Ubisoft has a bad habit of saying its games aren’t political, yet when I look out across the landscape of games, Ubisoft is making some of the most politically thematic games. Maybe the exact message they are trying to deliver remains in a way apolitical, such as Far Cry 5, but that setting in rural America, surrounded by conservative folk and religious zealots, was just about as political as one could get. It said they same thing about The Division 2, a game that takes place in the heart of America’s political nerve center. And again, maybe the exact story wasn’t trying to send a political message, but the setting and themes were far from apolitical. I mean, the game starts out with a thinly veiled statement on gun ownership, a hotly debated political topic.
And then Watch Dogs Legion leaked today, and its description puts it in a post-Brexit world in one of the most highly surveilled cities in the world. You also get to play as every NPC you meet (which has to stand for “now playable character” rather than “non-playable character,” given the implication of the gameplay mechanic). Generally a legion is a group with a solidarity stemming from one particular idea or way of thinking. So what’s not political about unifying a peoples in a singular movement? Furthermore, the game is described as a post-Brexit, dystopian version of London in the near future, which again is a very specific and political setting.
While most definitions may agree that the word “politics” is largely regarding government (and gaining power through the use and sharing of ideas), it doesn’t have to be. Politics is an individual or group’s own belief system, using those particular ideas in order to try to reach a specific end goal. Inevitably, every creative thing is trying to deliver a message. That message stems from beliefs and experiences. How people react and respond when playing a game authors some of their own political biases. Nothing is truly and completely apolitical. Just about everything is rooted in a central belief system that maps out our own responses, interactions, experiences, and creations. Trying to force something to be otherwise results in something that lacks any real heart.
Here’s the thing. Being political doesn’t mean it takes sides. By admitting that a game is charged with political themes doesn’t mean that Ubisoft is coming out and saying that any given game is right leaning or left leaning. But with those themes present within the characters, setting, and story, it’s disingenuous to try to say that their games are otherwise. It would be painfully disingenuous to suggest that a game with the thematic proclivities that Watch Dogs has isn’t political.
Of course, with Watch Dogs Legion not even being officially announced yet, Ubisoft hasn’t made any statements, but with E3 coming up and a bunch of interviews sure to happen, we’ll probably hear the quote at some point that Watch Dogs Legion is not a political game. Look, I get it. Politics are a very divisive topic right now, so to even suggest that your game might land somewhere within the current landscape to provide some kind of socio-economic commentary is daunting. It’s far easier to just say “nope, this game’s not political.” But it also misses the opportunity to really explore and get players thinking about these inherently political topics. In trying to make games that are engaging, Ubisoft wants to make them relatable with familiar settings and themes. If they didn’t, their games would be quite stale. It’s politics that gives everything that little bit of flavor. It gives characters purpose. It gives a narrative an arc.
We’ll see what happens next week after Watch Dogs Legion is unveiled for real, but given their history, it seems like the politics at Ubisoft might be clamping a lid on allowing developers and players to really explore the themes that these games have.
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