Is largely what I have been doing for the past fortnight or so, interspersed with bits of dissertation. I just finished it, less than an hour ago, and am now experiencing that slightly deflated feeling one gets on having to leave a fictional world you got really into – be it the world of a book, a movie, a play, a game. Current cultural mores say that the first three are inherently more valid than the last; I’m not so sure. More about that later.
Now, obviously I am way late to the party on this one: Assassin’s Creed is around three years old, has spawned a successful sequel and there is a threequel in the works. (Probably due 2012, of which more later.) But for the sake of anyone even later to the party than me, which is entirely possible – I can’t be the first person who grew up without videogames and was introduced to them by disreputable friends at university, and I doubt I’ll be the last – a warning: I’m talking about my impressions of the game as a whole, including its ending and speculations as to where this trilogy is going, and so naturally there are spoilers up the wazoo.
I loved this game. Aside from Portal it was the first game I got into with a storyline, and Portal only barely counts on the story front – it’s an extremely simple and familiar narrative dressed up with shiny things. Assassin’s Creed, on the other hand, has a perfectly decent story underpinning its episodic series of missions, and scores particularly highly on its ending revelations, which set up a vast backstory and potentially-vast forwardstory. (That’s not even a word.) It also succeeds in making you rather fond of your player character, Altaïr: he starts off as distinctly unlikeable and gradually matures. Again to draw the comparison with Portal, look at Chell – the epitome of TVTropes’ Heroic Mime, silent and with her face only rarely visible (and immobile, far as I can tell) it’s only really possible to care for her insofar as she’s temporarily you.
The crucial difference in Assassin’s Creed is that Altaïr is not you. You are Desmond, a twenty-first-century great-great-great-etc.-grandson of the twelfth-century Assassin, who is being forced to relive his ancestor’s ‘genetic memories’ by a creepy corporation, Abstergo, who turn out to be a front for the organisation also once behind the Templars.
Altaïr is never you: you see through his eyes, hear through his ears, but you’re always conscious that you’re in a second layer of story, one remove away, and I honestly think that that particular design decision, however it was arrived at, was a stroke of genius. Because in a lot of first-person story games, when a cutscene arrives it comes as a jolt, a disconnect: this character who was you is suddenly not under your control, and is probably saying or doing things that you-in-charge wouldn’t have done. (Best example is, oddly, not a game. The Star Wars prequels are effectively a single epic cutscene contradicting everything fans of the originals had wanted/tried to make happen.) When Altaïr talks to people, that disconnect is lessened, because you’ve always been half-aware that he is not you, that you’re only watching what he does.
Desmond, however, remains somewhere between dull and annoying: not quite Heroic Mime – he does talk – and admirably realistic, but let’s face it, realism is not what we want here. I’m sure that if I were imprisoned by a mad scientist and made to relive ancestral memories by a bizarre machine, my responses would pretty much be confined to ‘What the hell?’, ‘Why am I here?’, ‘Who are you?’, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and ‘What the hell?’ People under such constraints are rarely original, and in that respect Desmond’s behaviour is spot-on; it’s just not particularly engaging from a game point of view, just as realistic conversation with its ums and ers doesn’t make for great dialogue.
There remains another possibility, though, which I can truthfully say is no sillier or more bizarre than anything else in the game, which is this: The game isn’t set round-about-now, it’s set who-knows-how-far in the future. The Templars and Assassins are still killing one another. And hundreds of years down the line, some future descendant is being strapped into a machine to watch through Desmond’s eyes . . .
Ahem. Anyway. Potential recursions aside, the device of making the player effectively play a character at one remove is a good one, because it plausibly explains and incorporates into play the otherwise intrusive disconnect between bits where you’re in charge and bits where you aren’t. Taking Altaïr partly out of your control means the game can do more with him, in turn making him a more sympathetic protagonist.
Which leads me to my second major point: Altaïr is badass. In many, many ways. Not only is the Assassin’s Creed movement and fighting system damn awesome – of which more later – thus making him capable of some incredibly cool shit, but I love how they explain his motivation. There’s a little bit of stop-the-bad-guys, but that’s a means to the end, the end being ‘Be sufficiently awesome to salve your badly wounded pride.’ Altaïr starts the game by fucking up spectacularly, and has to obediently kill who the Master of Assassins tells him to in order to win back his lost prestige. Watching the other assassins, and the Master, gradually grudgingly acknowledge that yeah, okay, he is really that good is hella gratifying.
