Sunday, February 5, 2012

#2: Story Versus Gameplay: An Assassin's Creed Anecdote

(Spoiler Warning: This article discusses the first two Assassin's Creed games in great detail.)

Story and gameplay are two essential parts to current generation games. People play games not only to have a good time, but also to be immerse in breathtaking narratives and interesting worlds. Many developers struggle to find a balance between these two core pillars of game design. Hideo Kojima has been criticized for his over-emphasis on the storyline of the Metal Gear Solid series and many people believe that the most recent games in Bioware's Mass Effect and Dragon Age series had weaker plots than their predecessors, in exchange for vast gameplay improvements. In this article, I will be using Assassin's Creed and Assassin's Creed 2 as my examples for story emphasis and gameplay emphasis because while I believe Assassin's Creed 2 is a better game, the first one had a much better plot.

But before I get into that, it is important to provide background information on the premise of Assassin's Creed. The series takes place in September of the year 2012. Most of the action takes place in a machine known as the Animus, which allows its user to relive the memories of his/her ancestor in a computer simulation program. In the first game, protagonist Desmond Miles is kidnapped by the Abstergo Corporation to access the memory of Altair Ibn La-Ahad, an Assassin who fought against the Knights Templar the Third Crusade, for an unknown purpose. Altair is at first shown to be an arrogant and egotistical Assassin with a blatant disregard for his order's ways. After his transgressions allow the Templars to find the location of the Assassin brotherhood and attack, Altair is disciplined and brought down from Master Assassin to Novice. To restore his rank and his honor, he is assigned nine targets who bring harm to the people of the Holy Land (modern-day Syria). These people are later on revealed to be Templar Knights on both sides of the Crusades and who have their own designs upon the Holy Land. During the game, it is revealed that Abstergo is the modern-day front for the Templars and that the war between the two factions never ended.

In the sequel, the modern-day Assassins rescue him and recruit him. To acquire Assassin training, Desmond relives the memory of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, an Italian noble who joined the Assassin order during the Italian Renaissance. His character arc begins with the death of his father and brothers as the cover up for some sort of conspiracy. Ezio embarks on a quest for revenge beginning with the men directly responsible. During his journey, he is made aware that his father and his ancestors were in the Assassin order and that his father's death had something to do with the Assassin/Templar war. Ezio's quest for revenge eventually becomes a quest for truth and he finds himself traveling to many major cities in Italy and bringing many cruel people to justice by killing them.

In my sincerest opinion, the first Assassin's Creed has an excellent story. One reason is that the player is given sufficient motivation to go after his targets. The way they do this is fairly interesting. Because Assassins are never allowed to just go out and kill their target, they first need to gather information on their target. Before each kill, the player learns both the why as well as the how: The crimes these people have committed as well as the method in which to dispatch them. This gives the player a context for their actions and begin to empathize with the Altair and the people whose lives are to be enriched with the death of his intended victim. This also highlights another reason I love this game's plot: There is a distinct moral ambiguity between the two factions. As Altair slays his targets, he learns many things from the conversations he has with them as they succumb to their wounds. What they say reveals the big dichotomy in the game. Both factions wish for world peace, yet they disagree with the methods with which to attain that peace. The Assassins believe that peace must be earned by educating the people and celebrating the diversity of the world while removing the arbitrary labels that separate us. To this end, they would murder prominent figures who seek to keep people divided and fan the flames of war. They will also vehemently protect those who would spread knowledge. The Templars, on the other hand, believe that it is impossible to dissolve the barriers between people through normal means. They believe that people cannot know true peace so long as free will exists. To that end, they try to find ways to force people to adhere to a strict order so that they might find peace. Because the player is an Assassin, the story will obviously be told from that viewpoint, but at no time is the player ever told that either side is right or wrong. In fact, it is made very clear that both sides are in the right. This allows the player to ask himself the question: Is it possible to obtain peace and if it is not, is it worth the price of free will? Any story that can get people to think has, at least in some way, succeeded in telling an interesting tale.

On the other hand, where I found that the first game had a strong story, the sequel's plot was much weaker in comparison. First of all, the Templars in Assassin's Creed 2 lack the ambiguity of their predecessors. While the Templars are seen committing many of the same crimes the Templars in the previous game, they are never given any redeeming qualities that justify their actions. Not once is it mentioned how these things further the cause of the Templar order. Furthermore, when Pope Alexander VI (He is the leader of the Templars and the final boss. Just go with it.) eventually tells Ezio why he is going to all this trouble, he tells him that he was hoping to open a vault underneath the Vatican and, using a super advanced mind-control device, bend God to his will and conquer the world under the Templar banner. This is a stupidly evil and ridiculous motivation that could never possibly make any sort of sense. Which transitions nicely into the other gripe, many plot points in the game are completely, ridiculously rife with plot holes. Take the Carnival segment for example. Ezio has to kill his target, but he will only come out during his party in Carnival. The party he is throwing is a masquerade ball with special golden masks. He cannot steal a mask because they have numbers on them (Which does not make sense, but I digress.), so he has to win a mask by winning four games. The games are stupid games like Capture the Flag and footraces (Which are not really fun either, but again, I digress.). When the games are rigged and someone else wins, he has to STEAL the mask to get into the party, which he should not be able to do, because they are numbered. And during the segment, Ezio is a wanted man, so he blends in by putting on a silver mask, despite not changing his absolutely, flamboyantly, bright white robes. It was the eyes that gave him away, not the distinct and very easy to see Assassin's robes. This is the most extreme example, but there are others like a fistfight with the pope, etc. Bottom line, I find the first game's story to be much better.

With that in mind, it is time to compare the gameplay of the two games. Assassin's Creed laid out a good groundwork for the game, but it was not perfect. The investigations, while they helped flesh out the story, began to grow repetitive around the time of the third assassination. The player quickly begins to realize that they are playing the same five or six missions over and over again, only in different locations. Players with low tolerance for repetition will be immensely turned off by these missions. This is not the only issue that crops up. Towards the end of the game, the combat system begins to grow tiring and the guards WILL attack the player at the slightest provocation. It can take a very long time to get through fights because the player can easily have over twenty guards fighting them at once. Fights like this can take several minutes and running away from them can be almost as long, if not longer because other guards will spot the player as he/she runs away. This is exacerbated by the end sequence where they throw waves of enemies at the player and enclose the area so that he/she cannot run away.

The sequel did well to improve many of these aspects. There is a variety of missions throughout the game so that it never feels repetitive to the player. There are platforming sections, chariot chases, theft missions, beat-up events, etc. Assassin's Creed 2 also improves the guard detection system of Assassin's Creed. The game features a notoriety system so that the player is not bombarded by guards unless he/she deliberately goes out of their way to attract attention. Items like smoke bombs can allow for quick escapes when the player feels overwhelmed and can also be used offensively to blind enemies, leaving them vulnerable. Other new tools like poison, throwing money, and a hidden gun also give the player options when dealing with encounters and assassinations. Combat has also been overhauled and the guards are far less likely to swarm the player. The sequel's gameplay is vastly superior to the first game's gameplay.

While Assassin's Creed has a much better story, Assassin's Creed 2 greatly improves upon the gameplay. While being in the same series and telling similar stories, the two games each have separate things to add to the table. Both are great games in their own right and future game designers should study these games to perfect their craft.

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