LOS ANGELES (AP) — Across the dizzying, colorful show floor at last week's Electronic Entertainment Expo, there were games on display where players could become all manner of things, like a throat-slashing 18th century pirate, zombie killer, a guardian of the last city on earth, music-making sorcerer, ruthless Roman general, shape-shifting creature, goblin slayer and Batman.
However, the role that seems to have captured the most buzz from the gaming community is one that's far less fantastical but surprisingly topical: an eavesdropping hacker. One of several surveillance-related games at E3, "Watch Dogs" casts players as Aiden Pearce, a vigilante who can tap into security cameras and listen in on phone calls across a virtual rendition of an automated Chicago.
"Watch Dogs" is set amid an urban open world similar to that of a "Grand Theft Auto" game. As players move through the city as Pearce, they can scan computer-controlled passers-by with a smartphone to glean such details as income, age, credit score, employment, criminal and bank account records. ("Frequents fetish porn sites," one particularly brazen description reads.)
The timing of "Watch Dogs" is remarkable in light of recent revelations about the National Security Agency's controversial data-collection programs. They were revealed in media stories by The Guardian and The Washington Post, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Is "Watch Dogs" a case of a video game imitating life — or the other way around?
"We're just as surprised as everyone else," said Dominic Guay, senior producer at Ubisoft Montreal. "We've been working on this game for the past five years and locked down the script last year. These events keep transpiring in the news — whether it's the NSA or using a cellphone to hack into a car — that mirror the ideas that we have in the game."
Guay acknowledged Pearce's morality isn't called into question as players employ Chicago's fictional Central Operating System, ominously called ctOS, to peep digital lives. Instead, players' actions affect Pearce's reputation. For example, if he hacks into traffic lights and causes havoc on the street, a TV news report about the incident might pop up on a nearby screen.
A demonstration last week of "Watch Dogs" at Sony's presentation at E3, the largest annual gathering of the gaming industry, showed Pearce hacking a gate open while driving through Chicago, eavesdropping on a man alerting 911 about Pearce's presence as he exited a cafe, as well as inciting a city-wide blackout when Pearce was confronted by police officers.
"I think 'Watch Dogs' is appealing to people because they can relate to it," said Laurent Detoc, North America president of Ubisoft. "It's a very relevant topic and an extremely ambitious project for us. Because people have been talking about this game for the past year, it's now up to us to confirm that 'Watch Dogs' is what people expected it to be."