Thursday, April 29, 2010

Shattered Perversion | Assassin’s Creed II

Upon my third completion of Assassin’s Creed II [DLC-Free], I realized that my feelings for it had finally solidified, so I thought it best to finally go ahead and flesh this out. No it didn’t actually take that long, I just have no deadline or agenda to meet (I have a very smug look on my face while typing that by the way). At the end of the day, the experience for the sequel is indicative for what should be with any game’s sequel, an improvement upon its predecessor.

The legacy of Ubisoft’s adventure title now appears be a game that will distinctively maneuver amongst flexuous expectations and generate an irritating divide within its core audience.

I – Domestication

A theme in the second game that wasn’t present in the first was the significance of a family. However, the problem with Assassin’s Creed II’s handling of this stems from it stepping in something on purpose and not expanding upon it (or even wiping it off). Between Ezio’s uncle, mother, and sister (the largest players in the game’s long haul), everybody gets written off as expendable presences beyond a certain point. For Ezio’s immediate family though, this basically means the first two or three hours of the game. The title’s message is relatively stable until Giovanni, Petruccio, and Federico are killed (at which point things warp and dissipate). There is a willful (and even admirable) attempt to show what gets disrupted with the ‘Auditore slaughter’ through the following sequences.

1. Ezio races Federico to the top of a tower. [Mask = basic climbing]

2. Ezio beats up one of Claudia’s cheating beaus. [Mask = unarmed combat]

3. Ezio helps his mother carry packages to Leonardo Da Vinci’s workshop. [Mask = Carrying items]

4. Ezio collects feathers for Petruccio. [Mask = Mobility practice by timed collect-a-thon]

5. Ezio runs errands for his father. [Mask = A-to-B narrative movement]

Individually, these have all been written off as the products of ‘tutorial-masking’ by many, which is fair enough I suppose. However, considering the game’s/players’ pacing, the player’s own interest, and even the most minute idiosyncrasies (e.g. player’s perception of the word ‘family), a rose colored lens can go to shit-stained in a matter of seconds. My personal interpretation of the above sequences revolves around exactly what they’re masking (and how stiff they came off as). This mainly just means that the parental sequences had a de-facto advantage over the interactions of Ezio and his siblings. The instances between Ezio and his father are a required aspect for moving along the game’s main plot. Since I was in no rush, this was exactly as organic as I required it to be. Being in no rush also housed enjoyment towards running a simple errand for Maria (which is merely walking a short distance and back).

The portion between Ezio and his mother is the one I found most impressive as there was room (albeit a bit flimsy) for unforced/engaged dialogue, minimalist play, and a slower pacing (if only for ten minutes). The interactions of the siblings however, are plagued by an unattractive melding of the game’s mechanics and narrative context. Claudia’s sequence for example, could have been far more engrossing had she actually accompanied Ezio to confront her boyfriend (as opposed to just helplessly sitting on a bench crying). Something to mirror the sequence with Maria could have simply had Claudia saying her lines to Ezio in transit and then scolding the boyfriend as Ezio fought him. Something as small as that could have significantly detracted from the aforementioned unattractive merging of mechanics and context.

After the men in the family are killed, things as I said --- warp and dissipate. For the latter 70% of the game, Claudia is housed in a room working finances, leaving Maria as a mute loser in her bedroom above. Had the game gone to establish a firmer and/or simply longer foundation for the Auditore family in the first few hours, this MIGHT have had a chance (i.e. a decadent family punctuated by some tragedy). As things are though, it just appears as if all work was left in lieu of giving the players what most of them shallowly popped the disc in for to begin with (climbing, stabbing, and/or conspiracy theories). This also has a devastating marriage to the game’s ‘role cruelty’ by its end (we’ll get to that later). Uncle Mario is a band-aid on a broken arm throughout all of this, as he remains effective yet channeling (somewhat abrasively) what Claudia and Maria should be instead. The game does genuinely try to make this bond significant, but it kind of stalls out halfway through as Ezio grows and becomes more immersed in his efforts of revenge (which also lose their intensity due to the game’s overall length).

II - Freedom

One of the fundamental concepts of Existentialism is simply how humans react in the face of ‘freedom’. Assassin’s Creed II reminds me of this existential dread, which has become superficially quantified in most (if not all) open-world games now. Consistently throughout playing this game, I was reminded again and again how much more it would have benefited had it compressed its scale if only the tiniest bit. This does conflict with the basic appeal of the game though, which is the ludic harmony granted by simply running around and jumping on shit.

