I recently completed Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate and loved the entire experience. While I have enjoyed certain aspects of each Assassin’s Creed since the exquisite original, none of them have really captivated me as a whole.
While I enjoyed the majority of the predecessor, Unity, Syndicate really felt like a step up. The setting of Victorian London was a great location, and the constant liberation missions through the boroughs were on the right side of grinding for me. But the major selling point that got me interested in the game were the dual playable characters, twins Jacob and Evie Frye.
I was excited at playing as Evie due to her being the first playable female Assassin in the main series and loved her no-nonsense attitude and bubbling chemistry with fellow Assassin Henry Green. I at first neglected Jacob for his more charming sister, but became intrigued at reading online that he was confirmed as bisexual. Jeffrey Yohalem, lead writer for the game, confirmed Jacob’s identity on The Assassin’s Denpodcast, and the official Assassin’s Creed Tumblr posted,
“Jacob Frye is bisexual. This is canon. The end.”
AC as a series has always tried tackling serious topics in the games. Religion and hypocrisy managed to fuel four games, but the series has also turned an eye towards colonialism, slavery, and the idea of ends justifying the means.
Even Syndicate manages to debate imperialism, with Evie trying to convince Queen Victoria to retreat from India after the end credits. Syndicate also includes the series’ first openly trans character, so if the game wanted to focus on one of its leads sexuality, I was all for it.
Jacob’s sexuality is brought to the fore in Sequence 8, where a vaguely flirtatious relationship is developed with bad guy Maxwell Roth, culminating is Roth kissing Jacob as the former dies. It was a small moment, and Jacob’s reaction can be read in numerous ways.
Despite being an avid gamer, I can only name a few game characters that are bisexual. Compared to the gay and lesbian characters (both open and can be read as) that I could rattle off with ease, it was a struggle. So,in a bid to both better myself and hopefully learn something new, I decided to go for a look.
“Of course, people do go both ways”– (Scarecrow, The Wizard Of Oz) – A Look At & For Bisexual Characters In Games
There is one place that bisexuality does come to the front in gaming spheres; role-playing games. The houses of Bethesda and Bioware have an amazing hold on one subsection of games because they cater to gamers who want to explore a different identity or play as someone similar to themselves.
As Keza McDonald says in the documentary How Video Games Changed The World,
“In Mass Effect your character is basically bisexual by default. You can flirt with whoever you want and pursue a relationship with whoever you want…” (1:02:26)
Games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Elder Scrolls and Fallout start off players in the middle and then allow them to move in any direction they want.
While there are characters like Steve Cortez in Mass Effect that will only romance you if you are the same gender, most characters can be romanced by both genders. There was even some fan backlash when character Kaidan Alenko, who had been a heterosexual character, became a romantic possibility for a male main character in Mass Effect 3.
However, my issue with RPGs like the ones listed above stems from that openness to player choice. While Mass Effect has been thoroughly mocked for its “input-gifts-output-sex” approach to sex and sexuality, it is entirely player driven, and not part of the default character of Shepard.
Games that use the Marvel properties give a massive boost to LGBT representation. Characters like Mystique, Prodigy, Deadpool and Lightspeed are either bi or pan, and have appeared in everything from Ultimate Alliance to Lego Marvel, games catering to all ages and players. Yet these characters are from another medium, they aren’t solely bi/pan within their games. And that is even if the topic of their sexuality comes up during the experience.
In a similar vein, games of other properties have confirmed bisexual characters like Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and Korra in The Legend Of Korra. But again, does it count toward representation if their sexuality doesn’t come into the game? According to the LGBTQ Video Game Archive, the character of Asami from The Legend Of Korra (and girlfriend of the eponymous bisexual heroine) is omitted from the game, taking away a large amount of bi visibility from the franchise.
And what of people from history that would have identified as bi or pan? In AC: Unity, Marquis De Sade is one of main character Arno’s contacts, and embraces his relationships with both genders. While it is only really found in side-missions rather than the main game, it is nice that it is included.
Before doing some research into the topic, I could only name two other bisexual characters besides Jacob Frye. Those two were Juri Han from the Street Fighter series and Trevor Phillips from Grand Theft Auto V.
I like Juri, she’s a fun character and her crazy fighting style in Street Fighter IV drew me to her. All of her dialogue in the games points to her attraction to other characters or being sexually aggressive. When she squares off against Chun-Li in the latter’s Rival Fight, Juri ponders whether Chun-Li has “a schoolgirl crush” on her. However, none of Juri’s flirting is confirmed within game, so it could just be Juri’s way of mentally screwing with her opponents.
With Trevor, the game is explicitly up front about his sexual preferences, with his LifeInvader profile stating that, “any hole’s a goal”. When asked by his friend Franklin if he is gay, Trevor responds,
“No. Yeah. Whatever. Labels, bro…”
He seems indifferent to who his partners are, just going along for the ride and propositioning several members of the cast. That makes a debate on whether Trevor is bisexual or pansexual, but he can be easily identified as ‘not straight’.
With Jacob, it is more layered when it comes to his sexuality. I’ll link here to an excellent article on New Normative by Susana Valdes, which goes into more detail than I ever could. Valdes breaks down all the subtext and personality traits of Jacob, highlighting how his sexuality is foreshadowed throughout the game.
There is one genre that I have neglected to talk about in this post; dating sims. A notable one in recent years was Dream Daddy, a dating simulator game where all the characters that can be romanced are fathers, with the player character being gay or bi, cis or transgender.
And sure, dating sims are a great way to have that diversity, it is inherent to the product. But Jacob’s story is one that I wish we could see more of. Something different to the ‘bisexual-as-sadist/psychopath’ trope that has been perpetuated for years in media (highlighted by Trevor and Juri), or not just as someone to bed like in Mass Effect.
There has been a massive boost to diversity with games like Overwatch and Apex Legends, where characters preferences and sexualities are highlighted, but are never more than a bark or backstory, one that we may never see.
I’ve only really scratched the surface in this short post, and there are much smarter and more qualified people to really dig into the stuff I’ve mentioned. But there is a reason I wanted to write about this topic. While I wholeheartedly approve and promote for more representation and inclusivity, I want to add to it. It was an important first step to show LGBT characters, now I would like to see mainstream games tackle issues around it.
Some of the best books (Giovanni’sRoom), television shows (TheSoprano’s Seasons 5-6), and films (Call Me By Your Name) have been about coming out, homophobia (internal and external), and civil rights, why not games? The only game I can think of that has broached these subjects is Persona 4. In that game, punk biker dude Kanji Tatsumi struggles between his outward masculinity and his sexual identity, which he feels are incompatible with each other. His internal battle is something rarely seen in games and it helps develop a compelling character in the process.
It doesn’t have to be for a whole game, but have it as a continual thing in the background, waiting for its chance to come into the limelight, rather than being thrown out for a level or two. I want to move the focus to the main character, where their relationships are part of the main story. Player and avatar don’t always have to be in sync, and I feel that’s where the best stories are found, where the player lives in another’s shoes.
Let us step into those stories, experience a character’s world, and who knows, we may find ourselves identifying with them more than we could have ever known. That can only be a good thing.
A sense of character is one of the things that I look for when playing a game. I play games mainly for the story and a large part of that is the character. If we can’t get emotionally attached to the protagonist, it can create a disconnect between them and us. I have stopped playing games because I can’t see or connect to the main character’s motivation.
Games are an interesting medium to view characters due to player input. Can a character be labeled a badass secret agent if he has trouble navigating tables? In this feature I wanted to zone in on an aspect that can highlight character traits, that being the animation.
Small animations can help fill a character backstory or tell us something about their personality, usually without an ounce of dialogue. To modify an old saying, “A picture paints a thousands words. And an animation at 60FPS conveys a book.”
The inspiration behind this post was the animation of Doom Guy from 2016’s Doom. His animations are intentional. The way he nonchalantly pushes computer screens with vital intelligence on them aside or smashes scientifically important power sources in direct violation of orders shows so much of his personality, all without ever seeing his reactions (here is a video by critic Jim Sterling highlighting these points).
An example of an accidental animation could be how Ned Luke, the actor who plays Michael De Santa in Grand Theft Auto V, moves during gameplay. Luke is deaf in his right ear and in cutscenes he will move to his right if someone is talking to him. This can be seen as a happy accident as it fills in Michael’s backstory. Being partially deaf could be an indication of him being close to guns for a portion of his life (for example, the entire opening of GTAV). Michael was also meant to be slower than the other playable characters Trevor and Franklin, so Luke put on weight for his motion-capture.
So here are five animations that give us a peek at a character’s personality. These aren’t in any ranking, but just five from my some of my favorite games.
Cortez’s Gun Spin in Timesplitters: Future Perfect
When a character picked up a gun in the first two Timesplitters games it would simply pop up on screen. That changed in the third entry, where each weapon had an equipping animation.
The animation I want to highlight is in the third game, at the very start of the second level. Main character Sgt. Cortez is sent back in time to 1924 and teams up with WW1 veteran Captain Ash to retake a Scottish island from some vaguely foreign types. After landing on the shores of the island, Ash gives Cortez a Luger and the duo head off.
When control is given back to the player, Cortez equips the gun and spins it like a Wild West gunslinger.
We’ve seen in the previous mission that Cortez is kind of a super soldier; crashing his spaceship in the middle of a battle zone, holding off Splitter charges singlehandedly, and sniping enemies from impossible distances. But throughout the story he shows a goofier side; fan-boying over his future self, dancing with the R110 war robot, and constantly saying his catchphrase, “Time to Split!” which everyone but him thinks is incredibly uncool.
The gun spin is a distillation of these two traits. It shows his “cool factor” off by being able to pull off the move, but also shows his incredible dorky side that he would do it, instead of just lock and load the gun like very other pistol in the game.
(Start at 2:11)
Haytham Moving Through The Audience in Assassin’s Creed 3
We start AC3 playing as Templar Agent Haytham Kenway on a mission in the Theatre Royal in London. He has to assassinate a British Assassin and steal the First Civilization Medallion that said target keeps around his neck.
It is a great opening to the game and gets us invested in the character. Haytham sits down in the auditorium with Templar Master Reginald Birch as they talk about the performance that night. During his dialogue with Birch, as well as with the Assassin Miko, Haytham displays a veneer of civility, a quintessential Britishness.
After receiving his mission to kill Miko, Haytham starts to make his way past the audience in the auditorium row. As he goes, Haytham whispers out apologies, “A thousand pardons…my apologies…”
One audience member decides to stand up to allow Haytham to pass by. WHAM! Haytham roughly pushes the man back down into his seat and continues moving through the audience. It is such a small animation, but the ferocity and power behind the gesture shows there is much more behind the warm front that Haytham puts on when speaking.
(Start at 2:00)
The Scarecrow’s Running Animation in Lego Batman: The Videogame
The great thing about the Lego games in their infancy is they had to communicate plot points entirely through gestures. While I’m not bashing the later games in the series, it was hilarious to see them riff on Indiana Jones and Star Wars in the vein of Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy (especially in Episodes IV-VI, with scenes like this 3:54-4:25).
When creating the first Lego Batman game, the folks over at Travellers Tales created their own plots. These stories made allusions to the films, television shows, and comics, but were mainly their own thing. While they have the building blocks (aha!) of the characters, they need to transpose them to the Lego world. So let’s look at Scarecrow.
The major factor in Scarecrow’s run is his arms. When Batman runs, his arms pump up and down to indicate his strength and stamina. When Poison Ivy runs, her arms sway, demonstrating a delicate side. When Scarecrow runs, he holds his arms out in front of him, as if he were a frightening monster chasing someone.
His shoulders bunch up as he runs and there is a definite swing to his movements. The former is indicative of his desire to reach forward and catch whoever he may be chasing, the latter shows that he having fun and delighted that he is chasing some poor, frightened citizen.
Scarecrow doesn’t have a single line of dialogue in the entire game, yet he manages to portray a multi-faceted personality through his over-acted run.
(Start at 3:34)
Larson Conway in Tomb Raider: Anniversary
Switching up the structure here, as this is an enemy rather than a playable character. Yet the animations portray a very layered individual.
We can tell from the start of TR: Anniversary that heroine Lara Croft and anti-hero Larson Conway know each other. The two are on first name terms and have some flirtatious banter (1:34). This banter is important because it feeds into Larson’s later fight animations.
When the two square up against each other, Larson declares he “…prefers a more hands-on approach.” He leaps at Lara and she fends him off using her fists. As Lara continues to best him, Larson becomes more irate until he finally pulls out his gun. The fight takes place during a quick time event and Larson only draws his gun on the final button press.
During another quick time event involving all of the scheming bad guys, Larson doesn’t shoot at Lara, instead trying to strike her with his gun (18:27).
Designer Toby Gard revealed in the developer commentary that Larson has a soft spot for Lara (56:13). You can see this in the animation. He never tries to kill her, instead going for non-lethal attacks and only pulling out a gun when she does the same to him. When she flees during the aforementioned quick time event, he intentionally pushes away other bad guys and aims his shot wayward (18:42).
They are small tweaks but create a character that isn’t a straight-up bad guy, which gives his death at Lara’s hands later in the game a sense of pathos.
Captain Walker’s Changing Animations in Spec Ops: The Line
I love Spec Ops: The Line partly because it is a great deconstruction of the art form as well as being a fun “tactical” shooter.
I’ve talked about how the visual design of Walker changes through the course of the narrative with his design becoming less and less human with each important moment within the story. But this decline is also featured in the audio clips and the animations.
At the start Walker and his team are professional; knocking people unconscious with either the butt of their rifle or with a swift punch/karate chop. But as Walker’s mind slowly descends into insanity, his animations become more violent.
His rifle strikes become longer and more sadistic. He jumps on fallen enemies and gouges at their eyes with his fingernails. He starts breaking necks with ferocity but also indifference, doing so without a second’s hesitation. And when he has finally snapped, Walker drops all pretence of professionalism and starts executing unarmed soldiers with a gunshot to the head.
The cool thing is that most of these are hidden due to player choice. While the player will have to take on close range enemies it is entirely possible that a player could shoot them and not have to engage in hand-to-hand combat. The developers could have just had one or two repeated animations, but decided to have a variety with the possibility that a player would never see their hard work.
Despite the optional aspect, there is one “mandatory” execution in the twelfth chapter (5:28). This helps show the descent into primitive violence without taking control away from the player. In the sequence, Walker ziplines between buildings and lands on a soldier. While it is possible to shoot him, the “execute” button flashes up. If the player chooses execute then Walker goes crazy, smashing the soldier’s head in with his rifle, much to the shock of his sidekicks Adams and Lugo.
And just like the character design and voice barks, the change in animation is seamless. This slow but steady change makes the game that much richer and expresses Walker’s character excellently.
(Start at 3:13)
There are a series of smaller animations that are also great examples of character backstory. Silent Hill 2 is a great example of a variety of animations. The main character James Sunderland has the habit of looking down when people are talking to him, indicative of a feeling of shame or embarrassment. He also has the habit of touching his head when remembering, as pointed out by the YouTube channel The Gaming Muse; I’ll let them explain the reason behind the animation.
Silent Hill 2’s creature animations are also fascinating. Art Director Masahiro Ito said his, “…basic idea for creating the monsters…was to give them a human aspect…then I proceeded to undermine this human aspect.” (16:24). He based the movements on, “…drunk people or the tentative walk of a young child.” (17:19). This is reflective of the idea of the “Unheimlich”, a Freudian concept of something being both familiar and unknown, and is used constantly in horror games and films to create a sense of unease.
The recent Splinter Cell games also have some small animations that lent to the character. In the fifth entry, Conviction, secret agent Sam Fisher has gone rogue, trying to find his daughter’s killer. His hand-to-hand animations are incredibly violent, using pianos, urinals, and even flag poles to interrogate enemies. Much like Walker in Spec Ops, this shows how far the former spy has fallen, but also shows how far he would go to find out what happened to his family.
Talking about how animations feed into characters is a simple idea and I’m definitely not the first to talk about it. I just find it fascinating that entire characters can be found in the smallest movements. That we can find meaning in a wave of a hand, the twinge of a smile, or the placement of a foot.
When players of the future will look back on games that could be part of the ludo-canon there will be a whole host of different styles and genres, from indie games to AAA releases. Some games, such as Grand Theft Auto III, won’t be the best in their series, but will indicate the start of something bigger. Some, like Bioshock, show a more thoughtful, provocative, and literate attempt at the art form. And some, like Minecraft, are, well…revolutionary.
The list will go on and on as more games and platforms are released, but today I want to focus on one game. This game, much like GTAIII before it, was the start of not just a best-selling franchise, but managed to blend genres, brought a completely revolutionary idea of multiplayer to our screens, and kick-started a whole slew of imitators. Today, I’ll be talking about Assassin’s Creed, all the way back from 2007.
At the time of writing the series has been going for eleven years with nine games so far. Its most recent release, Origins, came out in late 2017, ten years after the first game. So, with over a decade of gaming to look back over let’s dive in.
This isn’t going to be a simple re-review of the game, but more a sort of breakdown and rethinking of the game. Enjoy!
Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted – A Look Back At Assassin’s Creed (2007)
Origins (no, not that Origins)
At the tale end of 2003, Ubisoft Montreal had just released Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time. Sands Of Time was the reboot of the series and would go on to spawn two sequels, Warrior Within in 2004, and Two Thrones in 2005. It was from this creative team that Assassin’s Creed would be born.
In a surprisingly detailed feature in Edge Magazine(Note: This is a second-hand account of the work, as all links to the original revert back to GamesRadar’s homepage), Creative Director Patrice Désilets talked about how the idea grew from the PoP series, where the player would be an assassin bodyguard protecting the child version of the Prince. Long after the game was released, this test footage of the game was leaked. (Source: Felipe Orion).
You can see the building blocks of the series; the crowd mechanics, the ominous white hoods, and hidden blades. There is a lot of stuff in that trailer that would take several games to be brought back into the series, with the main ones being co-op and bows and arrows being used.
You can easily see how PoP was the precursor. The free-running mechanics are obviously the key influence, but in a much larger way. The fun of a PoP game, even the more open ended-style like the 2008 reboot, the free running is in more of a linear sequence. The game world is an assault course; you see the path and you have to hit the buttons at the correct time to move through the land. It’s not experimental or improvisational; the path forward is set. Assassin’s Creed is more open with a world full of opportunities and pathways. In the feature Désilets remarks the freerunning was meant to be similar to the use of vehicles in GTA, “The pleasure of driving a car in Liberty City should be the same as a main character in Assassin’s Creed.” (para. 19).
The Arabian aesthetic would be another key factor. While PoP would feature expansive areas, the game is limited mostly to palaces and corridors to feature the prince’s wall-hopping acrobatics. Assassin’s Creed builds on that by opening up the world, not just into outdoor areas, but three different cities and a huge countryside to explore.
So with the building blocks of the game set let’s look into how Assassin’s Creed actually works.
“The World Is A Stage” – The City and Lands of Assassin’s Creed
Assassin’s Creed is set in the Holy Land and the bulk of gameplay is divided between three cities in the region; Damascus, Jerusalem, and Acre. Despite all being in relative proximity to each other they all have different design and artwork.
Damascus is bright and tan, with minarets and spires stretching high into the sky. Jerusalem is has muted shades of brown, with mosques sitting beside churches and synagogues. And Acre, well, Acre is a warzone; cold, dark, and grey, with most houses reduced to smouldering ash and rubble.
The three cities are distinct and each tell a different facet of the Crusades. For example, the Teutonic Crusaders were the invaders of Acre, so while they want to be seen as the saviours of the city’s Christian inhabitants, the scars of war show them to also be invaders and destroyers. The cities are split between three districts; poor, middle and rich. While this helps design variety, it’s also meant to be a visual signifier for player interaction and gameplay (which we will talk about later in this retrospective).
The only part of the world that seems a bit pointless is the Kingdom. It boils down to a really big set of crossroads with a single path leading to each city and to the Assassin’s mountain top castle, Masyaf. There is nothing to do here, apart from collect flags (for no benefit besides 100% completion) and annoy roaming Saracens and Templars (although according to Désilets, this was an effort for an “improv” sense of gameplay, where each player’s story is different (para. 24-26)).
Masyaf is, again, different to any of the other cities. Having the game unceremoniously start there in a weird dream sequence and also end there with the fight against the shape-shifting Al Mualim has a nice cyclical nature to it. Again, like the Kingdom, there isn’t really a need to explore aside from flag collecting, so they majority of the gameplay will be spent in the targets hometowns.
I mentioned that visual significance of the districts allowing for greater player clarity in traversing the city, so let’s explore that idea. The problem of the city comes down to the inclusion of the mini map.
“In The Kingdom Of The Blind, The Man With Eagle Vision Is King” – Visual Signifiers and the Mini Map (and also the side missions)
One of the biggest faults many people find with Assassin’s Creed is its repetitive nature. Receive a target, go to the city, talk to the Assassin Bureau, do three tasks such as eavesdrop, pickpocket, or beat up a public speaker, return to the Bureau and then assassinate your target. Rinse and repeat nine times, game over. But that is a shallow experience of the game, and I would expect 98% of that comes from the mini-map.
Back in May 2017 on Twitter I got into a conversation with Stanislav Costiuc, a developer at Ubisoft, who wrote a fantastic essay on how Assassin’s Creed was designed for HUD-less gameplay and no mini-map. Costiuc explains that the levels and districts were designed in such a way to aid player exploration but also player interaction with the world.
Going back and playing Assassin’s Creed without the HUD makes playing the game a much different experience. You have to be in tune with your surroundings and recognise patterns. Costiuc shows this with a running commentary of how he played through one of the assassinations without the HUD.
Without the map telling him where to go, Costiuc had to find markers in the world that would help him find the Bureau and his targets. Each Bureau leader tells the player where to start their investigations; the north markets, the west gardens, the south gates, each one filling in the world. All these dialogues are meant to help the player rather than just fill for time. That’s why the different sections of the maps and specific locations are needed in AC1 because they were originally used for player education, without the mini-map as a crutch.
This is one thing I wish had been carried over to the rest of the games. With the more detailed world and the inclusion of a database helping identify actual buildings, this type of landmark guidance would have worked wonders. For example, after getting back one holiday from Florence I booted up AC2 and was able to find my hotel just by going to the buildings I recognised.
This makes me think the original game was meant to be much slower paced, almost similar to IO-Interactive’s Hitman, with the player finding pieces of information that could help or hinder them with their assassination attempt.
For those assassination attempts the player needs to get close to the target and then attack them with a weapon. So, let’s talk about traversal and combat.
“He’s Going To Hurt Himself” – Freerunning, Movement, and Killing Targets
I previously talked about the freerunning aspect in comparison with Prince Of Persia, but Assassin’s Creed has a more dynamic movement system than its ancestor. Each of the face buttons is a part of the body; A/X is legs, B/Circle is empty hand, X/Square is weapon hand, and Y/Triangle is for the head. All of these are then modified with the use of RT/R2 into high-profile moves. In the Edge feature Désilets mentioned how it was based on puppets (para. 21), and the system is simple enough that you don’t have to spend several hours getting to grips with the control layout.
Again, AC1 is slower than its sequels; there is no jump climb ability and you can’t sprint across beams, but the central mechanics are solid. Swimming is also absent (there is a debate over whether it’s historical accuracy since we are covered in armour, or a technical feat since swimming mechanics were still in their infancy, only appearing a few years prior in Rockstar’s GTA: San Andreas), but this is offset by only having a few water sections in the game. This does come to the fore during the assassination of Sibrand in Acre, where the stealthiest way to his ship is via jumping precariously around the harbour.
Freerunning is especially well defined for such an early game. Apart from PoP I can’t think of many games before the first Assassin’s Creed that had a smooth freerunning mechanic. It also feels like there is small amount of auto-guiding in terms of chasing targets. Many times in AC sequels I would find myself chasing a target and instead of following them through an archway, Ezio or Connor would instead get stuck to the doorframe or run up a wall. I’ve never had that problem during my playthroughs with Altair.
The combat of AC1 is my favourite of the entire series. I’ve written previously about the feeling of the combat, how the sword has weight behind it, but there is so much more than that. It feels like a multi-tiered system with different moves for skill levels and play-styles. For those just wanting to kill enemies with brute strength there is the charge up sword. For those with patience there is the counter mechanic. And for those with good timing there is the combo kill and the break defence, which are rewarding for being the quickest kills.
