This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
I'm really into the Watch Dogs soundtrack, not because it's particularly good (Alkaline Trio, anybody?) but because it's the rare example of in-game music that is actually chosen by your character. The licensed songs you listen to in Ubisoft's 2014 game aren't coming through the radio, a la Grand Theft Auto, nor are they playing non-diegetically over the action, like your typical orchestral score. They're all on protagonist Aiden Pearce's smartphone—whether he starts the game with them, or steals them from other people's devices using the in-game "SongSneak" app, all these songs are ones Aiden has picked himself. And that makes me wonder: what does Aiden's music taste tell us about him? Like political smear campaigners rifling through someone's trash, what can we glean about Aiden by examining his music collection?
First off, let's take a look at his punk and rock selection. There's the aforementioned Alkaline Trio with their track "Private Eye," also Rise Against's "Help Is On The Way," and Madina Lake's "Goin' Down High." To me, it feels like Aiden, who's 39 years old, has gone onto Google, searched "punk music" and downloaded whichever tracks popped up first on YouTube. The press in Watch Dogs is awash with stories about him, calling him "The Vigilante" and "The Fox," and it's as if he's got swept up in his own myth and tried to live up to an anti-establishment image by feigning an interest in punk culture. It's the music of a dad trying to "get down" with his son—it's easy to imagine that nephew of Aiden's, rolling his eyes at his uncle's insistence that he's "really into Rise Against."
It's not all try-hard, cribbed-from-Google affectation, though. Aiden also has a couple of tracks by The Vindictives, a 1990s punk band originating from his native Chicago—the game's setting. They're a bit more obscure, and the two songs he plays, "Alarm Clocks" and "The Invisible Man," are way toothier than the rest of his punk line-up. Perhaps in his younger days Aiden was a bona-fide punk, and his playlist is reminiscent of all the underground bands that he used to go and watch. After all, both Rise Against and Madina Lake were formed in Chicago—maybe, instead of a pretend punk, Aiden is just very plugged into the Illinois music scene.
And it's not like he's not entirely desperate to appear "with it," as there's plenty of "dad" music on Aiden's phone. We've got Alice Cooper's "Dangerous Tonight," Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up," and a bit of Iggy and the Stooges. There's also "Wake Up Sunshine" by Chicago and Vampire Weekend's "Diane Young," just to tick the box of inoffensive pop records. This is definitely the music of a man approaching 40. It's classics. It's easy listening. It's the kind of thing Aiden can play through the iPod speakers his brother-in-law got him last Christmas, while he knocks together a pasta sauce for tomorrow night's dinner party. In fact, adding to his middle-aged credibility, Aiden keeps a choice selection of dance and electronic numbers, ranging from Daft Punk to Squarepusher and Gods of Fashion.
On first glance, those might indicate a man who is on the cutting edge of modern music—they're the types of sounds befitting of someone who spends his days doing cool hacking on cool touchscreens. But my dad, back in his 40-something days, before he segued into his full leather-jacket-and-hiking-boots-Clarkson 50s, kept plenty of trendy albums in his glove box, and he never went near a computer. All of that music was, in fact, nicked from Dave Pearce's Dance Anthems, which the young lads on the night shift used to insist on listening to on a Sunday night. So again, I suspect Aiden of trying to keep up with the youth, this time by plundering the Spotify playlists of his trendy hacker pals.
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But none of this is particularly egregious—the profile I've built so far of Aiden is that of a slightly over-eager but mostly avuncular semi-muso. He seems like a nice enough fella, right? Wrong. Because finally on Aiden's phone is a prime line-up of rap and hip-hop records, and through these we can see what a hypocritical, unthinking, violent piece of shit he really is.
Let's take a look at "C.R.E.A.M." by Wu-Tang Clan. "It's been 22 long hard years of still struggling," says Inspectah Deck in the second verse. "A young buck sellin' drugs and such who never had much / Trying to get a clutch at what I could not touch / The court played me short, now I face incarceration / Pacing, going upstate's my destination." Like "One Mic" by Nas, and "I Shall Not Be Moved" by Public Enemy, two other tracks that Aiden listens to, "C.R.E.A.M." talks about the struggles of people of color against systems like social classification and segregation, economics and law enforcement. It's a song that illustrates how the actions and prejudices of people like Aiden—white, affluent types with hardline attitudes toward policing—create and propagate the suffering of young, black, poor people.
Essentially, it's pretty fucking rich for Aiden to listen to this kind of music and then spend a whole massive chunk of Watch Dogs shooting and killing young, black people in the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago. You have the whole sub-plot with Bedbug, Iraq, and the Black Viceroys gang. You also have the innumerable side-quests and one-off crime encounters, which typically result in Aiden chasing and killing some young purse-snatcher or drug dealer.
In a game that has such woefully uncomplicated ideas about criminals and policing, it's uneasy how Ubisoft has bought and used hip-hop. It feels both like an affectation on the part of Aiden and his creators, and an abuse of where the music truly comes from. I like that the in-game music in Watch Dogs can tell us about the person we're playing as—I think it's an interesting and humanizing little touch for his character, which neatly fits with the game's modern-tech aesthetic. But I also like that it can tell us something about Ubisoft, how the developer perhaps never stopped to question Watch Dogs' politics. As the game itself repeatedly illustrates, it's amazing how much you can learn just from looking at someone's smartphone.
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