Assassin’s Creed III is one of the most interesting games I’ve ever played, for the simple fact that my feelings in regards to my experience are all over the place. Love, hate, indifference, excitement, humor—it’s all here, which is probably why reactions to the game have been largely negative, though a few brave souls have argued otherwise. We humans tend to respond negatively when our emotions are so strongly mixed. I am not here to write an article about how Assassin’s Creed III is bad, or a misunderstood good game, however. Other, better writers than I have outdone me on either side of the debate.
I normally try to write things I think deal with big issues but are approached in a conversational tone. I’m still going to do that, but I’m gonna lean way more technical, because, honestly, I’m nerding out over something, and I’m loving it. I’ve picked Assassin’s Creed III for the same reason I always write about the games I do: I feel like I’ve zeroed in on something that’s not really being said about video game and video game design, and I feel like it’s something that we should be talking about.
This is not a buyer’s guide, nor is it a retort to the press, defending an underappreciated game. This is not the kind of thing that the mass video gaming audience wants to read; this is an article for people who are as interested as I am about exploring the deeper things behind video games and how they affect us. We’re gonna be touching on some game design theory quite a bit more in-depth than I’ve done before, so if you were just expecting “yeah I liked it,” or “no, I didn’t like it,” well, uh, surprise! The truth is, I enjoy exploring how things work; I’m a tinkerer by nature. Why things affect us the way they do is something I find personally fascinating; writing about it is something I find personally fulfilling.
I am writing this for personal curiosity’s sake, rather than to provoke a response (though, hey, a response would be great, not gonna lie). So let’s get started, shall we?
At its core, Assassin’s Creed is a series about assassination; not a big surprise, given the name, but still, it’s important to cover the obvious bits because they’re the building blocks that let us discuss the more complex ideas. In Assassin’s Creed, you are one person, and you have one goal: to kill someone. Every major arc of the game sets up a kill. Even when you have other things to do, that ultimately leads up to a chapter of the game where someone dies by your hand. The concept behind this is the idea of release.*
If you’re unfamiliar with this idea, think of it like this: a romantic film is about the moment when the tension built up releases and the characters connect. A horror film is about the moment when the terror finally releases and we confront the horrific. A comedy is about setting up the joke and releasing it with the punch line. Build. Release. Build. Release. It’s how storytelling works.
Games are, in their way, a kind of storytelling; a story is a sequence of events relayed from the storyteller to the audience, and what is gameplay if not a sequence of events delivered to the player by the designer through the medium of video games? As a result, gameplay should—and often does—work much like storytelling, whether it’s got a story or not. The basic player actions build to something, we come to a peak, and it all releases. These peaks and valleys are what make for an engaging experience. Halo’s immaculate construction is defined by those peaks and valleys, the “30 seconds of fun” idea. Half-Life 2: Lost Coast features developer commentary that explores this in a bit more detail.
So with Assassin’s Creed, it’s all about setting up those assassinations, those moments of release, when everything you’ve worked so hard for comes to a head and you pull off something great. Personally, I’d argue that the first game was the best at this; everything was laser-focused on finding the target, preparing to take them out, and then executing the plan. Unfortunately, when complaints about repetition hit, some of that focus was lost, and the series went from a game about assassination to a game about assassination by way of a great deal of back-of-the-box bullet points.
Assassin’s Creed III, when it released, had the most bullet points.
Now, having a lot of bullet points isn’t always a bad thing. A list of bullet points for Pac-Man: Championship Edition DX mentions multiple levels, lots of challenges, and other things. Divinity: Dragon Commander, one of the most-overlooked games of 2013 (sorry, Larian, but you made a PC exclusive that wasn’t an indie darling or Kickstarter success; the gaming media doesn’t care that you made one of the most engaging, endearing, “PC-ass PC games” (high praise from the guy who made Dark Souls worth playing) games of 2013), is pretty much Bullet Points: The Game, and if some miracle empowers me to keep writing about video games, you betcha I’m going to talk about how all those bullet points and sub-bullet-points work together and create a phenomenal experience.
But after series creator Patrice Desilets left, the series continued to add more and more bullet points, it seemed that Ubisoft was adding things less because it made for a better game and more because they were reacting to complaints about the first.
So, what is Assassin’s Creed III? It’s a game that provides a ton of things to do. In pure terms of value, Assassin’s Creed III may very well be one of the richest single-player games ever made. You thought Assassin’s Creed Revelations added a ton of features? Well, III removes the bombs and hookblade and drops a ridiculous number of new things to do in your lap. Trading? Boom. Hunting? Of course! A massive, sprawling single open-world that’s not just boring and empty like the original game? You know it. A dozen hours or so of additional side content? Of course!
