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.

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Anonymous
Anonymous
10 years ago

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… Read more »

Anonymous
Anonymous
11 years ago

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… Read more »

Philux
Philux
11 years ago

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… Read more »

Anonymous
Anonymous
12 years ago

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 😀

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

A. Nonymous
A. Nonymous
12 years ago

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.

Brandon Erickson
Brandon Erickson
12 years ago

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… Read more »

LuminousPath
LuminousPath
12 years ago

[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?[/quote] 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… Read more »

kitsu yatsura
kitsu yatsura
12 years ago

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

kitsu yatsura
kitsu yatsura
12 years ago

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

Kitsu Yatsura
Kitsu Yatsura
12 years ago

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

Johnny Israel
Johnny Israel
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Paul
Paul
12 years ago

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

Makes it much more challenging and immersive!

CYD
CYD
12 years ago

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

Thanks,

~CYD

Anonymous
Anonymous
12 years ago

…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?

Boo
Boo
12 years ago

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

FrogOfWar
FrogOfWar
12 years ago

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… Read more »

FrogOfWar
FrogOfWar
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Anonymous
Anonymous
12 years ago

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

lost
lost
10 years ago

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… Read more »