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 am currently replaying one of the Assassin’s Creed games, in which players are invited to go back in time and hobnob with the likes of Queen Victoria, Leonardo da Vinci and Cleopatra in 19th century London, renaissance Florence and Ptolemaic Egypt. They’re wonderful games for tourists – but they’re also shallow and repetitive, filled with busywork and ludicrous plots about ancient conspiracies and precursor civilisations. For a long time, I would buy each new Assassin’s Creed and play it excitedly, like the history nerd I am, but almost always I would get tired of them before I was even close to the ending.
Nonetheless, when I’ve got a phase where I’m tired from work in the evenings and don’t want anything that engages me too deeply, I often revisit an Assassin’s Creed game, because of the sightseeing. I don’t always need deep, engaging gameplay or storylines – sometimes what I want to do is climb the clocktower of the Palace of Westminster and look out over Dickensian London, smog, chimney sweeps’n’all.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the game in the series that lets you meet the Charleses (Dickens and Darwin), Florence Nightingale and even Karl Marx, another historical tourist of sorts, recreates an idealised if grimy version of London: instead of double-decker buses, you have horse-drawn carriages, but Trafalgar Square, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace look much like they do nowadays. And, arguably, the historical differences, the costumes, music and soundscape, improve the touristic experience. Moreover, while Assassin’s Creed Syndicate came out eight years ago, its graphics still hold up: its take on Victorian London is gorgeous, and at a glance it seems authentic.
Except, look a bit longer and the illusion cracks. It’s not just the things that are owed to technical limitations, such as the relative lack of traffic on the streets (photos of the time make it look like a miracle that any pedestrians of the era ever made it to an age where they could procreate) or the video game-typical thing where non-player characters (NPCs) would only come in a handful of permutations of faces, body types and outfits, so you’d come across very familiar types every few steps – the oddly anthropomorphic predecessors to today’s Prets. What really hampers the authenticity of Assassin’s Creed historical locations is how eminently shallow, how overtly gamified, the underlying systems and narratives are. These places look good if you look past everything that makes them alive – and once you do look at the denizens and the way their lives are expressed in the game, even on the most superficial level, they’re barely more believable than Disney’s animatronic Pirates of the Caribbean. In fact, it may be the gap between the beautiful graphics and their striving for an authentic look and the systems that try to make the place look alive that is the biggest issue here. The term ‘uncanny valley’ is overused, and there’s little that is uncanny about Assassin’s Creed, but the closer the graphics get to reality, the more the various shortcomings stand out. In that respect, the low-fi worlds of 8-bit and 16-bit gaming at their best feel more genuinely alive exactly because they are so far removed from reality: the more abstract and stylised something is, the more we’re ready to fill in the blanks in the illusion ourselves.
In parallel to Syndicate, I’ve been playing a very different game: The Witness, a strange combination of walking simulator and puzzle book. In the game, you explore an island that feels like nothing that ever really existed. It’s a place that’s entirely constructed out of ideas both aesthetic and intellectual. No living being exists there – other than the player, who is left to explore its many paths and regions and solve the increasingly obscure puzzles left there by whoever created the island. The closest it comes to NPCs is in its statues, that may also be human beings frozen by some spell or curse in the middle of what they were doing.
There is something tacky and shopworn to the surrealism lite the island aspires to, like those tourist attractions that feature optical illusions and real-life attempts to recreate the worlds of M.C. Escher: faces whose eyes seem to follow you, endless stairs, water that flows upwards. In its way, The Witness creates a place that is as shallow as Assassin’s Creed‘s 19th-century London or revolutionary America or the Holy Land during the Third Crusade. But the more time I spend there, the more I appreciate its style, which could benevolently be called ‘pop surrealism’, more so than the attempts at historical authenticity that Assassin’s Creed likes to lay claim to. The island of The Witness doesn’t have to measure up to reality, and its unreality offers a different kind of blank canvas for players to project their own ideas onto. When the illusion of Assassin’s Creed fails because its NPCs have the memory of goldfish and forget after ten seconds that I’d just stabbed a henchman in the throat right next to them, or when carriages smash into one another because the artificial intelligence controlling them is considerably more artificial than it is intelligent, or when I catch a thief by tackling them, get the reward for this action and then we both walk away as if nothing had happened, nothing interesting comes of this. The illusion is broken, the authenticity of the place is revealed to be a bit more threadbare than it seemed at first, and you practically hear the whirring of the servos hooked up to all the moving parts. The strangeness of The Witness, however, makes it seem that there is some kind of will that has shaped things just so – and if the things we see are a bit tacky, this raises more questions about the driving personality that has created all this. What is their intention? What is the purpose of this world? Why am I stuck here? What am I achieving by solving these grid-based puzzles? The island is a giant Rorschach test that makes you feel like Patrick McGoohan trying to find a way to understand and escape the Village where he’s been imprisoned without explanation.
I’d be lying if I said that I wouldn’t like to see an Assassin’s Creed game whose simulation of a historical place is more believable, whose systems and narratives had more thought put into them. And, absent this, I’m still happy to enjoy these places as a virtual tourist – for a couple of hours. But if I keep running up against the shallow mechanics of the place, I’ll quickly tire of the place – and after (I’d need AI-generated hands to still count this on my fingers) more than a dozen games, plus expansions, that I’ve played in the series, I’m definitely getting tired of them more quickly than I used to. When I then hear that they come with ever bigger worlds and playtime of 80+ hours, I’m tired before I even get started on them. And at a time when games become increasingly (photo-)realistic, at least on their surface, I have to say that I’m coming to enjoy the video game worlds that strive for a certain unreality by design.
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