‘Watch Dogs’ turns the cameras on NSA fears by John Gaudiosi @FortuneMagazine May 27, 2014, 5:49 PM EDT E-mail Tweet Facebook Google Plus Linkedin Share icons FORTUNE — George Orwell’s concept of “Big Brother” has become near-reality in the city of Chicago, which has an estimated 25,000 cameras watching citizens from street corners, trains, inside buildings and even personal residences (through a volunteer opt-in program). Operation Virtual Shield isn’t a fictional name from Ubisoft’s newest potential game franchise, Watch Dogs. It’s the real name behind a joint surveillance effort between the Department of Homeland Security and the Chicago Police Department, which launched in 2006 and has cost $8 million. IBM IBM and developer Genetec (which is located just down the road from Ubisoft Montreal, developer of Watch Dogs) have created a network of city-owned, privately owned and even personal cameras to help prevent crime, solve cases and even predict crime. Since 2007, crime surveillance analysts at the Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) have been keeping a watchful eye over the city through the camera system, as well as with very advanced facial recognition software and predictive algorithms. Taking a different tack than the hit CBS series Person of Interest, which plugs into New York City’s network of surveillance cameras and adds a super computer that can predict crimes before they happen, Ubisoft turns Chicago’s infrastructure against those who run it. In the near-future fictional Chicago, the private Blume Corporation controls everything from trains to traffic lights to the Central Operating System (ctOS) surveillance network. MORE: Educating the ‘big data’ generation In Watch Dogs, players assume the role of Aiden Pearce, a hacker with a criminal past who’s out for revenge against those who hurt his family. The game adds a twist to traditional open world gameplay by allowing Aiden to access omnipresent security cameras, download personal information to locate targets, control traffic lights and public transportation to stop enemies, and even hack into smartphones to find out personal information about any virtual character in the game. All the hacks players can perform in the game are feasible in real life, according to Ubisoft Producer of Brand Experience Thomas Geffroyd. “Watch Dogs is a product of its time,” said Geffroyd, when asked about the recent headlines the National Security Administration (NSA) made with snooping on American citizens. “The close relationship between the recent revelations and our game is very strong and for a good reason. Watch Dogs is not about technology, it is about humans surrounded by technology. And that’s intrinsically what the public was reminded of with the recent events. Technology, by itself, is neutral and as technology adoption was increasing, it gave us more and more very useful tools on our phones and on the Internet.” Given the multiple years required to develop a massive game like this, the original story was locked and recorded before Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations in June 2013. In fact, the game has been in development for five years and wasn’t revealed until E3 2012, providing an interesting scenario of fiction foreshadowing real life. “As with everyone else, the NSA revelations caught us by surprise,” said Kevin Shortt, story designer at Ubisoft. “But we didn’t need to rush to any changes in our story. It’s always been about surveillance, access to information, privacy, the commoditization of personal information. As we researched our game, we explored all aspects of it. What does big data mean? Who controls it? What power comes from this information? While we were surprised by the revelations, we weren’t shocked by the specifics. Our research had suggested this sort of behavior was highly possible and likely.” It’s not surprising that gamers are interested in this subject matter. It also helps that Ubisoft Montreal has a solid track record of developing original games like Assassin’s Creed and the Prince of Persia reboot. Watch Dogs has already broken records for the French game publisher. It’s the most pre-ordered new IP in Ubisoft’s history and the most pre-ordered new IP in the entire industry this year. Michael Pachter, video game analyst for Wedbush Securities, forecasts sales of 6 to 7 million copies worldwide in its first year. The game ships for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC on May 27 and will be released on Wii U later this year. “Watch Dogs is the most anticipated game of the year because it shares some characteristics with Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto and hardly has any real competition in its genre,” said Peter Warman, video game analyst at Newzoo. “Watch Dogs will be around for the next ten years because the concept is cool and the game is of high quality.” MORE: In an Amazon-Hachette standoff, the customer comes last That’s good news for Microsoft MSFT , which just introduced a $400 Xbox One minus the Kinect, as well as Sony and Nintendo, since the game will be available across all three consoles (a rarity these days with so few third party companies supporting Nintendo’s struggling Wii U). By delaying the 2013 launch to May, a traditionally slow period in the video game industry, Ubisoft is offering an incentive to gamers who have yet to make the upgrade to next-gen hardware. There are plenty of ways to interact with the virtual Chicago in the game, as players can jump into and drive any vehicle, take the train from one area to another and use the environment (like traffic lights) to wreak havoc with traffic to help during gun fights. But the developer is also exploring themes much deeper than the on-screen action. “We are dealing with a protagonist who can hack into anyone’s private information and learn highly personal details,” said Shortt. “Is that right? Is it dangerous? What freedoms do we give up when we connect ourselves more and more to the network? These are questions we must all grapple with today. Privacy and the power of secrets became a pillar for us when we started brainstorming the story. Shortt added that the game revolves around hacking and hyper-connectivity because the development team wanted a game that reflects today’s world. So much of people’s lives can be found online now and most times they aren’t even aware of it. “Our sense of privacy has changed,” said Shortt. “An older generation would never use their credit cards online while the next generation might think nothing of posting every intimate secret online. By placing you in the role of a skilled hacker, we are giving you a close look at the types of information that can be accessed. I hope that players come from the game with a new understanding of what it means to be online.” Much like Person of Interest fans who visit New York City, Watch Dogs players may also become more aware of cameras that are tracking people more than ever before. Chicago may be the most heavily surveilled city in the world today, but the idea of the government watching its citizens is a stark reality across the country and in more cities around the world. Big Brother is watching. But at least in the game world, citizens can take matters into their own hands.