Dialectical realism: How Assassin's Creed killed its own potential

Assassin's Creed

Videogames are filled with absurd contradictions. Always have been, always will be. One of the most pervasive of these contradictions by far, and one that I've been thinking about a lot lately, has to be the inability of game characters to interact realistically with their environments. We have role-playing games in which the hero can slay all manner of ferocious beasts but can't even climb over a simple fence. In Oblivion, the protagonist can survive a twenty foot fall, but climbing anywhere without the help of stairs, a ramp, or a ladder is pretty much out of the question. Yeah, I know. It's all about videogame logic, right? Games need arbitrary rules and restrictions. That's what makes them work. I get that. I really do. But that still doesn't take away from the fact that on some level all of these arbitrary limitations, most of which run totally counter to what these characters should be capable of, feel just plain weird sometimes.

It's precisely the inclusion of environmental interaction that makes Assassin's Creed so special. No, the game is not special because of its control scheme—the one that Jade Raymond kept touting as revolutionary because the buttons loosely correspond to Altair's body parts. Nope. Sorry Jade. The controls are okay, but nothing special. And no, the game is not special because of its fighting system, which for the record is also pretty unspectacular. And no, the hiding around in haystacks and on benches gameplay (By the way, if I ever have to hear Jade Raymond say the words "new gameplay" one more time I'm gonna lose it.) ain't that special either. Sorry again Jade. What makes Assassin's Creed so special is that maybe for the first time ever, at least that I'm aware of, we have a highly realistic looking game that takes all the standard videogame crap of having characters who inexplicably can't interact with the environment in even the most basic ways and blows it to smithereens.

Yeah, it's not entirely consistent. Altair still can't climb up trees or cliffs, skills that should come naturally to someone who can scale buildings with ease. Sure, I could focus on these inconsistencies. But I also want to give credit where credit is due. Altair's unprecedented abilities deserve recognition, not because they revolutionize gameplay (which I don't really think they do), but because they accomplish one very important thing: they sell the environment. By allowing its main character to touch and grab hold of almost every nook and cranny of the game's architecture, Assassin's Creed goes further than almost any game I can think of in selling the reality of its world. I'm not sure if I can think of a better way (using current technology) to make a virtual world more believable than by allowing the player to actually reach out and (virtually) touch it.

It's a terrible shame then that, having created such a remarkably realistic and tactile world, the makers of Assassin's Creed went to such great lengths to undermine that very realism. The entire premise of having Desmond plug Matrix-style into his ancestral DNA-encoded memories screams out to the player: this is fake. Whatever quasi-scientific pretense the story provides for the whole game-within-a-game setup, the end result is that the player is left two steps removed from the action. In addition to dealing with the normal barriers associated with playing a game (e.g., controller, tv, etc.), the player must also deal with a second internal barrier between Desmond and Altair. For me, this feels less like a creative twist than an overused crutch that the developers rely on to excuse their inability to find more creative ways of integrating things like health bars, loading screens, and radar-style maps into the game.

While playing Assassin's Creed, my mind kept going back to Shadow of the Colossus, a game that did an amazing job both of minimizing intrusive display features and of providing a control scheme that connects players to the main character. Instead of using an onscreen radar map, for instance, Colossus came up with an ingenious solution whereby raising the hero's sword in sunlight produces a beam of light pointing towards the next destination. On the control side, instead of having players click and release a button to grab hold of something, Colossus requires players to hold down the button, heightening the sense of having a physical grip on the virtual environment. While these solutions might not perfectly translate over to Assassin's Creed, they exemplify the kind of artistic sensibility and creative thinking that the game sorely lacks.

Rather than forcing players to rely on the onscreen radar, why not give them enough information through dialogue to find things on their own? Rather than highlighting every guard and soldier, why not just make them easier to identify by their clothing or appearance? Rather than putting an arrow over the heads of whomever Altair is locked on to and giving them a weird DNA-code aura, why not just manipulate the visual focus (something the game already does) to highlight important characters? I can't help but feel that if the developers could have found more organic ways to convey key information to the player, then perhaps the game could have approached something resembling a work of art. Instead, we're left with an above average game cluttered with distracting onscreen indicators.

Assassin's Creed possesses what might be called dialectical realism (that's right, I use words like dialectical)—i.e., a contradiction between those design choices that enhance realism and those that undermine it. One the one hand, the degree of interactivity and intimate physical engagement between Altair and his environment lends the game an almost unprecedented sense of realism. On the other hand, the game-within-a-game setup (and its pervasive visual manifestations) and an overcrowded HUD simultaneously shatter that realism at almost every turn. I think that Ubisoft should have ditched the game's present day story altogether to focus on elevating the core game into something truly great. As it stands, Assassin's Creed represents a profound miscalculation, a game that brutally and tragically killed its own potential.