Tag Archives: Assassin’s Creed

Ahistoricity

As I’ve said before, there are two reasons I picked up Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey; the first being that I got to control a ship again (seriously, after Black Flag gave me a pirate ship there was no going back). The other was that you could finally play as a woman for the whole game. It only took, what, eleven games to finally feature a female protagonist, albeit an optional one.

Anyway, naturally, I’m playing the game as Kassandra (instead of Blandy McWhiteGuy #38 that is Alexios), because I am here for badass women in my video games. It’s a lotta fun, but it’s also patently untrue. See, Kassandra’s a woman, and when it came to women, Ancient Greece wasn’t so great about it. Well, neither were most eras, really. Or right now. But that’s beside the point.

The Assassin’s Creed games are historical fiction, as played out through genetic memories in a fancy device called the Animus. Given that most all of the assassinating takes place in the past, whichever character the player inhabits must thus belong to the era and be fitting enough to be able to pass inconspicuously as needed. Naturally, the games want to focus on Big Cool Bits of History; unfortunately, due to a westernized view of history, Big Cool Bits tend to focus on that as seen by the West: the Crusades, the Renaissance, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Victorian Era, Ancient Egypt. They’re the eras and events we learnt about in our (westernized) history books and what we’ve learnt to associate as those Big Cool Bits. The Ming Dynasty, various Caliphates, and pre-colonial India are relegated to footnotes.

Because of this, the problem inherent to Assassin’s Creed is that most of (western) history isn’t great for women or people of color, thus necessitating that most of the game’s protagonists must be caucasian or white-passing. It was game number ten, Assassin’s Creed Origins, that introduced Bayek as the main character. He’s Egyptian, and, unlike a lot of depictions of Egyptians in popular culture, not white. Which is cool! And honestly, I’m keen to check out Origins sometime, to see how it is in comparison with Odyssey

Having Bayek be a person of color makes sense, because, well Egypt. It’d be far more strange to have him be some white dude. Were Ubisoft to ever make an Assassin’s Creed set in the Ming Dynasty or some other non-western historical period, the protagonist would probably have to be a person of color, because, hey, we’re finally telling stories that aren’t about white dudes. But history being history, if we wanted to give an accurate portrayal of the era and its culture, the protagonist would have to be male to be able to go about society doing things (like assassinating people).

Now, back to Odyssey, where I’m playing the entire game as Kassandra, a female character. Due to the game allowing you to pick between characters, gameplay and plot are essentially the same if you’re Alexios or Kassandra (since making things different would require more coding and work). There’s no difference in your ability to captain a ship, fight in a war, or sneak your way into a symposium based on whom you pick — or based on your gender. This means that Kassandra can do everything Alexios can; she can rub elbows with the Herodotus and Aristophanes all the same, she can be a respected and feared general, she can romance the exact same cast. In essence, Kassandra is equal.

Which is bullshit. Gender roles were established in classical Greek culture; you weren’t gonna have some woman running around as a mercenary fighting other mercenaries (some of which are women!). It’s plain unrealistic.

And so what? The game takes place two-and-a-half millennia ago, in an era that’s almost as much myth and legend as it is recorded history. Where’s the harm in taking some big liberties? Yeah, yeah; I get it, it’s ‘unrealistic’ to have a female mercenary roaming the Greek World and jumping around Big History Bits, but this is also a game where I merrily and repeatedly destabilize nation-states without plunging each society into ruin, so really, there’s a lot of ahistoricity going on there. 

But Josh, you say, that’s just gameplay mechanics built around the whole idea of reducing a nation’s power by killing its leader. And to that I say: So what? We’re okay with small breaks from realism for the sake of fun, why not for the sake of narrative? Video games, like so much of other fiction, has an overabundance of white dudes and needs a hefty splash of diversity. I am happy for Odyssey to take a break from reality and let me play as a female mercenary for the whole game. It’s cool, and, c’mon, we already know how history went; let’s have a little fun with it.

