“Who has the opportunity to commit violent crime these days anyway?,” asks Alice. “The moment you pick up a fruit knife you get tasered by a robot policeman and deported for looking Bulgarian. It’s a much more peaceful society. It’s just much less of a society.”
It’s hard to imagine a more succinct, effective, or darkly funny summary of Watch Dogs: Legion’s London. It should be the game’s introductory voiceover; instead, it’s a soundbite on an in-game pirate radio station - the buried place where Legion provokes the most thought.
Legion’s mission dialogue is inconsistent. It’s a casualty of the game’s Play As Anyone mechanic, and perhaps a necessary one, but it’s difficult to ignore. You’re often witnessing conversations between two people you’ve literally plucked from the street; strangers who might speak in suspiciously identical idioms, or whose procedurally pitched-down voices sound slightly off.
Ubisoft Toronto has done an impressive job of connecting the pieces, ensuring that these generated exchanges always make sense, with questions met by suitable affirmations. But they could never be as smooth or smart as scripted cutscenes, and I can’t help but miss the standout missions from Watch Dogs 2—the one where two African Americans break into a search engine company’s HQ and are wryly amused to find the staff conspicuously white; another where Dedsec scam a big pharma CEO into paying for exclusive ownership of a new hip hop album that doesn’t exist. The dialogue in those segments was purposeful, funny, and punched up.
BuccanEar, Legion’s talk radio station, goes some way to filling that void for me. Alice is the co-host of The Bug, a political comedy show made to “analyse the latest blowflies to emerge from the corpse of a once-free Britain”. It’s remarkable to hear the irregular rhythms of British radio satire captured in a game—the ultra-dry throwaway quips, the smartarse wordplay, the gallows humour (“Hold that pillow in my face until the twitching stops”).
The Bug’s hosts even manage Bob Mortimer-style surrealism. In an episode tackling medicine shortages, Alice suggests the NHS “Swap out MRI machines for Mary Machines, which is just a lady called Mary telling you you’re fine.”
Co-host Andy declares there may in fact be too much medicine. “Just this morning I tried to pour some cornflakes into a bowl for breakfast,” he recalls, “and out tumbled a 12 month course of immunosuppressants, corticosteroids, and antiretro fungal neuro dietary estrogen spermatotropic fruit pastilles.”
How has Ubisoft nailed British radio? By inviting real broadcasters to contribute. The Bug’s hosts are in fact comedians Andy Zaltzman and Alice Fraser (the former British, the latter Australian, it must be noted, though the two countries share a sarcastic sensibility). In our world, they’re co-hosts of The Bugle, the popular satirical news podcast. And on the straight-faced end of the spectrum, the game gives space to real-life UK journalists to say their piece in audio essays.
“I think in pre-crisis Britain, we had an idea that when fascism came, it would look again like the 1930s,” says Helen Lewis, in a BuccanEar clip widely shared on Twitter. “It would look like a single charismatic leader, it would look like jackboots in the street and huge flags. And it didn’t look like that: it looked like social media groups, it looked like poisoning the well so that no information could be trusted.” It’s chilling to hear a dystopian world connected so firmly to your own.
It’s not an unmitigated win, mind. By leaning on the UK’s real-life commentariat, Ubisoft takes on some of its problems too. I find Lewis’ explanation of the way fascism’s simple proposed solutions take root in a complex world fascinating, for instance—but disagree with reservations she’s expressed outside the game about gender self-ID and its impact on single-sex spaces. I have mixed feelings about her presence in the game.
There’s no denying, though, that BuccanEar roots Legion’s London in reality. A world that’s funny and ugly in ways I recognise to be British. When The Bug’s on, and I arrive at my destination to hack into a server, I often find myself sitting in the car longer than strictly necessary - just to hear a little more of Andy and Alice’s double act.