None of the skill-based attacks have the same depth as in later games and merely reduced to a single button presses (AC2 was concered more on movement, but because the Hidden Blades were perfect counters and the sword/short blade took two or three counters and are slower in general, there is no reason to use them).
The revamped combat in the sequels was due to the supposed stalling enemies, crowding around you and staring you down for several seconds before attacking. But that is simply not true in AC1. Sure, if all you are using are counters then yes there is a lot of dead air when it comes to battles. But using the break defence and combo kills, or the Short Blade and Throwing Knives, and again, recognising the visual signifiers of scared/taunting soldiers (which leaves them open to a quick hidden blade or throwing knife kill) the combat is far from static.
You get these moves through the game so you are meant to up your strategy. The problem is that the counter is way too powerful leading to players defaulting to that, making the battles seems stilted. These was “rectified” in later games by having enemies that could stop counters (here is a video by Extra Credits talking about this problem, calling them FOO strategies), but made combat even more stilted by having to perform these actions several times to defeat one enemy.
The weapons feed into the aspect of upping strategy alongside the moveset. The sword is good for defence and strong attacks but is slow. The short blade/knives are faster, and the hidden blade (which we will get onto next) is a one-hit kill. They allow for a sense of personalisation when it comes to combat.
The Hidden Blade is the best weapon in the game. The blade only kills in low profile situations (or as a counter), otherwise the target can block your attack and force you into open combat. Knowing this feeds back into the world and those visual signifiers, trying to find a way to get close to your target without raising the alarm.
For example, the assassination of Majd Addin in Jerusalem has the target on a platform surrounded by guards. There is no way to break through the guards and get a clean kill with the hidden blade. You have to look at your surroundings; should you take the ladder to the side of you to climb up and around to the platform, or should you hide among the scholars to try and pass through the crowds? The limits of the blade make you work for the best kills, but then the sequels turned them into insta-kill spree-delivering devices.
The only problems with combat in Assassin’s Creed are in hindsight of the sequels. Things like Air Assassinations and Haystack Drags that debuted in AC2 are sorely missing. And while the throwing knives are a good ranged weapon, certain guards seem invincible to them which breaks immersion. AC1 also has the odd habit of making you a wanted man just for locking onto a guard.
Now that I’ve talked about most of the design and gameplay aspects that I wanted to mention, let’s move onto the story and narrative.
“Sit Down And I Will Tell You A Tale Like None You Have Ever Heard!” – The Dual Narrative
I remember when I first played Assassin’s Creed I thought, “This is so cool, I get to run around fighting medieval knights, run across rooftops like a high-wire trapeze artist, and there is even some conspiracies and intrigue. I love this!” Then the game would wrench me out the experience, taking me away from the badass Altair and replacing him with bland bartender Desmond Miles.
I think the overarching, modern day narrative was the part that lost a lot of players. Because we don’t spend enough time with dear old Desmond we have no reason to care about him or his trials. Even when the games tried to jazz up his role such as learning the skills of the Assassin’s in Brotherhood, learning about his past in Revelations, or making him the most super special person in the world in III, Desmond still felt like an afterthought. Even next to Connor “What-Would-You-Have-Me-Do” Kenway (honestly the worst protagonist I’ve ever played as), Desmond was a poorly defined character. Another problem with the wider narrative is that it never got a satisfying ending. Every game would end with Desmond and his posse running from the Templars to another safe haven, meaning we would have to buy the next instalment to get a follow up.
I’m not sure how I feel about Desmond’s departure after III and Abstergo basically turning into Ubisoft and selling genetic memories as games, but it seems a rather silly hold over. The modern aspect is only in there for the game to have overt gamey-aspects not break narrative cohesion by saying “we’re in the Animus”. It should just be ditched; I think gamers would understand that their game has to have some anachronisms. The fact that both Subject 16 and Desmond both started hallucinating outside of Animus shows that humans can experience genetic memories without a wacky machine. Why not focus on that; a character that has learnt to go into a zen-like trance to relive their memories?
The reveals of the wider story, especially the surprise ending where the Apple Of Eden presents us with several Precursor Temple sites, would have worked a lot better without the pre-knowledge of technology and conspiracy. That reveal of a story much wider than the one being presented to you would have been a gut-punch of a reveal, possibly similar to the world of Columbia and “swimming in different oceans but landing on the same shores”. It still sets up the possibility of other Assassins around the globe and without Desmond’s genes limiting the range of Assassins for sequels to mostly European white guys.
One thing I do like about the Holy Land story of Assassin’s Creed is that it takes some risks. It brings ideas about religion, secularism, hypocrisy, and violence to the table, and explores them with each target during the confessions sequences. It’s interesting and I can’t think of another game bar the AC sequels that tries to shine a torch on some of the not-too-pleasant aspects of mankind. While the splash screen at the front of the game, with the now infamous “various different religions and cultures” was meant to be a failsafe against typecasting most of the Arab characters as cutthroat murderers, I think the Templars are portrayed much worse. They are already the invaders, destroying Acre pre-game, and just from my own play sessions, they are always seem more aggressive.
Legacy (no, not that Legacy)
The first Assassin’s Creed is seen as an important stepping-stone in the way open-world games are developed nowadays. While more people find AC2 to be the high point of the series (including me until this final play session, where I think AC1 just pips it), AC1 is remarkable in how if you updated the graphics it could still stand somewhat with its contemporaries.
Let’s count them off;
Open world, check.
Collectables that are pretty meaningless, check.
Map that opens up when you scale towers, even Ubisoft made a joke about how much of a trope it had become in their games.
This idea of AC1 as being more of a proof-of-concept is so ingrained that it has become shorthand for other similarly repetitive games. Mafia 3 was unfavourably compared to AC1 by it being a mostly empty map with the same few side missions.
Looking at Assassin’s Creed nowadays, you can see how it influenced the later games. Characters like Ezio, Edward, and the Frye twins were obviously created in response to Altair and his other sour brothers, Connor and Arno. The setting influenced later games locations, with Revelations obviously taking inspiration from AC1 with its Eastern location and design after having two games of classical European architecture in the form of AC2 and Brotherhood.
