Books become TV series. Amusement park rides become movies. Pop songs become Broadway musicals. But how do you adapt a city into a video game? How do you digitize the essence of a major American metropolis within the framework of a playable experience? Can you hope to capture the geography and character of a real place in a game? Should you aim for accuracy? Or reinvent that place to make it work for you?
These are 21st-century questions. Several years ago Sony Computer Entertainment got into a tussle about this with no less than the Church of England: Sony's sci-fi shooter, "Resistance: Fall of Man," set a sequence inside Manchester Cathedral. The building was painstakingly rendered, but the church said Sony didn't have permission to use it in the game, and guns on hallowed ground, however digital, tasteless.
And that was just one building.
Over the past 51/2 years, at the north end of Boulevard St. Laurent here in the fashionably tattered Mile End district of this French-Canadian city, the not especially French-Canadian city of Chicago has been rendered in pixels and rebuilt — nipped, tucked and reimagined. Its neighborhoods were squashed together; its Northwest Side emptied of hot dog stands and replaced with the quaintest little fishing village.
Which made some sense: After years of research and design and fact-finding trips to Chicago, the Chicago that Ubisoft came up with for "Watch Dogs," its hugely hyped new video game, is partly an island.
Other than that though — and a few additional geographic liberties, including an ability to drive from Millennium Park to Goose Island via Cermak Road — not even Christopher Nolan's "Batman" movies capture Chicago as thoroughly as "Watch Dogs," which hits stores May 27. In fact, the Chicago created by Ubisoft, one of the world's most successful video game developers and publisher of such blockbuster franchises as "Assassin's Creed" and "Splinter Cell," often seems remarkably, and insightfully, like Chicago. Its Loop CTA stations have wooden platforms, and its South Side is relatively quiet. Its digital passers-by complain about losing their tallest-building-in-America claim to New York City, and its unopposed mayor has privatized city services.
"Let me ask," said Jonathan Morin, a Ubisoft creative director, "can a Chicago mayor stay in office forever?"
He blinked, stone-faced. "No, honestly," he said, serious. "Because in Montreal, they stay forever."
We were sitting in Ubisoft's massive production facility, which is something of an island itself: a former textile factory, five stories of red brick that dominate a city block and houses 2,600 employees. Outside, the last snowstorm of the season was blanketing the windows. But inside, on this early March day, Morin and Co., cool, calm and Quebecois, were deep into the last stages of work on "Watch Dogs," debugging and adjusting, confident that they would live up to great expectations.
When Ubisoft previewed "Watch Dogs" two years ago at E3, the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show in Los Angeles, it became the talk of the industry and gamers alike. "Watch Dogs," which tells the story of a hacker waging a technology- and information-based war, seemed to feature an intricately nuanced Loop and vast cityscape that appeared as bustling and crowded as the actual Chicago. It suggested no less than an evolutionary, next-generation leap in video game environments and promised to make Chicago not just a backdrop but integral to its storyline.
In the two years since that announcement, "expectations remained as high as expectations get," said Kris Graft, editor-in-chief of video game business website Gamasutra. "It's expected to be a blockbuster, partly because Ubisoft has a track record of getting huge, open-world environments right. But also, to create a game this big that's not an established franchise is so labor intensive and risky, they need it to pay off."
And so, Sony is developing a "Watch Dogs" feature film. There's also an e-book, collectible figurines and even a clothing line, all inspired by the game. Plans have been so big for "Watch Dogs" that 350 Ubisoft employees in Montreal alone were assigned to the game, with the rest of the 700-member development crew divided among four outside Ubisoft offices, including Ubisoft Paris and Ubisoft Bucharest. Ubisoft executive producer Stephane Decroix told a French business publication that even before the game was delayed last fall — it was intended to launch with the new PlayStation4 — its production budget was $70 million.
Then there's the use of Chicago, which brings its own expectations. As well-documented as the city has been in movies and TV shows, it's never been the focus of a major video game. (Unless you count '90s Nintendo dud "Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City," and I don't.) Certainly the timing is right for Chicago to make its digital debut: "Video games have gotten so much better at capturing the mood and the intricacies of a city as complicated as Chicago," said Jamin Warren, editor of the video game literary journal Kill Screen.