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Aegean Aexploration

Somehow, I’ve managed to clock in upwards of ninety hours in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey since I started playing it a couple months ago. I’m nowhere near done with the story; heck, I’m not even too sure I’m that far into it. This isn’t so much a case of my having lost the thread as it is a merry exploration of Ancient Greece and all the fun it entails. 

The lengthy playtime is especially impressive when one takes into account the fact that I’d just about given up on the series after Black Flag back in 2014. It wasn’t that the games were bad; I really liked the whole running around history, rubbing shoulders with important people, and stabbing bad guys (sometimes sneakily). Plus, there was this whole super-advanced ancient civilization and modern-day conspiracy narrative weaved into it. There’s a lot to like.

My complaints stemmed more from the games’ lack of polish. Revelations, the third game in the Ezio Trilogy that started in II and was the precursor to III (their numbering system is almost as bad as Kingdom Hearts), saw the action move from Renaissance Italy to Constantinople, but gameplay remained frustratingly samish and the narrative a stopgap. As awesome as it was running around the Grand Bazaar (and the fun context it would provide to my own trip to Istanbul a few years later), I didn’t really care too much about Ezio’s adventures and honestly couldn’t tell you the story now if I tried. Black Flag focused on pirates, which was really cool, but suffered from a similarly disjointed narrative hampered by how much fun sailing the open seas in a pirate ship was. I know Kenway had some adventure or other to be on, but there were ships to sink out here!

I missed the next few Assassin’s Creed games, feeling that my goodwill to the games was tied to being able to captain a ship. Odyssey appeared on my radar due to its RPG elements, ability to romance other characters, and finally finally featuring a female protagonist, albeit an optional one (but why would you want to play as Bland Dude #38 when you can choose Kassandra?). 

And I get a ship again, so there’s that too.

Oh, and it was on sale on Amazon.

Somehow, I’ve since clocked two entire workweeks exploring Greece, and I’m still not tired.

Why? I’m not terribly attached to this franchise, so why am I so invested?

I’m not so sure it’s the story. I get it in broad strokes, and I am onboard with Kassandra’s hunt for the cultists who ruined her life, though I could do with the fun of a little more detective work. Kassandra has a winning personality, owing much to Mellisanthi Mahut’s performance; she’s wry and, based on the choices I’ve made, not someone who cares about your sob-story so much as the drachmae. It’s pretty fun playing a character who’s above all the squabbling in the local city-state and just wants to get paid.

More than anything else, though, I think I’m just enchanted by the world the makers created. Sailing the Aegean and finding new islands somehow doesn’t get old (and I’m putting off exploring some places because I want some places left to uncover). There’s a cave with cultists, here’s the home of a Spartan leader I’m going to assassinate, I’m going to fight against the Athenians alongside the Spartans to conquer Malis (and get a share of the spoils). How sneakily can I infiltrate this fort?

In many ways, it reminds me of Breath of The Wild; it might not be quite as gorgeously lush as Hyrule, but, dude, I get a pirate ship. I loved Assassin’s Creed II for the catharsis it offered after a long day at work, and Odyssey is much the same. Here’s a world I can quite happily get lost in and find my own sort of fun for hours on end. Seems like there’s always something more to do.

I recently made port in the island of Keos and, upon finding a viewpoint to take in the island, couldn’t help but be delightfully enchanted by the place. I know it’s probably not all that different from the other islands in the archipelago, but there’s a part of me that can’t help but surrender to the wonder, to that little spark of glee at uncovering a new island and joy of adventure. Perhaps that’s why I’m really falling in love with Odyssey: the game lets me chart my own path, figure out my own path, and really explore this new world. There’s a new fort or cave behind every turn, and I feel like I did twenty years ago popping Pokémon Yellow into my GameBoy Color and uncovering its secrets. 

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Where’s My History Lesson?

The Assassin’s Creed series might be my ultimate guilty pleasure of a video game. Some of them are really good (II and Brotherhood), some… less so (the original and, honestly, III). Then there’s one like Black Flag which has a really cool central mechanic (ships!) but really accentuates the worst parts of the series (missions where you have to follow someone and then not be seen… and failing makes you have to slowly walk with the followee again). Then there’s the overall lack of polish: Edward clips through the ship’s rigging when he runs along the bulwark, something you will do several times when you sail up to an island and run to jump off into the water. I’m hesitant to call them really great games, but they are fun, especially when III and Black Flag gives you a pirate ship.

