reimagining of many aspects of game design, narrative included. Forget the challenges of telling a story when players can navigate the open world and tackle missions as they see fit; how do you tell a story when you don’t even know who your protagonist is? That was the question that Narrative Designer Brendan Hennessy answered during AAA-TYPICAL: Character and Story Arcs in Open Gameplay Structures, a game narrative summit presented at the 2023 Game Developers Conference, alongside Ubisoft Toronto Lead Writer Heli Kennedy.
Watch Dogs: Legion presented a unique set of hurdles that the narrative team would have to overcome thanks to its Play-As-Anyone gameplay approach. The first hurdle came in the form of writing for a seemingly infinite number of characters. Anytime a player character speaks in Watch Dogs: Legion, the narrative team needed to write 20 different versions of that dialogue line. That dialogue needed then to be tied to that character’s procedural traits. For example, to express the sentiment of “thank you,” the team needed to find multiple different ways to say it, and then assign each of those ways to a specific character persona. A policeman might say “much obliged;” a young activist might say “appreciate it, fam;” and a grandmother might say “thank you, dearie.”
“We didn’t have a static script – we had a dynamic script with 20 different variations,” said Hennessy. Each of those 20 versions was assigned a persona and recorded by 20 different voice actors, ensuring that characters felt unique and that their dialogue matched their other traits.
Speaking of traits, Play-As-Anyone also brought along a significantly more difficult hurdle than just writing 20 different scripts. To illustrate this, Hennessy brought up the protagonist for the first Watch Dogs game, Aiden Pearce. Aiden is a 39-year-old white American male hacker. He was born on May 2, 1974. He has a sister, a nephew, and a niece. His niece was killed as a result of his actions, and it fuels his motivation for the events of the game. In nearly every cinematic, story beat, or line of dialogue in Watch Dogs, some part of that information about Aiden is relevant. The narrative team for the original Watch Dogs could leverage those details to tell a specific and personal story. Because players could recruit and play as any of the characters in open-world London, there was no way to know who the player character was at any given moment, or any background information about them. Without biographical information about these characters, the narrative team was unable to do many of the things that are customary for player characters, or even any character in any fictional story.
“When we write a line of dialogue, we have to assume the characters are goldfish, because they only live in the moment,” said Hennessy. “We can’t make them grow, because we don’t know what they have to grow from. You need two points to form a line.”
From a story perspective, the playable characters of Watch Dogs: Legion are interchangeable, static, and temporary. They can be switched out at the player’s whim and can die or be hospitalized or arrested at any time. How do a series of completely procedural characters create a fulfilling story when they can’t affect the narrative, can’t be affected by the narrative, and can’t fundamentally change? According to Hennessy, they can’t. “We learned pretty quickly that characters like this can’t carry a story on their own,” said Hennessy. “Early versions of our game relied on generated characters, and we would have these scenes where two procedural characters would be talking procedurally about a third, off-screen procedural character. They had all the narrative energy of a tug-of-war where neither side was holding the rope.”
This meant the narrative team needed to create anchor points for their story, resulting in authored characters that weren’t playable, but had beliefs, opinions, motivations, and agendas. In Watch Dogs: Legion, these took the form of the game’s few non-playable characters – allies and villains who have all the plot agency in the story. Take Nigel Cass, for example, leader of the privatized military group Albion and one of the main antagonists to DedSec. He’s a constant in the world of Watch Dogs: Legion. He will always be an enemy, and the player will never control a character that is not opposed to Nigel Cass. So while player characters can’t have opinions about their favorite football club, music, or friends (because that dialogue could potentially conflict with their procedural biographic data), they can have opinions about Nigel Cass. “Their opposition to his agenda drives the story,” said Hennessy.
When it comes to allies, there is no more ever-present character than Bagley, the DedSec AI that accompanies all playable characters. Not only can Bagley react to the world and the actions happening around the character, but he provides a constant anchor for playable characters to interact with – and, similar to Nigel Cass, have opinions on – because Bagley will always be allied with the player. With Bagley, the narrative team didn’t have to worry about which playable character was in any given scenario, because they knew that no matter what, Bagley would be there. This also meant that when the narrative team wanted to create an emotional touchpoint late in the game, they decided to kill off Bagley, the only character they knew had been along for every mission up to that point.
While villains and allies helped provide authored anchor points in the story, the team still found ways to differentiate London’s playable characters and give them a bit more personality, the first of which was in their recruitment missions. Characters in Watch Dogs: Legion do in fact have backstories and histories; the problem is that, due to their procedural generation, the narrative team can never know what they’ll be. “[Recruitment missions] were the one and only point in any character’s story where we know, for a fact, that they will be present for an entire mission and that they will be guaranteed to be speaking. This makes it our only opportunity to write a story that’s actually about them,” said Hennessy.
The opportunity that recruitment missions opened up didn’t come without caveats, however. The story needed to be self-contained, because once the character was recruited, there was no way to follow up on it. They also needed to be non-contradictory to the procedural system, meaning any Aiden Pearce-esque familial revenge stories were impossible, because the system may have very well generated their family members, who are walking around London safe and sound.
So, what happens when you help a character overcome their financial debt and recruit them to your team? Well, they forget about it immediately. It will no longer alter their dialogue or behavior, but the player won’t forget. “The hope is that memory will change the way the player views their dialogue in the future,” said Hennessy. “Even if the words themselves don’t literally change.” This method of coloring a character’s words with background information manifested through text as well. Every playable character in Watch Dogs: Legion has a character-sheet profile with key information and metadata about them, including age, occupation, salary, associates, and fun facts like “imported 600 lbs. of bird seed from China.” While some of these topics might be relevant to their recruitment missions, they serve a greater purpose of telling the player who these people are. So, when Andy Sheehan, who makes £24,700 a year and missed payments for a tooth-replacement procedure, wants to take down tech billionaire Skye Larsen, the player will interpret Andy’s words – even though they express the same sentiment as any other playable character – with unique context.
Watch Dogs: Legion’s Play-As-Anyone design required a massive rethinking of how videogames are traditionally made and how stories are told. The narrative team’s innovations meant that they were able to tell multiple storylines without ever knowing exactly who their protagonist was at any given moment, a challenge few other games need to consider.
“Could we have written a Watch Dogs game that was more narrative-forward? Yes, of course,” said Hennessy.” “But it was worth it, because it introduced a ton of new problems that we were stepping into the first time, and I’d love to keep improving the system.”
Watch Dogs: Legion is out now on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, PC, and Luna, and is included with a Ubisoft+ subscription. For more information on all of Ubisoft’s games and the latest updates from GDC 2023, check out news.ubisoft.com.