In my experience though I feel the later games fall prey to trying to compensate for the somewhat spartan presentation of AC1. This came to the forefront when I recently played AC: Unity. When I first brought the map up I said to myself, “What is this?!” The map was full of stuff, juststuff, that had very little bearing on the main narrative; chests, cockades, underground systems, side quests, murder mysteries, cryptic puzzles, hours upon hours of nebulous content. For the longest time I didn’t synchronise viewpoints and turned all the collectables off, because I knew the game was screwing with my completionist tendencies.
Altair is also a major factor in AC2. Thinking back to 2009 before we knew that he would come back in Revelations, Altair does share brief moments with us again. First and most notably, Altair returns in the Codex pages. As we read his notes we see an older and more cynical Altair, testing out the Apple of Eden, creating new mechanics for the Assassins such as the Poison Blade, and writing about the upcoming Mongol threat. Then we see him in a flashback getting busy with Maria Thorpe, with the player staying with Maria and entering her womb once Altair has deposited his seed. While the descendant aspect of the series had been explained at this point in the series this was the first time it was “shown” to an extent.
And just talking numbers, Assassin’s Creed was a hit. In Ubisoft’s own words it, “greatly outstripped” their expectations. It became the fastest-selling new IP at the time, projected to sell five million copies for 2007-2008. This was enough to send what was originally a spinoff of Ubisoft’s popular wall-crawler into a multi-million dollar franchising spanning books, comics, and even films.
After going back to the first Assassin’s Creed my views on it have changed quite a bit. I played AC1 and AC2 back-to-back, with only a few hours between finishing AC1 and starting AC2. And now having played all the way up until AC: Unity, what I used to see as a nice blueprint feels much more like a refined experience.
The brilliant open-ended assassinations are obviously a high point especially as soon as AC2, the assassinations were distilled and streamlined (mainly for narrative sense). For reference even now in Unity I play the “levantine” approach to combat; sneak until within a few metres, high-profile assassination, then flee into the crowds. It’s a classic set of moves that AC1 instilled into me, highlighted with its “Chase Cam”.
The repetitive grinding of missions is the takeaway most people get from the gameplay with the assassinations only being a sliver of the content on offer. That obviously wasn’t the intention, with the side quests meaning to be information on how to approach your target, but the mini-map turns them into chores.
The combat suffers from the same aspect of having good intentions, but it not being found when first playing. The combat arena where you learn new moves doesn’t do a great job at telling you how to fight and so we revert to what we know; hold RT/R2, pressing X/Square when hit.
The open world, especially the Kingdom, feels like needless padding and is only really there for the first feeling of odyssey-like wonder at riding off into unknown lands. The cities though are a fantastic if not realistic portrayal, having rooftops close enough that endless running is a delight. This is where the freerunning in III didn’t work, with cities that might be historically accurate but aren’t fun to parkour around due to the wide gaps between buildings.
Looking at it eleven years later, it’s obvious that Assassin’s Creed grabbed people because it was fresh and exciting. We had seen open-worlds before and we had seen historical action combat before. But together they were a match made in heaven, a license to go to whatever historical setting Ubisoft wanted and print money to set up new IPs with.
That same sense of freshness is why I think we all got on board for the modern day aspect. While Desmond’s story did get little payoff in the grand scheme of things, that new blend for gaming was novel. While we had seen the same beats in media such as The Matrix or Ghost In The Shell, in gaming it hadn’t really been explored before apart from maybe David Cage’s debut, Omnikron: The Nomad Soul.
With the new game AC: Origins, the series seemed to be travelling back to its roots. With a revamped modern day aspect that is moving away from the memories-as-games plot thread as well as bringing back a more branching style to combat, Origins was seen as a return to form to what many thought to be a dying and withered franchise.
Many have been quick to dismiss the new Assassin’s Creeds as not true AC experiences. I understand their criticisms, but don’t necessarily agree with them. Assassin’s Creed 1 shows us that you can pretty much take a whole new spin on a well known trope and make it its own thing, and that’s pretty much the defining theme of the series;
After my first post on my top dialogues in gaming I got thinking about other games that I thought had great dialogue sequences. I started to move away from just my favourite scenes instead looking at the different ways that dialogue is used.
I still like all of the scenes that are listed below, but I’ve tried to pick some dialogues that are special in the ways that they use character interaction especially those that work within adaptations or use factors outside of a simple back-and-forth.
So, let’s skip this preamble and jump right in, this is Another Top Five Dialogue Scenes In Gaming.
Lara Croft and Pierre Dupont meet in Tomb Raider Anniversary
Tomb Raider Anniversary is a remake of the first Tomb Raider game. With a fantastic blueprint to work from in terms of level design, the creators, Crystal Dynamics, decided to focus on updating the story and fleshing out the characters who were mere cardboard cutouts in the first game.
While at this point we’ve already had a few verbal sparring matches with the morally-grey mercenary Larson, it’s Lara Croft’s interaction with fellow treasure hunter Pierre Dupont that takes the number five spot.
In the original game Pierre wasn’t much of a character. He would turn up during points of the Greece section of the game and shoot at Lara before running off and vanishing into thin air as soon he was out of line of sight.
Here in TRA we see two people who seem to have prior knowledge of each other. This can be seen by the fact that they are both on first name terms with each other, discussing each other’s personal philosophy that informs how they go about their work. This adds up to create a backstory for these two characters that will probably never see a gaming screen (although Pierre and Larson did come back for Tomb Raider Chronicles which was set before TR1). This gives all the characters a few different shades and facets rather than just “bad guy” and “good girl”.
The way that the cutscene plays also informs us about Pierre as a character. We only see his character model once during the sequence, instead following his voice as it reverberates around the room. This was meant to be a callback to his vanishing act from TR1, (1:50) but I read it as Pierre toying with Lara and messing with her head since she can’t find him.
When we finally see Pierre, he is in the shadows hidden from Lara and pointing both of his guns at her. He has a clear shot, ready to kill her, but backs off and disappears. This adds another layer to his character; he likes a challenge rather than eliminating his competition.
This continues through the game, as we hear his voice throughout the next levels, taunting us and finally ambushing us at the end, where once again, he and Lara’s conflicting worldviews clash.
All this makes him a much more interesting character rather than a simple shoot-first character like he was in the original.
(Cutscene starts at 10:32)
The Confrontations with Red Grant in From Russia With Love
This one is quite different as it is an adaptation/remake of a film, but the subtle changes make it a good one to look at.
