Lately I’ve been consuming two works of media dealing with religion, conspiracies, and semiotics in Renaissance-era Italy. One of them is the great novel The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and the other is the best and most interesting game of the year, Assassin’s Creed 2 (AC2) by Ubisoft Montreal. It’s the best game this year because it superbly mixes excellent combat and climbing base mechanics with the brilliantly realized open world environment of 15th century Italy, an compelling advancement structure, and a huge variety of memorable moments. If the concept of Assassin’s Creed 1 appealed to you (regardless of rather you enjoyed the mediocre actual game) you will love AC2.
You can read the various rave reviews if you want to know more about the specifics of gameplay, but AC2 is the most interesting game of the year because it brings all of those elements together to create a form of Art that is uniquely suited to the medium of Interactive Games. Before I continue I’ll warn that I’m going to spoil the plot of Assassin’s Creed 1 and the first hour or so of AC2, so you should flee in terror if that’s your thing. You may wish to read the plot summary of AC1 if you never played that game, it has enough flaws that I would not recommend everyone play the first game in the series.
I’ve personally always been enthralled by conspiracy fiction, dating back to growing up on The X Files and Deus Ex (10 years ago already). Today’s world is an interconnected web of complicated events that stretches beyond the means of any one person to truly explain or understand. But, this doesn’t stop us from trying. Dating back to the earliest myths and fables, the human brain has an insatiable desire to form a narrative out of the unfathomable. Regardless of the quality of its writing, The Da Vinci Code and friends are as successful because they directly tap into this deep-seated impulse of the psyche.
Of course not all works in the genre are quite as literal and simple-minded as The Da Vinci Code, and luckily AC2 takes some of it’s influence from more metafictional works such as The Illuminatus! Trilogy. Illuminatus! is a classic of the genre and works because it simultaneously treats conspiracies as deadly serious and a ridiculous joke. It constantly jumps around in perspective, tone, and setting in a way that directly mirrors the complicated and conflicted possible truths that are present in real life conspiracy theories. The 4th wall gets shattered a few times. AC2 has the same goal in mind of mirroring the layered structure of real conspiracies, but manages to do so while maintaining an internally consistent and self contained universe.
In Assassin’s Creed 2 you are simultaneously playing two extremely distinct characters. From his birth you relive the life of Ezio Auditore, a spoiled young noble from Renaissance Florence. Your first few tasks are to instigate some Romeo and Juliet-style gang warfare, flee the wrath of your lover’s parents, and then go for a leisurely walk with your mother. These interactions quickly establish Ezio as a charming but selfish rogue who deeply cares for his family, and cleanly sets up his motivation once things start to inevitably go wrong. Ezio is directly impacted by the events of the real-life Pazzi Conspiracy, which was just ridiculous enough that I assumed it had been invented by the developers. The sensation of climbing the interior of the Duomo in Florence is without peer in the history of gaming.
Despite being the focus of the gameplay, Ezio (and Altair before him) is not a proxy for the player of the game. Instead, Ezio is the proxy for the other character you are simultaneously playing, Desmond Miles. For most of the game Desmond shares an identical perspective to the player. Ezio’s life is playing out in Desmond’s mind through the technology of the Animus, which is a proxy for the very console the game is played on. The HUD, partially dubbed Italian dialogue, and various visual artifacts are explained via this conceit, and bring the necessary artificiality of a game within the context of the world’s fiction. As an example there is a detailed database of relevant real world information available in-game, but it is all written from the biased viewpoint of an extremely cynical British researcher who is a member of your support team.
During the rare sections where you see Desmond from a 3rd person perspective the UI is stripped away, the lighting and visual style is altered, and the movement and controls are simplified. I almost wish these segments were presented from a 1st person perspective, but practical development and control constraints won out in this case. Throughout the game you are playing the role Ezio, but the game tries as hard as possible to make you feel like you ARE Desmond. Even at the expense of making things less fun (Desmond moves irritatingly slowly), by the end of Assassin’s Creed 1 Ubisoft has built a fortified wall between the two characters.
Things get really interesting in AC2 when the wall between Ezio and Desmond (ie, You) slowly disintegrates, via what is named the “Bleeding Effect”. This starts at the end of AC1 when Desmond uses “Eagle Vision” (ability to visualize hidden information) to notice the cryptic glyphs on the wall of his cell, left by a previous inmate. In AC2 these same glyphs are hidden throughout the world of Ezio and are locked doors to background information on the world. They need to be unlocked by the player/Desmond, and the combination of well-crafted puzzles, non-linear information delivery, and pseudofictional events works wonders. You are actually tracing a conspiracy through history, and I’ve never felt so motivated to continue playing a game. The glyphs are just the start, and the blurring of boundaries is put to great dramatic effect later in the game.
Another unique element of the game is its approach to moral philosophy. The literal Assassin’s Creed of the game is a phrase attributed (likely incorrectly) to Hassan-i Sabbah, the founder of the historical Hashshashins: Nothing is true, Everything is permitted. Both Altair and Ezio are the embodiment of Deconstruction as they fight against the autocratic constructions of the Templars, who are attempting to build a peaceful and orderly world at all costs. Both have to go “beyond morals”, which is a concept I find very interesting. Morals are great abstract rules to live your life by, but the game makes the argument that if it can be empirically proven that someone must die for the greater good, then it is right to do the killing. This same utilitarian approach shows in the game’s general disdain for organized religions of all types, which is more explicit then I can remember seeing in any Western game (Japanese culture has a long history of distrusting organized religion). The game doesn’t dwell on this for an extended time period, but the Codex pages and circumstances of the ending make the viewpoint obvious.
The peaceful feeling of walking through a town square in 15th century Italy, the thrilling and ambiguous act of ending the life of a despot, the uncovering of the threads of conspiracy that explain EVERYTHING, and the disquiet of embodying two characters at the same time. These are sensations that can only be delivered by a video game, and realistically could never have been delivered before this generation. While other games like Uncharted 2 are striving to be beautiful collections of vaguely interactive cut scenes, Assassin’s Creed 2 is taking games, and Art as a whole, to where it has never been before. Many in the industry worry about the failure of commercial publishers to produce games that have Meaning, but it is games like Assassin’s Creed 2 that give me hope for the future of the medium. Everyone who cares about games as an art form, or just really enjoys a well designed game, absolutely needs to play Assassin’s Creed 2.