Given that the succeeding games did not give you any pirate ships, I didn’t play any past Black Flag in 2014. Eventually, I finally came around and picked up Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey because not only does the game give you a pirate ship (sorry, a trireme), but at long last, the game finally gives you an option for the player character to be a woman. And something about RPG elements being a big part of it too.

Anyway, I’m days into the game, though I’m not sure how far into the actual story I am — I keep getting distracted fighting soldiers and sinking ships as my badass warrior pirate lady. Odyssey reminds me of why I enjoy these games so much, they’re fun, a little ridiculous, and there are few things as great as staking out a camp and then one by one killing the soldiers within before they know you’re there.

But, I’m kinda bummed that Odyssey has kinda lost its history lessons. Part of the whole schtick of these games is that you’re someone from present day reliving the past via the Animus and genetic memories. The framing device means other characters from the present can provide you with information about places and people you encounter. This means there’s a whole bunch of reading you can do about historical people and places you see. Running around Renaissance Italy and see a funky tower? Here’s some history! Wanna know what the big deal about the Hagia Sophia is? Here you go! What’s up with Colonial Boston? History! Yes, it’s kinda like homework to read through these database entries, but it really adds to the overall sense of place.

But this info is nowhere to be found in Odyssey. Islands in the Greek archipelago are just islands, places and temples are just places and temples, with little indication of their importance of factuality. Early on the game, you visit Ithaca and the ruins of Odysseus’ home. Which is awesome because, hello, The Odyssey! But without a measure of familiarity with Homer’s epic, you wouldn’t realize what a big deal it is. I’ve recently met a historian by the name of Herodotos who’s helping me with my quest, but the game itself has given no indication about the lasting reputation he’s had on the modern world. When I vied against the Borgias in Brotherhood it was an added bonus to know that these were, to an extent, actual historical people. Losing that framing robs Assassin’s Creed of one of its fun — and surprisingly educational — aspects.

This isn’t really a big knock against Odyssey. Like I said, it’s a really fun game, even with the small bugs (that may or may not be features). It’s an open world game, a genre which I have mixed feelings about, but there’s a lot to do so it stays pretty fresh. Plus, I bought a skin from a blacksmith that turns my horse into a unicorn, so at the end of the day, I’m okay with a little lack of history.

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Linear Versus Open World

E3 was this week, which means most major video game companies were showing off the upcoming games they have lined up. There’s a lot to be excited for: Star Wars Battlefront looks great, Dishonored 2 is getting Emily Kaldwin as a protagonist, Kingdom Hearts 3 is finally in development. But me being me, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and the glorious gameplay demo they showed off is what I cared about most.

The game looks great, showing again why Naughty Dog is one of the best in the industry. Telling too is the discussion surrounding the game The Uncharted games, like the more recent The Last of Us, is incredibly narrative focused. More so than role-playing games — traditionally the story based game — Naughty Dog’s recent slew of action adventure games have been all about the story. Furthermore, the games are very linear. Where Final Fantasy VII had side quests, Uncharted keeps going in one direction. You’re basically playing through a movie.

It’s a direction that Neil Druckmann, A Thief’s End’s creative director, deeply believes in, even if that’s not where many other major studios are going. There’s a tendency towards the open world, where games put players in a massive world for them to explore. Bungie left Halo, a very linear shooter, to make Destiny, something that looks a lot more like an RPG with hints of an open-world. Ubisoft’s flagship Assassin’s Creed series lets players roam the ancient world, finding their own fun and pursuing optional objectives. The player doesn’t have to have Ezio continue pursing the Borgias, instead they can recruit more assassins or collect money to improve equipment. Unlike Uncharted, they aren’t forced along a single, linear path.

