[Mild spoilers for the game Watch Dogs below, although I don’t name names.]
At the very end of Watch Dogs, a mediocre Ubi-like I beat last night1, you are given agency in the story for literally the first time in the entire game: you can choose to shoot a man in the head or walk away.
I was streaming the game at the time, and I said: “Well, if it were up to me, of course I wouldn’t shoot this guy. But Aiden Pearce is such a raging asshole that there’s no way he doesn’t shoot him.” And then proceeded to put a (virtual) bullet in the character’s head.
By this point I had already completely disassociated myself from the actions the main character was taking, something that doesn’t happen very often in games. Hell, I’ve played a ton of Assassin’s Creed titles, all of which involve high-to-extreme body counts, and even there I could empathize with Altaïr and Ezio far more than I could Aiden. There’s a difference between an anti-hero and a villain protagonist, and in my mind Watch Dogs crossed that line early on and kept cruising further away like it didn’t matter.
It does matter, though.
I watched all of The Sopranos with my mother. We enjoyed it immensely, but the entire time I was watching I honestly couldn’t stand the main character (or most of the cast, to be honest, with Dr. Melfi as the obvious exception). Years later, I watched the first season of Breaking Bad, swayed by the plaudits and the recommendations of my friends. As the final episode of that season ended, I went “nope.” I had no desire to see what happened to anyone else in the show; as far as I was concerned, Albuquerque could have been nuked from orbit and the world would have been a better place2.
Apparently The Sopranos basically tapped out my willingness to watch shows with villain protagonists. Conflicted characters are fine–I love me some Firefly–but when my gut reaction to the main character’s actions is mostly “someone should stop this person,” that’s a good sign that I’m not going to enjoy it.
Part of getting the platinum in Watch Dogs3 involves doing a certain number of online missions against other players. And I noticed something deeply strange to me when I was hacking these players scattered around the world, playing their own stories out in the game: so many of them were in gunfights with the police. So many. It was baffling to me, as someone who generally plays games in a way that minimizes conflict; the only times I ever got into trouble with the police in-game were when the plot forced me to, or when I was getting the last couple of stupid trophies that necessitated that antagonizing. But clearly I was the exception to the rule.
Then I thought of the game’s characterization of Aiden Pearce. Of course most players would gravitate to maximum antagonism; that’s what the game all but spells out for you! No matter how good I was outside of the scripted missions, those missions relentlessly drive home the point that Pearce shoots anyone who gets in his way, police or otherwise. If anything, I had been playing the game strongly against type the entire time, acting like a do-gooder between the plot points then grimacing my way through the story where all my actions felt undone. I was pushing as hard as the game allowed against the villain protagonist role… up until the end, where I shrugged and said, “nah, this one time I’m going to do what the game has taught me it wants me to do.” Cue bullet.
Don’t play Watch Dogs, by the way; it’s not a very good game. You can fairly ask why I played it, and I can only say that I really want to play Watch Dogs 2 and have a stupid compulsion to play games in sequence, hence putting up with its aggressively mediocre “Assassin’s Creed meets Grand Theft Auto, only worse than both” design. That’s separate from the villain protagonist problem, which may or may not be an issue for you personally.
As for me, I think Watch Dogs tapped me out on that front, the same way The Sopranos did for television years ago. Playing the villain is just not for me, I’m afraid.
I’d rather nuke them from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.