(Starting off with a title based on a Robert Frost poem, eh?  Way to be a pretentious arse.)

Games are cool.  I believe they represent a natural evolution in storytelling and how people interact with stories, forcing them to reexamine their role as a passive observer and instead thinking of themselves as an active player in the story.

I also think that gaming’s surge in popularity over the last decade has been amazing and in particular I believe the developments of the past year makes this the most interesting time to be working in the games industry (for a variety of reasons, but that’s a topic for another post).

However, after this year’s E3, I started thinking about what the consumer is actually being given.  When games like Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty sell hundreds of millions of copies across a series’ lifespan and consistently get 9 or 10s across the board from reviewers, it can be easy to get complacent.  We tend to brush aside AAA games with a kind of nostalgia, as if you could have nostalgia for a game released in 2008.  This series will be an attempt to re-envision various popular games, fleshing potentially interesting narrative and thematic elements.

Hit the jump to read on.

Games, currently, is one of the few mediums where a series should consistently improve as it progresses.  How rare is it in movies or books or comics for a sequel to be superior to the original?  In games it tends to be the opposite, with sequels having a basis to build upon it terms of gameplay, narrative elements they can touch upon and generally all the elements that go towards making the game actually ‘fun’ (not that games NEED to be fun, but unless torturous gameplay is being used as some sort of metaphor in the grand vision of the game, I’d prefer gameplay that’s at the very least passably fun).  Really, all this means is that there are more things for developers to work on in terms of improving upon a game.  By taking criticism in stride, a developer will eventually produce the best possible version of their game, the apex of the series that fully encapsulates the designer’s vision, either through gameplay or story.

The only problem is that many games don’t really have this sort of apex goal in mind, at least from an artistic standpoint.  They have no lodestone to guide their creative decisions (and YES, I understand this is an assumption of authorial intent, but bear with me, I think I’m onto something).

Just for kicks, let’s look at a few of gaming’s AAA offerings and flagship titles of the past few years:

-Assassin’s Creed (series)

-Resistance (series) 

-Killzone (series, but specifically KZ2 and 3 I want to talk about because GAH! those games and all the things they imply about wartime crime)

-Call of Duty (series) 

-Mass Effect (series, but this actually only applies to ME1.  ME2 and 3 are firmly their own beast, whereas the growing pains of ME1 and the way that game differs from its sequels is pretty interesting)

All of these games, I would say, lack a clear vision of what they want to be.  In this essay I’ll be talking mostly about Assassin’s Creed, but just off the top of my head I can point out the ways the other games stumble over themselves.  Resistance wants to be this gritty shooter that takes the best elements of WWII shooters and combines them with an alien invasion.  By the third game they were calling up imagery reminiscent of the Great Depression, complete with a live action trailer and emotional piano music.  Mass Effect wanted to be a combination of Star Trek, but ended up being something more like a cross between Stargate and Battlestar Galactica, foregoing the optimistic sci-fi in favor of a more conventional story of a rag-tag band of heroes staving off the apocalypse.

This might seem overly negative and critical, but this (short) list is in no way meant to represent all AAA games.  There are plenty of titles out there that do exactly what I wish more games would do: stay true to their core concept and fully realize that concept.  The Uncharted series is a good example of this sort of advancement, pushing the conceit of their game to its logical limit.  As a game essentially meant to replicate the tone and essence of an Indiana Jones movie, Uncharted accomplished this with flying colors.

Naughty Dog was able to do this because they had a clear vision of what they wanted their game to be.  Indiana Jones is a pretty simple, yet highly entertaining concept.  Jones is interesting, dashing and generally likable, his friends are enjoyable to be around, and his enemies are pretty despicable characters. 

Every game needs this kind of core concept, the narrative lodestone so to speak to keep the story in line and on point.  Uncharted’s lodestone was an Indiana Jones movie in playable form, an idea that dictated both form and execution.

Compare this to something like the Assassin’s Creed series, another game that just so happens to also be about climbing buildings and fighting bad guys.  This game has such an identity crisis it’s not even funny, a shame compounded upon the fact that the initial premise is so insanely interesting.  Playing as an assassin in the middle-east during the Crusades?  Sign me up.  AC2 took the game a step further with a beautifully rendered renaissance Florence.  Awesome.  The big shame is that the two games had to be linked by a stupid cop-out of a sci-fi plot featuring eschatology, genetic memory and aliens(?).  The backstory of this game is like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus had a baby in a three way with a college history major and a conspiracy theorist.

It’s easy to see why they did this, the attempt to create a franchise while still giving the players some sort of closure in the event that it doesn’t get a sequel.  The player gets closure for Altair’s story, but leaves the series open for more stabby goodness in the future.  Honestly, I don’t think they needed it.  

A brief explanation of Assassin’s Creed, is simply that you play as a man named Desmond who possesses the genetic memory of a line of ancient assassins.  Eventually you are strapped into a chair that allows you to relive the memories trapped within your mind.

Ubisoft had guts for revealing Desmond and the genetic memory “twist” pretty much right off the bat but I really feel that if they’d played it straight they could have opened up way more possibilities in terms of story potential and thematic coherence in the series as a whole. 

Assassin’s Creed would have worked best as an alternate history game, starting with the first game in historically accurate Jerusalem.  You, as Altair, kill all the Crusaders, depriving the christian armies of the leadership they need to hold the holy land for as long as they did.  The game would end with Saladin’s armies preparing to push into Europe with an invasion force, or something to that extent.  It would basically be the same game except without the weird, Evangelion-inspired Templar plot, but it would establish a key theme of the game and presenting you with consequences reflected in the settings of later games.  Let’s say the previous situation actually happened, with a Muslim invasion of Europe after Altair’s assasinations.  How far would they push?  How many cities would they conquer and leave an indelible mark upon?  How did I change the world?  That should be AC’s lodestone, how the player changed the world.

This really wouldn’t be apparent until the second game.  Emphasis would be placed on the fact that this is in fact an alternate universe, drawing attention to the fact that it was the players actions in the previous title that led to the current state of the game world.  After all, the whole power fantasy with assassinations is that you are changing history with one bullet, one blade, etc. so by all means the player should be shown the consequences of their actions to satisfy that fantasy.  You, the player, by your blade, caused this huge, dynamic change in the history of our world.  You killed the pope, sparking a huge war between two countries that otherwise would not have occurred, leading to the death of the conservative son who would have been king, leading to the coronation of the crazy imperialist son who wants nothing more than to see the world under Imperial Norway’s flag.

Heck, you barely need a macguffin to justify your actions.  it can be that the assassin elders augur the tides of creation as the servants of death or something equally fatuous.  You could still have the Templars present as enemies and they would have their own reason for doing things with the same kind of lore reasoning as the assassins.   

If you’re worried about transmedia, this is practically a field day compared to how much freedom the authors and comic book writers currently have.  All the lore building is still there, along with the chance for every writer to indulge in their inner Harry Turtledove and, as long as they coordinated, it would work admirably.  It would also dramatically increase the number of new locales and possibilities for future games, meaning the games could go on essentially forever, detailing the concurrent actions of the Assassins around the world throughout history.

Perhaps the only element AC would really lose would be its incongruous menu and HUD.  The HUD actually looks really nice, but the fact that it’s a diegetic HUD constantly draws attention to the fact that we’re actually playing as Desmond who is in turn playing as Ezio/Altair.  So either the HUD is a commentary on the meta nature of Desmond essentially playing a videogame in a videogame, or Ubisoft just really wanted to have a pretty UI.

Up to now I’ve only talked about overarching/high concept elements of the game, so what about the gameplay?  Well, that’s a trickier beast and not really one I can tackle here in an article that respects your time.  Suffice to say, the gameplay itself is alright.  The parkour bits are really quite satisfying, and the city exploration elements are really interesting.  Like I said before, the locales in AC are all beautiful, made all the more so by the simple fact that they are some of the most unique environments in gaming.

So, those are some of the basic ideas for a different direction the Assassin’s Franchise could have taken.  While this might seem scathing, I think it speaks to the core game and everything it does right.  There’s a wonderful sense of atmosphere and place in the Assassin’s Creed games, and I’ve been told that they do a remarkable job of historically depicting the cities, dress and general aesthetic.  It also needs to be said that Ubisoft also proved to the industry that there are other venues for settings and locales, even if they are largely unconventional.  What other game takes place in Jerusalem during the Crusades or renaissance Florence?  I honestly can’t think of any, and I for one am thankful for Assassin’s Creed showing such settings are viable for games.

That’s about it for some of the possibilites Assassin’s Creed could have taken.  This is not meant to deride or lessen Ubisoft’s choices, these are just the kinds of things that would have appealed to me as far as overarching plans for the series go.  There are a loft of things I neglected to talk about and a problem with the above series plan is that it’s almost entirely plot driven, calling for the main assassin to act more as a cipher than as a character unto himself.

These are just a few of the possibilities I was able to think of that would work reasonably well given Assassin’s Creed’s general concept.  As a closing note, I would like to say that I’m looking forward immensely to Assassin’s Creed III.  My number one most wanted time period after Assassin’s Creed II was the Napoleonic Wars, and while this isn’t as interesting (to me) as Imperial France, it’s close enough to satiate my need for troops in spiffy uniforms and powdered wigs, and Connor looks leagues and away more interesting than either Altair or Ezio.

So good luck, Ubisoft, treat her right.