With somewhat disappointing launch sales, Watch Dogs 2 is struggling to find its rhythm in this year’s holiday market. But anyone who has played the game will find that Watch Dogs 2 has a rhythm all its own.
Ubisoft Montreal’s latest open-world hackathon has a mischievous, colorful, and gleefully rebellious tone that gets in your face but sticks in your brain. The hip-hop music and sensibility that infuses every corner of Ubisoft’s version of San Francisco is the main reason this tone works. Hip hop – both classic and new – provides the stylistic glue that holds Watch Dogs 2 together. It may not be obvious at first, but like any great song, Watch Dogs 2 slowly gets players to nod to its beat.
Fight the Power
In many ways, hip hop is the new rock and roll. In 2016, hip hop is regularly more political, playful, and experimental than rock. It’s the genre of the moment. So it only made sense for Ubisoft Montreal to adopt the hip hop attitude for its story of righteous hackers.
Dedsec, the hacktivist group that player character Marcus Holloway joins up with, can be almost too trendy. Think Anonymous meets hipster chic. But the way they operate, using disruptive hacks to make social statements, is very much in line with hip hop culture. There’s a reason both hip hop and Dedsec are tied to graffiti: it can be public, socially relevant, and disrupt a social space.
Ubisoft uses hip hop to give Dedsec the fist-pumping soundtrack it deserves. They draw an interesting parallel between hacking and hip hop. Both are ways for the disenfranchised to take back power.
Don’t Sweat the Technique
Ubisoft underscores several key moments in the game with hip hop in order to prove their point. One mission includes Marcus asking his Dedsec pal Sitara to provide a fitting backbeat for his anti-corporate hacking mission. Sitara puts on Eric B. and Rakim’s 1992 “Don’t Sweat the Technique.”
Not only does that song give the mission a propulsive beat, it provides some insight into Marcus and Dedsec’s attitude. Rakim raps about his audience being impressed by his lyrical ability. He goes on to say that no one should try to imitate his technique (“for every word they trace it’s a scar they keep”). He’s the greatest and anyone who tries to copy his method is foolish.
There’s obviously a certain amount of ego at play here, both with Rakim and Dedsec. Throughout Watch Dogs 2, Marcus and Dedsec are trying to gather followers to help them take down a massive corporation. But they do this through showing off their hacking prowess, making very public displays of rebellion. Just like Rakim, Dedsec will brag about their exploits but always with the aim of reaching more people.
For people who are often ignored, it takes an in-your-face attitude to get your voice heard.
Sing About Me
As a AAA title, Watch Dogs 2 is bound by studio constraints. It has to be accessible for a mass audience, which can mean rounding some of the sharper edges of hacking and hip hop culture.
But Ubisoft Montreal does give diverse populations a voice. African American, transgender, and homosexual individuals all populate Watch Dogs 2’s world alongside punks, hackers, and nerds of all kinds.
Ubisoft’s choice to design Watch Dogs 2 around the hip hop attitude is more than just a way to give players an awesome soundtrack. It’s an acknowledgement – albeit a limited mainstream one – of the kinds of voices that are often left out of AAA games.
Grand Theft Auto, Watch Dogs’ clear reference point, has included diverse protagonists and hip hop in its games before. But Watch Dogs 2 embraces hip hop by actively using its themes and attitude in its world. The beats and style give Watch Dogs 2 a pulse that a lot of games lack.
That’s a major step forward for an industry that has ignored, or at least been ignorant about, its diverse audience. Watch Dogs 2 may pretend to dramatically drop the mic at times, but it never really takes the mic out of the hands of those who need it.