This freedom is a required burden in the Creed games because of what they are in terms of play. For them to actually confront this would directly fly in the face of what the series has already built for itself (i.e. it’s too late now). Assassin’s Creed II in particular finds better footing this time by simply being an improved iteration on its predecessor’s formula. By infusing the world with the likes of clothing options, Assassin contracts, and more accessible run-n-gun tasks, it effectively makes that world appear smaller (so at least it gives the illusion of compression). Exposing ‘the world’ as a sandbox in these types of games is an exercise in the design’s craft and Assassin’s Creed II does what its elder did here even better, it measures up in the face of a battle it’s already lost.

This ‘dreadful’ comparison runs deep in open-box games and is further exacerbated in detriment by any narrative ambition designers set out to make. In Creed II’s case, there are multiple problems to take issue with:

The perception of time becomes issue-laden, as with every successful assassination there is a notable jump in Ezio life, which is in stark contrast to Altaïr who went after his targets in relative succession. This ambient disharmony often plays towards separating each chapter of the game as individual parts in themselves (which only sounds good on paper). When a time sequence is interrupted by Desmond’s tale however, it’s jarring (as opposed to the first title where it actually worked with the game more). Since the game's sequences outside the animus are minimal, this isn't a big problem, but the jumps between assassinating one target and the next remain.

The repetition in the game hasn’t so much been eliminated as it has been addressed. By adding variety to what the first game already did so well, the course of interacting with the narrative’s world has been enriched. However, being addressed is as far as I let the compliment go. Weapons for example, aren’t a dynamic presence in this game. Though there are notable differences to the weapons and their applications, within each category there are none (i.e. all daggers can easily function the same). Since combat itself works as 'efficiently' as it did the first time, it’s now in direct conflict with the game’s own sense of pace and since the title’s freedom has been enriched, it’s just not as much of an overwhelming problem as it was the first time around. That doesn’t mean it’s any less of a problem though.

The narrative fights with freedom on many occasions. This one of the most notable examples of the differences between Assassin’s Creed I and II. Though both games are very narrative-driven, the first title’s mechanics threw a lasso around the story and humbly led it forward for the player. Creed II however, essentially does the opposite; it lets the story control the way the freedom is granted to the player. Even in how the tale is told, the mechanics are leashed (and by extension the player). Since this role is reversed, Assassin’s Creed II can easily be perceived as an arrogant tale, which is in stark contrast to how the first game unfolded (e.g. the removal of the over-the-shoulder ‘cutscenes’ are a symptom of this).This is all due to how the narrative infringes upon the game’s own mechanical sense of freedom.

III - In Italian

When I first caught wind of the sequel being able to be played through with Italian dialogue, I was all on board. In fact, I’d even say I fell into the trap of eagerly anticipating it. Yet, when I finally got around to actually playing it, I was disappointed by two distinct points when the dialogue is switched over to a more ‘authentic’ flavor.

Number One – ALL of the dialogue is translated. Specifically, it was to the extent of it mainly being there for the function of an actual Italian player. All my hopes of it being an actual built in aid towards the continuity of the game-player narrative was broken. It wasn’t meant to help decorate the world’s illusion, it was there for it to reach a wider audience. Why I didn’t expect this is anybody’s guess, but I’m fine just slapping ‘I was an idiot’ sticker on it and moving on.

Number Two – It made me question the nature of its authenticity to begin with. I’d be an idiot to ascribe the term ‘realism’ to EITHER dialogue track being played throughout the game, but hearing the Italian voices did cause me to realize what it can (or do I say should?) enact. Of course I’d have to hear the game on the last point’s terms to be able to answer this effectively, but would genuine Italian voices lend anything substantial to the game overall? Taking that even further, should someone like me (African American male only versed in Southern American English) even expect to hear those voices to begin with? Certainly the first point I made should have been considered, but the discrepancies would lead me to say no after playing through the game in its entirety. It would have hurt more than helped at the end of the day.

So yes, I have to say I enjoyed the game far more with the ‘washed’ English voices. The dissonance caused by the two above points was just too much for me to favor it over playing with English dialogue (this coming from someone who consistently enjoys subtitles over any kind of dubbing).

IV - Historic Faith

Not too long ago, The Wall Street Journal actually released an article on ACII calling it a ‘time machine’. Now while the purpose of acknowledging games with the possibility of offering such faculties is much appreciated in these times, it was still a stupid article (I should ironically lessen the use of ‘stupid’ here as an insult by emphasizing it in the truest sense of its definition). However, two other articles come to mind here when addressing Assassin’s Creed II in such a light. The first is a piece by G. Christopher Williams at PopMatters, in which he describes the relationship between man and his landscape. The second is by Rob Zacny as he laments on the dropped ball that the original Assassin’s Creed made. Williams’s article goes after the most lauded portion of Assassin’s Creed II’s image, its historical mileau. Renaissance Italy was debatably one of the most artistically important time periods in documented history. Certainly to ACII’s merit, many have praised the development’s attention to detail in the structuring of its backdrops (myself included). This is where ‘time machine’ observation is valid, as simply letting the player run through the sandbox of a digitally constructed time piece is already miles ahead of most of its peers. I can certainly criticize the design of the Assassin tombs (or by expansion the layout of every city), but the bigger picture here dictates first and foremost that I never felt like I was running through a misrepresented version of Italy. It’s truly a feat to be topped in terms of an accomplishment.

…but this is a double sided coin.

Rob’s article zeroed in at something I only indirectly noticed myself and that was the influence of faith in the context of the first game’s story. Being in a game set during the Crusades was depressingly outweighed by the absence of overall 'faith' in the game. Even purely as an aesthetic, the only meritable mention would be the allegorical presence of the overarching Assassins vs Templars plot (which many have brashly and critically abused in terms of relating it to any general 'athiezing' tale a la The Da Vinci Code). Rob’s point also bleeds into the second game as well, it’s just not as blatant of a scar. Mainly due to the prior paragraph’s point (which is kind of funny now that I think about it), the aesthetics of the title’s digital Italy, the improvements over the first game, and its simple state as a sequel have all brilliantly dovetailed (no doubt accidently) to hide the game’s potential in such a category. Perhaps it’s an unfair jab at the title, but even characters such as Leonardo could be nothing more than mere touchstones to constantly remind the player of the significance of their setting.

The embryonic art-world of 14th century Italy is in many ways absent during Assassin’s Creed II. This isn’t simply due to the nature of the narrative either, but more likely how it was laid over or integrated within the design of the game itself (i.e. which influenced the design of the other more?). The only time the game even remotely grazes such potential is during the assassination of the doge (Barbarigo I believe?), during which the carnevale is going on. Since that was more force than the first game ever used, nobody even noticed it (let alone appreciate it).

V - Problematic

Anytime I go after Assassin’s Creed as a stealth game (a favored category of mine), I always end up attacking it. I’ll go ahead and get that out of my system now.

“If directly aimed, Assassin’s Creed is a poorly designed stealth game.”

There, I feel much better. Looking at this more though, I have no other choice than to redundantly reach bag into my bag and pull out the question of what Assassin’s Creed is to begin with. I can’t really call it a stealth title for fear of driving home that nail two lines up, but I also can’t simply avoid categorizing it for the sake of making someone else feel better either. Indeed it’s a merger of other genres, but it’s a murky-toned entity (and very few people still know what to say when addressing mulattos these days). It certainly exudes some of the tropes of all other popular stealth games though:

ƛ [Lambda] - An prolific adherence to its narrative with sometimes silly and overwrought plotlines resulting.

ζ [Zeta] - A distinct tendency to CONSTANTLY be undermined by its mechanical limits in terms of enemy AI.

Σ [Sigma] - Design craft emphasizing tactful & methodical action over brute force.

Any of those could be blanketed over Hitman, Thief, Metal Gear, Splinter Cell, etc. What Creed proposes is historically-based open world stealth, but it remains as much as a façade as it was in 2007 when the concept first appeared. If its gilded surface is scratched even in the slightest, wood is revealed underneath. I often muse over the game needing to ‘fuck’ the Hitman series and procreate with it, but few listen to me. Either way, Creed II did nothing but bolster my stance that the series needs to openly be approached as a stealth title, rather than a nebulous and convenient concept to design around. This isn’t simply because it sucks as is either, but rather the potential it’s constantly proposing in its current state. A couple of these things I tested for myself with varying (albeit impressive) results:

1. Stripping the HUD back to a certain extent to affect the player’s interaction with function. If the world actually were compressed and the map was taken away, the replacement opportunities seem far more fitting for the game individually. An example of this would be the database having some realtime popup (or just more real-time display in general). This would not be so much on the level as a simple meter as much as it would be an effect (i.e. something beyond the aesthetics of the gene sequencing flashing when the player is faced with imminent death). The
GTA-esque map is definitely useful in its current state, but I’d personally rather see the game pioneer ground for itself and itself alone.

