The true value of Assassin’s Creed

Assassin’s Creed is not a good game. I know this and I accept this. Infamous is not a good game. I know this, yet I want to get into a discussion with anyone else saying so. Still, it was that difference that made me realise the games were actually the same.

I kind of remember when Infamous was released together with its genre-mate Prototype. There was a small kerfuffle about which one was the better superhero sandbox game. As far as I was concerned both were “GTA clones” and I picked up Infamous mostly because it was a PlayStation 3 exclusive. In the end, it was the climbing that got to me.

I could explore the game world in a way that appealed to me. I didn’t know back then, that a few years later I would discover indoor rock climbing and become a bit of a climbing-freak. However, that retroactively made Infamous one of my favourite series despite not doing much to actually earn it. It’s actually a pretty stale series and while it’s fun to play through, it never travelled beyond its own comic book trappings.

Still, there remained a nagging feeling.

Why did I suddenly like Infamous that much? I suddenly regarded myself as a bit of a fanboy. Something I’m not exactly proud of. Sure, I love the ‘80s franchise Transformers and the game series Metroid to bits, but it somehow felt weird to add a ‘mediocre’ game series like Infamous to that list.

I then realised I saw this behaviour before, in others. The game series Assassin’s Creed to be exact. Slowly but surely I started to puzzle the entire picture together, while my palm inched nearer to my face.

Becoming a fan

Usually when you hear people say a game is not good, it becomes a bit of a test to discover just exactly why he or she regards it as a pile of excrement. And even then it might be waved aside as an age thing or someone invokes the ol’ taste-chestnut. In general “if you’re a fan, you’ll like it” is a phrase that in some form gets bandied about to skip the inconvenient truths about the quality of some games.

But how does one become a fan to start with? It’s easy with simulation games like football or racing, where the association can be transplanted, but a completely new IP? That’s impossible surely? Not exactly.

One game that in my eyes was particularly akin to excrement was the first instalment of Assassin’s Creed. It didn’t start out like that; when it presented itself as a cross-pollination of stealth, parkour and lots of open-ended clandestine murder, it struck a chord. I was very excited because of the climbing (yet, back then it would take me a good four years for me to even come near a climbing wall) and was practically over the moon when the futuristic aspects were ‘leaked’.

Assassin’s love

However, when the game was actually released, it felt like a sham. The parkour and climbing was functional at best, stealth was cumbersome and predefined, the sci-fi elements required a suspension of disbelief that would make Hideo Kojima salivate, and the assassinations themselves weren’t open-ended at all. You were deliberately shoved into funnels leading up to traditional boss-fights. Cover richly with collection side-quests and presto, job done.

That’s a bit over-the-top of course, but Assassin’s Creed was a bit of a mediocre game. I was disappointed, but that stood in stark contrast to what my fellow game journalists thought of it: it racked up high scores by the truckload. Flabbergasted, I awaited the response of the players themselves, who then bought it by the truckload.

Assassin's Creed: Black Flag
Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag

In short just about everybody loved it warts and all, and there’s a good chance that you, the reader, will probably love the series as well. It was only when the sequel was released, that people started to admit grudgingly that the first game was maybe not as good as they initially said it was. But hey that didn’t matter as the sequel was better in every aspect! (It wasn’t, but that’s the point.) It took until Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag for the series to become a genuine fun game. Even though it’s a far cry (no pun intended) from the original formula!

It took me a long time to discover what people actually liked about the series: everything but the actual game.

Follow the creed

The Assassin’s Creed franchise has been nothing short of a branding masterclass. The game was arguably mediocre, but its setting and values were not.

Ubisoft has made quite a point of it that the series is steeped in historic research. But its main draws are a medieval world and a cool as hell assassin to play with, all wrapped up in a story about mystical templars. In a way it pressed every romantic sentiment button about anti-heroes, power, freedom with a bit of fashion on the side (and a retractable dagger). That’s it. No, that’s it. That’s the thing people love about Assassin’s Creed. Hell, that’s the thing I loved about it when it was initially unveiled.

It is the setting, the world, the character and the values they represent. The game is merely an afterthought; it is a crude way of bringing those values to life, but it works. Climbing a tower to get map access and jump into a bale of hay becomes boring, but it doesn’t matter, because it emphasises freedom and possibility.

Infamous
Infamous

It’s the same thing that made me subconsciously love Infamous: I like climbing (even when I didn’t know it). While in Assassin’s Creed it was glossed over, in Infamous climbing is a much larger part of the experience (for a lot of people to its detriment). So while Assassin’s Creed deflected my interest hooks, Infamous drew them in deeper. Both however, work on exactly the same principle: the game itself is irrelevant. Its values are projected in its in-game activities and while these might be as horrible as can be, if you connect or even claim those values to be your own, you will love and defend them.

In short, Assassin’s Creed’s logo, daggers and cowl had become the gaming equivalent of the Nike swoosh.

The sci-fi elements of course, didn’t really fit in with this and to this day, it’s pretty hard to find anyone who genuinely likes those aspects. It didn’t matter though, as the core experience was still powerful enough. Ubisoft meanwhile couldn’t change the course of that sci-fi part anymore, to the point that they kind of started to make fun of it in Black Flag.

It’s not about the game

Of course, the point is that this isn’t exactly new. Ever since Star Wars, the power of the franchise as opposed to the product has been more important. It just took me a while to realise that games didn’t merge the two on an equal basis.

Games always felt as a combination of branding and product combined into one: you playing the game enhanced its values and enjoying those values enhanced the game. I didn’t allow myself to think that the franchise, the branding, could trump the actual game, the product. Even though I readily accepted the reverse.

Both Assassin’s Creed and Infamous work on the level that their values, premises and promises overshadow the game. Criticising the games indirectly criticises the values of their fans. If you ever wondered why fanboys can go ballistic and zealously defend certain games, you may now understand.

I noticed that myself with Infamous: people criticise the games and rightly so, yet somewhere it feels wrong. As if them not accepting the game can be fun, diminishes my own acceptance of the game. “Yes, those side missions are repetitive, but honestly it’s so much fun!” Because of the climbing of course, I need to add. That’s the thing I love about it, and them not liking Infamous is by extension not agreeing with me liking climbing.

Yes, that is absurd, but it’s how fans of, well… everything, think as well. They all love some aspect of it and Ubisoft has made sure to include enough elements in Assassin’s Creed to make people fall in love with it regardless of the game’s quality. This all powered by a marketing campaign that emphasises those values above the actual game itself. Just like with films (one could say films are games without the game, but that opens up another can of worms).

Watch the dog

Don’t believe it? Just look at Ubisoft’s next: Watch Dogs. A game about an offbeat anti-hero in a city doing powerful stuff through a smartphone. It’s the “there’s an app for that” creed made tangible. It’s a desirable role model that comes closer to everyday life than Altair & Co. did. The kind of role model we take for granted in football and racing games, with a bit of counter-culture on top.

Watch Dogs
Watch Dogs

That it still resembles the motif of Assassin’s Creed is no accident. It taps the same values, but skews them to accommodate the modern trappings of urban life. Again it will not matter whether the game is good or not. It will probably do nothing new, nothing fancy, nothing revolutionary.

What matters is whether or not people want to dress like its main protagonist, use his logo and want to act like him. If the answer is a resounding yes, you might want to invest in some UBI:EN.