Assassin’s Creed II – “Authorship by Proxy”
Has it really come to this? I remember a time when designers, whether good or bad, creative or conformed, loved or despised, were authors. A time when authorship lived and died by their creators’ passions and views on what a video game should be like, and regarding a select few, their values and ideas on life. Sadly, “Assassin’s Creed II”, in more ways than one, reminds us that in the video game medium and business, there is no such thing as an author. There is an audience and its proxy and a whole bunch of middle men. Naturally, the job of the Proxy is to serve as conceptual avatar to the audience’s demands, whichever they may be. If the audience finds the game not to be as fun, violent, lengthy or varied as they want, it is the Proxy’s job to channel those expectations into a neatly fitted piece of game design worthy of their money. It makes me wonder if it still makes sense for game designers to take courses on the subject matter… it’d be easier to just let the marketing blokes take them instead, since it is obvious they are currently in charge of video games’ authorship. I know, I know, disheartening, is it not?
Take “Assassin’s Creed”. A game Patrice Désilets and Jade Raymond claimed, with a little help from a well crafted marketing campaign, to be the first ‘true’ next-gen game. A game so revolutionary, it would change the medium’s landscape. Despite its new take on the genre, some black sheep (myself included) disagreed on the game’s status as groundbreaking masterpiece, though the game still sold millions. “Assassin’s Creed” had some glaring flaws: quests were composed of generic tasks, game design was limited and ill-fit with the subject matter (an assassin that kills by day, and spends most of its time fencing with soldiers, had anyone heard of stealth?), story was under-developed, and to nail the coffin, the game repeated itself far too many times, with the game’s nine levels being exactly the same, with merely different wallpaper cities in the back. Flash forward two years down the line, and the accolades are plentiful – “Assassin’s Creed II” is a reinvigorated sequel, its flaws completely corrected, its charm fully blossomed. What changed? Actually, nothing did, except that the audience’s desires having been answered.
Every single critical voice was heard. The People demanded more quest variety – the Proxy gave it. The People demanded “Prince of Persia”-like linear platforming sequences – the Proxy offered them. The People demanded a meaty storyline – the Proxy obliged. The People wanted to swim – the Proxy cast the game in Venice and gave the People swimming abilities. It’s almost pathetic how Ubisoft simply bowed down and let every suggestion become an integral part of the game’s core. Where was Désilets, the quote on quote, “creative director”, during this process? Instead of analyzing his game’s faults, something which requires a deep understanding of game design and its intricacies, he appears to have been occupied checking boxes in complaint lists from a (sadly) uneducated mob. Think about it, does it really matter that you can now explore five generic cities instead of three, undertake a dozen bland side-quest types for obtaining bland generic collectibles instead of just half a dozen, and go through a story with twice the archetypal characters, triple the pseudo-historical context and an exponentially raised number of events that still do not make the plot move one tiny bit before the grand final twist? Oh, but you can now customize your character, with some vague, inventory-oriented character progression system, wonderful! Did I mention, there’s also some of the best (read worst) cut-scene directing and animation in a top-tier game in years? These now revised minutiae were never the problem, but a symptom of “Assassin’s Creed” malady. Of course, the People careth not about such negative ramblings, and looked in awe at all the new blessings the Proxy had giveth them, and all was made well.
I’m not saying that everything is ill about the sequel. The new-age meets catastrophe movie sci-fi plot and Italian setting certainly make it far more compelling to explore “Assassin’s” world, and some of the cities’ real-life monuments are rendered with an architectural beauty worthy of gawking in amazement. Moreover, the original’s parkour platforming and elegant combat system haven’t aged one bit and are still some of the most enticing interactive mechanics in the action-adventure genre. But make no mistake, “Assassin’s Creed II” few artistic merits can never hide that the sequel still is a hollow, generic, procedurally generated, author-less piece of game design. Alas, the People rejoiceth, for the Proxy has listened.