From Russia With Love came out during a period in the James Bond series between Pierce Brosnan being let go and Daniel Craig being signed on to play 007. EA wanted to keep making James Bond games so got Sean Connery to come back to play the iconic spy and took one of his films, From Russia With Love (an odd choice due to the film not being action heavy like Goldfinger or Thunderball) and adapted it to a game.
While the game takes several liberties with the original story it also remakes scenes shot-for-shot, word-for-word. The scene I’ve chosen is a mixture between the two.
The two characters, Red Grant (the bad guy pretending to be an MI6 agent) and James Bond meet on a smoky Turkish train platform, each providing their part of the secret code to each other to identify themselves. Red Grant is rather jovial, coming across as naive as he plays sidekick to Bond.
But as soon as they get to the dining car, Grant’s jovialness twists on a dime. His smile becomes a frown. His light-hearted phrase, “old man” takes on a sarcastic touch. Bond catches on when Grant orders red wine with their grilled sole (which adds to a funny line later when Grant hits Bond over the head with a bottle and says “There’s your white wine, old man!”). After pulling into the train station, Grant and Bond trade words lifted straight from the film. It is a cool scene, seeing dialogue that was originally in a tense interrogation repurposed as the start of an action sequence.
The connections made through Bond and Grant’s dialogue adds to up to their final confrontation at the very end of the game. After destroying the multi-appendage contraption that Grant is piloting, Bond finds him lying on the floor, defeated. Bond levels his gun and Grant starts to mock him.
“Are you going to shoot me in cold blood, old man? You don’t have the guts. It’s not the ‘English’ way. It’s just like red wine with fish.”
The way Grant delivers the line is perfect. The sneering disapproval of ‘English’, the reoccurrence of “old man” as an insult, and the final hint of their previous encounter with the mention of red wine and fish. Grant and the organisation Octopus set up the murder of Bond in the story because they misread the “British mentality”, which is stated at the beginning of the game (and the film). That’s why is hits much harder when Bond blows Grant away before he even finishes the word ‘fish’.
Bond’s final line of “That was for Kerim” also adds a somber tone to proceedings. Throughout the game, Kerim Bey has been by your side, helping you out along the way. Grant kills Kerim just before you meet in the dining car, and we see no hint of emotion from Bond when he first learns of Kerim’s death during gameplay.
Adding it here adds a nice little pathos to the end of the game and cements the fact that these two characters had a friendship rather than Kerim being just a helpful NPC.
(19:29-21:58 and 29:13)
Sam Fisher in Ghost Recon Wildlands
I put another Splinter Cell moment on my first list because the writing in Splinter Cell is top notch and Sam Fisher is one of the best-written characters in the entirety of gaming. Michael Ironside, the original voice of Sam Fisher, worked with the developers to create a more three-dimensional character, giving Sam not just a great voice but something more on a deeper level.
Ironside explains that originally Sam was going to be a G.I. Joe-esque, two-dimensional, flat, gung-ho type character. Ironside wasn’t interested in playing a character like that. He saw Fisher as, “…a weapon that the government has used too many times.” (0:52). The character is not a gruff, macho one-man army (who do have their place in gaming), Fisher is instead imbued with cynicism, dark humour and genuine moments of tenderness (such as when Sam is asked to tap phone lines for his former field handler Frances Coen, he says, “For Frances…of course I can” (2:30)).
But the moment I want to talk about it the character’s most recent appearance, as an NPC in the game Ghost Recon Wildlands. The Ghosts help Fisher with a mission (again voiced by Ironside rather than Eric Johnson, who took over for Splinter Cell Blacklist), before they help extract him and bring him back to their field handler, Karen.
The two characters of them have some nice banter (with Sam calling her Linda, to which she replies that she’s “Karen nowadays”). Karen notices that Sam has gotten old and he responds, “I’ve heard they don’t make them [spies] like me anymore” (14:44) before mentioning one guy that used to be like him. Most fans got a kick out of the scene because Fisher starts to describe Solid Snake. Karen cuts him off with, “I heard he finally retired.” (15:04).
Whether this was a reference to David Hayder being passed over for Keifer Sutherland or a wider swipe at Metal Gear Solid being shut down by Konami, Sam replies with a quiet, “Then it’s only me.” (15:09).
The beauty of this line is that it has so many different layers. The initial reaction is one of smug superiority; after many years of the two competing franchises Sam Fisher has outlived his greatest rival. But then it’s a sad dawning. Sam’s line of “they don’t make them like me anymore” has extra metatextual meaning; they don’t make spy/stealth games like Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid anymore.
Looking at it from a character perspective, what has Sam got? He’s outlived every other rival, and what does he have to show for it? He’s pushing sixty, in a job that he will never get any recognition or respect for, all of his friends have either betrayed him or died, he’s lost countless lovers, and he hardly knows his only daughter.
It’s a sad realisation and as Sam thinks through his place in the world, Karen snaps him out of his pondering, saying that he has a new mission and he’s shipping out in one hour. This adds even greater sadness to the scene and character. Just as he looks at his life from a different perspective and starts to have doubts, he gets pulled back in.
(Cutscene starts at 14:44).
The Cristina Memories from Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
I am not a fan of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. I feel that it was a step down from Assassin’s Creed II and negates the entire downer ending of that game (although Revelations did bring it back round for the finale).
The only thing that kept me remotely interested in the game were the Cristina Memories. Cristina Vespucci was a minor character in the opening of Assassin’s Creed II and is one of Ezio’s many conquests throughout the game. She’s rather important because they are childhood sweethearts. It is safe to assume they were each other’s first relationship. While we hardly see any of that in AC2, their relationship is explored during the “Cristina Memories”, little vignettes of their relationship in Brotherhood.
These scenes are interesting because we get to see what being an Assassin does to a relationship. All of Ezio’s other ladies; Caterina Sforza, Rosa The Thief, Lucrezia Borgia, countless courtesans, they are all mainly one-offs or “distractions”, sex just for the hell of it. Cristina is so much more, and it can be seen during the dialogue.
Their first meeting is beautifully awkward with Cristina initially being dismissive but then intrigued by her would-be suitor (with his plea for a “second chance” to woo her (1:12)). The second memory has so much in what isn’t said. When Ezio asks Cristina to come with him, she simply says, “I want to…but I can’t…my family,” (9:55) reflecting Cristina’s conflicting priorities between her life and her love for Ezio.
My favourites of the Cristina Memories are the third and fourth. In the third scene Ezio returns to his belle only to find she is betrothed. His previous playful banter with Cristina is diminished as he learns that while he has been gallivanting around Tuscany sticking Templars and collecting feathers, Cristina has been living her life in quiet desperation. She has had to move on with her life while he is still chasing people that took away his former happy existence.
While Ezio has had to mature beyond his years to care for his mother and sister, but when he sees Cristina again he regresses back to being 17 years of age and hoping that pure love she had for him hasn’t waned. It hasn’t, but he sees that his life isn’t compatible with hers, and his final line of, “He’ll make a good husband, I made sure of it,” (13:55) is gently tender yet painful as he must accept that she can’t wait for him forever.
The fourth scene is especially heart wrenching, as Ezio tries to recapture that spark of what should have been, if only the couple had time and history had been different. When the two meet in a dark Venetian alley Cristina is understandably pissed at him. He pretended to be her husband and he says he, “…was afraid that you [she] wouldn’t come if I [he] just asked.” (17:00). Cristina confirms this, and it’s here that we see the pain of loving and losing someone.
Cristina stills loves Ezio, but she had to change. He was forever teasing her, reappearing every few years, tempting her with a life and a love that was true and innocent, but with him racing off faster than he arrived, leaving her alone again. And she couldn’t do it anymore.
She loves him too much, and to paraprhase a line from Professor Laytonand the Unwound Future (and another great romance scene), “ she doesn’t want to say goodbye again. She can’t, she won’t.” (1:00). Because it hurts her every time when he leaves. She tells him that she loved him but she has to end their connection. He had his “second chance” and she leaves, telling him to never find her again.
For the finale we see that Cristina still carried a torch for Ezio after all the time spent apart, hoping that one day he might return to her. She whispers, “I wish we could have had a second chance,” before passing away in Ezio’s arms.
What hurts more is that Ezio never truly recovered. Despite having endless flings and floozies throughout the subsequent games, no one ever comes close to Cristina until Sofia Sartor arrives, when Ezio is well into his fifties.
And in a similar way he originally doesn’t want to get Sofia tangled up in his messed up life and endless struggle against the Templars, but she stays anyway. In a letter to his sister Claudia, Ezio says, “When Cristina died, something withered in me,” (15:55) showing that even with time, some wounds never truly heal.
Elena and Nathan and “Are you Happy?” in Uncharted 4.
I know I mentioned in my first post that the Grosvenor McCaffrey interview in L.A. Noire is my favourite dialogue in all of gaming, but this one takes a close second.
After Uncharted 3 many people thought the series was over. Most games go for trilogies rather than quadrilogies, but Naughty Dog came back to tell one last hurrah.
The scene in Uncharted 4 shows life in the Drake household now that the two treasure hunters have “settled down”. Elena still has a little bit of adventure, travelling all around the world for travel magazines, while Nathan is relegated to menial cleaning jobs.
The two eat dinner and Nathan starts to zone out while Elena goes on about her current assignment. She can tell that he is dissatisfied with his job, but even when she tries to push him in a direction that would make him happy, he refuses.
Elena goes to wash up but Nathan says he wants to do it. He says he’ll play her for it on her “TV game thing” (a lovely jaunt through Naughty Dog’s Crash Banidcoot). One short game session later Nathan has lost and Elena starts to sweetly trash talk him, “You can give it another shot. C’mon double or nothing, my car could really use a good cleaning…there’s this mode called “easy mode”, I just switch it. It’s way easier on easy mode.” (12:37).
The two start to bicker like the cute married couple they are until Nate snaps and grabs Elena, tickling her into submission on the couch. The two stop and stare lovingly into each other’s eyes, until Elena says one of my favourite lines in all of gaming,
“Hey, are you happy?”
Nate’s unsteady reply of, “Yeah…course,” says so much about the two’s relationship, of settling down and moving away from hopes and dreams so they could have a shot at a safer and normal life.
The scene ends beautifully too with Nate asking, “You?” Elena puts on a mock thinking face and says “Um,” before the two laugh and kiss.
I would call the scene verisimilitudinous, but that would be a disservice to the scene, because it isn’t a simulation of the real, it is real. I’ve had this conversation in real life and similar ones like it as I assume many other people have. This isn’t just a sweet scene with some heartfelt emotion and some beautifully understated lines, this is a perfect representation of real life with all of its mundanity and shows of affection. And that’s why it tops my list as one of the best dialogue scenes in all of gaming.
(Start at 5:49).
Rounding out the list are some honourable mentions as well as a few single lines not from dialogues that I like. In terms of dialogues pretty much all of 2008’s Prince Of Persia is excellent with the main characters of the Prince and Elika seamlessly morphing from vaguely antagonistic to potential lovers over time (and all in optional dialogue, which is interesting).
In the Hitman series Agent 47 and Diana Burnwood’s interactions are fascinating dialogues mainly because of their working relationship. Diana is the only person that is “close” to 47, and even then he doesn’t see her face whenever they are together. Like the Prince and Elika their relationship has changed as the games have gone on, developing as the stories have got more intricate and personal.
For single lines (disqualified from the numbered entries because I wanted more than one character in the scene), the Max Payne series always has good lines. While I and my housemates have fun shouting lines from Max Payne 3 at each other (especially the over-the-top ones where Max’s voice cracks), my favourite line from the series is the last line of Max Payne 2;
“I had a dream of my wife. She was dead, but it was all right.”
That line sums up the pain of Max and his redemption over the first two games, quietly bringing the second chapter of his life to a close.
And lastly a funny one (warning, phonetically-spelt swear words ahead). From Rainbow Six Siege, the SAS Operator Thatcher has a hatred of all electrical gadgets, listing them, “GPS Satelittes, Unmanned drones…” and my favourite, “…fookin lazeh soights…” (as it is phonetically pronounced). The delivery of the line sealed my appreciation of it, and much like Max Payne 3, this line became a staple of my university house, with much hilarity ensuing when a barely audible “fookin lazeh soights” would be heard when passing each other on the stairs.