Video games change protagonists fairly frequently. Whether that involves sidelining the original character fans have come to know and love temporarily (see: Halo 5, the Borderlands franchise, Dead Rising’s sequels) or just outright killing them (Resistance 2, Mass Effect Andromeda, Infamous Second Son), the shifts are fairly common. Just this year alone, 2016 has shown us Dishonored 2, where players can choose between previous protagonist Corvo Attano and his daughter Emily Kaldwin; Mass Effect: Andromeda gets rid of Commander Shepard in favor of a new human named Ryder; Gears of War 4, which shifts focus away from Marcus Fenix in favor of his son JD; and Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs 2, a sequel that was made with player feedback in mind and made the choice to eject the previous game’s lead from the driver’s seat.
Aiden Peace, the anti-hero/vigilante from the first game, is nowhere to be seen in the sequel. Instead, our hacker hero this time is Marcus Holloway, a black man living in San Francisco who opts to use his hacking skills for a better cause. In the original game, Aiden had control of the cTOS, which allowed him control of the city of Chicago. At the end of the game, he shut it down completely, only for it to come back stronger and adopted in other major cities for the sequel. Marcus got targeted by cTOS 2.0’s predictive algorithm, landing him in hot water with the police for crimes he had yet to commit. Luckily, Marcus lives in San Francisco, the tech center of the world, and decides to shut down the system for good so one else can fall victim to its system.
The reactions to Marcus replacing Aiden were, quite frankly, not that great. While some were welcome to the change in character, others, not so much. Aiden wasn’t exactly the best part of the original game; several reviews noted that he was one of the weakest aspects thanks to his unlikable personality, grating voice and fairly generic story. It was only when Marcus was revealed as the new lead that players suddenly took a liking to Pearce. Some people couldn’t buy the idea of a black man being a hacker, and others went so far as to call this a publicity stunt by Ubisoft. The thing is, Watch Dogs 2 absolutely needed a protagonist who wasn’t Aiden Peace, and more importantly, needed a protagonist that was a minority. Not just because it would be a welcome addition of diversity to gaming’s overall slate of characters, but also because it fits with this series.
Watch Dogs’ entire premise is built around the idea of exposing conspiracies by big corporations and giving freedom back in the hands of the people. Ubisoft has gone on record as having been influenced by the growing online presence in the last decade, and what someone could do with all that information. Aiden in the first game was very much a man who suffered losing his niece because he ultimately brought it on himself by trying to rob the leader of the South Chicago mob. As the game opens, it’s already clear that he’s using his hacking powers for his own personal gain, and while anti-heroes are all well and good, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for the game to make it seem like he didn’t have some of this coming. The story tried to frame the game as his origin story, with him adopting the identity of “The Vigilante”, looking out for those who can’t fend for themselves, while at the same time, he’s able to steal money from their bank accounts.
Marcus, on the other hand, is different. Aiden’s actions, rooted in him being a completely unlikable person, have reverberated on those who can actually suffer from the existence of cTOS were it a thing that existed in real life. It makes perfect sense for the next story to focus on a person of color who just so happens to have been targeted by a prediction system because of his actions. In Watch Dogs 2, Marcus is a member of DeadSec, the hacker group who had frequent dealings with Aiden in the past. As the sequel’s lead writer Lucien Soulban describes it, the sequel needed a person of color because they wanted somebody that “spoke with a certain level of authority. You could believe that he had undergone or had seen certain things growing up where he grew up. When he said that there was a need for change, you understood why there was a need for change as well.”
One of the ads for the game plays the hip-hop song “Spaz,” which contains the lyrics “I’m here, I’m not going nowhere”. It’s definitely fitting in this case, given the backlash against Marcus for the basis of simply just existing. Unfortunately for those who would rather play as Aiden again, his story is more or less done, and it’s for the better. Because really, the last thing the universe needs is another game with him in the spotlight.