I have been on a backlog binge recently. Games that I missed the first time around, I’ve been rooting out copies and giving them a try. A lot of these games are outside of my usual genres, but have something that brought it to my attention.
IL2-Sturmovik: Birds Of Preyis a WW2 flight simulation that subtly evokes themes common in Russian literature and film. Enslaved: Odyssey To The Westis a western adaptation of an 16th century Chinese text with motion-capture courtesy of Andy Serkis and was written by Alex Garland (of Ex Machina fame). And Shadows Of The Damnedis a puerile and phallus-infused grindhouse romp through hell from legendary creators Suda 51, Shinji Mikami and Akira Yamaoka.
Following the running theme of games with confusingly long titles, recently I’ve been playing El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. The reason I became interested in playing El Shaddai is that it is an adaptation of the Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish text not part of biblical canon and that it was infused with anime visuals. It sounds like an fun prospect.
El Shaddai is an odd duck.
You play Enoch, a human and scribe of Heaven, sent down to Earth to capture the souls of fallen angels. If he fails then the archangels have permission to send a great flood and wipe away the world.
Aiding Enoch is the archangel Lucifel who follows along and calls God on his mobile phone to report Enoch’s progress. Oh, and he wears skinny black jeans and snaps his fingers with the frequency of a Broadway actor on opening night (he only snaps with his left hand, which is a neat touch given his name). He also rides a motorbike and constantly breaks the fourth wall.
An example of the latter is where he at one point rewinds time, but ends up going so far back that you get booted to the main menu and have to hit the start button again. Another is when he tells the PLAYER, “You can clear this in seven hours, if you are good enough,” (34:00) which is literally just under the standard play-length of the game
Enoch must make his way through the different realms to take on the fallen angels one at a time. Each realm has a different art style; the first is a cave rave with chanting hordes and psychedelic light shows. Another is filled with soft colours and fluffy clouds. Another seems to be influenced by Tron and another is a 70s glam rock concert complete with back-up dancers.
It gets even weirder when you finish some levels by being eaten whole by a Nephilim; human/angel crossbreeds that roam the land eating each other and destroying the landscape. I would call it Gilliam-esque but even Monty Python wouldn’t think up anything this brazenly ludicrous.
It is full of themes to deconstruct; the presence of religion, the nature of silent protagonists, or directionless combat. But let’s get away from those heavy topics and onto something a bit more artistic.
Today I want to talk about one of the aspects that made El Shaddai stand out from the other games I’m playing; the use of the camera.
Double Exposure – The Use of Camera Techniques in El Shaddai
El Shaddai doesn’t give the player any control over the camera. This usually proves a detriment to player engagement, leading to annoyance at only having a certain degree of gameplay to view. But the limitations give El Shaddai a unique look, one that couldn’t be found in traditional camera controls.
El Shaddai is a mix of genres, mainly hack’n’slash and a third person platformer. Enoch runs through the realms, navigating pathways and pitfalls, as well as taking on hordes of demons, martyrs and, erm…heavily armoured giant pigs.
Like I said, odd duck.
Most hack’n’slashers like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta have a camera that hangs back; with so many enemies on screen you need to keep track of all of them. If the camera is too close to the action then it can cause problems, with the player getting tagged by enemies they were unaware of.
El Shaddai during its hack’n’slash sections draws the camera back until the characters are incredibly small in the frame. While being in-keeping with the genre, it also lends thematic resonance. Enoch is a human, not a omni-competent world-shattering entity like the archangels are shown to be (that is when they aren’t being portrayed as talking swans, which is a good 97% of the game. Yeah, have you gathered how weird this game is yet?) The enemies and the landscape dwarf Enoch, as he fights against a world that seems too big to comprehend.
The hack’n’slash elements are structured in El Shaddai. As Enoch runs along he will come across a circular arena and the enemies will enter into combat. Nearly every encounter works like this, which is understandable. The arena gives the player a safe space to fight without having the fear of falling off the map.
In the boss battles with some the fallen angels such as Sariel, Azazel, and Armaros, they shape-shift into other forms (Sariel becomes a giant bat, Azazel becomes a Locust-like insect and Armaros transforms into some weird bug/whale/dinosaur/Sith lord hybrid, that is as simple as I can describe it).
When these forms appear, the camera shifts downwards, artificially making their scale appear larger. During boss fights, the fallen angel is the only enemy, allowing the fixed camera to not be intrusive. As soon as regular enemies appear, the camera moves higher to accommodate the player.
Once these combat sections are done, the game turns back into a platformer and changes its camera subtly. It moves more into a birds-eye view to aid jumping, especially since 3D platforming doesn’t have the precision of its 2D cousin. It is a light touch and is a smooth transition, accommodating for the dual gameplay but without large changes in gameplay or design.
A lot of the time during gameplay the player is running on a singular path, making their way through the expansive locations. The gameplay is predominately 3D, but sometimes the camera becomes stationery, morphing gameplay from 3D to 2D and back again. It creates these beautiful sequences that feel epic in their scope despite how limited they are.
Certain sections of gameplay will only be 2D, but these are usually for narrative reasons. The first section has us admiring a stained-glass window of the archangels. As the silhouette of Enoch climbs upwards, we are treated to beautiful renditions of Michael, Uriel, Raphael and Gabriel (who in this interpretation uses female pronouns, an interesting change from biblical tradition). This sequence is used to set up these characters and to inform the player that they are by your side during the adventure.
The second time the game uses this technique is after Enoch wakes from his Indecision after he journeyed into Purgatory. Once his soul is purified, Enoch awakens and goes to find Nanna, a little girl who helped guide him through a few of the realms. During his time out, she has grown up and has led a revolt against the fallen angels.
As Enoch runs along the 2D plain, the background shows a silhouette of Nanna fighting the fallen angel Ezekiel, the latter besting the former. The sequence is to illustrate how long Enoch’s journey has been and his desperation to help Nanna against the Fallen Angels.
During these cases, El Shaddai almost feels like an endless runner, focussing more on jumping pitfalls than actually changing direction or speed. It also brings you into the run at a pace, which I love. In certain games they’ll be a “run away from the bad guys/object” segment. Games like Uncharted, Tomb Raider, Crash Bandicoot, even L.A. Noire has a sequence like this.
El Shaddai has these running sequences, but the first few seconds of gameplay already have Enoch running away. It helps guide the player back into the action without losing a sense of flow.
Despite the camera moving all around the environment, El Shaddai always highlights which way you have to go to progress the story through. The camera guides your vision, unobtrusively showing us the way without a mere hint of an objective marker. There are only a few times El Shaddai breaks this rule, but all in service of gameplay.
The first time I realised it was just before Enoch heads into Ezekiel’s realm, the second of the Fallen Angels (9:04). Enoch is heading down a corridor before it is revealed that it is opening up. There is no floor beyond the corridor, only empty space.
A faint outline can be seen outside, but nothing concrete. In essence you are taking a leap of faith. When you do take the leap, the screen blooms and a staircase is revealed where the faint outline was. Much like the walkway at the end of Indiana Jones 3, the path is only fully visible once the player makes that leap and is both stylistically and thematically fitting. The game does this a few times during important moments, where the art will slightly obscure the path to allow those moments of revelation to the player.
Many games try and create a world, but only a few capture an excellent sense of location and space in their camera movements. It is something that Japanese games work well with. Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Shadow Of The Colossus, 3D Mario games, they are very precise on shot placement and movement in gameplay.
That is not to say Western developers don’t also use these techniques. Gone Home’s use of first-person camera and lighting definitely created a sense of foreboding during gameplay. The original Alone In The Dark is credited with inspiring Silent Hill‘s and Resident Evil‘s camera techniques. Quantic Dream does everything in their power to create cinematic shots in their games. And Ready At Dawn mimicked lens focus and aspect ratios for their launch title The Order: 1886.
Another example may be Uncharted 3 during its chases sequences.
Looking at this sequence in Yemen, the camera moves with the action; zooming, focussing, and wiping to aid player progression.
When main character Nathan Drake and bad guy Talbot are inside, the camera zooms closer in, when they are running on the rooftops the camera heads into more of a birds-eye view to help jumping. My favourite moments are in changes of direction.
Similar to how film editors “wipe” the screen during long takes, Uncharted 3 will make these small adjustments to aid players, such as Nathan banging into walls or being hit by a door (4:23, 5:30, and 6:56).
Control is taken away for a second, the camera shifts where it needs to be (the new direction the player is moving) and then control is given back. It is a smooth transition yet it is distinct; players know that when the camera resets to a certain distance, they are back in control.
Cinematography is alive and well in games and when thought is given to how it is used, a slight camera change can make an intense action set piece more thrilling and enjoyable than it would with a bog-standard third-person view.
An example might be the Skate series. The major skating series, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, uses a standard camera to aid traversal and give the player a sense of spatial awareness when moving. Skate on the other hand brings the camera lower, almost touching the ground. This is to mimic home-made skating videos, and somehow makes Skate feel richer, even if the camera can sometimes obscure geography.
With games being able to perform angles and shots that are almost impossible in film, it is always interesting to see where the format will go.
I recently finished Mafia 3 after a good few months playing it. It was one of the first games I got when I upgraded to the newest console generation and I was pretty much playing it non-stop, leaving other newer games by the wayside just to come back to this one again and again.
And after finishing the game I’m certain this will be among my favourite games I will play on this system.
Not since Remember Me has a whole game caught with me rather than just one or two good parts of it. So I thought a little breakdown about the points that hooked me into staying in New Bordeaux for much longer than I would ever imagine…
“We are a cruel and wicked people”– Why I love Mafia 3
The Story and Characters.
The story is the high point of the game. Telling the story of bi-racial orphan and Vietnam veteran Lincoln Clay, the narrative is told in a documentary flashback format. Characters tell their story in interview format, evoking recent films like Precinct Seven Five.
This feeds into the linear game structure, as we are being told a story (much like the previous Mafia games) which helps keep the pace up which can sometimes suffer in a game where you can go anywhere, anytime.
Despite having this linear structure the multiple endings all fit the character depending on the player’s reading of Lincoln.
I was surprised we didn’t start in Vietnam, similar to Mafia 2 starting in WW2 Italy, but that added to the characters, leaving us open to interpret Lincoln actions in Vietnam from his and comrade Donavan’s stories.
The story is beautifully realised with several standout characters. We have the three main bosses, Burke, Cassandra, and Vito, each with their own unique quirks. Vito is especially interesting, it’s fun to see a once playable character from the other side (again), where his simple layers in Mafia 2 (due to being a playable character) become a lot greyer with age and antagonism.
The second-in-commands too are well defined and have some interesting layers to them, making them more than cardboard cut outs that sometimes arrive with games as big as this. Emmanuel, the once refugee-saver reduced to dope peddling, Alma, the businesswoman not afraid to use female charms for her own gain, and Nicki, a woman struggling with her sexuality in a time and place that does not care for it, they all add something to the game, all through optional dialogue (which I am a big fan of ever since I first encountered it in PoP 2008).
But highest praise must go to Alex Hernandez for his portrayal of Lincoln Clay. Convincingly switching from cocky and confident to anger, sadness, joviality and eventually blood-driven when the time comes, he is truly an asset to the game.
One of the main criticisms of Mafia 3 is its mission structure. Very much like the first Assassin’s Creed, the game centers itself around taking down members of the Marcano crime family one district at a time.
Once you talk to a contact in the district you have several tasks dealt out to you, but these always follow the same path; kill some people, interrogate a member of the crime family or destroy their shipments. Once done then you can take over the rackets in that area before going after the main controller of the area.
This is just going to be one of those cases where I find enjoyment that others don’t. I think it might be because I really enjoyed the driving and combat (more on the latter next) so I had fun being given new scenarios lasting a few minutes to make my way through.
Hangar 13 said their approach to the missions, at least side missions, was “Lincoln doesn’t go fishing”. Essentially, this means the mission must make sense for the character to do (why does psychopathic murderer Michael De Santa do yoga in GTAV?). This feeds back into the story, again, keeping the pace and flow up rather than bogging the game down.
The Marcano capo missions are fun due to their added story and setting with each one being a completely unique situation; a shootout on a sinking steamboat, sneaking into a swanky whites-only party, breaking up a KKK-inspired cross burning, the list goes on and on (all involving excellent and period-fitting musical accompaniment such as the Rolling Stones, Del Shannon, and Janis Joplin).
While most devolve into shootouts the combat is so fun I never got bored. Speaking of which…
I can’t actually remember how long it’s been to have a combat system this satisfying, but it was probably at least back on the PS2 (I’m going to have a wild guess and say 007: Everything Or Nothing).
It’s your standard shooting, melee, and stealth tri-factor, but each one is done so well.
The gunplay feels responsive and sounds meaty, with a vast array of weapons to choose from.
At the start I was on-the-fly, picking up weapons due to limited ammo. Then I specialized in a sawn-off shotgun and sniper for both range advantages, before coming round to silenced pistol and assault weapons for an action/stealth combination. This is a perfect distillation of Hangar 13’s motto, “Every player’s story is unique”, and can be seen in the multiple approaches to combat as well as hidden pathways through the missions.
The animations in combat as well are a nice detail. With lovely smooth transitions from running (where Lincoln holds the gun one handed), to ADS, to the short sidestep after coming out of sights, the little points make the game feel rich and loved by the creators.
While the melee can become stale after the fiftieth whistle-come-stab, it does have moments of intense fun especially with the running takedowns. Only in a handful of games have I audibly “oohhhed” at the brutality I’ve dished out on NPCs (Sleeping Dogs is probably the main one), and Mafia 3’s American Football-style takedowns are poetry in motion.
You can choose between lethal and non-lethal attack as well. Even if the change is hidden in the pause menu rather than switching in gameplay it’s nice that you at least have the option. Especially since most games just give you “kill” as a catch-all for their combat.
The Open World and Travel
The world of New Bordeaux is a lovely city to drive around in. The cars seem more arcade-y than the previous Mafia games (there is an option of a Simulation mode for purists in the option menu). Lincoln’s signature vehicle is a classic, wheel spinning, fire spitting, drifting muscle car, and sliding across three lanes of traffic or 180 hand brake turns are easy to pull off and create that sense of spectacle and wonder we want from games.
As usual in Mafia games the setting is an approximation of a real city (this one being New Orleans), but has enough of its own style to stand out rather than feel like a copy/paste of Google Maps. The South has been the setting before in games, with indie hits like Virginia being in, well…Virginia, Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 1 in Georgia, GTA: Vice City in Vice City (a version of Miami) and Left 4 Dead 2 in a swathe of southern states.
I would say only the latter two come close to creating a sense of place as good as New Bordeaux with Vice City also having Haitian and Cuban influences (but better at creating a sense of time rather than place) and L4D2 having a wide range of locales like Mafia 3 (but most feeling more like shells rather than a fleshed-out world). Mafia 3 is the first one that actually feels like a living place with countless indoor locations, pedestrians, and drivers.
Talking of the variety of locations, Mafia 3 has a selection to rival most other open world games. With settings such as the bayou, junkyards, quarries, downtown areas, and its own version to the French Quarter, the city has a tremendous scope of backgrounds for Lincoln to dish out punishment on the Italian mob.
And despite having these completely distinct sections the map, New Bordeaux doesn’t feel disjointed when moving from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, which has happened within other open world titles focusing on rising criminal empires.
The interesting part about my time with Mafia 3 is I was completely sick of open world games when I started. I was sick of the endless stream of side missions, the “revealing” of the world through climbing towers, the largely meandering story that can sometimes come with having a sandbox as big as it can be.
I had been wanting a more refined experience and Mafia 3 delivered. That’s what sets it apart from its contemporaries; GTA has the bustling modern metropolis filled to the brim, AC has the historical fiction, Fallout has the nuclear dys/utopia, and The Witcher/Skyrimhave the magical fantasy. The Mafia series works because it has a focused central story that fires straight as an arrow carving out its niche in the market.
And that niche made me adore Mafia 3. Add in a cracking sense of time and history, as well as vivid locations and brutal, satisfying combat sections, Mafia 3 is a gem in my game library.
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;
I really like the Civilization series. I first came to the series with Civilization II on the original Playstation and sucked at it. Please understand I was probably around four or five years old at the time and pretty much completely blown away with what I had to do. I think I spent the majority of the game looking at the box cover which I still think is a elegant bit of art.
Through the years I would play different Civs, but only really got into the series with Civilization Revolution for the Xbox 360. While Civ Rev (as it is more commonly known as) is seen as a runt of the litter by fans due to its more simplistic design and streamlining due to being on consoles it still holds a dear place in my heart.
It is one of those special games that managed to connect with non-gamers I know, with its mix of history, politics, and geography (all helpfully illustrated with the Civilopedia). I loved the game so much I even went out and got an old copy Sid Meier’s Pirates!, created by the main lead designer of the Civ series, Sid Meier.
Today I wanted to write about something I find fascinating about Civ Rev that I don’t see much of, that is adaptive music and sound effects.
Introduction – Music in the Games Industry
Music has become a large part of the culture behind video games. What started out as what Melanie Fritsch described as, “…a ‘bip’ disrupt[ing] the silence…” (pg. 12, 2013) has transformed into an integral part of the system.
This can be seen with the rise of famous composers being brought it to do video games soundtracks, with notable examples being Hans Zimmer (Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, 2009), Joe Hisashi (Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch, 2013), and Tyler Bates (Rise Of The Argonauts, 2008).
There are even stars that are well known for their work on games. One of the high-profile creators is Jesper Kyd. Kyd is known for his work on the Hitman series as well as creating one of the most famous pieces of the seventh generation, Ezio’s Family, for Assassin’s Creed II (which has become THE defining piece for the entire series).
The music is so high profile now that games are picking up awards (Christopher Tin for Civ IV won the Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement with Vocalist(s)) and there are live performances for the music, for example, I went to the Tomb Raider Suite back in December 2016. In a similar vein Video Games Live is a major-selling show that plays famous video game music to sold-out venues.
But anyway, let’s move to focusing on Civ Rev.
The Silence in Between – Music and Sound in Civilization Revolution
A game of Civilization Revolution takes place over 6000 years. It starts in 4000BC with the game finally stopping at 2100AD if the player or AI haven’t reached a win situation.
The game is split up into four distinct eras, Ancient, Medieval, Industrial, and Modern. These rely on how advanced your civilization gets, with more technologies you discover your civ keeps moving forward.
The techs reflect this, with Bronze/Iron Working and Alphabet in the Ancient Era, Engineering and Banking in the Medieval, Gunpowder and the Railroad in the Industrial, and Electronics and Space Flight in the Modern.
As the game moves through time the music adapts and changes. It’s something that is so small but so engrossing. It would have been easy to have a singular “fight” sound, a continual loop that plays with every encounter, but for Civ Rev it changes based on your era.
Michael Liebe notes this as, “…linear music…” as it;
“…runs incessantly without any direct influence on the player’s action… [but] may change with different levels or milestones in the game.” (pg.47, 2013).
However, it also is part of what Liebe calls;
“…reactive music…[a] type of game-music [that is] is triggered by specific micro-actions… [such as] beginning a fight…” (pg. 47, 2013) because the battle music changes according to the era.
In the Ancient era, the player’s aggressive interactions with other civs or barbarians will produce woodwind and drums, perfectly evoking primitive instruments (4:23, 6:11, 12:24).
Moving to the Medieval era, there is a light accompaniment of brass into the mix, sometimes having an almost ecclesiastical quality (32:45, 33:23, 38:10).
The Industrial era brings with it strings, and heavier, lower-registered brass, hinting at the more expansionist, mechanized warfare as well as a more romanticized view of warfare that came with the age (1:04:24, 1:09:55, 1:10:28, 1:12:52, 1:15:57).
When a player reaches the Modern era, the sound completely changes with hints of synthesizers, metallic percussion, and even some electric guitar thrown into the mix (35:23, 35:39, 42:46).
The sound effects also follow this mode of changing although these can also be based on the unit (be it the ship, warrior, caravan etc.). While each has a “movement” sound effect, with marching boots, revving engines, or oars in water depending on the unit, it was the idle sounds that drew my attention.
Just hovering your cursor over a galley or galleon produces creaking wood and flapping sails. Hover over a warrior and your hear swinging swords, or pawing hooves on a horseman unit.
This even translates to the world. As you move over the ocean, crashing waves greet you. If you have built a city near the sea you hear crowing seagulls and shoreline swash. Build a strong market place and you hear barters conversing in shouts, or if you select a high profile mining and factory town, the sounds of hammers on metal and machines can be heard.
It’s not a subtle change, but it is somehow smooth. As we move through the eras not just the music changes but the visuals too, with our “advisors” (who look strikingly similar to Condoleezza Rice, Martha Stewart and Albert Einstein) taking on different dresses and outfits depending on the era. Roads adapt too, moving from dirt tracks, to cobbled streets, and finish as tarmac highways.
I previously mentioned Sid Meier’s Pirates! as being another game I picked up due to loving Civ Rev. Despite the remake of Pirates! being thirteen years old at this point its music is very much the same; always playing, but then reactive as to the situation, the location, and your reputation.
As you pass by ports of the different nations they each have their own theme. Even passing by the ports of pirate havens, Jesuit missions, and natives have their own musical accompaniments. Upon entering into the towns, the music seamlessly switches into different tones for the merchant, governor, tavern, and shipwright. But it’s the way the music adapts that got me again.
One of the gameplay themes of Pirates! is making money for certain nationalities. You can do this in many ways; become a pirate and plunder gold, trade professionally with merchants, or even send in some pirates or natives to raid towns.
This creates wealth disparity between ports with some being filthy rich (with the nation’s flag above being crisp and clean) while others are desolate (with the same flag being dirty and torn). The music reflects this with rich towns having beautiful renditions of the nations tune while poorer towns have maybe a single instrument with some notes being off-key. For example, here is the standard British theme and here is the poorer version.
All the parts I’ve talked about are small parts of the games. Most of these are not even needed as far as a minimum viable product; they are there as nice additions to the final published work. But that makes me love them even more.
They are so small but they create a much better product by having it adapt to the changing landscape and react to the player’s decisions.
It’s almost comfortable; a change that doesn’t jar you out of the experience but lets you settle into it. And with even the shortest Civ games taking place over a good few hours it helps aid that sense of progression.
Edit: This comes to an apotheosis with Civ VI, with the themes for the countries adapting and adding instruments as time continues. Similar to Civ Rev the themes are traditional songs from each civilisation, but these variations are excellent additions and aid that sense of passing time. My favourites are the Americans, Indian, and Greek.
[Back to original text].
We’ve all played games where the same two or three sound effects are used for battle sequences or playing over menus and load screens. Some of these soundtracks are great and I love them just as much.
But that reactive quality that I previously mentioned gives Civ Rev an extra quality that I never thought about let alone be able to vocalize a need for it.
It’s such a small touch and elevates Civ Rev in my mind to a much higher place for having it in.
Fritsch, M. (2013). History Of Video Game Music. In Moormman, P. (Ed.) Music and Game: Perspectives on a Popular Alliance. (p.11-40). Springer Fachmedien: Wiesbaden, Germany.
Liebe, M. (2013). Interactivity and Music in Video Games. In Moormman, P. (Ed.) Music and Game: Perspectives on a Popular Alliance. (p. 41-62). Springer Fachmedien: Wiesbaden, Germany.
I recently upgraded my console to the newest gen (PS4) after a good near decade of time with my Xbox 360. I bought a few games for the new console; Assassin’s Creed Unity (so I could pretend I was in an Alexandre Dumas novel), Mafia 3 (so I could drive around New Orleans), and finally Battlefield 1.
I’d never played a Battlefield game before apart from a few matches on a friend’s console of Bad Company 2. I always thought of Battlefield as a multiplayer-focused title so my interest was immediately turned off (local co-op is more my thing). Add to the fact that it was a continuation of a gritty, modern war aspect; nothing about the series got me hooked enough to play.
But with the announcement of Battlefield 1 being set in the First World War my interest was piqued. So I picked up the game and its probably the best thing I’ve played so far on my new system.
I was in love with time period (although annoyingly the game was focused on the latter part of the war to add as many machine guns as possible) and happy that the developers looked beyond the trenches of Western Europe. I was especially excited to see Gallipoli and Arabia make an appearance with a female Bedouin playable character in the latter section.
From a narrative perspective the change from sprawling epics to individual vignettes of War Stories is a stroke of genius, allowing the developers to move from battle to battle without having to tie it into each other. While the smaller stories mean you lose larger narrative structure making the ending feel flat, the end coda is a nice wrap up.
I just wish they had added more in connection with the DLCs, with battles on the Russian Front, or even better some from the Central Powers point of view (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottomans, and Bulgaria). This isn’t the Second World War with a clear bad guy on one side (so we are not playing as Nazis). If we want to talk about crappy stuff on the Allies side in WWI, Gallipoli and Arabia have you covered. Even the game acknowledges this with the final coda in the Arabian section (13:17).
But today I wanted to write about the opening of the game and how even though I like the start of Battlefield 1, the game bungles its hand and for me loses some impact. I am of course talking about, “You Are Not Expected To Survive.”
Battlefield 1 and Death as Inevitability
Many people hold up Battlefield 1’s opening as one of the most engaging bits of interactive media of the generation. As the game starts you are dropped into the boots of a member of the Harlem Hellfighters.
After a few lines telling us how many people fought and how world changing the “War To End All Wars” another line flashes up;
“What follows is frontline combat. You are not expected to survive.”
It’s an effective opening and conveys the game’s darker theme than other shooters as well as portraying the brutality and futility of some battles. BF1 carries this tone throughout the rest of the game with No Man’s Land during “Fall From Grace” being littered with soldiers (and rats), or the final push on “Cape Helles” showing the amount of deaths it took to take the hill.
However, I feel that telling the player that death is inevitable makes the prologue lose its shocking quality. Most players were probably the same as me, trying to fight for as long as they could, but eventually falling to a hail of bullets before quickly moving onto the next character.
The expectation of death (for me anyway) made me feel a little defeatist. What was the point of playing if I was just going to die anyway?
So, What Would be Better?
I did some research into WWI deaths for this article, but nobody can really give a definitive answer to deaths in WWI due to the huge amounts of missing and unnamed soldiers.
History On The Net ranks it collectively as 2/3 soliders died. The official statistics are 6 million for the Entente Powers, and 4 million for the Central Powers.
But let’s take 2/3 as our number just for conveniences sake.
“What follows is frontline combat. Two out of every three soldiers in WWI died.”
Now, what that does is give a glimmer of hope to a player. As players we are conditioned to not dying in-game. That third, that 1/3, we think it will be us. So when we die and your character’s name flashes on screen it would hit much harder. This is a concept known as defamiliarization (breaking away from traditional forms to allow us to view things differently, such as being killed again and again in what should be a fun shooting game), and interestingly here is an academic dissection of the scene by Stuart Marshall Baker which discusses the idea in relation to the prologue. If we even wanted to go further the game could pit us in a battle where entire squads were wiped out such as The Somme or Passchendaele.
“What follows is frontline combat. Entire squads were wiped out in a single day.”
That still delivers a grim mood, but isn’t an absolute. You could still make it through and be one of the lucky ones.
I believe that giving us that inch of hope only to snatch it away would make for an effective and memorable opening. Obviously some of the gameplay would need to be changed. It would lose some effectiveness if players were allowed to pause and restart immediately after dying thinking that they could win the fight. Something similar happened with the “corrupted” section of Batman: Arkham Asylum when you meet Scarecrow (00:05-00:14). Anecdotal evidence aside, I know friends who went to go get their discs fixed because they thought it was a bug.
At the moment this seems like a bit of a pipedream, more theory without a real-world example. So let me show you a similar game (from the EA stable) that conveys a similar theme and makes it work.
Lets talk Medal Of Honor (2010).
Comparison: Medal Of Honor and the Looming Horror of Death
I really liked the two Medal of Honor reboots, Warfighter and all. Part of it was the “Based On True Events” aspect; I found that to be an interesting and unique selling point.
Medal Of Honor in 2010 was set all during the first few days of the Invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, with the player switching between a behind-enemy-lines secret operative and a Ranger who was part of the larger invasion force.
In our first mission as the latter character, “Belly of The Beast”, our transport helicopter drops us into a firefight and we must make our way to another drop zone and set up a perimeter for a medical transport. We move through the hills and encounter enemies and old relics of the Russian invasion.
Another reason why I love this game is also highlighted in this mission; you are not always the pointman. Your character carries a massive machine gun, better for suppressive fire than leading the charge. It was a little change from the one-man-army approach of Call Of Duty and I really liked it. But I digress…
We get to end of the level where the drop zone is to be located; a large, flat plain. You are ambushed from the hills and you cower with your comrades in the only cover there is, a small hut in the middle of the plain. Your radio messenger tries to call in support as you try and keep enemies at bay.
This is the end of the level. If you haven’t been stocking up on ammo (by requesting ammo from your teammates, which destroys some of the tension) then you will be running dangerously low just like the rest of your team. As you pick up stray rifles from dead enemies and are forced to use your pistol you realise that there are too many enemies and that reinforcements won’t get there in time.
Your commander tells the radioman to call off reinforcements and you start to contemplate the end, fighting until every last bullet is gone.
Around ten seconds later rockets fly across the sky as a pair of Apache helicopters come to help you out by scaring away the enemies. You end up surviving by the skin of your teeth and go on to fight another day.
This scene works because instead of subverting our ideas of death at the start like Battlefield 1, it waits until the end to make that shock and reflection closer together.
We were not thinking that we were going to die (inside the story rather than dying as a “game over”) and having that few moments to allow that idea to sink in was a chilling and horrifying feeling, something that Battlefield 1’s opening line extinguished by making us aware of the inevitability of the situation.
Protagonist deaths have started to become a wider theme in gaming nowadays although many of them won’t have it during gameplay. One of the memorable ones is Call Of Duty, with Modern Warfare 2’s Roach being killed at the end of a level. But Roach’s death is during a cutscene with control taken away from the player, lessening the impact. The same happens with playable character Pvt. Allen during the infamous “No Russian” level, where he dies at the end during a cutscene.
Red Dead Redemption had a similar scene with player character John Marston being shot down during a last stand during the finale. However, there isn’t much lead into the scene, with the death/shooting being moved to a cutscene rather than during gameplay.
The closest scene that I can think of is Halo: Reach’s ending. Again, you know that death is unavoidable, all the ships have taken off without you and you are left to fight an endless wave of Covenant troops. But just before you die you take off your helmet and it fades to cutscene again just like all the other games I’ve mentioned.
Battlefield 1 is an improvement over these scenes by having death come at you during gameplay. But by telling us that it is coming I feel that it loses some of that punch it could have had.
I still love Battlefield 1 and I still think its probably my favourite game on my new system, but that opening, while still impactful may have reached greater heights by toying with us a little more.
Level design is one of the fundamental building blocks of creating a game; it is the world that we inhabit. We can all think of great games with some excellent level design and all in different ways.
Some games use their design to aid you with traversal through a single path; Faith’s “Runner’s Vision” in Mirror’s Edge guiding the way through colour, or scratched/worn down walls in Prince Of Persia showing you can wall run are two that come to mind.
In a similar vein, other games allow a wide range of possibilities from a single starting point. Metroid and Castlevania have an almost exclusive hold over this type of design (so much that “Metroidvania” is a portmanteau in gaming culture). Newer titles such as Hitman and Ratchet And Clank also deliver this type of world. You may not be able to reach all the nooks and crannies until you have gone away and learnt new skills.
Other games use their level design to bring their worlds to life. Bioshock’s flooded and rusting hallways, blossoming gardens and…everything about Fort Frolic perfectly paints the dying embers of a Galtian wonderland. Remember Me’s narrative snakes around its levels, with the Bastille Lake and St. Michel Rotunda amplifying the narrative beats that occur in those levels. The hidden tombstones in Modern Warfare 2’s “Contingency” highlight a possible cultural heritage of the area.
Today I wanted to write about a level that encompasses all three types of design, to varying degrees. That level is “St Francis’ Folly” from the Tomb Raider series. “St Francis’ Folly” is a level in the first TR game, meaning that it was remade in Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider Anniversary. So I wanted to talk about the two in tandem, because even though they are the same level, the way they differ gives a different tone to each level.
How “St Francis’ Folly”’s Meaning Changes Through Different Level Design
“St Francis’ Folly” is probably one of the most recognisable and memorable of the original Tomb Raider levels. Jason Botta, creative director for Tomb Raider Anniversary ranked the level second only to the “Lost Valley”, (mainly because the latter had a T-Rex) (2:14).
“St Francis’ Folly” is a really good example of a jump in a difficulty spike. The first four levels of TR1 are spent getting you used to the controls. You’ve done a bit of swimming, a bit of climbing, running, jumping, and most of it is forgiving. If you miss a jump, you just climb back to the spot and try again. “St Francis’ Folly” does not give you that privilege. If you mess up, you will most likely die. It’s really easy to die because the whole point of the level is being REALLY HIGH UP. The structure is so tall in the original game you can’t see the bottom; the draw distance fades to black.
Toby Gard, designer for the original Tomb Raider and Anniversary, stated the goal for the area;
“…It’s quite common that game designers even when they have a 3D vertical space that they can play with, they tend to sort of end up making long, flat things anyway. So that particular area from the original game was just sort of let’s go as vertical as we possibly can…” (2:55).
The level is virtually unchanged from game to game, only with a few trickier challenge rooms for TRA’s more nimble Lara and appropriately named rooms (TR1 had “Neptune” and “Thor” in a tomb in Greece).
The major change to the level is the opening just before the vertical room, so let’s jump back a bit and discuss that section.
Let’s Rewind To The Beginning
The openings of the level are again, very similar. All the designers really had to do was update the climbing and traversal mechanics and it was pretty much set.
But the main difference is GETTING to the vertical room and where in relation it is to the rest of the level. Lets start with TR1.
The start of the level introduces the vertical aspect, in a safe-ish way. You jump from pillar to pillar, working your way around the room. You have some fun with pressure plates and open the big door at the other end of the room. However, this does not lead to the next stage. It is another room with a switch.
The door is in fact above the entrance where you came in. You have to use the previously mentioned pillars to jump up into the rafters, before sliding down into a flooded tunnel and eventually finding the way out, into the vertical room.
Now onto TRA.
The level starts off pretty much the same. You have a pressure plate that needs to be weighted down, which opens the big door at the far side of the room. You jump between the pillars to get into the rafters to secure the weight for the pressure plate, move it to the ground floor and proceed through the big door.
Then you proceed down a long, long corridor and into the vertical room.
This is such as small change, but for me it changes the meaning behind the whole set of Greek levels.
All levels in both Tomb Raider and Anniversary are built on top of each other. It is historically accurate; invaders have built on top of previous religious sites and settlements as an attempt to exert their dominance. It’s also thematically relevant, as the “origin” tombs are supposed to be hidden away, kept secret from the world.
But the opening for the first section of the Greek levels in Tomb Raider changes this meaning. In TR1, the vertical room (and by extension, the rest of the subterranean settlements) is hidden back the way you came. It takes a little more thought to figure out where you have to go. And even if you get that far you then have to survive an underwater current and a very hungry crocodile. It feels like a secret entrance to an underground network, somewhere hidden away so that grave robbers can’t just waltz in.
Tomb Raider Anniversary by comparison doesn’t feel like the entrance to a secret tomb, hidden away beneath 4000 years of history. It’s a straight line from the start of the level, the big door beckoning you forward. It feels more like the door to a vault (which is a rather good way of keeping people out). However, a vault-type opening indicates there is something precious behind it, giving grave robbers the incentive to break through rather than giving up because the entrance is hidden away.
It was only recently after playing the two games in comparison that I saw this minute difference. And it only really makes much of an impact if you are interested in the lore or the narrative of the world of Tomb Raider, but that distinction was big enough for me.
In terms of the original and Anniversary, there are more changes that are made for thematic reasons. “Sanctuary Of The Scion”, the final level of the Egyptian section of the game is one that springs to mind. In the original game you come out of the side of the temple, with your prize unceremoniously placed to your left.
In Anniversary, the sanctuary is at the end of a long corridor with a large gate blocking your entrance. You have to use the other two pieces of the Scion (the artifact Lara is searching for) to open up the gate. Thematically this makes much more sense that finding it on a pedestal, as it is the final piece of the artifact that has been locked away for safety.
Another one is the very first level, “Mountain Caves”. The finale of the level is once again, a large door, but to get to it you have to “run the gauntlet” of darts being shot at you. In TR1, you appear on in the corner of the room, an unglamorous (and not death defying) entrance to a hidden civilization.
The point I’m trying to make is the subtle differences between the two games. It’s almost like a translation error; giving us the same work but just off somehow. Don’t get me wrong, I love both version of “St Francis’ Folly”, but their thematic difference makes the original feel more “believable”, even in a game about mutants from Atlantis.
It’s a small change, but it manages to change the tone of the level for me. That’s how important level design is in creating the feel of a world.
That’s not a new observation, but it was very interesting to see it in action.
I’ve recently been replaying Hitman: Blood Money in an effort to gear up for my eventual play through of Hitman 2016. I hadn’t played a Hitman game in some time, so I took a little while to get a feel for the controls again.
I spent around half an hour learning the recoil and range of the trademark Silverballer pistols, perfecting a few of the timing “hacks” to speed up killing/sneaking animations and just generally remembering placements of guards and patrol routes that I could exploit. Once I had re-calibrated my console controls I jumped into the game proper and went merrily on my way, sticking clowns in wood chippers and feeding circus performers to their pet sharks.
As well as replaying the game for a recap of the series, I had wanted to talk about violence for a third and final time in games. I had already looked at Assassin’s Creedand L.A. Noire, for their displays at violence and I thought Hitman might be a good game to finish the mini-series on. And the idea to write about Hitman hit me on this playthrough.
On this playthrough I had decided to ramp up the difficulty to the highest setting, Professional. I had yet to complete the achievement “5 Professional Silent Assassins” awarded for completing five levels with the “Silent Assassin” rating on the Professional difficulty (kind of self-explantory) and so I aimed to complete the achievement this time around. “Silent Assassin” is the best rating in the game. To fulfill it you have a set of guidelines including things like; not having your cover blown, no witnesses, only killing your targets, and many, many more rules.
I had completed a few levels on Rookie and Normal difficulties and achieved the “Silent Assassin” rating, so I decided to use similar strategies on the higher difficulty setting. I jumped into the mission “A New Life” since I knew the perfect way to achieve “Silent Assassin” and played through the level. And this is the level that inspired this post.
Hitman: Blood Money and the Death of Innocents
The mission “A New Life” has player character Agent 47 heading to sunny California to kill a former Cuban mob boss, Vinny “Slugger” Sinistra, who has “turned” and entered the witness protection program. The hit takes place in Sinistra’s gated community while his house is being monitored and patrolled by at least twenty FBI agents. It is a piece of cake.
Alongside killing Vinnie, 47 must retrieve a piece of microfilm hidden in Mrs. Sinistra’s necklace. However, Mrs. Sinistra counts as an innocent, so if we are to harm her it must be accidental therefore leaving no connection between the crime and us.
The most straightforward and infamous way to do this is to obtain some lighter fluid from the Sinistra’s garden shed and douse the barbeque set and sit back and watch Mrs. Sinistra prepare lunch. After she is burnt to a crisp we can simply walk up to her corpse and retrieve the film.
So I dutifully did my job; blew Vinnie’s brains out and set his spouse on fire. I finished the mission only to realise that I had not achieved “Silent Assassin” instead getting “Professional”, the rank below. So I went back in and took a more methodical, slower approach.
On the second approach I decided to play dress up. One of the more humorous aspects of the Hitman series is that although 47 is a towering bald assassin with a barcode tattoo on the back of his head, he can pretty much throw on any disguise and get away with it. So, as I got back into the Sinistra’s home I stealthily “acquired” the Pool Boy’s uniform and equipped it. The Pool Boy is having an affair with Mrs. Sinistra and after I had donned the outfit the wife told me to follow her upstairs. Since Mrs Sinistra had been day-drinking, she promptly threw up in her bathroom and then fell asleep and leaving me to take the microfilm necklace as she peacefully rested.
Then I proceeded to blow Vinnie’s brains out and complete the mission, earning “Silent Assassin”.
On all my playthroughs of “A New Life”, I had never taken the Pool Boy approach. I had never thought to open up my creative mind and critical thinking and think about how to acquire the necklace differently. I had always gone for the more “fun” barbeque approach. And it started to horrify me at how nonchalantly I had killed someone because it was “fun” and “easy”.
Another mission later on, “You Better Watch Out…”, had a similar sobering affect. One of the targets is in a pool with a glass bottom overhanging a mountain outcrop. If you mange to get below the pool and shoot the floor then the target falls through…along with the five or so party revellers with him. Again, it had been “fun” and “easy”, but after passing by the innocent victims that had fallen through the pool, my brain started to question it.
So let’s think about it…
As mentioned previously, it wasn’t the brutality or the bloodshed that affected me (like it did in L.A. Noire). It was that it look little to no effort on my part…and without much coercion. The game gave me the tools and sat back as I played a violent fantasy.
A similar event happened in Spec Ops: The Line with the infamous white phosphorus scene. In his analysis of the game, Lucas Raycevick states a similar feeling,
“What unnerved to the core me was how casually I did it [used white phosphorous (an outlawed weapon)]. How routine it was to fart a laptop screen and play polka dots with missiles, exterminating white blips that may as well have been zombies.” (17:20).
Another comparable gameplay event, the AC130 gunship level “Death From Above” in Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was critiqued for this similar ease of dispatching of life. Journalist Quintin Smith, talking about the mission on Charlie Brooker’s How Videogames Changed The World, says this,
“It is tremendously disturbing because you can’t make out what these figures are. It could almost be a statement, but it is not. It is just there so you can have fun and that’s very dark.” (1:26:10).
But with the white phosphorous and the AC130 gunship, there isn’t any choice. The lack of alternative gameplay can undermine any statement that might be trying to be addressed, they were forced into that situation with no way out, other than turning off the console (which is an interesting thought but counter-intuitive because…you made the game, so why would you want people to turn it off?). But with Hitman: Blood Money I could have taken many different non-violent routes, but valued the easiest route rather than the less violent.
Thinking of the game as a whole, Hitman: Blood Money has a continual theme of unnecessary violence against innocents. Throughout the game a rival firm is mentioned in the end mission newspapers (the newspapers are how you find your score/how good of an assassin you were). In these margin stories it seems the rival assassins have no care for innocent life and will murder anyone who gets in their way.
Even the first assassination of the game is meant to spark the realisation that murder and assassination is not meant to be nice and “fun”. The first hit, Mr. “Swing King”, is not fully guilty for the crime that he has been targeted for and begs for his life after you confront him.
Warning: the following dialogue could be very disturbing with themes of murder. Reader discretion is advised.
“Please, haven’t I suffered enough? Don’t you think I know how much suffering I’m responsible for? I can’t sleep. I haven’t slept in…the guilt I feel. I’m so sorry, I know I can never…I’ll pay you. Twice what your client is paying, triple, please, I’m a [inaudible, I think he says broke or good] man. All I want is a second chance. Everything I ever did I did for love…please…I see it in your eyes. You’re not a bald man, uh, a bad man. You can’t just kill me…please…ah, no, don’t…please, please, I beg you, I haven’t done anything. Please, I don’t wanna die.”
Note: I recorded that scene on my phone and play it back a few times to get the full quote and I’m not going to lie, the dialogue and delivery messed me up. I had to take half an hour after writing the quote just to compose myself.
Yet we kill him anyway because it is what we do. We continually bringing destruction and death to subroutines and AIs until the job is done. Like 47 we are “born” into the game world to kill; we have no morality system to shape us, only a number with seven zeros after it and two words signalling if we have done a “good job”.
So while I love the Hitman series I have to admit that it has broken me. And all it took was the absence of violence. The lack of a kill made me realise how much it is pushed within the games I enjoy and how much I’ve been conditioned to go for it.