They Didn't Figure It Out: Assassin's Creed II Is Great -- So Why Isn't It Better?
Like a lot of people, I loved Assassin's Creed. Unlike a lot of other people, I did not find its admittedly repetitive mission structure all that bothersome, simply because the things the game did well were, to me, so compelling. I have had few videogame experiences more wonderful than running along the rooftops of ancient Jerusalem, jumping into the void, and catching hold of a trellis while street life goes on unawares beneath me. I have occasionally wondered if I enjoyed the game as much as I did because, in real life, I have spent some time in Jerusalem. Sometimes, moving through the city, I would stop and think, "Hey, St. Stephen's Gate!" or "I'm in the Armenian Quarter! I love the Armenian Quarter!" When a videogame is able to enrich your own memories of an actual place -- that is a special kind of magic.
Imagine how pleased I was to learn that Assassin's Creed II would take place in Italy, a country I lived in for a year. Now imagine how pleased I was to learn that the designers had attempted to address the one thing that did fitfully bother me about the first Assassin's Creed: There was not much to do in its astounding recreations of Acre and Jerusalem and Damascus other than climb things, which I loved; find flags and pennants, which I was indifferent about; and prepare for your various assassinations, which did indeed become somewhat wearying. Walking the streets of the cities of the ancient Levant and passing so many closed, inaccessible doors felt, at times, like a cruel tease. Thankfully, Assassin's Creed II gives you much more to do without diluting the game's major pleasures.
Good thing someone taught him how to swim.
Some took issue with the story of the first Assassin's Creed, particularly its framing conceit of the Animus, which allows Desmond Miles, a modern-day assassin-cum-bartender, to relive the memories of his 12th-century ancestor, Altaïr. (Some of you may remember Desmond initially scoffing at this idea, after which the evil doctor asks him, "What if I told you that a human body housed not only individual memory but genetic memory as well?" I, for one, responded, "I would congratulate you on your degree from Hollywood Upstairs Medical College, Doctor.") While Assassin's Creed's notion that memory is genetically recoverable may be fishy, I viewed it as an interesting attempt to reconfigure tired videogame conventions that too often go unquestioned, such as, say, the convention of limited game-world movement. Most games simply throw up a literal or figurative gate or wall to keep gamers out of areas to which they have not yet earned the right to explore. These pinchy reminders of artificiality are born of the videogame's openness and variability; paradoxically, they also frustrate belief in openness and variability.
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. Equally elegant was the way the game's designers accounted for the convention of "leveling up": Altaïr begins the game as a powerful assassin, but, because of his arrogance, is soon stripped of his choicest abilities and most malevolent toys. As you move through the game, you restore Altaïr's honor, reassemble his arsenal, and reclaim his lost abilities; all while simultaneously learning that his missions are more complicated, and his task more sinister, than you have previously suspected. Again, this is not the most sophisticated videogame storytelling the world has yet known, but it was smart enough and organically grounded in the game's mechanics. It attempted, in other words, to accommodate conventions in a way that made them seem less obviously ridiculous. And here is where Assassin's Creed II most egregiously fumbles.
Make no mistake: Assassin's Creed II is a wonderful game. I still love running around, I still love the fighting, I still love exploring, and I still love climbing. Unlike the first game, however, its storytelling repeatedly reminds us of the ridiculousness of videogame conventions. And yet many critics are tossing up the tickertape, hailing Assassin's Creed II as some kind of storytelling breakthrough. Game Informer, for instance, claims that the story is "so well told and integrated into the true events of the past that there are times that it is hard not to believe the beautifully wrought lie." GamePro lauds the "humor and credibility" of "the well-written script." Even the usually grumpy Edge claims that "the writing throughout the game is excellent." I have no idea what game these critics are talking about. The script, to my lights, is frequently atrocious. The attempts at humor are, in most cases, idiotic. Worse, the game's sweatily hectic conspiracy mongering is enough to make Dan Brown look like John le Carr?. If Assassin's Creed II is a well-written videogame, the videogame may well be doomed.
"Prepare yourself. The story's pretty stupid."
There are a lot of things with which to take issue, so I will focus only on a few. Let us begin with the game's inclusion of Leonardo da Vinci. The first time we meet the young Leonardo, he claims he is no mere painter, for he also wants "to change the world!" A problem inherent to historical fiction: Because authors are not able to forget they know certain characters' fates, neither are the characters able to forget their own fates. How much more interesting would it have been to depict a Leonardo unsure of the path of his life, a Leonardo only partially aware of his great gifts? The other, bigger problem with Leonardo is that unlocking certain game-mechanic abilities involves his sight translation of obscure codex pages. In and of itself, this is not problematic. What is problematic is how the game presents this. When Ezio walks into Leonardo's workshop with a codex page, a conversation like the following invariably unfolds: "Ah, Ezio! My old friend! What's that? You have another codex page protected by some impossibly complicated riddle no one has ever been able to solve? Well, let me see it. My, this one is very difficult. Oh, wait. I figured it out!" My rendering of these exchanges may be exaggerated -- but only barely. (The only fun part about these scenes was that, for several days, they allowed my girlfriend and me to shout "I figured it out!" to each other in phony-baloney Italian accents whenever we confronted some household problem.)
I cannot accept that this was the best way to deal with Leonardo's decryptions. The game could have minimized the rampant silliness in any number of ways, either by delaying Leonardo's decryption for a mission or two, and thus sparing us the risible dialogue, or simply writing better dialogue. When one's first response to a character intended to serve an important mechanical purpose is spontaneous laughter, it is not necessarily fatal. Think of the grizzled weapons merchant in Resident Evil 4. His unmolested presence in a game world crawling with danger is titanically preposterous, of course, but the purpose he serves is necessary. But now imagine that Resident Evil 4's grizzled weapons merchant is an old, dear friend of Leon S. Kennedy, and every time they cross paths they share a brotherly embrace. Assassin's Creed II requires you to accept that every time you meet Leonardo, it is a dramatically interesting and narratively important encounter, which badly confuses the utility of characters with a mechanical rather than dramatic purpose.
Another problem is Assassin's Creed II's cut scenes. The first Assassin's Creed tried to eschew the static nature of its cut scenes by allowing Altaïr some freedom of movement during conversation. And so I often stalked around, paused, and stalked again, trying to time my movements to whatever Altaïr was hearing or saying, which became a found and weirdly compelling "acting" mini-game. By contrast, Assassin's Creed II is fairly heavy on non-interactive cut scenes, most of which show the game engine's age. (Assassin's Creed II is the rare game whose cut scenes actually look worse than its gameplay.) More troubling is that several of these cut scenes pause to allow you some deeply unnecessary interaction: Do you want to apply a compress to an NPC wound? Press B! Do you want to drink a cup of coffee? Press X! In terms of honoring the interactive pact between game and gamer, these are badly misguided feints.
There is also the matter of humor in Assassin's Creed II. To read its reviews, you would think the game was written by Dorothy Parker's poltergeist. One character's proclamation of "It's-a me! Mario!" has been singled out by many as the game's pinnacle of comic genius. Another scene has Ezio sampling an exotic Turkish concoction called coffee. After a taste, he wonders if it might not benefit from some sugar. 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.
"And you -- you are-a the Luigi!"
Most disheartening is the game's failure to meaningfully integrate its mechanics into its narrative. Take, for instance, the scene in which Ezio "learns" how to jump while climbing by watching a spindly little thief scale some scaffolding in Venice. The problem is that we have spent the last five hours watching Ezio engage in feats of Cirque du Soleil-grade acrobatics. It is as if we are being asked to watch a world-class sniper learn how to use his scope, and it completely shatters the game's fictional dream. The first game handled such necessary artificialities by grounding them in Altaïr's gradual, piecemeal redemption, which made sense within the game's narrative. Assassin's Creed II does not even bother to try to account for its mechanics in a narratively acceptable way. It just makes things conveniently -- and thus arbitrarily -- so and asks you, the gamer, to endure the ridiculous staging and dialogue.
What has been lost from the first game is any sense that the limits of videogame storytelling have dire emotional consequences when breached. Rather than figure out how to handle narrative better than in the first game, the designers of Assassin's Creed II unwisely made similar mistakes, only louder and more operatically. I once believed that the minds behind the first Assassin's Creed took a vow of storytelling poverty because they understood the medium's weaknesses -- and maybe they did. The weaknesses they once minimized, however, have now been maximilized.
Of course, every medium has its weaknesses. The great weakness of the novel, for instance, is the action sequence, which is why many great novelists -- Graham Greene comes to mind -- allow big, showy moments to occur offstage. Films frequently struggle with representing the inner world of their characters, which is why dream sequences often feel fraudulent and why the old device of having characters think aloud with a slight reverb was eventually abandoned as unworkable. It is becoming increasingly clear that the best videogame stories are those that are the most elliptical and have the fewest illusions about what it is games do well. For me, the most narratively meaningful moment in Fallout 3, say, was not watching my father die, or even saving the Wasteland, but entering a cave in which I discovered the long-dead body of Daring Dashwood's ghoul sidekick, Argyle, whose radio plays I had so enjoyed while stumbling across the annihilated countryside. Someone put that body there for me to find and allowed me to draw my own conclusions and resonance from it. This is the kind of storytelling games handle better than any medium.
"Here -- 500 florins. Now please kill Leonardo for me."
It should be said that games like Grand Theft Auto IV and either of the Uncharteds prove that special things can be done with a more traditional, dictated form of storytelling -- but only if game designers are willing to commit to it completely and not treat narrative as a bothersome subsidiary to gameplay. But even these excellent and beautifully told games suffer from basic implausibilities that grow out of gameplay: Why is this person Niko just met entrusting him with his life? Why is Drake not more disturbed by the fact that he just killed 27 people in five minutes? The sad fact is that videogames are probably never going to have the dramatic compression of filmmaking or the psychological acuity of fiction. Why, then, do developers keep making games that only highlight this? And why do game critics and audiences keep congratulating them for doing so?
While playing Assassin's Creed II, I was reminded, over and over again, of why I love to play videogames. It does everything a game should do. I was also reminded, equally often, of why not everyone loves to play videogames, and why I do not blame them.
Check out more Crispy Gamer features: