Assassin's Creed 1: the form of true greatness
Sab, May 18, 2014
Translated by: Stefania

At the end of this generation of consoles, if we want to list the titles that left their mark in the gaming world, it’s impossible not to include the first chapter of the Assassin’s Creed series. But what did that mean at that time? Which were the design, narrative and stylistic choices that made it, already in 2007, an original and complex title? First of all, the first Assassin’s Creed chapter is a game in which the will of narrating, and of doing it well, emerges more than in any other chapter of the series.

I’d like to point this out: narrating well is different from wanting to narrate something complex, maybe developed in various acts and with dozens of plot twists. Often, especially in the gaming world, Francesco De Sanctis’ phrase “simplicity is the form of true greatness” unexpectedly proves to be true. So how does the first Assassin’s Creed narrate well? Or better (considering, anyhow, the presence of some flaws), how is it able to do it better than the following chapters? As previously mentioned, it resorts to some intriguing narrative and game design choices, choices abandoned or not included in the following chapters. First of all, it’s impossible not to highlight that the idea on which part of the series is based, namely the possibility of resorting to machines (Animus) that allow to relive the memories of ancestors from different ages, is, per se, something that enormously strengthens the narrative context and the possibility to relate more “freely” to the game world. We have to highlight, indeed, the parallelism between the gamer and Desmond. Forced to interact with a world made up of objectives, rules, schemes and limitations, Desmond becomes an out-and-out gamer dealing with his personal videogame, even though, as we all know, driven by other motivations and interests compared with each of us. The game immediately explains us that we will have to deal with not completely logic contexts, but above all not wholly coherent ones. So even the existence of a bug, unrealistic contexts and not always brilliant AIs can be understood because they are the errors of a machine. That’s not all: the Animus and the use of genetic memory allow to resort to stylistic and narrative choices that even now are still original and valued.

One of the main problems of Open World games, according to many critics, is the fact that, actually, they are enormous boxes in which the gamer can play freely. Hence the term “sandbox”. In Red Dead Redemption, endless oceans and towering peaks force us to stay inside the gaming zone. The same thing happens with every GTA, with enormous oceanic stretches that characterize the series. Assassin’s Creed uses a very interesting expedient to justify these kind of problems through the story. Whenever the machine considers it appropriate, depending upon the narrative context, some areas will be unlocked and only then we will be able to access them and complete what will be required. There’s more: once the “expansions” of the game world are finished, going out the imposed boundaries will involve the de-synchronization. Not because the game established this rule, but because the machine knows that, in that time and context, Altaïr would not have acted like instead we are doing. Limiting the variety and freedom for a more coherent narration with a faster pace, but without having to resort to different mechanics from the ones of an Open World, as other developers like Naughty Dog or Ninja Theory did. On the same basis, the presence of the HUD is justified, starting from the life bar to the directions and hints that the game will give us during the game.
Furthermore the first Assassin’s Creed remains the chapter in which the character development happens not only in a firmer but also in a more coherent and credible way.

Being part of the Order from his birth, and after having been (to put it mildly) harshly punished by Al Mualim, Altaïr strictly follows the Creed. What does it involve, in terms of gameplay? For each action reflecting the Creed and its dictates, Al Mualim will reward us with a new weapon or enhancement. We won’t be able to expand our weapon inventory by stealing and plundering, because our path to redemption must occur as the Creed imposes. A thing that will be completely lost in the next chapters, in which, for some strange reason, we cannot steal from a gunsmith and seize the numerous long-range weapons that the Italian shops offer. Incidentally, this narrative and design choice also guarantees the absence of one of those annoying “gameisms” which were typical of the past generation, in other words an unlimited inventory, in which each character we use carries dozens of weapons, projectiles, molotovs and armors. I will say it again: sacrificing variety for coherence and credibility. Except for collecting flags, the side missions have interesting narrative capability too. Helping inhabitants is useful not only to start a cinematic in which Ezio speaks to the Florentines, but also to benefit from the help the people can give you, slowing guards down, for example, or using monks to pass the "guard blocks" (in its visual absurdity, we must admit).
The abandonment of this mechanic until the third game of the series is something I still can’t understand. Obviously the verticality of the map is a characteristic of the Assassin’s Creed series too, a peculiarity that involves a smaller extension of the map, but also a series of nearly endless approaches to the various missions, already at the time approachable in different ways (a system, then, enhanced in a more or less decisive way in each chapter of the series). Also the dialogues and sentences of the citizens helped the player to be part of a universe which was richer than it seemed at first. Those dialogues were deeper and sharper compared with the ones in the next chapters. Finally, the choice of not resorting to an extremely rich amount of cinematics (as it happens starting from AC2), allows the player to constantly control his/her avatar, although with considerable limitations (you will surely remember the player could move around during the beautiful dialogues with Al Mualim, but that he/she was greatly limited by the camera setting). So there are many elements that make the first chapter of the series developed by Ubisoft original and innovative, as well as extremely brave, even now. And there are even more elements that, positively or negatively, were added or abandoned in the following chapters. But what evidently emerges is that with the first chapter Ubisoft Montreal clearly wanted not to amuse with variety, but to entertain with narration and pace. And judging from the critical and public acclaim the first Assassin’s Creed received, it seems Ubisoft was successful.

comments powered by Disqus




A matter of points of view

Between ecstasy and shellackings