Onto said cool shit. Roughly 90%, I would say, of the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed is running and jumping – at least the way I played it; my instinct was generally to run from fights rather than stay in them. In this respect it’s a little different from a lot of games, I think, in that you not only get the enjoyment of being good at a game, but can also enjoy at a distance the activity portrayed. I doubt that more than a tiny fraction of FPS fans genuinely want to shoot/burn/stab/explode other people, or RPG fans want to slay dragons, or whatever, but I know a lot of people who kind of secretly wish they were more athletic. Being able to do the kind of free-running feats Altaïr does is something I really would enjoy, and so even a very limited version of that experience – controlling a little animated dude doing it – feels pretty cool.
On which head, the animation is amazing. The minor NPCs are individually not brilliantly done, but there are enough different character models that the game’s simulation of a busy street looks rather good; the major NPCs are very well done, with your various assassination targets and Assassin contacts each being carefully differentiated in face and voice. Altaïr himself is well animated, with a realistic half-slouch to his walk that you’d expect from a man who spends a lot of his time carrying heavy weaponry – he favours his right shoulder, same as I do, only in my case the destabilising force was seven years carrying a stupidly heavy shoulder-bag to high school; much less awesome. The animations you get when Altaïr kills someone in a sword-fight are both satisfyingly realistic-looking and movie-level cool.
On the subject of the NPCs, it seems like as good a place as any to mention the one thing that jarred for me in the mid-story. One of the nine assassinees is Abu’l Nuqoud, the Merchant King of Damascus, a corrupt and venal merchant in a tasteless waistcoat and feather-topped headdress. He’s also animated to be rather rotund and greasily shiny-skinned compared to most of the other characters. Now each time you kill a major NPC, time mysteriously stops and you get a few minutes of them delivering an unfeasibly long dying monologue. Nuqoud’s explanation as for why he joined the Templar conspiracy includes hatred for those who see him and his ‘ways’ as an ‘abomination’ – fairly sure that’s the wording he uses; this incident stuck in my head. The implication that he’s the resident Depraved Homosexual is about as subtle as a brick.
I’m sure that anyone not willing to conform to religious sexual mores was not in for a good time during the era of the Crusades: for example, one of the many, many accusations levelled at the Templars themselves somewhat later in history was that of sodomy. Nuqoud’s motivation makes sense; it just seems to me that pairing it with the rest of his character traits (corrupt, un-fighterly, fat, greasy and outlandishly dressed) lets in a ton of unfortunate implications.
Now, as the TVTropes page on the Depraved Homosexual stereotype points out, merely being gay and villainous doesn’t qualify. It’s the combination with a pile of other gay stereotypes that makes Nuqoud unfortunate; one of the other assassination victims might have been a better vehicle for this particular backstory. Probably not the mad French doctor experimenting on his patients or the hysterical shaven-headed German, but someone like William of Montferrat, who’s presented more as a good man and good soldier on the wrong side than a truly depraved villain, could have worked.
It’s an unfortunate blot on what is otherwise an exceptional cast of background characters. That said, this was pretty much the only thing that jarred me, character-wise, which is a hell of an achievement considering how sadly deficient in basic three-dimensionality so many game NPCs are.
To return to the question of animation: the real star is unquestionably the scenery – the twelfth-century Holy Land in dusty, smoky glory. The three cities you visit, Damascus, Acre and Jerusalem, have distinct styles of building and colouring: Damascus brown, Jerusalem brighter and yellowish, Acre a seemingly always half-twilit bluish-grey. (As well as telling them apart, the palettes make it easy to spot Templars – in red – from far away enough that you can get them before they get you. Mostly.) The majority of each city is stacked houses, connected by ladders and trellised balconies, but the major landmarks are truly breathtaking. Acre cathedral is wonderfully rendered, the sea-view from its topmost spire amazing; the citadels of each city are detailed and ornamental, and the great Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is a thing to behold. I have no idea whether they are historically accurate, but beautiful, they are indisputably.
So you kill your way across the continent, and Altaïr gradually figures out more about what’s going on with the Templar conspiracy at the same time as Desmond, in the modern-day segments, learns more about its twenty-first-century incarnation. (I found out after the fact that there’s a passcode you can pickpocket from one of the scientists that lets you get into their computers, accessing much more and more interesting information. I totally failed to realise you could do this, so caught up via the Internet.) The conspiracy they reveal is one of staggering proportions.
