Assassin’s Creed Review Part 2 – everything is permitted
Continuing with my summary of Assassin’s Creed II, I’ll just preface now that this is heavy on spoilers. Though you should know this as it’s a part two. If you haven’t read the first then what are you doing here?
Now, I’m sure no one is reading this just to get my opinion on a piece of entertainment. Most who know me already write me off as ‘the man that hates everything’ and naturally assume that I… well… hate everything. This isn’t true, of course, as I have a number of things I absolutely adore. For books, I’m a huge fan of the old Thieves’ World anthologies. They’re a fascinating piece of literature that would actually make a rather decent discussion for this blog. You see, the world of those books – named Sanctuary – is actually a collaborative work slowly pieced and patched together by the numerous contributors to the books. They are like a professional take on a D&D role-playing session, where each author plays with the setting and their fellow’s creations in a manner well beyond what the original creator intended. How they created a comprehensive world with very little direction is rather impressive, as is seeing the impact of even the smallest details from one story rippling out amongst all the others. It’s a neat format that captures the creative process where you can see some authors begin to lay the foundations for one story idea only to be wholly swept up in the grand events of another.
I also really enjoyed WALL-E. The curious thing with movies is that often times anticipation plays a large role in the enjoyment I derive from it. With WALL-E I was expecting some middling affair but was really curious how they would try and create a full length feature film without dialogue. Well, if you’ve seen it, you know that expectation is not accurate. What I didn’t expect was for the movie to have some pretty deep themes and to explore them as much as they did. For that, I was caught off-guard and between the greater story that it told and the general skill in the telling, I really enjoyed it. I think its an excellent example in audience misdirection as well as demonstrating that character development doesn’t require brilliant dialogue and can be achieved even with Pokemon-esque entities that only repeat their names.
Then, we have Assassin’s Creed II which is just terrible.
When discussing with some friends about the game, I generally get the argument of “I don’t know why you focus so much on the plot” or “It’s just a silly video game.” I want to point out that neither of these are justifications. They are excuses. It’s a lazy defence that dismisses criticism without trying to properly analyze or examine the work in question. Put simply, I care because the writers don’t. And if no one cares then we won’t have improvement. While the vast majority of people might not care that their video games have ridiculous stories with unbelievable plots and paper thin characters, the vast majority of people will recognize something that has compelling stories and deep characterization. The average dribble that is ‘just good enough’ is often lost and forgotten amongst the rest of the mediocrity released yearly. When pressed for what are their favourite movies, books and games people will gravitate towards those of quality and excellence. There might be the odd nonsense here and there but in general things that are done well stand out far better than things that are done ‘well enough.’
And Assassin’s Creed II really isn’t even that.
I was originally going to rant about the bonfire scene where Ezio charges a tied Savonarola to run a knife through his face because he thinks public burnings are barbaric but indiscriminate murder is perfectly acceptable. He then gives one of the most heavy-handed and ham-fisted speeches on free will and personal liberation that seems so wildly out of character for an individual who only recently learned the secret organization he’s been following holds these ideals. He condemns the people for seeking vengeance against a tyrant, then hops off his podium to run after the man who killed his family in order to run a blade through his throat. It was a crystal clear moment of a writer breaking ‘voice.’ This was no longer Ezio talking but the author espousing personal beliefs and feelings. It was so bizarre and distracting because not only did it run against the setting of Renaissance Florence but it even went against the very motives that drove Ezio for this thirty hour adventure. The moment Ezio charged the stage, he had ceased to exist and the writer had suddenly and obnoxiously inserted himself into the fiction. It might have been forgivable (or at least forgettable) if the same moment hadn’t come immediately in the next chapter.
I’ve already mentioned how the series is constrained by its attempts to adhere to historical events but completely ignores them despite forcing its characters to do stupid things to make them occur in the first place. The revolt against Savonarola is portrayed as some bizarre abuse of an ancient MacGuffin but ignores that he was excommunicated by the Pope for accusations of corruption. Which would paint the character in a surprisingly sympathetic light since the Pope is the leader of the secret Templar society whose sole goal is to obtain ancient power without any consideration for the organization he’s leading. And the finality of the game involves literal fisticuffs with the Pontifex Maximus. Why? Because.
I am at a bit of a loss though, since the story for Assassin’s Creed II not only falls from its precipitous hangings in the closing scene but plunges so far into a deep, yawning chasm as to disappear from any sort of logical or reasonable basis as humanly possible. And its quite clear that the inanity of its endings is solely due to poor writing. Our final reward for slaying the man that murdered our family and leading us on a merry chase through the tourist vistas of Italy is a holographic recording that makes BioWare’s Mass Effect look positively Shakespearian.
We basically get a recording telling us “we are beyond understanding” because the writers have no idea what this ancient society is suppose to be. The hologram then turns to the audience and informs us that whatever goal you thought there originally was is wrong and that the series is now suddenly about stopping solar flares and hunting down lost temples scattered across the Earth to do… something. It’s all vague and unsatisfying because the writers have zero clue where they are going with this. They recognize that they need to explain something but they just don’t know what that thing is. The process is embarrassingly fumbled and so transparent that it is ultimately unrewarding to the players that have sunk over 30 hours into achieving it.
As a writer, you need to consider what your pay-off is for your reader. They are going on this adventure with you, often investing numerous hours into following your characters and your plot. It is your responsibility to give them something for that investment. In video games, this is usually something cheap and simple. There are achievements that mark your progress or little cutscenes with smiling kids and sappy music. It is a rare company that actually rewards its audience with dialogue and manages to make it satisfying enough to actually justify the work. Knights of the Old Republic II is remarkable in that regard. At the endof its story arcs aren’t grand combats with floating fat Popes but a conversation tree with an important NPC. We have one in Assassin’s Creed II but instead of revealing something important about our character or the world it’s treated like an advertisement for the next game. “Congratulations, player, on achieving success. Tune in next time when you can run off and add eighteen lost temples to your collection of pointless objects. All anchored by a character so bland that he makes beige look positively festive.”
No, Ubisoft, I don’t think I will. You see, the reason writing is important is because it can be used as a reward and incentive for keeping your audience intrigued. Cop out and your audience won’t be engaged or invested enough to commit to where things go from there. They may even be like me who will turn to a company that can write decent stories and characters and forget all about your work in a couple of months. You’ll be little more than another leaf in the sea, drowned out in the mediocrity and washed into the horizon, never to be seen or remembered again.