This is arguably one of the great potentiality of games. Players can do whatever they want and craft their own narrative out of a sandbox. Rather than being shepherded along a preset path, players can strike out and find their adventures. Games, after all, let the consumer have a lot more interaction with the story than a movie or book. Letting players explore takes full advantage of the medium.

But it doesn’t always work narratively. Pacing is incredibly important when telling a story. The audience can’t get bored halfway through or even distracted from the central core. I think this is where open world games come up short. I enjoy the Assassin’s Creed games for what they are: relatively mindless adventure games with some great conspiracy theory set dressings. But more often than not I get waylaid by exploring or doing side-missions and going after treasure. It remains fun enough, but they don’t exactly bring me in closer to the main character’s arc. I couldn’t care less about what Ezio was up to in Turkey, it was more fun to explore Constantinople.

Naughty Dog is instead opting to bring players into a narrative and let them experience it first hand. Games can let you live as someone else and experience things you usually don’t. What Uncharted and The Last of Us do so well is let players live a different life. The Last of Us had me feel like a father, Uncharted 2 let me be an action hero. More than that, though, these are characters we care about. By keeping the narrative and the action zeroed in, the players isn’t allowed to be distracted by side quests. Rather, the character and story remain front and center and with them a genuine emotional experience.

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Gamey Education

For some reason, my high school World History teacher saw it fit to skip over the entire Ottoman and Byzantine Empires. This thus left me with the general feel that those empires were a completely disposable era of history. That’s high school in South Carolina for you.

This all changed when I begun playing Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.

The basic conceit of the Assassin’s Creed series is built around genetic memories; that is the idea that your DNA has the memories of your ancestors and, if you’re lucky, your ancestors were hooded badass assassins. You spend much of the game romping around Crusades-era Jerusalem, Renaissance Italy, or Revolutionary War-era USA (depending on the game). What adds to the fun of stabbing soldiers in the back is the attention to detail the team at Ubisoft put in these games. Landmarks — both famous and less so — are rendered in game for your scaling pleasure. Not just that, though, every landmark/city/person of note you encounter is accompanied by a database providing a quick rundown of the Hagia Sophia/Boston/Cesare Borgia.

So back to the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires. Revelations follows Ezio Auditore as he travels to Constantinople and his exploits therein. You’ll encounter a young Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim I, and Sehzade Ahmet, among others. Investigating the surroundings in Constantinople reveal those afore mentioned database entries and bits of history. Steadily, you begin to put together a functional history of the Ottoman Empire as well as the remnants of the Byzantines. Or, in my case, everything I know about the Ottoman Empire I learned from Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.

This is something that makes the Assassin’s Creed series relatively unique: they’re history lessons. Sure, the main plot of the game seldom revolves around real life incidents, but bits of actual history find their way into the plot (eg: how horrible the Borgias were). These games are decidedly not educational games, but by immersing the player in the world, you wind up learning stuff anyway. You’re able to recognize places like the Rose Mosque and the Basillica di San Lorenzo since you use them to navigate the city. Figures like Niccolò Machiavelli stick in your mind because of their importance in the game. You’re not so much taught by the game was you are immersed. You’re learning by doing.

There’s another game I’ve been playing a lot this past week; Kerbal Space Program. It’s an independent game by Squad wherein you run, well, the Kerbal Space Program. What makes it different is that it’s a bizarrely realistic space simulator where getting into orbit requires managing thrusters, detaching stages, adjusting your angle of ascent, and paying attention to your apoapsis and periapsis. You also learn what words like apoapsis and periapsis mean.

Kerbal is more intense than Assassin’s Creed in it’s ‘educational’ department. In order to be half-decent at the game you are forced to learn these concepts. Even if you’re not exactly clear on the math —and if you’re me, then you’re definitely not clear on the math — you wind up with a working understanding of stuff like thrust-to-weight ratios and atmospheric drag. Why? Because you have to. The information isn’t just background set dressing or details to make it seem more real; it’s vital knowledge to making sure your rocket doesn’t become a fireball. Though that’s fun too.

I love video games and it annoys me to no end how often they get written off as meaningless drivel. A game like Kerbal Space Program teaches players rocket science, though more for the fun of it than any practical reasons. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty worked as a functional analysis of Meme Theory (amongst a lot of other stuff) — back in 2001, before memes were a thing. I learnt a lot of my eight-year-old vocabulary from the Pokémon games. All this to say that you can learn a lot from video games.

Now then, I have a few more ideas to send Kerbals flying into space I wanna try out.

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A Series Of Arcs

I decided to sit down and watch some old How I Met Your Mother episodes once, and by old I mean Season One. It was weird to watch since everyone was well, so different from where they are in the more recent seasons. It’s jarring in light of where they end up.

This, of course, is one of the great things about TV shows: character development. When you have a couple dozen episodes per season you can spend a lot more time with the protagonists and working out who they are.

Now, character development in this case is different from a character arc. A character arc is more often seen in movies, like Carl going from grumpy old man to loving surrogate-grandfather in Up, or Columbus deciding to actually step up and be a hero in Zombieland, or Scott learning the power of self-respect and becoming a decent human being in Scott Pilgrim VS The World. Arc’s are a character getting from a to b.

Development, on the other hand (or at least as I’m using it) is where a character goes from a to b to c to d. It’s a series of arcs, one after another. It also takes time and is often far more nuanced than in a movie.

Let’s take Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender. He starts off as the skeptic in the party (Team Avatar, that is), and proves very useful as our exposition man. As the series progresses, Sokka loses his skepticism (to point b), finds his place as the idea man/tactician of the group (point c) and eventually the de facto leader of Team Avatar (point d). It takes all three seasons for him to get to that point. The Sokka of Book One is wildly different from the Sokka we see at the end. It takes time for him to get there.

Similarly, Zuko in the same series has his own very complex character development. He’s introduced as a selfish antagonist hellbent on capturing the Avatar. Within the first season we come to know him and his relationship with his uncle. Through it we’re given hints that beneath his exterior he does have traits worth redeeming.

Come Book Two we see him grow in his own right to be an honorable, if still mildly maligned, young man. He eventually rejects the call of the light side and winds up starting Book Three with everything he ever wanted from the beginning. In light of what’s happened to him, though, he decides it’s not worth it and finally switches sides. Even then it still takes time for him to become a proper hero. It’s a convoluted, bumpy arc of redemption, but all the more rewarding for it.

Stories of redemption tend to benefit most from the format. Sawyer, in Lost, started out as the guy no one liked. Over time we found out that he didn’t want any one to like him because, as far as he was concerned, no one ought to like him. As the story goes on he becomes a sympathetic character to us and, through a con on the part of a friend, ends up ingratiating himself to the other survivors (see episode “Left Behind”).

Later on, Sawyer quite literally faces his personal demons. That done, he can progress from his original arc (a vengeful man haunted by his past) to what’s next in store for him. Sawyer becomes a protector of the others and, eventually, a man who just wants to live life as it is. It’s a marked change from the selfish prick the series started out with.

Video Games can do this too. Ezio Auditore of Assassin’s Creed II is introduced as a bit of a brat. Granted, he’s seventeen, but he’s not the best guy you’ll find. His family gets wrongly executed and he finds himself thrust into a world of espionage and conspiracy he didn’t know existed. Ezio is forced to grow. He gains responsibility, takes up the mantle of an Assassin, and by the second sequel (Assassin’s Creed: Revelations ) is radically different from where he started out from.

It’s not just one arc, though, it’s a bunch of small ones and moments that tell us not only who he is but who he’s becoming.

That’s the hallmark of character development: those little moments along the way that show us where a character is. It could be Sokka guiding the blind Toph onto a boat or Sawyer running through a gauntlet of gunfire as he carries Claire to safety. It could be Willow deciding she doesn’t need the ghost sheet outfit anymore or Jayne sliding the cup of booze across the table at Simon.

It’s those moments where you look at characters and realize that wow, they’ve changed. And you hardly noticed while it was happening.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! It’s a collection of short stories however, so no epic character arcs.

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