Epic Life: the verbs of the past and Assassin’s Creed

In my last two posts about the shooting mechanic, I tried to demonstrate that an understanding of immersion as the player’s identification with the ruleset that conditions his or her performance can help us find ways that even as entrenched a mechanic as shooting can, together with the shaping of player-immersion and player-emersion, offer the possibility of complex thematic effects like a critique of violence.

I want to turn to the Assassin’s Creed franchise, now, to begin an analysis of the thematic operation of the games’ rulesets (which I think can also be viewed as the mammoth ruleset of a single game extended over, at this point, a very great many volumes). The point I want to try to argue is really in a very important way a follow-on from Christopher Sawula’s in his excellent post of 3 September, that Assassin’s Creed is not good history.

Sawula demonstrated that the way the recreation of the past in the series has developed has exhibited a disheartening tendency to adopt certain monolithic views of the historical forces at work in the periods in which the player’s avatar is immersed. In my post I want to use an “immersion as identification with mechanics” reading to show that that problem may be seen as stemming from the basic construction of the game’s ruleset, and not just from what usually goes by the name of its content–the historical stuff, that is.

From the standpoint of immersion the most interesting thing about Assassin’s Creed is of course the animus, the machine which takes the main character Desmond back into his genealogical past. The obvious functions of the animus (first that it provides a clever way to narrativize the HUD; second that it serves as the link back to the overarching, sometimes frankly ridiculous, narrative of the franchise as a whole) cover over what I consider to be its most important ideological effect in the context of the games of the series.

On the one hand, it is the animus that creates the historical problem Sawula sees: because it takes Desmond back to the “reality” of his ancestor’s lives, the view of the past it presents is prima facie to be taken as authentic. On the other hand, from the standpoint of the identification with the ruleset that creates the actual immersion of the game, the animus serves to naturalize the ruleset, here describable very neatly by that common theoretical term in film studies, “the apparatus.”

I mean “naturalize” very precisely–the animus makes the rules seem to be natural. The discursive fiction embodied in the animus is that it re-creates the actuality of past events, through a granular reading of the the subject’s (in the game, Desmond’s) genetic code. The possibility-space of the world of the past into which that subject, as performed by the player, is projected is therefore fictionalized as, in its mechanics (for example the verbs “grab,” “run,” “free run over any object in your path, including buildings,” and above all “stab”) embodying the totality of what the character into whom the subject and the player are projected could do. This is his DNA after all.

The player’s identification with that ruleset within the broader ruleset of the game itself, whose interface is indeed very carefully designed to be highly analogous to the interface inside the animus, in this way allegorizes the player’s own limited capacity to act in his or her real world as the limited number of verbs available to such characters as Altair, Ezio, and Edward Kenway. This might be only a curious and diverting coup de jeu but for two facts that the animus covers over: the view of the past city- and landscapes that we have in Assassin’s Creed, which the series touts for its historical accuracy, is fundamentally shaped by the mechanics of the assassin’s possibility space; and the mechanics themselves are shaped in such a way as to cover over the game’s basic reliance on a historical power-structure that appropriates the past for such popular cultural artifacts as digital games about assassins.

It seems easy to forget, at first sight, the way that for example the cities of Assassin’s Creed apparently contain an infinite number of detachable flags, and the vast majority of their roofs have convenient places to hide. The difficulty only arises when we consider the operation of the animus: in naturalizing the immersion that comes from playing that ruleset, with the flags and hiding-places, it covers over the ideological nature of those mechanics. The world of the past created by Assassin’s Creed, naturalized as part of the players DNA, is a world of handholds and hiding-places, flags and high-points that orient your map.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, except to the extent that the player misrecognizes the animus as the apparatus and him or herself as an assassin as a point of entry into an understanding of the past, rather than using it as the beginning of a critique. The ultimate in first-world problems maybe, but given an opportunity for critique as wide open as Assassin’s Creed, one would like to see as much of it as one could get.

On the other hand, I suppose it’s a hopeful sign that so many of my students have asked me what I think of the game. In my next post, I hope to talk more specifically about the relationship of the animus to its verbs, and to the historical power-structure mentioned above. Most importantly, I want to discuss the game’s claims of  multiculturalism in that light.

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