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

Brandon Erickson's picture

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.

Category Tags
Series: Assassin's Creed  
Articles: Editorials  

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Overthought

You think too much - it's a video game, and it should be enjoyed as such.

Yup

Man I gotta say this article is spot on.
I'm so sick and tired of everyone either bashing the hell outta Assassin's Creed or praising it as the best game ever. Personally, I love it. That's simply because I'm such a sucker for the whole "interactivity" aspect described above. For the same reasons I love Spiderman games, Hulk Ultimate Destruction, can't wait for Prototype which looks to be exactly what I'm looking for in that same aspect, even Mario 64 comes to mind, it was so liberating the way it gave you the feeling that anything is possible in the world it presents you.
I haven't even thought about the effect of the whole DNA plotline on distancing the player from the game character but I totally agree with this observation. And it's funny how this article made me realize much better why Shadow of the Colossus is one of my all-time favorite games.

Yups0rz

Man I gotta say this article is spot on.
I'm so sick and tired of everyone either bashing the hell outta Assassin's Creed or praising it as the best game ever. Personally, I love it. That's simply because I'm such a sucker for the whole "interactivity" aspect described above. For the same reasons I love Spiderman games, Hulk Ultimate Destruction, can't wait for Prototype which looks to be exactly what I'm looking for in that same aspect, even Mario 64 comes to mind, it was so liberating the way it gave you the feeling that anything is possible in the world it presents you.
I haven't even thought about the effect of the whole DNA plotline on distancing the player from the game character but I totally agree with this observation. And it's funny how this article made me realize much better why Shadow of the Colossus is one of my all-time favorite games.

Yes, I agree. We shouldn't

Yes, I agree. We shouldn't think deeply about books or movies either. (*sarcasm*)

This Article Lacks Actuality...

...and reads like it was written by a spoiled kid with a thesaurus. You could offer solutions but since you can't think of any...would you like cheese with your whine?

Comment too long?

I couldn't comment here, so read my response here:
http://tinyurl.com/2bcb6d

Thanks,

~CYD

Note to the author

You do know that the HUD elements can be turned off, don't you?

Makes it much more challenging and immersive!

I must say that your article

I must say that your article does a great job of expressing the sort of love-hate relationship a lot of people have with this game. I think you're exactly 100% right -- the game was awesome, a blast to play, but boy did it try its hardest to screw it up. It really feels like they were making two games here, one the artful masterpiece of freerunning, intuitive, fluid combat and interactive environment that we know and the other the sci-fi part. The sci-fi feels like a noose around the game's neck.

Yes, above responders, the hud can be turned off -- but it shouldn't have to be. This article isn't whining, it's intelligently discussing what could have made a good game better, one of the best.

If the game hadn't any sci-fi at all, I think it would have forced the creators to come up with more organic, innovative ways to relate critical information to the player.

For example, why does a hawk circle the high points if the hud and map also point them out? The game didn't need any hud elements at all -- not one. Its map could have been a paper map, one clean of all markings save those you could mark on it yourself, requiring you to actually digest and interpret the information you get from the side missions, to mark where the bureau is yourself, to mark hidden paths to make your quick escape.

Health can be related via screen blur (like it already is, just sans the DNA graphics). Weapon can be related by simply looking at what weapon Altair has out at the time. No need for a radar, either. Targeting could have very slightly blurred the other targets (like it already does) and brought the targeted enemy into higher focus. Perhaps lightened him a little -- not much, just ever so slightly. None of that DNA codework.

The eagle symbolism could have been brought to a stronger head to replace some of these computer interfaces, like giving altair the ability to call an eagle and use it to see over the city or something to that effect. Plus, without the animus's prompting, there maybe could have been more side-missions, too, or the ones already there could have been more fluidly integrated into the game. Hell, even the plot would have seriously benefited from not having the atrocious sci-fi aspect. Yeah, it's neat, but it so did not belong.

Bravo, brandon, you really summarized what I've felt since the game came out. I love it, but I hope for the next one ubi rethinks a lot of stuff. I hope against hope that they don't feel obligated to keep some of this schlock for the sake of the plot or the sci-fi interface. If assassin's creed kept to one era, with each game in the trilogy focusing on a different time period, it could be so much better.

games

yo personally im new here but i have to say that im more for adventure games like dragon quest or dot hack LOL.

games

hey im new here but I like adventure games more like dot hack or dragon quest.

games

hey im new here but I like adventure games more like dot hack or dragon quest.

Anonymous has a point

Quote:

...and reads like it was written by a spoiled kid with a thesaurus. You could offer solutions but since you can't think of any...would you like cheese with your whine?

Lol, very true and a bit poetic actually, nicely done! I like, especially, that you use the word thesaurus instead of dictionary. That's right on the money because if the genius that wrote this article would've used a dictionary, he would have seen that what he's talking about isn't a "dialectic" at all. The gameplay doesn't have a logical discussion with itself and if it did, it certainly doesn't arrive at truth or agreeance. That's right Brando', I use big words like dialectic(al) too but I actually paid attention in my shi**y junior college philosophy class so I know what it means (gasp)! Dialectics are what Socrates does, not Ubisoft.

All matters of highfaluting grammar aside, I think what he's trying to say is that he has a feeling of ambivalence about the gameplay and that its attempt at realism contradicts itself. I agree. I also agree with what he says about the storyline and his suggestion to improve it by dumping all the useless sci-fi crap. Looking back on how this game was hyped in all the magazines it's a total bait-switch (and a cop out). I don't remember seeing anything about Altair the Badass waking up a thousand years later as Desmond the Tool. Who knows, maybe Assassin's Creed actually takes place somewhere in Dallas and not the Middle East...

Nice try at a put down

Nice try at a put down Lumino'. It might have worked except for the minor fact that you don't really know what you're talking about. You see, by attempting to prove your smarts you've only demonstrated your ignorance. Although what you say of the term "dialectic" is true according to its strictest definition (and I was indeed aware of the strict definition of the term prior to writing my article), the term can also be used more broadly to refer to a tension or opposition between two things. My interpretation was within the bounds of acceptable usage. Perhaps if you opened the dictionary you'd see that many words, including "dialectic," have more than one definition.

Yes, a little knowledge (emphasis on "little") can be a dangerous thing. Next time you want to invoke the dictionary to prove your intelligence, do your homework first.

LuminousPath needs re-illuminating

Honey, if you took more than one class at your junior college you might realize that the term "dialectical" is used in many different fields in many different ways, and the author's use in this article is correct. Don't flaunt your ignorance, it isn't becoming. Your discussion on the game was more pertinent and more intelligent.

just a game :D

yeh i agree, its a video game. just enjoy it, especially if you pay 40 quid for it. i think that that kind of analysis and suggestions should be saved for politics and other subjects where it matters :D

but i like that people analyse these things anyway, its cute.

If you can appreciate

If you can appreciate Brandon's review is just his OWN opinion and not something that's backed up by the United Nations Council, NATO, Greenpeace or endorsed by the Pope, then he is entitled to his opinion(s) and to express them. Whether we agree or not is completely arbitrary. If you are going to knock somebody down for what they think then you can do it including the manners your parents should have instilled in you as you were growing up instead of using techniques picked up from spending too much time with lame academic wankers (that's right! I use words like academic wankers) who spend their time getting into debt and whoring off other people who should also get a job instead!

As for Assassin's Creed, the graphics are awesome, the storyline is somewhat amazing and the gameplay itself is yawningly repetitive.

Good points in the article.

Good points in the article. I will throw in that the author's use of dialectical is almost correct. It can describe the sort of tension that it was meant to describe here (not just the back and forth with truthful resolution, allegedly the case with Socrates). To mention the game's realism as a dialectical realism is at worse a misuse of the word and at best an opaque use. In the author's phrase dialectical is an adjective modifying the noun realism. This is grammatically correct though when the term is used as an adjective it typically takes as its noun a term such as process, meeting, approach, resolution. When it modifies a term like coldness, as in the phrase, 'dialectical coldness', it tends to mean that that the coldness pertains to the some dialectical process. Such as the phrase, 'temperamental irregularity', tends to refer to a temperament that is irregular. So dialectical realism suggests a dialectical process that is in some way realistic. That said, the game seems to present the viewer with a gaming experience that has a dialectic tension regarding its realism.

BTW I'm working on my PhD dissertation in Philosophy and am looking up games to procrastinate.

I just finished AC,

I just finished AC, wonderful game. Contrary to many I also appreciated the metagame about Desmond, actually more a story than gameplay providing interesting context not unknown to anyone with a brief aquaintance with deep politics and secret societies. Hence it is a commentary to real forces acting in present times, a greater story is being told here in wich AC and presumably its sequels are only episodes. As a concept, 'genetic memories' is less quasi scientific than one may think, empirically existant, mechanism unknown. Elaborate anecdotes of personal experience aside, what is an 'instinct', when was it learned? Apart from being an adventure I think Ubisoft put a lot into historical and factual accuracy. Now, go out and listen to Alex Jones.

glow system

I really like this game and after playing a while i figured i can turn off the hud elements and it made it more immersing but still when you are going through a city the crazy glow system just has to mark everyone in a white glow outlined mesh like soldiers, guards, contacts and people you can rob. I have no idea how almost nobody is not put off by this system and the hints "press f to talk to" yeah i get what i have to do after first 10times thank you sheesh. That are really my only problems with this game that i cant enjoy the scenery without some white glowing characters in there but i don't mind when they are selected and have matrix stuff flowing around them.

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