This is the thing that made me giggle so much: the plot of Assassin’s Creed throws in everything and the kitchen sink as far as conspiracy theorists are concerned. Al-Mualim names the major miracles of Christianity and the start of the Trojan War as being caused by his ‘Piece of Eden’ (a mind-control device vaguely resembling an apple), and Dr Vidic informs you that ‘every great discovery of the last millennium’ is the result of humanity meddling with the technology of ‘Those Who Came Before’ – aliens. The bloody marks Desmond finds scrawled across the Abstergo building after too much exposure to the Animus machine fries his brain also bring in the following:
- the vanished land of Yonaguni, off Japan
- Emperor Jiajing, a collector of rare artefacts
- Mayan step pyramids, and the Long Count date for the end of the world – 18.104.22.168.0 or, in modern parlance, 21.12.2012
- the pyramids at Giza
- the Nazca Lines
- a Mandelbrot set and its governing equation
- a pentagram symbol
- the eye-in-triangle symbol most famously used by the Illuminati and the US government
And probably some more I’ve forgotten. The emails you can look at on the Abstergo computers also tie in an incident in 1943 when a US warship supposedly briefly went invisible (really an Artefact test) the Tunguska presumed-meteorite-strike of 1908 (really Assassins destroying an Artefact), and the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skulls (which really let the holders communicate psychically with one another, palantír-style). About the only thing that hasn’t been implicated in this glorious hodgepodge of a conspiracy yet is the Nazis, and I bet that’s only because they ran out of room.
I have always wanted to write a story that threw in absolutely every conspiracy theory ever, and have never done so. Nobody else has ever managed it either, but I love coming across texts that come close, because the result is nearly always both deeply intriguing and utterly hilarious. AC certainly succeeds in both regards, and it’s not exactly difficult to start adding in extra bits to their mythos (Hitler was a Templar and the Nazis were looking for Artefacts in Russia! JFK was assassinated by, well, Assassins! The Bermuda Triangle! The Face on Mars was left by Those Who Came Before!) Some more pile-it-all-in works of fiction are listed at the bottom.
All of which silliness sets up, to me at least, an intriguing possibility for the third game. I haven’t played Assassin’s Creed 2, but am aware that it takes place in roughly Borgia-era Italy and that at one point you get to tackle the Pope. Presumably more Artefacts, or at least one more, are involved. But it doesn’t – can’t, unless it’s very different to what I’ve heard – move the plot forward far enough to form a continuity with the modern-day segments: 1400s to 2000s is still a big leap. It also doesn’t deal with the many other exotic locations implicated in the conspiracy.
Which makes me think that a fun viewpoint ancestor for the third game would be some sort of 1920s-ish explorer, maybe slightly earlier, when running around plundering ancient tombs was jolly well what you did. Skipping to an era with air travel would let you tackle more than one continent, as well – it’d be perfectly plausible for some sort of Indiana Jones-style badass archaeologist to investigate, say, both Egypt and South America. (Indy: totally an Assassin! Desmond is like his great-grandson or something.) It might possibly come across as something of a tremendous ripoff, but I could still see it working.
However they choose to play it, I am looking forward to Assassin’s Creed 3 very much indeed. Hopefully I will get to play AC2 sometime before the threequel comes out. (Which, unless the marketing team manage to miss an incredibly obvious trick, is likely to be 21.12.2012 – significant date for the plot and date already fixed in everyone’s minds thanks to conspiraloons. Free publicity!)
Recommended reading if you like your conspiracies all-inclusive:
- The Illuminatus! trilogy (Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson): arguably the granddaddy of them all, this one includes Discordianism, Nazis, the assassination of JFK, fiendish fluoridators, Leviathan, sentient computers, and Atlantis. I can neither confirm nor deny that it makes more sense when under the influence of mind-altering substances.
- The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue (Charles Stross): a joyous, hilarious and frequently horrifying thrill-ride, these ones have Lovecraft mythos, Cold War conspiracies, Alan Turing’s death, CCTV, Nazis, and Microsoft.
- Foucault’s Pendulum (Umberto Eco): a huge tome of a book to which I return time and time again, this one deals with the adventures of three men at an Italian publishing company who, sick of idiots sending in conspiracy-theory manuscripts, decide that they could do better. Has Dee, Bacon, the Templars, Nazis, the Bogomils, the Cathars, Agarttha, the Hollow Earth, the Black Indies, telluric currents, Rosicrucians, the Eiffel Tower, Trithemius, combinatorics, cabbalism, and God only knows what I’ve forgotten.
- Indiana Jones & The Raiders of the Lost Ark, – Temple of Doom, – Last Crusade, – Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (George Lucas & Steven Spielberg): I’m assuming that pretty much everyone has seen these already, but if you haven’t, you should. All four (do not believe the haters!) are worth your time, even if opinion is much divided on their respective merits. Has: Nazis, Communists, the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, sacred stones, Thuggee death cults, the Mitchell-Hedges skulls, the Nazca lines and other things that shall not be named.
- Chrononauts (card game; published by Looney Labs): this essentially lets you make your own conspiracies. It’s a time-travel game where you cause to happen or un-happen various major historical events; each change has far-reaching effects on the future timeline. Much hilarity ensues. Hitler and JFK are typically assassinated and un-assassinated at least three to four times per game.