Queer identity in Watch Dogs: Legion should be more than flavor text

Image: Ubisoft Toronto/Ubisoft

It’s no secret that, far from accurately reflecting the diversity of the societies we live in, a great deal of media casts an image of our cities and public spaces that skews heavily white, straight, and male. So when Watch Dogs: Legion asked me to choose my first operative from one of 15 procedurally generated options, I was thrilled by the range of choices I was given. Here at last was a game that not only gave me characters of different races and genders, that not only told me some of them were definitely queer and suggested that some of them might be trans, but that went even further with the specific personal details to more fully mirror the range of identities that inhabit the world as I experience it.

According to the metadata in their files, one of my potential operatives was polyamorous, while another was asexual, and another “gave seminar at kink convention.” It was exciting to behold, but I immediately wondered how these complexities of identity would impact the experiences of my operatives in post-crisis London, a city in the throes of a reactionary, fascist lockdown.

Image: Ubisoft Toronto/Ubisoft via Polygon

What I quickly found is that these elements of an operative’s identity have essentially no bearing on how they move in Legion’s open world. In practice, the fact that an operative is on testosterone blockers, or is married to someone of the same gender, has as little impact on your experience of playing that person as the flavor text on a Destiny rifle has on your experience of wielding it.

So what? Surely I don’t think Watch Dogs: Legion should aim to be a fully realistic simulation of a tech-driven struggle to overthrow fascism?

No, I don’t. I’m fully here for this game’s power-to-the-people fantasy of a populist rebellion. I love my 60-year-old mohawk-sporting queer punk lady who can kick ass for the revolution with the best of them.

Image: Ubisoft Toronto/Ubisoft via Polygon

I also embrace the absurdity of its infiltration and stealth mechanics. In one mission, I had to reach a rooftop computer that was well guarded by officers of Albion, the corporate security service that’s got a stranglehold on the London of Legion. So I hacked a cargo drone while playing as an Albion employee turned Dedsec hacker, flew it right up to the rooftop, and hopped the railing to blend in with my fellow Albion guards. None of them batted an eye at my highly suspect means of arrival. Would more realism here in the AI of enemy guards make for a better game? I suspect it would not.

But for all the inherent, joyful goofiness in Legion’s mechanics, the game, to its credit, takes the issue of fascist oppression fairly seriously. Podcasts explore the connection between fascist leaders and the military. “Fake news” is referenced constantly, Guantanamo is name-dropped, the term “false flag” is used, and the narrative acknowledges that victims of senseless tragedies are sometimes weaponized after their deaths to justify reactionary and oppressive measures by governments. Yet there’s something crucial missing from how we as players experience Legion’s version of life under such oppressive measures: the way we, as individuals, cannot escape from the politicization and sometimes persecution of our own identities.

Sure, the story highlights xenophobia as a core tenet of the ideology of Legion’s oppressive state, and an early mission even took me to a prison camp where refugees were kept in miserable conditions and routinely abused. But when I was playing as a Black or brown character, I never felt any more likely to be persecuted on the streets of London than when playing as a white one. Instead, the oppression of London feels like an evenly distributed, one-size-fits-all oppression, which fascist oppressions never are. There’s always a group that clamors for the return to some idealized past, and always groups for whom that imaginary dream of the past is actually a nightmare.

As a trans person, I had a particular interest in how queer and trans identity would intersect with the political situation Legion depicts. I was disappointed that they didn’t seem to intersect with it at all. For instance, after my first Albion recruit was killed in action (RIP Leslie), I sought to recruit another, since I really value the reduced enemy detection that comes with their Albion garb. I quickly found a prospect, Ian Pinto, a gay man whose profile told me that his husband was “pending deportation” and that he had “protested Albion takeover outside Scotland Yard.” And yet he himself was working for Albion. Okay, that’s fine. Of course marginalized people do participate in oppressive systems for all kinds of complicated reasons, so the fact that Albion has queer people and people of different races in its ranks actually rings true. But surely, the complexity of being a gay man whose husband might be deported by the very forces one is working for would loom large in one’s life, right?

Ian Pinto’s bio from Watch Dogs: Legion.
Image: Ubisoft Toronto/Ubisoft via Polygon

And yet, when I went to recruit him, the narrative made no mention of any of this. Instead, I was told that he was a highly skilled underground boxer who had upset Clan Kelley, a local crime syndicate, with his dominating performance, and that they’d put out a hit on him. I protected him from the hit and he was on board. That his profoundly complicated personal details never came up in conversation or in any way shaped the time I spent playing as him made those details feel like what they are: weightless, randomly assigned bits of flavor text.

It’s clear that Legion could have had these personal details impact your experience. After all, while I was playing as Ian or any other Albion agent, it was common for citizens to call me “swine” or hurl other insults at me. And rightly so, as far as I’m concerned. But where is the flipside of this? Where are the citizens who enthusiastically support the takeover, who feel emboldened in their hatred of others by Albion’s suffocating grip on the city? Where are the civilians wearing Albion baseball caps and persecuting their fellow London residents because the government has tacitly endorsed such behavior?

In real life, as a visibly trans person, I can’t just leave my identity at the door when I go out into the world. It shapes my experience in ways large and small. I know that even here in Berkeley, California, there are those who hate me for what I am. I pay particular attention to any signs that the country I live in may be sliding closer to fascism in part because I know that such political shifts make the world more dangerous for me, and everyone like me. So the fact that, in the world of Watch Dogs: Legion, which is entirely about life in an oppressive fascist state, such elements of a character’s identity are just random, negligible details with no impact whatsoever on gameplay feels like a serious misstep in the game’s sincere efforts to confront some very timely political issues.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still very glad that queer characters of all kinds are part of the fabric of Legion’s London. I love the fact that anyone who plays this game, whether they’re queer themselves or find queer people skeevy and long for the days when games disproportionately centered straight white dudes to an absurd degree, has to accept the rich diversity of London’s population. I love that Legion embraces queer people (and old people and queer old people) as would-be heroes of its near-future revolution. Legion feels like a shift in the right direction, an awkward but necessary step on the path toward games more fully reflecting the wonderful diversity of human identity. I just wish it didn’t erase the ways in which such aspects of our identity are politicized even in relatively “free” society, far more so in fascist regimes, altering what it’s like for many of us to move in the world.

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