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.

score: 2/5

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  • Comments (9)
  1. hmmm … haverá problema em ter jogos sem autor? Heis a questão. Alguém pensa no autor de um programa de TV? Claro que não! Acho que não há problema em haver jogos destes, desde que um bom every once in a while né?

    • ruicraveirinha
    • February 4th, 2010

    Of course Games can lack authors. But that doesn’t stop me from criticizing them, when in the context of a potentially expressive artistic medium.

  2. You’re playing LCD. Nice…!

  3. I meant LSD, which I so obviously must stop using.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • February 6th, 2010

    Hehe. Yeah, even I need a good game in my diet once in a while. Have you ever written something on that? Would love to read it. Cheers.

  4. Only a little for that “games and surrealism” paper I told you about.

    I’m still trying to get all Osamu Sato’s games before writing about him and his work or interviewing him. I’m hoping that I can get them this year if I’m lucky.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • February 6th, 2010

    Money money money. Good luck getting those 😉

  5. Really? I can see the proxy development of games as something more and more common as teams and production grows (also because most game designers not named Koyima, Suda or Schaffer have the awareness in the market that their name grants the game some brand recognition); and I never saw the original AC as a masterpiece (more like a good technology showcase for a generation that, up to that point, have little things to stand against the previous one), but I don’t see how the things you menction: more variety in the sidequests, a different setting and a character that people would actually give a damn about (as opposed to empty carcass of an avatar, like Altair) detracts from the core of the first game.

    It sounds like anything that could be bigger, was made bigger and everything that could be changed, was changed. Despite not being creative, it was what one would expect from a sequel. If anything, you seems to confuse listening to feedback with selling out; which I never though Assasins Creed had so much meat to sell out to begin with. It is not like what Bioware did with Mass Effect, either; where they just remove a lot of elements and turned the sequel into a 3rd person shooter. And, also, AC is one of the few western AAA titles that still shows its designers in front row (them, Schaefer and Bleszinski are the only examples I can thing of right now).

    I don’t want to use the same argument I have used here time and again, but here it goes. Videogame industry (and medium) is not alone in this “designed by checklists”, “no authorship”, “played by the numbers” problem. Pop music is, almost by definition, played by the numbers, with no credit given to the author. Cinema is also very patetic on this, you just have to see the box office during holidays, or the award nominations (Avatar and Inglorious Basterds, really? Is that the best it has in the whole year?). While this is hardly a justification for games, it is a phenomenon in which this medium can’t take the full blame on. As on other mediums, you should look for more creativity outside the AAA lineup.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • February 8th, 2010

    “but I don’t see how the things you menction […] detracts from the core of the first game.”

    They don’t detract sure, but they don’t add up to anything better (in my opinion, obviously). That’s my whole point. The first AC had the potential to be a very good AAA game: good technology, good ideas, some great implementation (in terms of combat and platforming). However, its generic design nature, procedural generated cities and repetitive game structure marred the experience. These were not corrected for the sequel. The bulk of the design process for the sequel was clearly spent in answering superficial issues brought up by media and players. This is why I think that even the first AC ends up being better than the second, because despite its flaws, at least it had new ideas for its time. ACII has none.

    “It sounds like anything that could be bigger, was made bigger and everything that could be changed, was changed.”

    I agree with bigger, not with changed. As I wrote, everything was increased in number, it’s true. But nobody addressed the core flaws, first of which was exactly the underlying phylosophy of quantity over quality.

    “If anything, you seems to confuse listening to feedback with selling out;”

    Everybody sells out. It’s a business, I get that perfectly. However, I am not a proxy for what sells or what people like (plenty of that around in Gamespot and alikes) – I sponsor a critical voice based on artistic criteria. Really good designers have their ideas, they feel how to best get in touch with their selected audience, they don’t need marketing to tell them what people think. More so, if they want to listen, they have to listen with designer ears, interpreting what are the root causes of the issues people present. This was clearly not done in ACII. They listened to complaints and translated them directly into the game, without re-thing design issues. There was no analysis involved. The game structure is the same, the quest system also, the design is pretty much intact. What changed were minor issues: number of quests, quest-types, cutscenes, items and so forth.

    “Videogame industry (and medium) is not alone in this “designed by checklists”, “no authorship”, “played by the numbers” problem.”

    You’re right, it isn’t. But first: whilst in music, cinema and other mediums there is a balance between independent ventures and commercial outlines, in video games art-house games are rare, elusive, trucidated by critics and avoided by players. There is no viable indie, european art-house, classical music genre, or whatever. Second: all other mediums have had, at least, 100 years to mature. This means that games are, by comparison, still in their adolescence (and that’s being optimistic). They still haven’t had the time to mature as media. The pervasiveness of the commercial logic we speak of, means that it takes much more time in evolving and maturing the creative process of the medium. Finally: if things are bad, doesn’t mean it is not our job to push things forward, by being critical, by supporting titles that make a difference, and by uholding only the best values for the medium. This is what I’ve always tried to do, and will continue on doing.

    “As on other mediums, you should look for more creativity outside the AAA lineup.”

    I try, but where do you think I should go? Most of the indie scene limits itself at producing small versions of whatever the big companies spew out. Truly creative, artistic studios are banned from the system, don’t sell and don’t get positive media reception. Most games don’t even appear in the shelves around here, and when I do find out they’re worth a look, they’re gone because only one copy was in the store. Besides, not all should be left to these groundbreaking outcasts. There is still a lot to be done in terms of AAA lineup; excellent games from recent years, such as “Uncharted 2”, “Bioshock”, “Ôkami”, “MGS3″,”Shadow of the Colossus”, and many, many more, all helped change people’s perceptions of what a video game can be. Because it can be so much more than just a ludic or entertaining experience, and most players still don’t realize this. This is why I’ll keep treasuring these games and de-value things such as ACII – they can be “fun”, but they do not connect with people in any way beyond that, thus not making games, as an artistic medium, move forward.

    Anyways, thanks for the comment Coyote, I always love your input on these matters, no matter how different it may be from mine.

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