Another year, another Assassin's Creed game, just like another Call of Duty game comes along at the same time, the two annual AAA game genres are the stabby-stabby and the shooty-shooty.
Now we have Assassin's Creed: Syndicate. I haven't played it yet, but I know what to expect in the gameplay, since a game series does not radically change up those designs. It's what attracts fans and long-time players after all. Alas, I may have burned out on the series after playing through so many of them, including the Ezio Saga, Assassin's Creed III (which I hated), Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (which I really liked, including for its writing), and "side" entries like Assassin's Creed: Liberation. I've grown tired of the repetitious gameplay, the awful follow missions, the tedious busy work of chasing down wind-strew pages, the bugs where your character falls through the world, the cludgy controls where you try to grab onto a holding but it sends you into cover instead or fall to your death hundreds of feet below.
Then there's the story. It was always hoary nonsense to start with, but it was entertaining. My problem is it was getting increasingly ridiculous, but worst of all, boring. I didn't bother buying or playing the last game, Assassin's Creed: Unity. It had an utterly bland story that squandered its rich Revolutionary Paris setting and settling for a boringly generic male protagonist, to the point where I'd started calling the games series "Another Wanker in a Hoodie". Then the reviews and reports came in that the game was horrendously bug-ridden, often in the most fundamental ways. For all that Ubisoft tried to hype the game, it ended up shitting the bed in the most embarrassing way you could imagine, and that was even before I get to the outcry about the lack of diversity and female protagonist for the series. The game's new engine was so data-intensive that the bugs made it almost unplayable for many people. It ended up damaging the brand and the company was going to need to earn back the players' trust.
According to the reviews, the developers have made sure that Syndicate would run properly with as few bugs as possible, and the gameplay was fun again. And then there's the writing. The story is as nonsensical as ever, but it has a lighter, more tongue-in-cheek tone this time. You can switch and play as the heroine in the open world places, but the psychopathic roguish hero still dominates the main narrative.
Aside from Tetris, I only really play games for the story, and Syndicate feels like it was written by 14-year-old boys who giggled through History lesson. Or Guy Ritchie. Same thing, really. These are the things that apparently happened regularly in Victorian London:
You run into famous people just by taking a walk. Along the way, you meet Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Alexander Graham-Bell. Bell will build gadgets and electric grenades for you. Dickens will ask you to go ghost-hunting with him. Most striking of all, Darwin will enlist your help in defeating his intellectual rivals. Instead of him demolishing them and their theories through a sternly-worded letter to The Times or a brilliant lecture, he has his rivals whacked. You can just go after them and shoot them in the face in broad daylight. Apparently that was commonplace in Victorian London, since passers-by hardly bat at eyelash. Teenage boys agree that shooting Charles Darwin's rivals in the face is a lot more fun than engaging them in a debate.
It was perfectly normal to parkour all over London and climb to the top of landmarks like Big Ben and St. Paul's Cathedral. It was also perfectly normal to have a grappling hook and traverse all over the rooftops of the city like Batman. I'm amazed that everybody didn't do it. They also posted Royal Guardsmen on rooftops who were just crap at guarding and were there to get stabbed.
High-speed Grand Theft Auto-style chases on horse-drawn carriages where drivers ran over pedestrians and shot at each other South Central-style were perfectly commonplace in the late 1890s. You could also take over the boroughs of London one-by-one by sparking off gang wars and stabbing the leaders of each borough's gangs. Thug Life, yo!
It was apparently really easy to free child labourers from sweatshops by just stabbing the nasty foremen and then going up to the kids and pressing a button. You don't need to worry about where they were going to sleep or where their food was going to come from after that.
In Victorian London, there was no problem that couldn't be solved by shanking someone. Forget about protests, just stab the bad guy. Apparently the whole city was ruled by a nasty man with a moustache and you can save the city by eventually stabbing him. That apparently solved all the problems, including child labour, poverty and social inequality. None of that protesting or changing the law malarkey.
Don't get me wrong: all the above made me laugh.
Yes, I know it's "just" a video game and this is hardly any different from any naff SyFy TV show or comic book, and this is all in the name of fun, but is this all there is to it? I can't help but feel uncomfortable with the fact that the vast complexities of History and Social Change and Political Progress have been reduced to a game where the way to solve social ills and political corruption was just to stab the bad people. It's a reductionist and simpleminded view that doesn't really help anyone other than a games company make more money. This is essentially video games giving up the cultural high ground of presenting and discussing complex ideas and themes and ceding that to movies, TV shows and books.
Yes, I snark, but I love games. Games are becoming one of the pre-eminent storytelling mediums with massive potential. Why shouldn't we hold games to the same standards as we hold books, movies and TV? We consume stories not just for entertainment or escapist fun. I would argue that we need stories to help make sense of our lives and the world. Do we really want games to still be dismissed as juvenile and adolescent?
But hey, digital London looks really pretty and you can pick fights and stab people while acting like a wanker in a hoodie. Maybe that's the real subtext: what it feels like to be young and pissed off in Britain right now. Maybe it's more revealing about our culture than I originally thought.
Stabby-stabby at firstname.lastname@example.org
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