On Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood – City

This essay is in a longform series of posts about the Assassin’s Creed series. It is supported by my Patreon page.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is a departure from the previous games in the series in that it takes place almost completely within the city of Rome. The very tail end of Assassin’s Creed 2 had protagonist Ezio Auditore invading the Vatican in order to kill chief antagonist Rodrigo Borgia (recently-named Alexander IV). For reasons that are at best murky, Ezio spares Borgia’s life, and so the plot of Brotherhood takes us back to Rome and the Vatican in order to destroy a recently-resurrected Borgia plot to take over Italy (and the world) with a magical/technological device known as the Apple of Eden. Honestly, the plot of Brotherhood is labyrinthine, so I suggest reading this page or watching this 30 minute video to get totally caught up for this piece.

Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed 2 have particular kinds of relationships to cities. Both have what we can consider a “home base” alongside a few different metropolitan areas where the assassin character does assassin stuffIn the first game, this is Masyaf, the enclave of the assassins; the second game has Monteriggioni, the ancestral home of the Auditore family and the critical center of assassin activity in Italy. These cities are central to the plots of these two games, but they are not central to their spaces. You spend a minimal amount of time in these enclaves, returning only to get new skills or increase your general income. Most of your playtime is spent bouncing back and forth between conspiracies and missions set in the prominent cities of the Holy Land and Italy respectively.

Brotherhood ditches the model of an assassin traveling between cities and instead takes place almost entirely within the walled confines of the grand (in sense of scale) city of Rome. This shifts the entire understanding of space in the game. Whereas in the previous games you had home (the assassin enclave) and out there (whatever city you happened to be in at the time), now you merely have arbitrary locations within the vastness of the city.

The fundamental core of the game shifts with this basic change in the understanding of the game world. Fights over individual cities in previous games were battles in a larger war, and the act of playing the game was mostly about playing in these cities as if they were battles. Each was a single instance that did not, by itself, determine the outcome of the entire conflict.

The focus on Rome means that we are denied the context of the war. Instead, we are drilling down into the microphysics of a single one of those battles; we are not just looking at the outcomes of specific events, but with supply lines, troop morale, and the leaking of information. These sorts of quests make up the bulk of what you do in Brotherhood. You manage this small world until a specific constellation of events aligns. Ezio acts. The game is over.

One thing not-so-apparent that gets managed during Ezio’s time in Rome is the community itself. I’ve written about the individual subject and how the Templars and the Assassins conceive of that subject before, but this is a question that forks out from that one: how does a community like the Assassins’, which prides itself on individual liberty, understand corruption? In other words, how can the Assassins speak of solidarity?

To state the question a third way: how can a heterogeneous city speak of itself?

I mean this both in the sense of architecture and the population that crowds around that architecture. The game takes place in “Rome,” but what is called Rome during this time period is a strange collection of farmland, urban areas, and villages spread out between the seven hills that mark the boundary of that place. It is all in various stages of decay and development, new overriding the collapsing old, and yet it is still united in its commanding place-name: Rome.

The groups of characters we meet in Rome have this same strange experience. They are united under a single banner–they are Assassin’s in the sense that building and ruins are Rome–and yet there is a constant anxiety over whether someone will turn on the others (which we actually see happen in a later game).

A crucial set of missions in Brotherhood are built around the possible betrayal of the Assassins by Nicolo Machiavelli, their chief political strategist. At a critical moment where half of the order has decided to kill Machiavelli, Ezio realizes that there is a totally separate spy in their midst, a mere “worker bee” in the group who happened to be in two places during two bad times. Ezio kills the traitor, the anxiety is alleviated, and the game continues on.

This exact same concept is mirrored in the gameplay of Brotherhood. Rome is split up into several pieces, and each of those pieces are in various states of decay. They are dominated by Borgia militias; their shops are closed. Ezio, with his blades and money, cuts out the infection, the rot, and reinvigorates these areas. Much like the case of the traitor in the group, he eliminates the anxiety by turning these unpredictable, unmappable, unfriendly areas into ideologically-aligned zones of commerce and safety.

If this sounds out of line with the previous games, it is because it is. AC1 and AC2 draw a clear distinction between the methods of the Templars (smoothing, making homogenous) and the Assassins (prickly, preserving difference). Brotherhood seems to actively ignore all of that, and places the idea of brutal repression at the core of the Assassin’s order, seemingly misinterpreting the Creed of “nothing is true, everything is permitted” to mean that the Assassin’s can do whatever they want to one another as long as they feel personally justified in doing so.

There isn’t an easy answer here, but it does land back at the centrality of the name of community, of city, of Assassins. It is an easy claim to say that the act of naming “as a whole” is the homogenizing violence. A more difficult but more rewarding claim might be this one: the moment that the writer decided to write “as a whole”/”on the whole” rather than in specific character events, scenarios, plots–this is the crucial moment that caused Brotherhood to betray its forebears.

 

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On Assassin’s Creed 2 – Interface

This is the third of three essays in a series on Assassin’s Creed 2, which is itself part of a much larger series on the Assassin’s Creed franchise itself.

Assassin’s Creed uses the mechanic of blending in order to allow Altair, the assassin of the Holy Land in the middle ages, to hide within groups of monks and healers of the cities. For that first game, that’s as far as that mechanic goes; it is a scalpel-like application of a single ability in a game that is all about finite uses for specific abilities (as I’ve argued previously). ezio

The blending with the monks in Assassin’s Creed is meant to be an illustration of the methodology of the assassin’s themselves, as undetectability-until-too-late is the primary mode of attack that the group uses throughout the series and in all of its various incarnations down through the centuries. Just watch the trailer for the first game to really understand this — Altair kills, runs, and then disperses himself into the public through the bodies of the monks (which also fuels a hatred of religious orders later in the game).

This small amount of backtracking is important to do in order to point out how Assassin’s Creed 2 changes the use of blending. No longer is it a single-use escape plan. Instead it is a crucial way of being in the world. Ezio is constantly walking into groups of people, or standing behind them, or touching them as he walks through their tight-knit groupings. We can imagine a step left out, a quick introduction, Ezio acting as if he knows these people in the short moment it takes to make sure that the guard you’re tailing to look away from you.

Altair disperses himself into a silent group who eliminated all of their personal characteristics in order to become just that — an order.

Ezio disperses himself into a raucous, heterogeneous group who are all functionally identical in their difference. They are not an order; they are a crowd.

This progression of modernity into a weird, radical sameness (or infinite replaceability) was as much a bugbear of the early Modern period as it seems to be now; people want to be understood as different, and that quest for radical difference has always eaten itself like some infinitely predictable Ourobouros (see: normcore). That’s old hat and well-trod ground, though, so I’m interested in where that can take us if we take blending one step further out and into the interface.

The interfaces of Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed 2 are significantly different in a few ways, with the most important (and the only one I’m going to talk about here) one being the use of synchronization as a health bar. Carol Pinchefsky explains:

In AC1, there’s no such thing as health or armor. There’s just synchronization—how close you (Desmond Miles) could faithfully recreate the actions of ancestor Altair. If you got hurt or fell off a building, you lost synchronization. Why? Because you suck, I mean, you weren’t as good an assassin as Altair, that’s why. The real Altair was too nimble to fall of a building, too stealthy to attract attention, and more lethal than Agent 47 (ooo, I went there). That’s why killing bystanders also cost you synchronization: You weren’t performing compatibly with the memory you were trying to retrieve. It’s a brilliant concept.

The sequels totally miss the point of how synchronization drives the first game. They introduce actual health, which could be restored with health tonics. In other words, medieval assassin Ezio actually does get thwacked upside the head by that Brute, no matter what you “remembered” him doing. (This means that Altair, who did not miss his jumps, is a definitively better assassin than Ezio. Ooo, I went there again.)

As Pinchefsky notes, the general gist here is that the health system moved from “how close is the player to the reality of history” to “how well is the player performing in a specific set of circumstances.” There’s a significant difference in these two things, and the difference is one of understanding how interfaces themselves work.

In the Assassin’s Creed model, synchronization works the same way as blending: how close can you be to an ideal?

In the Assassin’s Creed 2 model, synchronization also models blending, asking “how well can you fit into this heterogeneous set of conditions where the right way of doing things is not distinguishable from the successful way of doing things?” 

The interface differences here are not merely different modes of dealing with the game. On the contrary, without parsing this out, I’m not sure that much of a difference is even felt between these two systems, especially since blending is such a small part of the first game in the series. What I believe is productive here is to think about what it means for the very mode of interacting with the game (me playing the game) to mimic the process of the assassin living in their world (Ezio becoming part of a crowd). These are what Alexander Galloway, in his The Interface Effect, calls “parallel aesthetic events,” or allegorical relationships between my interactions as a player and the character’s interactions in the game world.

This piece is long, so I will end with a description of those parallel events. I don’t want to drive home a conclusion–I don’t have one–but instead to open up how this process is working.

Ezio is following a target through a market. The market is filled with people wearing different clothing, carrying different things, sitting down and standing up, walking in groups of three to six, speaking and laughing. The target turns. Ezio, a person with literally superhuman powers of reflex and discernment, dodges into a group talking to one another. They have a short conversation. Ezio is no longer a unique superhuman, but instead a person with the fundamental characteristics of a nonplayer character. He is not a figure with a destiny. He is one of many bodies moving and shifting (and it is worth noting that the multiplayer modes for the series from Brotherhood forward depend on this becoming-NPC of the player character).

The parallel aesthetic event:

I am sitting on a couch. I am moving my thumbs and fingers in practiced motions in order to get Ezio to run from building to building in a particular line. Thousands of other people are doing the same thing at the same time. Then we are all doing the final mission. We are fighting the Pope. None of us are unique; we are all compacted into one heterogeneous mass with preserved difference and yet very little difference at all. We are all one of many bodies shifting and moving.

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I’m at Theorizing the Web 2014 today

Today I’m at Theorizing the Web 2014 giving a talk about videogame life, or rather, giving a longform speculative talk about the ontology of games if games are creatures in which humans are organs rather than objects that human subjects act upon. I promise it will be interesting!

Our panel begins at 2pm EST and apparently it will be streamable at that time at this link.

If you want to ask questions during the Q&A, tweet with that hashtags #TtW14 #a2. You need both because there are three panels going on at once and the second hash allows for distinction between the three.

For what it is worth, my paper is structured around thinking I’ve been doing with the work of Lyotard, Haraway, and Burroughs. If any of those send positive signals for your brain, you’ll probably like the talk!

 

 

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On Assassin’s Creed 2 – Conspiracy

This is the second of a few essays in a series on Assassin’s Creed 2, which is itself part of a much larger series on the Assassin’s Creed franchise itself.

It isn’t possible to talk about Assassin’s Creed without talking about conspiracies. They’re the life blood of the series, and conspiracy is the mechanism that gets us from game to game and connects up the strangest and most dispersed things. What I want to argue in this short essay is that the value of Assassin’s Creed 2 is partially in the development of the conspiracy element franchise from a simple backdrop into a fundamental connective force.

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Assassin’s Creed introduced the fundamental fight between the Assassins and the Templars: self-controlled liberation versus top-down domination, both with the final intent of creating the greatest good for all. However, the Templars of the first game are most easily summed up in how Dr. Warren Vidic is presented to us in the first game. He is a classic supervillain scientist with fingers in lots of different pies and an unquenchable desire to see his deeds through to the end, with the torture and killing of Subject 16 being the most tangible product. This characterization of Vidic as a contemporary Templar is supposed to hit the player very hard when contrasted to the first Templars of the Holy Land — where those ancient leaders were united under a common goal of subjugation, their justifications were sometimes incredibly compelling.

Dr. Vidic never delivered a longform, compelling monologue to explain to us why he believed what he did and why he chose to act. He was just evil, and because of that, we’re denied the longform logic of allegiance that we get for all of the other Templar characters in Assassin’s Creed.

For those ancient Templars, conspiracy is a mode of linkage that brings them all together. Altair, late in life, mimics the model and dismantles the Assassin enclaves in favor of a creed dispersed through populations, a kind of massive blending into society at large.

Conspiracy is community. Conspiracy is connective tissue. Conspiracy is a system interacting with another system to hide how those systems are working in conjunction with one another. Classic Hollywood Cinema is a conspiracy. Conspiracy is the machinery hidden behind an austere edifice.

Assassin’s Creed 2 proliferates conspiracies, and sets the tone of the following games in the series. In this game it is established that there is a First People (a la von Daniken) who set the stage for contemporary humans to come into being; this species could see forward into time; the polar caps might reverse polarity and kill everyone on Earth; every major figure in history is connected; and on and on.

On one level we have that set of conspiracies, the endless connection of things in the world of the Assassin’s Creed franchise that are not connected in our own world. The gameworld is one where the necessary desires of the conspiracy theory set are made real: there is serendipity amongst all things, and there is a fundamental order to the universe that is hidden behind a very thin mask.

On another level, we have the gameplay implementation of the concept of the conspiracy, the idea that there are several actors operating in collusion with one another without a third party knowing. The most clear example of this is in the extensive development of the Blending system. In the first game, it was merely a function of Altair’s clothing being similarly designed to that of the scholars who roamed throughout the cities; Ezio, a man of the people, can blend with literally any small group of people. Unlike Altair, Ezio is able to strike from a universal “anywhere,” not limited to the random sartorial stylings of the Middle Ages.

I’ll take it further: what better word is there for the collusion of Ezio’s body and the architecture of Renaissance Italy than conspiracy? The entire population is subjugated under the deep connections between Ezio’s abilities and the handholds and high (yet not too high) rooftops of Venice or Florence. The Templar conspiracies manipulate people and objects in order to kill and subvert the will of the general public. Ezio and the buildings of the cities work with one another in order to achieve the goals of the Assassins. Beyond an unwillingness to see the buildings as agents in their own right, what is the spread between the two?

Connective tissue. The linkages between unrelated things. Relations. All of this, conspiracy.

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Released: Carl, A Dawdling Guest

Hello!

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!

blurbthing

 

PLAY IT HEEEERE

 

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On Assassin’s Creed 2 – Control

This is the first of a few essays in a series on Assassin’s Creed 2, which is itself part of a much larger series on the Assassin’s Creed franchise itself.

Assassin’s Creed 2 invites us to think two ways about control.

assassinscreed2_1

1.
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.

2.
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.

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Intermedio: Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed 2

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.assassinscreed2_1

1.
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.

2.
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.

3.
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.

4.
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.

5.
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.

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