In the previous piece that I posted about Assassin’s Creed, I wrote about the narrative of the game and how it holds up the rational, liberal subject as the most important kind of subject that can be produced by a system of governance. In this short essay, I’m going to continue this analysis of the game, but in the register of its mechanics and how they are presented to the player.
Assassin’s Creed as a franchise is concerned with actions of zooming in and zooming out. The frame for the games is this concept written as largely as possible — we are players playing a game where a character is playing a memory of someone doing very difficult and intensely-focused actions. This zooming in and out between macro- and microscales is given to us not only through the narrative frame, however, but also in gameplay itself.
The mission structure of Assassin’s Creed mirrors this larger pattern — there are “memory blocks” with discrete sets of collectibles, missions, and assassinations. In the course of playing through the narrative of the game, you progress through them linearly, “fast forwarding” through “non-critical” memories in order to get to the parts that matter the most for evil corporation Abstergo. But there is always the option to perform a “zoom out,” taking the memory blocks not as finite structures, but as part of the memory stream that you can dip back into whenever you want. Memory is a river that you can step into twice, three times, as many as you need to collect the things you need to get to 100% completion. This flexibility of the game’s systems, which always allow us to perform the act of zooming out and then zooming in to access any part of the game at any time, resonates again in the open world structure of the game.
Like other open worlds, from Grand Theft Auto V to Infamous, the maps of Assassin’s Creed are node-based. We can wander around doing whatever we want for as long as we want, and when we want to “move forward” in time, we can access the next node on the giant map that progresses the plot.
This ebb and flow of node selection is a process of zooming in and out on events that occur in the game. I feel very comfortable saying that there is a “standard scale,” a zoomed-out quality to most of the actions that players perform in Assassin’s Creed: you run around the map, you climb up towers, you collect flags, you ride horses. Each of the various cities contextualize these actions, tailoring them to their particular opulent or ruined architectures, but in the end, the running, the climbing, and the annoying of guards is fundamentally unchanged from location to location.
I describe these actions as “zoomed out” because our relationship to them is like looking at the ground from a plane; there are movements, differentiating features in the broad strokes of things, but minutiae is mostly lost. You hold down the free running button to get from point to point and that’s your relationship to most of the actions you take during these open world segments. You’re taking what Nietzsche might have called the God’s eye view; today we call it “playing the minimap.”
What establishes a mechanical rhythm in Assassin’s Creed is the zoom in, the focal moment, which is unique in that each action taken effects the entire scene. The structure of most of the missions that are accessed in the open world nodes work this way — you are given a target, you focus on that target and her or his movements, and then you perform a timed action on him or her. You follow a merchant, stand still as he looks around, creep closer as his back is turned, move closer, hit the pickpocket button. An assassination mission works the same — you find the target, trace his movements while carefully controlling your own, and intervene for a single surgical moment before dashing away across rooftops.
Mechanically, this is merely giving us what can only be called “assassin feel.” These very specific and targeted movements force the player into feeling like a scalpel, a single-use object that is very efficient at that single use.
Point and counterpoint, however, and so these very specific moments only have the qualitative feel that they do because they are not the targetless, running-around times. These moments of feeling highly effective with a strong purpose in life are contrasted against directionless running and climbing. Being zoomed in only has meaning because it does not afford us the access and choice of options that being zoomed out does.
On one hand, this is incredibly effective as a mechanical system for delivering a particular experience to a player. The designers and developers of Assassin’s Creed set up a very specific possibility space for Altair, and that space is explored efficiently and to a greatly “immersive” end in the sense that you really do experience the day-to-day of an assassin in this world. The systematic rocking back and forth between zoom levels becomes a rhythm of life.
On the other hand, it becomes very boring. Rhythm in music, or even film, works because it sets up a specific plan that is predictable, but the real payoff is when that rhythm is broken. This could happen on purpose — a reverse shot where there shouldn’t be one, for example — or merely through the media object ending, a natural interruption of the rhythm. What makes purposeful ebb and flow work as a useful tool is knowing that it eventually wears itself out — being mechanical, artificial, it needs maintenance in order to continue on in the world.
I think this might be the root of many of the criticisms I have seen so often about Assassin’s Creed. Before this most recent playthrough, I was warned about the missteps that the game made: it is too long, it is a big empty world, it is boring. And all of those are true, to a point, but I feel like they are all byproducts of the zoom in/zoom out rhythm. Once you perform or experience the structure for longer than a couple hours, it ceases to be vibrant and interesting; it becomes a chore, a heartbeat that requires effort.
Rhythm is a wonderfully efficient mode of generating investment in a media object, but the duration of that rhythm has to be reigned in and controlled, made finite. The predictability of it is an machine for creating player investment, but the moment that I wake up to that reality, I push myself from the experience. The moment I’m not longer humming along is the moment I realize I don’t want to hum any longer.