That said, there’s the argument that it doesn’t do these things well, and it’s a compelling argument: as Kirk Hamilton pointed out in the article I linked earlier, a lot of the early missions in the game are just “run from point A to point B.” What’s really interesting is that, as I was playing the game, I kept trying to explore, and I kept feeling as though the game didn’t want me to. I explored around half of Boston, but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I wasn’t welcome to do so—the game actively seemed to resent my presence, which is a concept we’ve discussed before. The thought process seems utterly alien within an open world game. Even Stephen Totilo mentioned in his piece about his appreciation of the game that his discovery of the good things happened after the campaign.
We could suggest that this is the story’s fault, and that’s partially true—during the Haytham sequences, the game very much wants you to move at its preferred pace. We can’t ignore the way the game overly-prioritizes the story, reminding us of it constantly (Ubisofts loves its “don’t forget to do the main campaign!” notifications), while under-prioritizing things we should want to do. Why do we need to use the game’s trading system? Assassin’s Creed II brought us back to shops by using the armor damage mechanic, among other things. The game’s missions brought us to the villa on multiple occasions, and it was designed to subtly encourage the player to want to engage in the economy. With Assassin’s Creed III, you don’t really need money, which renders half the systems obsolete. The inventory/crafting system isn’t particularly well designed, and few of the items you craft have any real benefit. Assassin’s Creed II’s inventory could get unbalanced quickly, but everything served a purpose. The third main installment seems almost useless in comparison. Assassin’s Creed III simply does not provide adequate reason to engage in many of its systems.
Even if it did, these systems aren’t particularly engaging. Hunting can simply occur by running around the map; the penalties for shooting animals (something something economy not being engaging something) do not outweigh the advantages of merely shooting them in the face. Resources are plentiful; contrast this with Red Dead Redemption, where you’d have to go to a specific location to find an animal, set a trap, wait for the animal to arrive… it was way more in-depth than it was in Assassin’s Creed III. In addition to hunting, there’s a pointless “wander around a maze of sewers” system that… exists. In Assassin’s Creed II, this tied in to a larger “renovating the city/controlling the city” mechanic, which, if I recall correctly, was linked not only to the economy, but also to the number of enemies/infamy the player attained. Also, it was way shorter in ACII. They could have made a richer game by adding a lot more verticality, climbing, and more advanced puzzles to it, but instead, we got something that was almost entirely just “walk down a series of halls; occasionally take turns.”
Stealth, too, is deeply flawed. Check out the Sneaky Bastards’ manifesto. One of the writers explains in the comments why the notion of “pure stealth” is flawed. Assassin’s Creed III uses pure stealth—if you don’t stealth a game completely, you fail instantly, and it pulls players out of the experience, especially when the game in question isn’t particularly good at communicating just what it wants of players. For a game that was born from Hitman and Splinter Cell, two franchises that trace their origins to Looking Glass Studios’ Thief, you’d think we might get a deep, engaging stealth experience, particularly because it’s a game about being a stealthy assassin. But no, we get stealth where players either pass or instafail, mechanics that poorly communicate what they want the player to do.
We’re talking about a game that has a mission where you’re supposed to kill a man and steal his clothes, sight unseen, which actually means “stand here and do it in front of a bunch of people who aren’t wearing red coats.” This is a game that wasn’t you to perform exactly within stringent parameters while on missions, yet often completely fails to tell you what they are, explicitly or otherwise.
It may seem like I’m saying ‘hey, the game’s just not well made,’ but that’s not entirely accurate. The game’s homestead missions are rich and fun, with a lot of random ideas peppered throughout that make for a fun game; while I’m not a fan of mechanics that pop up only once, I must say I was charmed by the “break up a fight” mechanic the game had in one of its missions. I chuckled when Connor’s flat voice acting actually enhanced the humor of the Quebecois miner’s love situation. Kirk Hamilton’s written an ode to the game’s lock picking, and with good reason: it’s oddly satisfying.
Assassin’s Creed III is a game ostensibly about stealth; in reality, it’s a game about a lot of systems that don’t always work together to build up to one particular moment and then release it all at once. There’s not a lot of point to anything in the game—it’s just kind of there. But… we should be able to get past that, right? Plenty of games have numerous disparate systems that don’t serve any real purpose, and they’re not seen to be as problematic as Assassin’s Creed III, right?
With that question in mind, let’s totally switch gears and talk about communication.
You and I are sitting in two separate rooms, each with computers connected to each other through software and physical hardware. You type something. I read it. I type something as a response. You read it. This is communication, in a nutshell. You’ve got the sender/receivers, you’ve got the medium—that is, the means through which the communication occurs—and then you’ve got the language, a container for the ideas we want to share.
Without language, we can’t communicate. Without a medium for our language to travel through, we can’t communicate. Without an awareness of each other, we can’t communicate.
Assassin’s Creed III is a game about communication breakdown.
What are video games? Are they a series of rules that can be applied to human activity for the purpose of recreation? Are they the commercial products a multi-billion dollar industry? Are they Art? Are they time-wasters, life-savers, diversions, or ways of life? I’d argue that they are, in fact, all these things, because at the core of it, they’re a medium. Video games are one of many ways to communicate ideas to each other. I’ve often heard, in discussions about video games, that “gameplay” is a non-term, something without meaning, while others argue that gameplay is the point of games—the only thing that matters. I’d argue differently: gameplay is the unique language of video games, much the way prose is the language of the novel, and cinematography the language of film. Gameplay, as the language of the medium of video games, is the container for the ideas the developers wish to convey.
Assassin’s Creed II, as we discussed, has a lot of interlocking systems. This mechanic connects to that mechanic. They’re all parts of a whole mechanism, all bits and pieces that work together to convey one cohesive idea. Assassin’s Creed II is a game with a very specific design language. All its systems work together to convey the message of the game. A message can come in multiple forms; we most commonly think of it as “the moral of the story,” but it can be more subtle than that. If I’m making a horror game, then the ‘message’ is essentially my intent to scare you. If you are scared, you got the message. In this sense, that tension-release dynamic we talked about earlier is the message. The experience is the message.
The best way to lose the message is by corrupting communication. In linguistics, we have this concept of pidgins, patchwork languages made up from bits and pieces of other languages. A pidgin forms when different languages encounter each other and nobody speaks both languages particularly well. It’s hard to convey any sort of coherent ideas when you’re operating not just with different words, but syntaxes and rules.
So what does this have to do with the subject at hand? It’s simple: Assassin’s Creed III is sort of a pidgin game, a patchwork of design languages that don’t always communicate well with each other. Rather than a series of contiguous ideas, we get a game with a bunch of disconnected bits and baubles of varying quality that give us an overall dissatisfying experience.
Instead of getting a coherent gaming experience, we get a jumbled mess with great bits and disappointing baubles.
Here’s an example: Assassin’s Creed III is an open-world game. You can do just about anything you want. If the game says “go here,” then you can go there, however you want. It’s very open in this regard. But as soon as you’re in a mission, the game’s attitude changes to “oh, hey, you can’t go in THOSE bushes, because people will see you even if you’re hidden!” “what? No, killing that man is instafail!” “if you don’t keep looking at this guy, you’ll DIE!” “yeah, I know I told you not to let anyone see you, but I only meant other soldiers, not civilians!”
One moment, the game communicates in the language of open-world play, encouraging you to use multiple solutions and creativity to reach your goal, but suddenly, the game’s language and thought processes shift; now you have to do exactly as it requires, and any deviation will be met with strict punishment. Once the mission’s over, sure, go back to doing whatever you want! Imagine having to change languages every few words—it’s not particularly easy.
When you couple the way it uses this frustratingly muddled gameplay language with unclear mission objectives, bad level design, instafail stealth, and a bunch of other stuff, you have a perfect recipe for upsetting people. But… there are times when the good ideas shine through. There are times when Connor seems fun to play, times when you pull off something great and it feels right. There’s something amazingly satisfying about going from “how do I get that feather?” to standing still, looking at the tree, plotting your route to it, and getting the feather on the first try.
I think I know why this game is what it is: spend any time sitting there with the game’s credits, and you’ll probably pick up on it too. A ton of people worked on this game. Actually, probably closer to 54 tons, assuming a team size similar to Assassin’s Creed IV and an average weight of one hundred and fifty pounds. I’m digressing. On topic: several teams developed this game. Each, it would seem, had their own ideas as to the kind of game they were making. Sure, sure, all the pieces fit together, but with enough attempts, I can force most jigsaw puzzle pieces to fit together, even when they really don’t.
Assasssin’s Creed III seems to be what happens when you develop a game with multiple teams around the world. It’s a game where the bits and pieces are illogically compartmentalized, and they all have their own, distinct design languages. Different teams worked on different bits and pieces, so we got one team’s take on the underground sewer’s, another’s take on missions, yet another’s take on the homestead… and none of it really fits together well.
Strangely enough, I’ve been playing another game where this plan might actually work: Aliens vs Predator 2010. It’s a game with three distinct campaigns, much like its two predecessors (Aliens vs Predator 2 was particularly great, being headed up by No One Lives Forever, SHOGO, and FEAR lead Craig Hubbard). Each campaign has a unique design language based on the character you’re playing: Marine, Alien, and Predator. Theoretically, multiple teams from around the world could develop a game like that with relative ease, but in a project like Assassin’s Creed III, where things should be the same… it doesn’t work out so well.
At the end of the day, Assassin’s Creed III feels like a game without any specific vision. Instead, it’s a bunch of disparate elements all vying for dominance, beholden to a heavy-handed, poorly-written story.*2 It’s easy to see that talented, remarkable people worked on this game, but it also feels as if there were no shared, consistent vision. I think that when the series lost Patrice Desilets, it lost its way. Brotherhood felt undercooked, Revelations was a disappointment, and III…
So, uh, why care? This is just one game, right?
Yes, it is just one game, but we can take its flaws and its successes and apply this thought process to just about anything.
Take, for instance, the game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to assume you’ve played it, so if you don’t, hey, we’re about to get some significant spoilers up in this place.
Brothers, to put it simply, is one of the most profoundly affecting works of art I’ve ever encountered, pulling off something it couldn’t do if it wasn’t interactive. A large part of this is due to the game’s use of its gameplay language. Throughout the game, the player is controlling not one, but two brothers simultaneously. When one of the brothers dies, we suddenly lose fully half of our control scheme. This is a dramatic shift; an element of the game’s language we depended on is suddenly gone. It’s ripped away from us through the narrative, and the gameplay shifts to illustrate that change. So when we end up on the beach, with the younger brother afraid to swim—a call back to the opening cut scene, when the younger brother watched his mother drown, as well as to an early part of the game, where the older brother helps the younger one swim across a river—we’re brought back to that language we’ve learned the whole game. It’s a rich emotional punch that only works because of the consistency of its gameplay language.
Of course, that’s just one example, and it’s only from an artistic perspective. For those people who feel that gameplay is the only thing that matters in video games, a notion I firmly disagree with, think about it in terms of usability. In the User Interface/User Experience sphere, consistent design language is kind of a big deal. If you don’t have one, you run the risk of putting people off. The more someone has to learn when getting into software, the less likely they are to want to play; it’s one of the reason good UI/UX design tends to have shallow initial learning curves, with the advanced stuff there for players to get into when they’re ready for it. Video games often have The Learning Sequence, which can often last for several hours of play. The longer the learning sequence is, the less people are likely to be patient with the game, unless they’re already interested in engaging with it (see: Final Fantasy XIII fans saying that it gets ‘really good’ twenty-five hours in—that game wasn’t creating new fans, it was retaining a few diehards).
If you bog down the experience with hours of training (I clocked Assassin’s Creed Revelations still heavily introducing mechanics at like four hours, with Assassin’s Creed III still doing it at about ten hours or so) and lots of details to remember, you run the risk of putting off players. Assassin’s Creed IV is better paced in the way it teaches players the fundamentals within the first twenty minutes or so.
An example of genre that tends to eschew excessively-long is the first person shooter.
And you know what? Despite the fact that FPSes are a relatively uncommon genre as the big picture goes (last I checked, ten other genres outranked the FPS in terms of titles produced in the past generation), they’re amazingly popular because they’re incredibly easy to get into. This actually leads to some significant problems with people thinking shooters are incredibly simplistic games, which is demonstrably false, especially considering how prevalent they are within the major league gaming sphere, but that’s a topic so huge I’m making a video on it.
My favorite video game is the Immersive Sim, a kind of FPS with heavy simulation/RPG elements. Back in the early 2000s, the genre almost completely died. If you go back and try games like System Shock 2 and Deus Ex, you get these complicated training sequences and opening sessions that make it really easy to put people off the game. The Elder Scrolls was the only franchise that really survived, in large part because of how little there was for the player to learn. When Deus Ex returned in the form of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it had a much shorter, better-focused training sequence. System Shock 2’s resurrection in the forms of Bioshock and Dead Space was similar. Unfortunately, these games never really got more complex, and ended up being lesser than their original counterparts, but they were so much easier to get into that they turned fewer people away, and, as a result, sold more games.*3
The FPS, of course, thrived during this time. Halo’s utilization of in-game training was a massive paradigm shift—games didn’t need to have distinct tutorials any more*4. FPSes were drip-feeding new mechanics in a neat way. The base language was the same—dealing with six dimensions of movement coupled with pointing at something and clicking on it—but these games would introduce players to new weapons and new enemy types, training players covertly to try new things. They’d introduce ideas to players before requiring players to use that action. Letting the shooter evolve in this way wasn’t like suddenly shifting to a new language, it was like teaching new words, taking a new approach to phonics.
FPSes are some of the deepest, most complex games out there, but their presentation makes them seem very, very simple. They’re very easy to get into, and as a result, they sell really well. Ever heard the phrase “easy to learn, hard to master?” That’s the FPS in a nutshell.
People start to have problems when their languages change. The most hated enemy in Halo: Combat Evolved is The Flood. This is partly due to repetitive level design, but also because players got used to a certain way of playing. The language they understood was the language of The Covenant. When Halo drastically changed things up by introducing The Flood, it was a strong language shift. Not everyone enjoyed the change, because it went against everything they were taught. Narratively, it was a great shift—the point was to throw you. You weren’t supposed to be prepared for the Flood. But if you weren’t into that, you’d find yourself going “man, The Flood suck!”
Expanding on the notion of gameplay, however, let’s briefly touch on the idea of genre. In film, genre works as a sort of emotional payload. Film Noir is moody, bittersweet. The Western has an adventurous spirit running through it. The subgenre of Noir Western is a fusion of those genres, having both an adventurous and a moody nature going on. Depending on the genre, you generally have an idea about how you’re going to feel when interacting with the media. Gameplay genre’s much the same way; I feel one way while playing an FPS, another way while playing a real-time strategy game, yet another while playing a flight simulator, etc. Even though the narrative genres can change—Jazzpunk is a comedy first-person game and Thief: The Dark Project is a horror stealth fantasy title—there’s a distinct emotional component that comes with the gameplay language as well. If you pull off an inconsistency of gameplay genre, you risk changing the gameplay language and emotional affect of the experience. Maintaining that consistency of tone, using that language for a distinct purpose… all of that works to do something to us. We’re actually circling back around to artistic purpose here; gameplay is part of the artistic purpose of the experience. I think Brothers is great proof of that.
Are you with me?
Language is important because it has a strong emotional affect. This can manifest in an artistic, sublime sense, or it can manifest in an “I like this game/I don’t like this game” sense. Whatever you value in games, having a solid, sturdy gameplay language is going to affect your personal response. And, frankly, for everyone making games, surely you want the response to be a positive one. Surely you want people to value your work?
If you do, don’t think that great ideas alone will cut it. Assassin’s Creed III has a ton of great ideas, but they’re obfuscated through poor communication. If you want people to value your work, you need to approach your player base with clarity and consistency. They’ll reward you for it if you do. For you players, if a game’s giving you trouble, before writing it entirely off, maybe you’ll find that the issue is a design language shift, and you can better understand why you’re responding to the game the way you are.
I hope this has been helpful and informative. Have a great day!
Hi. As usual, due to job/time constraints, I managed this in just one draft. The pictures I grabbed from the Steam store, of both Assassin's Creed III and Payday 2: Gage Weapon Pack #2; I normally take my own, but played ACIII on the 360, and then realized Steam didn't have enough ACIII pictures and since the PD2 DLC is out, I thought I'd show some pics.
I’ve got a few more articles I intend to write here on TAY, then, I dunno. I might be leaving. We’ll see. Long story short, I need more hours of work, and the only way to get more hours of work is to get a second job or replace my current job. Getting a second job would leave me very little time to write, unless it was literally a job about writing; things are frustratingly dire for me right now, sadly, and show no signs of changing. Additionally, someone has offered me a writing position elsewhere, but it’s not paid, so at the expense of losing the chance to write for you, a community I’ve been a part of for eight or nine years, I might get someone to edit my stuff. I’m not sure the positive outweighs the negative. Still figuring this all out. Point is: I want to keep doing this. I feel like I have things that are worth saying, worth reading, worth discussing. But I don’t know if I can. And that’s kinda scary.
* I don’t want to take all credit for this idea. Film Crit Hulk actually wrote about this in his Anchorman 2 article, which you really should read.
*2 We didn’t even talk about the story, but I might do that in a different piece, ‘cause there’s a lot to talk about here. Some good, some bad.
*3 I fully realize that there were other reasons they sold better, like, y’know, Steam, larger console audiences, etc, but ‘getting into the game’ was a big factor.
*4 I actually think this is problematic in some ways.