They create worlds: Assassin’s Creed

One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.

I’ve walked the Holy Land at the time of the Third Crusade. I’ve explored Renaissance Florence, Venice and Rome. I have crossed the cupola of the Blue Mosque. Five minutes ago I was scaling Notre Dame de Paris.

Allegedly I’m an assassin, member of an ancient order whose creed is “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” This is what I really am, though: a tourist. And I’m loving it.

Ah, Venice. (Avoid the dwarfs in red raincoats.)

The Assassin’s Creed games are a mess of ideas, gameplay mechanics, characters and conspiracies. For every good design idea they contain, there are two other ideas that fail to come to life – or, worse, that weigh down the games, making them leaden exercises in OCD behaviour. Collect a hundred feathers, empty a hundred chests, pick up a hundred glowy glitches in the Matrix- erm, the Animus. Game design doesn’t get much more lazy than that.

Yet look at the places the series evokes. Explore the cities, the Caribbean islands, the growing settlements in the New World. If some of the gameplay in the Assassin’s Creed games is pure drudgery, the spaces we get to inhabit are often breathtakingly beautiful. I personally prefer those games in the series that are set in big cities – I’ll much rather climb the Campanile than the more squat, rural buildings of pre-revolutionary America – but in either case these environments breathe history. There is a touch of the theme park to them, not least because the Assassin’s Creed versions of historical cities are always much smaller than the original locales they represent, but the care and research that has gone into creating them is obvious. They are strong examples of 3d game spaces having made the transition from levels to actual, believable places.

While the Assassin’s Creed games are third-person – or, translated into non-gamer speech, you always look at your character rather than through their eyes – the tourist in me salivates at the thought of walking through these destillations of real places in virtual reality… and the ex-teacher in me is intrigued by the potential this would have to get pupils excited about history coming to life before their eyes. Reading about revolutionary Paris is one thing; imagine seeing the angry crowds burning effigies right in front of you! It’ll take a very jaded student to shrug that one off with a disaffected “Meh.”

The latest Assassin’s Creed, which is soon coming out on PC, is set in late Victorian England. The trailers make it look like a mix of Ripper Street, Mary Poppins (those accents!) and Forrest Gump (because no assassin can ever exist without meeting every single person of historical renown), but I am keen to climb the Houses of Parliament and look across an interpretation of a city I know – though without the obligatory Pret A Manger and Costa Coffee at every corner. As they say, the past is a foreign country, and every assassin is a tourist at heart.

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