Watch Dogs: Legion Tackles Dystopia—That It’s a Part Of

In a mission from Watch Dogs: Legion, the third in a series of hacker-focused sci-fi action games from Ubisoft, a Polish immigrant shrinks before a woman with a striking resemblance to Cruella De Vil. This woman, Mary Kelley, is the leader of London’s most powerful organized crime family. With theatrical nastiness, she taunts the immigrant, who’s been imprisoned in a newly formed European refugee camp.

The Polish woman has been cutting herself in despair. Kelley says that she shouldn’t do this, not out of any kindness but because the woman’s body is more valuable if it’s left unmarked when she’s sold into sex slavery or harvested for her organs. A body sold in parts makes the immigrant more valuable to society than she would be if living off government welfare, Kelley explains.

Mary Kelley is an outrageous villain. She waves a knife around as she talks. Her catcher’s mitt face is twisted in a permanent sneer. Her plan to harvest organs from British society’s most vulnerable demographics is just as exaggerated—it’s comic book brutal. But Legion doesn’t position Kelley as its narrative’s ultimate evil. Instead, she’s the visible, revolting eruption of a deeper-seated infection of modern right-wing populism that’s shown, with surprising clarity, to be the real enemy of the game’s heroes.

As a member of the in-game hacker-collective-turned-resistance-movement DedSec, Legion’s player explores a near-future, dystopian version of London. The city is held in the authoritarian grip of a government maintaining rule through a private military force, the invasive technological monitoring systems of corporations working alongside British intelligence, and the collaboration of the Kelleys’ vicious crime family. Following a terrorist attack that framed DedSec as culprits, London began rounding up dissidents with arbitrary arrests and, in the case of the city’s immigrant population, imprisoning them in refugee camps.

Image may contain Text

Podcast episodes heard while traveling the city detail how the United Kingdom has completely alienated the European Union and now suffers food shortages in response; the hosts giggle over gallows-humor jokes about how ordinary people invited the construction of a surveillance state by gladly accepting the conveniences of big tech products. There are obvious parallels here to modern nations, like the Brexit-era UK, sliding into a 21st-century version of fascism. Though the sci-fi action of the game and the overt monstrousness of its villains may be too ridiculous to read as totally plausible, the reasons given for creating Legion’s vision of dystopia are all too realistic.

There’s nothing immediately remarkable about the in-game scenarios mentioned above. They wouldn’t be out of place in any film, TV show, or book about the inhumanity of far-right governance, and they’re notable mostly for the (frequently uncomfortably glib) absurdity they employ in depicting heightened versions of real-world issues. But for Ubisoft, a game publisher and owner of international development studios including Legion creator Ubisoft Toronto, these scenes demonstrate an uncharacteristic willingness to engage directly with real-world topics too often glossed over or distorted into unrecognizable forms in past releases.

Legion’s enemies aren’t just cartoonish villains like Mary Kelley. They’re also the real-world ideologies and institutions that animate Kelley’s understanding of a world where another human being’s worth is weighed in purely economic terms—of the racists in UKIP, sure, but also of the conservative viewpoint that sees welfare cuts, the privatization of essential services, and corporate tax breaks as logical, Darwinian paths forward for a society. The success of Legion in confronting these issues is hit and miss—why, for instance, don’t actual modern British political parties, movements, and institutions get named directly?—but the bar for identifying a clear point of view is low enough in video games that it’s notable that Legion is so forthright at all.

In a CBC interview, creative director Clint Hocking describes Legion not as a game whose dystopia is “caused by Brexit” but rather as the result of issues “caused by the things that caused Brexit.” He references “real issues like what’s happening with immigration with Europe and … the rise of authoritarians.” He echoes this point in The Washington Post, emphasizing that the game is concerned with what happens when “the controls of public infrastructure and public service” are governed by “private interests.”