But even a creative director like Steve Jaros of Volition, the Champaign-based developer of such popular open-world games as "Saints Row," treads lightly here: "There can be a disconnect if you tell a player 'This is a real place.' We're inspired by Chicago, but we use fictitious places in our games because expectations change if a player is driving along (in a game), and there's supposed to be a Portillo's on that next corner."
And yet in "Watch Dogs" — as Aiden Pearce, the game's Irish-American antihero rebounding from a tragedy and seeking justice by hacking into municipal networks — you can drive past the Bean in Millennium Park. Or you can run into Loop traffic. Or you can race your motorcycle into Lake Michigan. It's what the video game industry calls a "sandbox" game: A player can play by the rules or simply go exploring. But while, geographically, the Chicago of "Watch Dogs" doesn't always follow real-world logic, the use of Chicago, Morin said, was quite pointed — and for the most intriguing of reasons.
"Our core theme was always security and technology and how it affects us," he said. "But we realized early on not to remake '1984.' Because Orwell was wrong: He was sure technology and governments would define people. Yet individualism is more present than Orwell expected. We wanted a player to get that it's not technology that creates problems but how individuals use technology. We thought: Let's give the main character a smartphone and the temptation to exploit flaws in a giant Chicago central operating system.
"We picked Chicago because it was the perfect playground for this, a city that has defined itself by crisis. The Great Fire resulted in great architecture, Al Capone redefined policing, the (1968 Democratic National Convention) riots in Grant Park solidified the authority of City Hall. Now with extensive use of surveillance cameras, it's redefining what it means to have security in a big city. Chicago is among the most surveilled cities in the world, with tens of thousands of public cameras, and while it's not a practice I necessarily back, as a guy from Montreal, at least Chicago is trying stuff! Montreal: We are a people who say 'no' to everything. In the game, security has been privatized. I think Chicago government would make that choice. Basically, Chicago made our story plausible.
"Funny enough, as we went along, that plausibility increased."
The windows on the ground floor of Ubisoft's main Montreal production studio — it has four others in Montreal, and 29 production studios worldwide, spread from Casablanca to Sweden — are frosted. This is to prevent spying, from fans and competitors alike. To pass from the reception area to its development floor, you push through turnstiles. Secrecy is paramount, so much so that if you knew nothing about Ubisoft, you might be fearful. When I asked an artist here what he worked on, he said, thinking back through his history, "Unannounced, unannounced, killed project, killed project, unannounced, can't say, can't say, can't say …"
Young men (and a few women) sat in clusters of computers, light from monitors casting a glow on their faces. Blinds were drawn at most windows. And everywhere were images of Chicago — real maps and fantastically reworked interpretations with not-so-cryptically named locations: "Scalabrini Green," "Wringleyville." Artist renderings of CTA stations were taped above workspaces. Every other monitor seemed to reveal a Chicago skyline or Lake Michigan or someone walking by a landmark like Willis Tower. When I spoke with these artists about Chicago, they often revealed detailed knowledge of the city. Then in the next breath, they were just as likely to call Chicago "the Windy City," a dead giveaway of an outsider.
Also, along one wall, a row of the awards that "Watch Dogs" had already won at industry conferences. It was a reminder that the game's history goes back to 2008 and Morin, who pitched his team with this: He wanted to make a game about information flow and its ramifications on a city.
"I said to the team, 'Imagine you're walking around a city, you pop up your phone' — a lot of phones still popped up then — 'and you can call up information on everyone around you. You learn a neighbor is a pedophile. You have a gun. Do you shoot him? If you do, how does that look to those around you?'" he recalled. "People got uncomfortable during that meeting. But the moral complications also struck a few chords. We glorify the wrong things in video games. My wife is a nurse. We were on the highway, and there was an accident, and for a fraction of a second I considered how the crash probably looked (when it happened). But she said, 'I hope everyone is all right.' I told the team: 'We're bad in video games at hoping that everyone is all right. We show things and forget there are people behind them.'"
Not only would such a plan require unlikely reservoirs of empathy for a video game, but that tech-hacking plot would call for extensive phone dialogue. Which meant knowing a major city, inside and out.
"We had multiple choices of places," said art director Mathieu Leduc. But even Revolutionary War-era Boston and Renaissance Italy, used in Ubisoft's "Assassin's Creed" series, allowed more latitude than portraying a contemporary city where people actually live, Morin added. New York's grid was too stiff, and Los Angeles, recently employed to spectacular effect in Rockstar Games' "Grand Theft Auto V," was too overdone.