2. Zeta applies more to stealth games than other titles because the player is constantly and sophisticatedly reminded on a frequent basis of the nature of intelligence, be it their own, measured against the computer, or the computer itself. I can guarantee you not one hour will go by in a playthrough of Assassin’s Creed I or II without the player being reminded how ‘dumb’ the AI is. It’s a fundamental pillar of the game’s concept that’s always working against the player, so perhaps coloring the obvious deficiencies in modern game AI to reflect that is necessary. One solution for this would be the elimination of the guards in the sense of a ‘fodder presence’, merely an ever-present factor in the player’s path to be aware of. NPC & enemy AI architecture may not be super advanced right now, but I’ve learned recently that there are some simple tricks that designers constantly call upon in terms of building the illusion of intelligence (If anyone knows what I’m talking about, they’ll know why games like Metal Gear Solid 2 were so significant in their haydays).

Assassin’s Creed actually uses some of these tricks too, the problem however --- is what I opened with, which is that game is a mutt and thus will demand a relative reaction on how the ‘dumb’ AI is presented to the player. The reality is that the developers probably just layered traditional tactics over in the 2nd Creed game and this is all too evident when one contemplates the fact that Ezio can swim ‘now’ and his opposition cannot. Hell, he’s the only person in all of Venetia that can swim!

3. Sigma can be even further extrapolated to the game’s current sense of progression and also a cathartic moment I had as I played through it. During those first two hours of the game, I found it rather odd to run around hopping on top of people’s house’s in Italy as Ezio was no Assassin member yet, he was some spoiled and horny noble. The game however, flies directly in the face of this, pressing the player forcefully into situations where they will have to start 'Batman-hopping' right out of the gate.

I really hated that. It fundamentally conflicted with the core of the role I was trying so hard to play with at the time.

First of all, if the player were stripped of that mobility during the first few hours, it may have had a chance at helping the narrative flow more powerfully for what it was. Second, after about the 50% mark, Rosa teaches Ezio a ledge-climbing technique that can arguably change the player’s experience with the game significantly. If the game were richer with that kind of ‘learning’ and progression, there would be much less of a problem with not only the narrative appearing more arrogant than intended, but the basic mechanical engagement with the player overall.

Lastly, if the base/weapon/accessory-building aspect of the game had a better spectrum of use, I wouldn’t have to stop my earlier compliment at problems merely being ‘addressed’. It's certainly cool to wander throughout the villa looking at all the weapons one has collected, but if there are no memories (no pun intended), then the elaborate cases displaying them lose meaning.

VI Mechanical Mysteries

ACII also turns what I hate about crap like Lost into a mechanic and surprisingly enough --- I like it when used this way. Mainly through the use of interruptive and simplistic puzzles, the game rather gains a resonating tie-in to its otherwise rampant conspiracy theory story. Through the use of Subject 16 as an indirect character, cold ambient tones, and the general eeriness provided by the mere appearance of classical art, playtime is often sliced into chunks by decoding Glyphs to access ‘Truth’ files (as well as the backstory of various important historical figures in human history). I won’t be able to tell if this was a subjective fluke on my part until the next entry in the series, but I’m going off what I have now. If I have a pertinent criticism to make here though, it would be that they actually underplayed the whole insanity thing with Subject 16.

What I mean by that is that if one has played through to the last moments of the first game, those final moments of probable creepiness (assuming you aren’t simply stuck on whining about the plot like a broken record) are never blossomed upon in the sequel. The same chord is struck consistently with each Glyph puzzle in ACII, but there’s no flow or movement in terms of manipulating HOW information is being ‘revealed’ to the player (actually, I think I do recall one instance that showed promise involving a picture of Jesus now, but I could be imagining things). What this area of the game does instead is help out a weakness I highlighted above, which is the absence of the art-world in the game (no matter how superficial that may be). Being that ‘The Truth’ is essentially a sidequest though, I can’t imagine most playing through it since it’s what I’d classify as ‘detractive enjoyment’. At the very least though, it was far more effective than simply slapping up paintings in my Monteriggioni villa.

VII Sounds of The Boot

Nah, I ain’t going through these one-by-one. Earthbound may have called for it, but ACII’s track list has an undulating thematic that denies me systematic analysis. Anyway, ACII is a far more flamboyant and cavalier in comparison with its predecessor. The first title delivered on ambience and a monotonous sense of placement in its music (it was one of the few things carrying that load too). While Creed II gives up ambience and atmosphere, it does gain a fair amount of style in return. The problem is that this doesn’t really do the world the game is set in any justice and compared to the first game, it will feel inferior when it’s actually more accurate to say it’s just less layered and subtle now. There is the usage of contemporary instruments that will bother the average music buff, but past that there are some decent pieces on the game’s soundtrack.

Most of the Florentine music is what colors my memories these days, as it has some notable string use throughout. Venitian tunes are reminiscent of Kyd’s work on the Hitman series and are often playing allusion to those games in many instances. My favorite example of that would be ‘Venice Combat Low’ as while it doesn't ever really fit the situations it’s played in, it’s still a lovely track that exudes a sense of tension that will consistently play into the whole Assassin illusion. The most oppressive batch of music is within the Wetlands area, as they’re using very heavy percussions and rock-inspired guitar work. The only one of those I actually enjoyed was ‘Wetlands Combat’, as I can take some nice drumming and it has a smoothly piercing rhythm to it.

The most disappointing thing about the game’s OST is the usage of my favorite track. By far, ‘Ezio’s Family’ is the most evolved track of the bunch and it’s only played twice throughout the entire game. The first is during the title crawl and the second is during the fucking credits. There are a few leitmotifs for it used in tracks such as ‘Heart’, but it’s never used as the motif it’s obviously designed as. Because of this specific track’s usage, it’s another symptom for the game appearing more disjointed and incoherent as an overall experience. If anything, Assassin’s Creed II having a more compact soundtrack actually welcomed the dynamic play of it even having a motif track, but it just wasn’t there. I don’t mind if all aspects of a game actually ‘KNOW’ when the collective is being melodramatic, but I hate having to help it when it doesn’t and substituting Ezio’s Family during scenes like Minerva’s explanation wasn’t a high point of the game for me. Also deserving of an honorable mention is ‘Chariot Chase’, but its impact is overexposed by the gameplay sequence accompanying it (i.e. it should have been controlling that sequence instead), so I suggest just listening to it on its own.

Then again…music in STEALTH GAMES is always very slippery slope. *cough*

VIII Conflicted

Areas VIII & IX are easily picked apart by people more critical than myself, but luckily for me --- my perversion allows the indulgence of them.

The conflict of Assassin’s Creed is a hard thing to talk about with anybody who hasn’t actually played it and those that have often take divisive stances on it. The detractors see it as a sloppy interface on par with the likes of QTEs, while others (myself included) see it more along the lines of choreographing a scene. I actually prefer the fighting in the games as they are, as they essentially invite the player to fight only when forced, and often for aesthetic purpose. Fighting is basically a countering-fest with the player triggering cutscenes of brutal and often enjoyable looking animations. It’s broken if it’s simply attacked (again, no pun intended) in any other way. Often I find myself fighting purely to please my own eyes and not completely to victory either. If one is into the whole planning thing (as opposed to simply fighting off assailants), it’s easy to get sucked into obsessing how the ‘scenes of your victims’ will play out. It’s definitely not tactical, but it is pleasantly aesthetic and I can respect that.

Assassin’s Creed II also emphasizes the power of disarming (as well as the sad uselessness of most of the weapons). I’ve only ever used the essential and required accessories in the game, otherwise the pacing of fights end up feeling wonky and misplaced. Again, ACII is a game that strongly manipulates the ideal of pressing a button to watch a scene. Even removed from the blatancy of QTEs, the way the game animates is one of its strongest features, and I have a soft sport when aesthetics are handled with any amount of finesse. So while its effectiveness as a combat system might be…questionable, I can proudly say that it looks pretty and have it mean something beyond a banal and superficial statement.

IX Architectural Narratives

There’s simply no way for me to harp on the game’s narrative without it essentially translating more to just me being a pretentious jackass (and we already know this). So, I’ll spare you the wasted time and go ahead and get that out of the way now in a rare moment of brevity.

“I’m a pretentious jackass.”

That said, I always feel the need to reiterate that anyone looking to emphasize the story's deficits and falling into the traps of being unable to offer anything apart from some vague literary quick-fix in these types of games as more idiotic than they typically profess the plots to be (I’m still kind of confused by the multiple comments I’ve seen relating the series to The Matrix?). What Assassin’s Creed II does well is carry along the train of interest that the first game presented. What it doesn’t do well is make anyone who didn’t care the first time around care now. Taking that even further, there’s an almost overt admittance to how much the historical context is meant to be weaved into the overall experience.

This would be the role cruelty that I referred to above and it plays more along the lines of what I professed in an earlier post to begin with. Something that Denis Farr wrote which stuck in my head was that the story essentially kicks Ezio out to the degree that it will elicit sympathy in some players. Minerva almost literally telling him to shut up during the last half hour of the game was a fourth wall breach of epic proportions (perhaps not directly, but the dissonance it causes is sure as hell distinct). Since Ezio is cast out, a part of the player is as well --- and by extension, some of their affection for the game. Once again, I’ll be sorely disappointed if this game winds up as a simple trilogy and that instance instilled me with a deep fear of such an outcome (I'm just expecting it now). No, DLC and handheld titles will not be able to remedy this problem either.

So my biggest compliment towards Assassin’s Creed II also remains my largest insult. It doesn’t directly answer the question I posed months ago (i.e. “What is Assassin’s Creed?”), but it DOES provide some more context for what that answer could be. I’m still genuinely interested in the question and that that’ll do me for now.

X - Quotes

Why can’t he just walk like everyone else
– resident Florentine in Assassin’s Creed 2

Nothing is true, everything is permitted."

Faith has been evicted from the Holy Land, which is why the game wears so quickly. Assassin's Creed depends on its setting more than most, yet it eliminates the most important and interesting features of that setting.
-Rob Zacny

I will, however, go on the record saying Assassin’s Creed will NEVER TAKE PLACE DURING WORLD WAR 2 – at least as long as I’m involved with the project! Hopefully I haven’t just been fired.
-Corey May

If you read reviews and check forums, only children find this stuff compelling: “Dont u get it? The Roman gods knew that 1 day ppl would invent memory machines, so tey left hidden msgs for Desmond!” The only question remaining is, “How much money did they pay Corey May and Dooma Wendschuh to churn out such tripe?” That’s right, Ubisoft has been employing the crack team responsible for Terminator Salvation: The Game for more than five years now.
-Chungking Expresso

Be it in unraveling the mysteries of the Codex or by locating the glyphs that also mark the heights of these politicized buildings, the mysteries of Assassin’s Creed II are all about gaining enough height and perspective to put the pieces of a picture all together. Climbing towers to fully come “to know” the landscape beneath him becomes a metaphor for fully coming “to know” the grounds under which power lies. To climb to these heights is to rebel and to attempt to see as a potentate or a god might, which is ironically exemplified by the artifact of power that so many are seeking in both games.
-G. Christopher Williams

The soundtrack for Assassin’s Creed II often sounds more like a piece from a rock concept album than it does a game soundtrack scoring either the Renaissance or the dark future through which the Animus presents history.

If this is wit, I am Stan Laurel. To compare Assassin's Creed II to a genuinely and consistently funny game, like Fable II, is to recognize that humor, when done well, is a unifying mood rather than an occasional one-line gag dependent on the audience knowing things the characters do not.
-Tom Bissell

As a general rule, if the answer to a historical query can be found within 10 minutes of searching on the Internet, we tried to remain true to it. However, in some cases, historical accuracy and production resources may not be compatible. For example – while we tried to keep the proper participants involved in the Pazzi Conspiracy, the actual event takes place on the front steps of the Duomo rather than inside. They’re minor details – but hopefully history buffs will understand when we deviate it’s not for lack of knowing what actually happened.
-Corey May

AC2 is a terrific game in many respects. Its Prince of Persia-esque platforming can be exhilarating - vertically navigating Santa Maria del Fiore makes my stomach queasy (in a good way), and the Leap of Faith takes my breath away every time I execute it. Mushy facial animations aside, it's a gorgeous, deeply atmospheric game that draws you into its story by making you care about its primary thematic concern: family.
-The Brainy Gamer

The reason why guards tried to take only the boys of the Auditore family could be so that they could no longer conventionally carry on their family name, quite effectively wiping out the Auditore.
-Assassin’s Creed Wikia

I would like to argue that Ezio is a compelling character, full of flaws, triumphs, an arc, but it means very little in this game. Even the ending sequence when Ezio reaches Minerva, he is succinctly told to shut up after he expresses confusion---this is not meant for him. At this point I actually frowned because I felt sorry for Ezio. This could have been his story, but really, it wasn't.
-Denis Farr

In Assassin's Creed, when you arrive in a new city, you find that several parts of it are sealed off by a large, glowing, electric-blue partition, which the game calls "memory glitches." As Desmond recovers more of Altaïr's memory, the glitches disappear: a thematically apt and elegant solution for an inelegant problem.
-Tom Bissell

What could be a powerful depiction of loss is abandoned when Ezio displays no grief for his brothers and father and spends no time with his surviving family members.
-Experience Points


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

It's Everywhere

I know some may have noticed by now that I come off very subtly as a 'glass half empty' kind of a person, but I'm not generally against optimism as an ideal.

At least I wasn't...

I currently fell into reading some Barbara Ehrenreich while doing some research on basic game design principles and I've now refined multiple angles from which games are being and have always been developed (which I inherently fear/detest as Panglossian ideals). For this topic specifically, I've tried from multiple approaches to detach myself from the common practice I have of relating most things I'm interested in back to games, but there's simply no ignoring that the pervasiveness of positive thought is a building block for video-games as they exist now (or perhaps even games in general). The responses games are meant to elicit is still pretty narrow to this date. Social aspects have become perverse and any utilitarian meaning games have remain nebulous concepts people have become afraid to a touch for fear of their wallets or ostracism.

"It's a glorious universe the positive thinkers have come up with, a vast, shimmering aurora borealis in which desires mingle freely with their realizations. Everything is perfect here, or as perfect as you want to make it. Dreams go out and fulfill themselves; wishes only need to be articulated. It's a god-awful lonely place."

This is a redundant point to anyone who regularly reads my blog, yet for me it remains one of the many fires under my ass in terms of simply sitting down to play now (i.e. why I rarely have those 'burnout periods'). Games are built entirely around 'positive thought' in dozens of ways and because of that, they may possibly never break free of commonly-cited constraints. Consider these following bullets:

  • The lines between games that can bolster academic thought, education, and 'true' community are still drawn with mile-wide paint rollers. We've accepted this, nurtured it, and are now suffering because of it. Complaints of games raising psychopaths are still allowed today not because the slight truth to such claims, but because of the will of people unwilling to exercise a sort of 'intellectual violence'. That old quote about evil succeeding? It's always in practice and games are just a subset of a subset of a subset. Some people simply can't handle fighting battles they know they're going to lose. Here's the result.
  • Many game creators (as far as I've seen anyway) are afflicted immensely by the nature of what they create and often exude distinct tendencies to overcompensate for participating in a SIGNIFICANTLY thankless art being abused throughly by the business it generates. Hell, I saw this one coming as a teenager. Watching people wake up to it now is nothing but infuriating.
  • Widely known critics, critical analysis, or even general skepticism is still looked down upon in the gaming community (from each angle at that). Personal investment is wasted in the over-indulgence of countless titles, and has simply turned gamers into arms of their respected and favored publishers/development studios. Be it East, West, South, or North --- individualism is still an endangered energy (what else the hell else is new?).
  • As stated above, games remain based in the outdated definition of 'fun' and because of this, people have ignored at least 70% of what games are capable of to this day. It's ludicrous on paper to suggest that the sycophants and their over-adulation might play a significant role in the development of titles, but in practice...? Well...

Of course as I've already highlighted, there are some good things to be taken from the school of optimism, but my perception has only seen minimal bearing of such fruits.

No doubt that I'm just as much at fault for ignoring/indulging such ideals myself. Excess happiness has never been on my hitlist (I've actually just ignored it) --- until now. The act of negation is in itself an art in poverty. So yes, I will be taking far more aggressive stances now towards those who would seek to exalt excess optimism as yet ANOTHER dangerous branch of metaphysics.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Stemming from some indirect reading this weekend (I was actually looking at some writeups on the nature of flow), I came across a topic that left me rather nonplussed as far as videogame relations goes.

This would be the concept of chaos...

In essence, videogames touch upon this without ever tackling it at all. Yet at the same time, it also avoids the concept on a nigh offensive scale (which is strangely reminiscent of my time musings last year).

Chaos is constantly alluded to in nerd-culture, but never expounded upon to any meaningful extent. Its relationship with the aforementioned time post is both obvious and inevitable as the arenas of quantum mechanics, relativity are general branches of science/math/philosophy the pathetic human collective has yet to completely wrap its mind around.

To begin with, I should assume that you've at least had enough sense to pick up a dictionary or at least Wikipedia to find out what the hell I'm talking about. IN CASE I'M WRONG though, here's the first paragraph from a Microsoft Encarta article:

"Chaos Theory, theory describing the complex and unpredictable motion or dynamics of systems that are sensitive to their initial conditions. Chaotic systems are mathematically deterministic—that is, they follow precise laws, but their irregular behavior can appear to be random to the casual observer. Chaotic behavior is common in systems as varied as electric circuits, measles outbreaks, lasers, clashing gears, heart rhythms, electrical brain activity, circadian rhythms, fluids, animal populations, and chemical reactions. It is suspected that even economic systems, such as the stock exchange, may be chaotic. The field of chaos is evolving rapidly from a theoretical to an applied science."

What I genuinely find fascinating about chaos (which in itself is rare considering my loathesome stance on mathematics as a whole) is how much of a proxy it plays towards videogames. This in turn leads me to realize a great (albeit obvious) fact about most videogames as they exist now:

They just aren't dynamic enough to begin with.

What would it even mean for a videogame to be chaotic? Is it even possible? My understanding of the concept is amateur for the time being, but from what I've gleaned in just the past few days, I'd say that there's a technical impossibility videogames won't be able to trump for a very long time. In other words, I’m willing to admit (for once) that developers just simply don’t have it easy enough in terms of creating a potential ‘chaos simulator’. The toolsets and technical machinations only allow a noticeably limited range of information for them to create with/for/ and against. For the player to grasp such a notion, they would also have to be moved into a ‘microposition’ as opposed to constant ‘macrostance’ they hold now.

Microposition - When the player’s perspective has shrunk in relation to the game’s own systems (nurturing dynamism). There’s a certain degree of function that must be applied to games for this to have any beneficial effect. At most, games have only pawed at placing the player in a microposition (mainly through aesthetics), which just isn’t enough.

Macrostance - When the player’s perspective is magnified in relation to the game’s own systems (limiting/stifling dynamism). This is an insular placement of the player’s grasp of the game’s logic. This is what gamers currently hold, as they’re always tethered to the rules which the games lay out for them. The status-quo for game design would of course have to be questioned here as very sound pillars for design rest upon the macrostance.

Now, games shouldn’t just aim to strictly emulate the formulas of mathematics for this so-called ‘chaos design’ (that would just be a nightmare for everyone evolved), but rather an dedicated analogue that alludes to it. As an example, I can only think of minimalist styled games (e.g. Pong, Geometry Wars, Shatter), rather than my usual penchant for naming narrative-based abstractions. This is because the narrative itself would have to be incorporated into such a system; this would simply create a topological mess that I don’t trust most designers to even play with right now. In essence, some of the aforementioned games are already pseudo-chaotic, as the range of possible action will consistently lie outside the player’s range of vision (obscuring the their perspective just beyond their range of sight from the macrostance).

However, using Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved as an example, such things would have to change for the game to be ‘chaotically designed/engaging’:

The distortion of the Retro Evolved's background that currently changes in tandem with the player’s movement would need a far more utilitarian role during play.
Every individual avatar on screen would require an even denser ‘programming’. All the purple cubes couldn’t just be generally allowed to act on the same spectrum of behavior (as they do now). They’d also have to encompass a more volatile effect upon one another (as opposed to simply acknowledging the player).

The way the player garners points would have to be operated on an entirely new system not emphasizing the archaic high-score mentality.

The effects of both bombs and the consistency/rate/spray of shots would need more variation.
The arena layout would have to be immense in comparison to what it is now.

Those are just the ones I could rattle off the top of my head, but they all add in creating the illusion of the often-cited ‘butterfly effect’. Even the rate at which the player would commit to sessions could change (e.g. systems running even when the player is away from the game). Now certainly there are aspects of the game industry itself that are chaotic, but a game itself? Not right now. I haven’t seen one purposefully crafted experience that would elicit the response:

“This is chaos.”

Building such working systems could also hypothetically play a hand in furthering actual scientific research (reasonably speaking) and understanding of such concepts (for designers, engineers, and players alike). I stated this with the time post as well. Right now, there’s a line where education and games are divided and it’s rather large; something such as this concept would thin out such a line significantly. It also stretches the spectrum of what a game could do yet again, as SOME people are still dead-set questioning their versatility.

Would this compromise the ‘enjoyability’ of the game? No doubt. Ask yourself this though. Do our definitions of grasping enjoyment from videogames need to change? Furthermore, is there not enough room to accommodate such a concept to begin with?

….Those --- weren’t really questions by the way. They may have been ten years ago, but not now.

What's really horrible is that this has absolutely nothing at all to do with the fact that I recently started a replaying of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory