This is a game that I made and released a few weeks ago. It has been a Patreon page exclusive for a very long time, but now everyone can play it! Whee!
This is a game that I made and released a few weeks ago. It has been a Patreon page exclusive for a very long time, but now everyone can play it! Whee!
Assassin’s Creed 2 invites us to think two ways about control.
The Assassin’s Order is based around a simple phrase, repeated over and over again: “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” During AC2, you can read a Codex Pages, which are basically diary entries from Altair, the protagonist of the first game who lived during around 500 years before the events of the second game. In those pages, Altair discusses the difficulty of understanding the difference between the Templars and the Assassins Order — both groups understand that nothing is true and that everything is permitted, but they choose to do different things in the face of that fact. Those actions hinge around control.
The Assassins, as I’ve written before, choose self-control as their ethical axis. Altair’s diary entries are a great summation of this, claiming that many come to the Order after learning the first section of the Creed, and needing to be guided to the second; however, that guiding needs to be a showing rather than a telling. The praxis of the Assassins is not one built around dictating the shape of the world. Instead, armed with hidden blades, they carve it in a particular way, to evoke the opaque machinery of the world to common people. Late in AC2, Ezio and the gathered Assassins of his time period roam around Florence and gather masses of people, who revolt against their masters after the local military, religious, and civil infrastructures are revealed to be irrevocably corrupt.
Knowledge isn’t only power; knowledge is revolt.
The Templars understand control differently. It isn’t about the self, but rather about the body politic; everything individual must be sacrificed for the good of everyone else, but that’s only something to be said, not performed. Instead, they are the most classically evil dictatorial group possible, with a brutal desire to eliminate selves in order to make the world a more orderly place, where everyone is accountable to laws of man and God.
There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that on face, of course, and that’s the particular insidiousness of the Templars. Since they also know that nothing is true, they are content not to show, but rather to lead; they want to take the most appealing rhetoric and the most brutal plays for power and apply them to the greatest populations possible. There is very little difference between the modern Dr. Vidic and his ploy to launch a population-controlling satellite and Rodrigo Borgia, the master villain of Assassin’s Creed 2, who becomes Pope not to devote himself to God, but to wield the power of the church as a tool of oppression and violence.
This is the struggle, over and over again, and I’ll return to the theme in later essays.
Another way of understanding control in Assassin’s Creed 2:
It is very difficult to move Ezio. It is very difficult to translate something I want to do into the 3D world of the game. In a game about chasing, climbing, jumping, flying, and traversing a Renaissance cityscape, it is virtually impossible to do any of those things with any predictability.
Assassin’s Creed 2 controls like shit.
The first moments of playing Ezio, who we will follow for more than a decade of his life in this game alone, are as a baby. The player pushes in directions and presses buttons to move his limbs. It is awkward and strange it doesn’t make any sense. Then the same thing happens for the next 30 hours of your life but with an entire digital body. I don’t know how many times I ended up yelling “I hate this god damn game” at the television, but it was more than ten times when I decided to write it in my notes in a longform screed against the distance between my desires and the digital model prancing around in front of me.
Felan Parker gets us started with an explanation of the controls:
The ancestral assassin avatar Altair, we are given to understand, is a master of his craft, and the player guides his movements at a remove from the minutiae of quick-timed button presses. When Altair comes to a wall, if the player is holding down the free-run buttons, he will climb it; when he comes to a ledge, he will leap to the next building (or, in rare cases where there is no next building, he will fall).
Felan is writing about the first game, but the same concept holds in the second. You point Ezio at a wall and you run and he will climb. In the first game, Altair had weight — he could never jump as far as you wanted him to, or climb as high, or really just move like you wanted. This was frustrating but understandable. The reason why those controls are merely “ok” and why the controls of Assassin’s Creed 2 are unbelievable trash is that Ezio cannot wait to move. In the desire to connect up small parkour challenges or to skip across rooftops or to clear a corner by swinging on a hanging plant, Ezio is not too heavy; instead, he is too light, to quick to move, too quick to be uncontrollable. So where we had a lack of control in the previous, now we have an excess of control. Ezio’s body is one in excess of the player’s desires. He is a raw, twitching nerve.
If we make it past the pain, we’re left with a question: what does the pain of control do?
One thing is that it makes the interruption of the cinematic into the Assassin’s Creed series more palatable, a balm to make up for CONSTANTLY BEING BURNED by the game. The first game in the series had few, if any, “cinematic” moments, delivering the narrative to the player without breaking the diegesis of Altair living in his world. There weren’t any dramatic angles or medium closeups or establishing shots before cutting to the interiors of buildings. In Assassin’s Creed, the player lived the world with Altair; in Assassin’s Creed 2, the player watches Ezio live his life. In the first game, there was absolute control, and while the scheme was difficult, it wasn’t a soul-destroying force; in the second, it becomes a wedge between the player and the world, pointing out that we are watching the past more than we are creating something new.
This is a short piece in my series of articles on the Assassin’s Creed games in order to talk about some of the shifts that were immediately apparent between Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed 2. More posts on the second game in the series are going to follow in the very near future.
AC2 has made a decision to be much more “cinematic” than the first game. The opening sees us following along behind Lucy, our key informer about the goings on in the world of the game, as she shoots and beats up various Abstergo agents on the way out of a building. The first game ends on an informational cliffhanger, with many questions left unanswered, and the second game signals in its very opening that we’re not going to get a set of procedural answers. Instead, we get movement, action, and fluid; tonally, we’re in another world altogether.
Cutscenes. Everything takes place in a cutscene, and compared to AC2, the first game is completely cold and austere. When Altair received missions, you were confined to Resident Evil-style rooms where the angle changed. Now we follow Ezio around with a dynamic camera, meeting a number of different colorful characters. This is a turn toward the Grand Theft Auto mode of world creation, and I think the game is less interesting for it.
In Assassin’s Creed, we have emails as our form of “metacommunication” in the game — that is, when we read the emails of the Abstergo people, we are seeing the world that it outside this very small room we are trapped in while playing as Desmond. In Assassin’s Creed 2, this mode of communication becomes the database. The email account was external to the world of assassins — we had to hop out of the Animus, walk around, and read the emails. Now all we have to do is find a different menu. The database is omnipresent, and we always need to be updated to stay the most current with information.
The game loses all of its interesting interface information. Now it isn’t apparent that time is speeding up, rewinding, etc. Instead everything happens “in time” in the sense that we aren’t reliving memories but instead we’re creating history; we’re not trying to maintain fidelity to genetic memory but rather we’re living it in real time.
There are lots of gameplay changes, and I will address them in a bigger AC2 post, but some of those are: introduction of looting, blending into crowds, and the movement of the player character.
Andi McClure made He Never Showed Up, a game about getting stood up in the rain.
This is a game about time. Or, rather, it is about an absence in time, about waiting for a moment that never really comes.
Lyotard, writing about the relationship between a painting and a viewer, writes:
Two non-substitutable agencies, which exist only in the urgency of the here and now: me, you.
When you begin He Never Showed Up, there is nothing except for me, you. Me, the user who is flailing around and attempting to figure out what to do, assuming that at some point he will show up and I will get to just punch the shit out of Him for taking so long. He doesn’t. There is no you here, not in that moment, but when I realize that attacking does nothing but change the shape of the universe, then I find the you.
The directions for the game say “press A for hammer attack.”
I often write about games as possibility spaces. That’s the whole logic of “open world,” isn’t it? You can create an entire universe that, by virtue of being created, is entirely internally consistent. The designers and programmers generate this small yet large place and we step into and, with luck, accidentally smash it to pieces sometimes.
When you press the A key in He Never Showed Up, you’re attacking the shape of that universe. You parse through them; you turn existence into a crude replication of a slot machine, with Platonic abstraction and the heat death acceleration of the universe appearing within the moments that sequence into our field of view.
If He Never Showed Up is about time, then it is about flailing at its inevitability. You’ll find him, probably. He’ll be there, for a moment, and then disappear into the rain. The lights will click off. You’ll go home, and rain will fall, forever.
This is just a quick post to ask you for some help!
Recommend me some contemporary horror stories, preferably written and in the short story format. Anything that you like, from any subgenre. I want to get deep in this stuff, and I need your help! Interpret this as broadly as you want!
Post your recs in the comments! The best kind of stuff would be things that are freely available online, but I’m willing to pay a little to learn a lot.
NOTE: TO APPEASE ASHTON RAZE, LET ME CLARIFY THAT YOU CAN (and should) SUBMIT YOUR OWN WORK
There is a point in Stereo where a reader calmly explains to us that the subjects of the experiment we are watching consented to various surgical procedures in order to become part of the experiment. None of it is true, of course, but it doesn’t make any of the tonally flat descriptions any easier to stomach. Some had the verbal centers of their brains obliterated. Others allowed for their laryxs to be surgically severed. We’re told this. so smoothly, by a very academic voice speaking in a very academic way, and it is in that moment that I experienced aural body horror.
I’ve read things that have turned my stomach (and there’s a hefty trigger warning on both of those things for general body horror). This was the first time that someone had ever read something to me that pushed me to the edge, filled me with bad affect, not dread or disgust, but something totally unrefined and raw.
Of course, that is the core of Stereo. The story is composed of narratives, read to us by mostly disinterested people, concerning a series of experiments undergone under the auspices of the Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry, an institute that wants to understand the new modes of sociality that the future will demand of the human; their solution is the induction of telepathy in people in order to create a pansexual human who is in deep connection with everything around her. It is only in this mode, the texts tell us, that the traditional family structure can be replaced, which will allow humans to move onto the next stage of their collective history.
So it is a strange and amazing moment when content and expression meet in such a way that I feel like I’m being communicated to in the same way that everyone in the film is — telepathically, without a mediator, just pure affect flowing into me. While the film is silent except for narration, the first half has many scenes of people talking to one another; as time goes on, these drop out completely. We’re in the realm of abstract concepts communicated from mind to mind, an extended network of the brain.
I had a trick played on me, though, in a strange moment of form. We’re trained to think of voiceover narration as a direct and intimate linkage from our mind to that of the character we’re seeing. Voiceover gives us direct access to truth in a film, whether that is through narrative about what we’re seeing or in the difference between the two. I was lulled into thinking that I was getting something “true,” but instead I was getting what might be the furthest from the truth — an academic explanation. This trick of the medium, of comfort, is an inherent critique of the cybernetic connections that the characters of the film are experiencing. They feel connected, but as some of the narration explains, they are actually in a process of dominating one another psychically, replicated in the screen/body relationship when I’m watching it; I feel like I am in control, but I’m hooked, caught up, not feeding forward as much as living in a feedback loop.
And there’s no resistance for me. I could turn it off, sure, but I don’t want to. I’m creeped out, I have this awful feeling, I feel ethically disgusted, and yet I sit through the whole thing.
At one point we’re shown a scene of playful exchange between a young man and a woman. They chase and play, eventually giving into erotic impulses (as everyone in the film does, eventually), but over this long scene we’re presented with an act of resistance via voiceover. It is explained to us that she has created a dual psychic self, a dummy mind that is accessed by the other telepaths. Her physical self changes to match, becoming playful, silly, totally unlike her “real” self, which becomes suppressed yet still psychically alive. Eventually her “real” self starts expressing itself, sending telepathic messages of death, decay, and necrophilia into the collective mind of the group, depressing everyone, altering them in ways that they cannot fully understand. Her abject asserts itself and violently effects everyone around her. It is a truly amazing piece of science fiction storytelling, and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anything quite like it. I’ve pulled a transcript of the explanation from William Beard’s The Artist as Monster to give you the full effect:
Of course, with that high note, there is also the low. Cronenberg is often charged with a latent misogyny, and we see it here — of the many things in the film that happen with no explanation, more than one is of a woman being slapped or otherwise dominated by a man. Shots linger on their bodies, on violence against them, and there’s no way to read them — we can say that they merely happen, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but I can’t intellectualize it into pleasure the same way that I can with the body horror.
There’s so much in Stereo that I can’t talk about, not because I lack the words, but because I can’t make it all fit together. The characters walk around in medieval clothing, cloaks, sleep in monk’s cells, and read tarot. I have no idea what to do with it. One person cuts himself off, fixates on knives, clearly wants self-annihilation. Everyone has a baby pacifier as an item they constantly touch, suck, hold. Why? The film proliferates questions that we can’t help but want to solve. They’re unsolvable. And that’s the best trick that it pulls, the academic one. Stereo presents itself as a set of empirical facts, but as we’re told straight-up, there’s no repeatability with these sorts of social experiments. There’s no ground from which to speak. Instead, we can relate what we see, give the facts as we saw them, because there is nothing else.