But Chicago: The team liked the architecture and the novelty of Chicago itself, and the neighborhood diversity would lend the game diversity. But more than any reason, said Thomas Geffroyd, Ubisoft brand content director, "when we started matching our research to what was in the game, when we thought we were getting too science fiction, Chicago was like a reality check."
Geffroyd, whose job was to maintain continuity and cohesion for the game's brand, latched on to the Chicago Police Department's extensive use of cameras, facial-recognition software and its keen interest in predictive crime analytics. Here was the plausibility the team needed.
"We believe 'Watch Dogs' captures something true about Chicago, and society, a reality we don't see, we know is there, yet we're not taking time to understand," he added. "But what really changed how we looked at the game was Michael Scott."
In 2009, Scott, president of the Chicago Board of Education, killed himself, and less than a month later Jody Weis, then-Chicago Police Department superintendent, said at a press conference that CPD had fed information about Scott's car into the city's video surveillance system to glean information. The system reviewed data and helped police piece together a timeline.
"When I read that," Geffroyd said, "I realized there was actual algorithms flowing behind those cameras, training to see things." (Ironically, some of the city's video surveillance network is rooted in technology created by Montreal's Genetec, which has its headquarters a short drive from where Ubisoft developed "Watch Dogs.")
As for everyday Chicago, teams of Ubisoft artists, animators and writers began visiting in 2010, staying for a week at a time, scouting neighborhoods, recording sounds and eavesdropping on conversations. Kevin Shortt, "Watch Dogs" head writer, transcribed the words of a man ranting in the Loop (which made it into the game, word for word). He interviewed Chicago police officers about their jobs. To record dialogue for the game, he hired more than 60 Chicago actors, from Christian Stolte of "Chicago Fire" and A Red Orchid Theatre to well-known stage mainstays, including Matt Schwader, Jerod Haynes, Rom Barkhordar and Lillian Castillo.
"We were particular about capturing the accent, because I didn't want a cliche," Shortt said. "I didn't want 'Da Bears.'"
During these initial trips the team fanned out across the city, looking for inspiration. "We were escorted around Englewood by police," said Sidonie Weber, art director for architecture. "We had big cameras and were taking pictures of streets and cars and people for details in the game, and suddenly people would be shouting 'FBI! FBI!'" Said Leduc: "Five guys and a girl from Montreal in a red van — hard not to notice us."
They hit the Loop, Hyde Park, Oak Park; they walked Michigan Avenue, ate at The Wieners Circle and toured Goose Island (which gave the game its industrial neighborhood). Steadily, observations crept into plans for the game: Its Englewood would be largely silent, punctuated occasionally by barking dogs and populated with abandoned homes. Its Loop would be loud and crowded (and include a prison sequence inspired by the Metropolitan Correctional Center). When the bridges along Wacker Drive rose, they rushed to record the creaking steel.
Then they returned to Montreal with piles of notes and photos, and the teams on hand to build Chicago went to work. Said Jeffrey Arriola, who was in charge of overseeing production of the digital Chicago itself: "We had a lot of material (when we started). We began by thinking we could re-create the entire city. But pretty soon, you know, memory constraints, copyright issues. To be honest, the Loop itself, there's just too much Loop in the Loop."
He described the basic creation of Chicago this way: "Essentially we started with a top view of Chicago, the actual Chicago map, which we put in our game editor, and from there we carved into it. It's a big, empty space at first. So we start laying out roads by going with the real road and adjusting from there, making sure, for instance, that Wacker follows the river correctly, but adjusting a bit too. You also make sure roads connect properly, but we didn't go with the Chicago grid because it was so straight, too many right angles. It's better for the game play if you can't see far ahead of yourself. So we curve things. Once the roads are laid down and the city reduced, you went street by street putting in neighborhoods, landmarks …"
Like many an open-world video game city, building the open-world Chicago of "Watch Dogs" became a dance between game play, accuracy and urban planning. In general, what Arriola described is the same process that created cities in "Saints Row" and "Grand Theft Auto": Four-lane roads became six lanes to encourage driving (nobody likes digital gridlock, either), buildings were pressed together to encourage rooftop-to-rooftop leaping and only the most visually unique neighborhoods survived (albeit incongruously, mashed up against other neighborhoods).
"An open-world city in a good video game is a riff on a city, not a city," said Brian Schrank, co-chairman of the game development program at DePaul University. "It's a little exploitative, a little like a remix of familiar elements. You are seeing a suggestion of unending choices, but in reality a game developer is being subtle and laying out the breadcrumbs that pull you through their city."
Hence, the isle of Chicago.
The Chicago River needed widening, and the Northwest Side needed geographic diversity, so, in the game, the north edge of the Gold Coast becomes actual coastline, the farthest northern point in this Chicago. A player can pilot a boat from the lake and around the downtown area without hitting a dead end.
On the other hand, downtown itself — the gleam, the gentrification — looks familiar. Arriola said: "We'd check if the height of Loop tracks are at the proper height with surrounding buildings. To avoid redundancy, we'd go to Google, look at a street in the game, then look at a corresponding street in the city: OK, the bus stop's there, the newspaper box is there …"
The goal was exact, but not too exact.
"A lot of buildings are protected by copyrights," said Jean-Francois Naud, associate producer. "So we can't re-create them. We learned this with the Chicago Theatre. Our interior is totally different, and the sign in front could not look the same." (It's "Ambrose Theater" in the game.) "But then the mandate was never to re-create Chicago one-for-one but, rather, be inspired."
And so, in Millennium Park alone, Pritzker Pavilion has different Frank Gehry-inspired silver curls, and "Cloud Gate" is inverted, more of a bowl than a bean. And the game's stadium? Looks suspiciously, cleverly, like an unholy coupling between Soldier Field and Wrigley Field. (On an optimistic note, the game's baseball team, in Cubs blue, last won a World Series in 1999.)
"That said," Naud added, "because Chicago is so vast, nothing is really missing, I think. Poverty, crime, the super rich — you could say we didn't have to create everything from scratch. Some of it was always there."
And in the end, how did they do?
There's so much Chicago in "Watch Dogs," I've only started to understand. But I can say: It's always fall in digital Chicago. The first time I played was before leaving Montreal, and that was one of the things I learned: No one rakes in digital Chicago. Leaves abound. You can't have everything. There is weather though, said Colin Graham, the game's animation director.
I sat across from him. Indeed, in the game it was raining, and he was walking through Parker Square, which has a faux Music Box Theatre, though instead of Southport Avenue, the inspiration is Oak Park. Parker Square is the game's western suburb; demographically, it skews Latino. Graham walked past a man and hacked into his cellphone and learned the man is a hip-hop artist with $83,000 his bank account.
"This is my favorite neighborhood," Graham said, and hopped in a car to give me a tour. He crossed into the Loop, then down Michigan Avenue, which looked liked its real-world doppelgangers. The solid wall of skyscrapers along Grant Park was there, the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago was there (but not the Art Institute itself). He headed south, driving over a bridge resembling Roosevelt Road's, narrowly avoiding pedestrians: "They're good at jumping out of the way, but they're not perfect at it."
It was Chicago, but I felt turned around.
I took the controls.
There was a RedEye newspaper box (only it was blue). I clicked on the car radio, and Chicago's JC Brooks and The Uptown Sound blasted out. Clearly, Morin and Co. had done their research. And yet, like a book adapted into a movie, not everything translated. We reached "The Wards," the "Watch Dogs" interpretation of Englewood. It captured the dodgier residential parts of the South Side, but only the broad strokes.
"I'm a big fan of 'The Wire,'" Graham said. "It's something we don't see much in Canada. It's different for a game too."
He was right.
The use of the neighborhood was different and ambitious. Just not immediately complex. The same is true for all of digital Chicago. I made a mental note to visit again. I drove toward the lake, got out of the car and jumped in, swam a yard or so, turned and bobbed in the water. Ubisoft's Chicago looked like Chicago, felt like Chicago, but it wasn't Chicago. Kind of like Toronto.
Release date: May 27
Rating: M (mature)
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox, Xbox One, PC
Synopsis: A "Grand Theft Auto"-esque thriller noir in which a cellphone is as handy as a gun. As Aiden Pearce, you play a hacker able to infiltrate every phone, municipal service and traffic light in Chicago. Aiden wants revenge against the vast corporation running Chicago's infrastructure.
Twitter @borrelliCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun