Assassin’s Creed & the true future of gaming

It took me a long time to get over what I call the “Post-Diablo Condition”. I define this as the condition where you have played Diablo from Level 1 to Level 13 and more, at least 4 times, broken 2 mice, increased your near-sightedness by at least a degree, and had nightmares about Baal and Mephisto crushing the life out of you.

But back in those days, a pixellated fantasy world based on the myths of the medieval Dark Ages was so wonderfully engaging.

Assassin’s Creed (or for that matter, a whole bunch of its contemporaries) is as much just a video-game, like Diablo or Age of Empires, as Sachin Tendulkar is just a batsman,  or Star Wars just another film.

Instead of getting into adjectives which don’t differ from those of an ecstatic 10 year old, let me try and explain why AC makes 10 year olds and adults alike feel exactly the same.

Time Machine + RPG = A vast canvas spanning centuries

You straddle two realities. Yours, in the present day world (well, close enough). And here’s the cool bit – any direct ancestors, whose life you can live & experience. You can do this via a device called the Animus which can tap into your genetic memory. While most of the ‘action’ is in the past, it is the present which gives the narrative its urgency, and its complexity. It is not about going back into one person’s life and just living out the parts that make it interesting. It is about a quest – going back to piece together a giant puzzle, unravel a global conspiracy.

Hero Myth + Creation Myth + Von Daniken = Classic sf

The events of the story revolve around a conception of the world where two secret societies have been at war with each other since Mankind came into existence. They are fighting for the future direction they want to take humanity in and it all links back in some way to an advanced intelligent civilisation which lived on Earth before the humans – the Gods that so many mythologies refer to.And the only way in which all this can come to any good, is if one, previously ordinary, nondescript, clueless man can tap into his ancestors’ lives, piece the clues together against all the odds and make it all worthwhile.

Inception + Parkour + Ancient cities + Open World Gaming + Modern graphic engines = Being teleported and not just transported into another world.

Video games have often been called immersive. That is what they are supposed to do, fundamentally. Transport you from your world into another. AC teleports, rather than transports. Everything is done in a way that you start navigating an ancient city when it was not ancient. Props are not just props but can be pushed over, and broken. While parts of the city are progressively ‘unlocked’, it is done in a way that you feel it is more the Animus than the video-game that is responsible. Apart from that, you can go anywhere, do anything literally. The rooftops, the cross on top of the tallest spire, the bridge, the window-sill, the cobbled street, the cave, the secret tunnel, the market, the rolling hill-side, the river, the canal. Anything. Literally.

The incredible thing AC achieves is that when you are playing it, you are Desmond of the present world, transported into a different era, into the body of a different person. So you are twice removed. And so the illusion only breaks when you directly play Desmond. Its like Inception. 🙂

And to top it all off, a glorious “Viewpoint” system where you climb the tallest structure of the area to get a pre-rendered panorama of the city as it once was. Just this one thing gives me so much. I can intuitively tell how different landmarks are placed in reference to each other, what they looked like with ordinary buildings and streets around them. And then I can perform a “Leap of Faith” down into a haystack which looked like a small yellow dot from up there. And when I emerge I can walk around the building like a tourist, taking it in from all angles.

Massive = Second Life

AC is huge. There is more information there than you can take in even with 2 full, patient rounds of playing it from start to finish. The landmarks and their names, all historically accurate. The back-stories of the characters as depicted. And the real back-stories that you can research when you are not playing it. The main quest, side-missions, treasures and puzzles. The sheer amount of playtime you use up just taking in all the sights and sounds, the feel of the city at dawn and at dusk, that last viewpoint you haven’t yet climbed…

And all of this through the eyes of one person. So that there is a lasting emotional connect. The characteristic walk, the re-supplying at the guilds, the weapon and armour upgrades, the different painting you can buy, all of which are real Renaissance paintings. You spend time with Ezio (and to a lesser extent with Altair). Enough to really start rooting for him.

Art Direction

In ‘video-games’, the true difference between something that gets under your skin, and something that you play for a while and forget, is art-direction. And in this matter, pictures tells much better stories.

Which brings me to my concluding point. Video games are no longer video games. Yes they are, when you refer to the ones that are currently ‘revolutionizing’ the industry on iPhone and Android. I have nothing against Angry Birds. But if you want to port seriously old concepts to new interfaces and pretend that this is what the future is, then you are dead wrong. The future is in the way that the gaming industry is changing the way that traditional media told a narrative. It is not just about interaction versus a linear structure. It is about open structures and game worlds versus film worlds and book worlds. Can the 3 co-exist? Sure. The biggest franchises live on all 3 platforms. But the question is, which one leads which.

My bet is that soon, with more and more games like AC, it is going to be predominantly the game. Things can only get better. People will still keep thinking that the game lies in making better and more interesting interfaces. How can I not use a controller, but my whole body to play a game, like i do in the real world. But ultimately, the buck stops at the mind. It is the experience. And nothing drives experience like a good story told well that I can influence and truly feel a part of.

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