To give you a sense of just how exceptionally bizarre the new Assassin's Creed game is, as a mass-market cultural product, I need to conduct a brief thought experiment. Please play along.
Imagine that you are a journeyman ghostwriter and that you've been hired to write the latest in a series of popular historical adventure novels. This one is exciting: It's about pirates. Everyone likes pirates! So you sit down at your computer and you get ready to bang out 200-odd pages about pirates, full of the requisite swashbuckling, grog-swilling, plank walking, shivering timbers, ripped bodices, eye patches and, well, you get the idea. Easy money.
Only there are a few conditions. The first is, this isn't just any old yarn about pirates. It's a story about pirates in the context of a larger, series-long narrative about a centuries-in-the-making blood feud between two secret societies with ambitions to shape the course of human events. Fair enough, you think, Dan Brown has sold a lot of books. So you read all the backstory about this feud, and, ding ding ding, your writerly alarm bells start to ring. Two hundred pages isn't much space to cram in this much raw plot. Also, the whole po-faced Hatfields and McCoys thing doesn't really jibe thematically with pirates, those free-associating scallywags, what with their comical yo-ho-ing and rum-induced fugue states.
It's a lot of eggs for one pudding, but you resign to give it your best.
But, oh, there's another condition you need to write into the novel, and this is a big one. The pirate story — which is the bulk of the narrative — is nested inside of a frame story that takes place in the near future. This frame, which also concerns the blood feud but has nothing to do with pirates, must come at regular interstices, and also must explain in itself the fictional conventions of the pirate plot. Yes, in a touch of fin de siècle artifice, a character in the frame story must be writing the pirate story — oh, and also, that character must work for a publishing house, which itself must be related to the blood feud. Got it?
Wait! You cry. How are you supposed to write a mass-market hit about pirates, in the context of a secret apocalyptic war, in the context of a meta-plot about the mechanics of the publishing industry? And how can you make it intelligible? You're just a ghostwriter, not David Mitchell! You just want to write a book about pirates!
This is more or less the plot of Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, and instead of one author, it had hundreds. And instead of just words, these people had to deal with the actual grammars of video games: polygons, mechanics, level design. You might imagine a product with some coherence issues.
You'd be right. Black Flag is an absolute fiasco.
As I played the first few hours of the game, with my mouth actually open in disbelief, I tried to imagine how baffling it would be to play it with no working knowledge of the series. The beginning is your standard incoherent game opening, in which Edward Kenway, a simple pirate, kills a member of the aforementioned secret Assassin society (about, were you new to the series, you would know nothing), and takes his telltale robes and hood. (The great mystery of these games: Why does a secret Assassin society wear telltale clothing?)
OK. After maybe 30 minutes of light sailing and basically unwatchable exposition, (during which time, were I new to the series, I would have stopped playing) you are removed from the third-person perspective of Kenway and dropped in a first-person near future, in which you play as a wordless video game tester in a "satirical" version of Ubisoft. Your job is to test, via magical-mind-meld, the genetic memories of the dead near-future-plot hero of the first three games in order to extract from them a marketable video game. (One sign of a bad game is that it is very difficult to describe it without using hyphens.) The "pirate" part of the game is this testing. When you're not "playing" the pirate story, you literally walk around an office building with an iPad, like, opening doors and looking at people's desks and getting greeted in Quebequois French. You cannot make this shit up.
When Ubisoft introduced this "playing the past" plot in the original game, it was, as Filipe Salgado put it, "a convoluted way to explain away the videogameness of the world." The game world looked like a game world because it was a computer simulation being played by a character. Fine. But what started as misguided self-consciousness about form has now matured into one of the single worst ideas ever implemented in a major video game. Why? Why devote time and resources to this tedious, self-regarding, unfunny game-within-the-game? How far removed from your audience must you be to think this is something that people would want to play?
One might argue that the premise of a game is far less important than the premise of a book or even a film, and one would be right, to an extent. Super Mario World is about a plumber who crushes turtles to death in order to rescue a fairy princess. Who cares if the premise is insipid if the game is fun? Let Ubisoft have a joke. But none of the mechanics of Super Mario World — jumping and running — stem from its premise. And this subgame is so perfectly emblematic of what is wrong with AC4 and what is wrong with a lot of modern games in general. It's the idea that the features of a game, no matter how dumb or bizarre, through sheer perseverance over multiple titles, become accepted and become, weirdly, canon.
All of the ruinous mechanics of this game — and there are many — are legacies from earlier in the series, abiding problems that are now just part of the Assassin's Creed experience.
The first two Assassin's Creed games took place on the rooftops, balconies, weathercocks, and muezzins of a succession of gloriously detailed Old World cities. They were, largely, movement games, with some mediocre stealth and swordplay thrown in for variety. Though the series expanded its palate in last year's iteration, to an open-world colonial America, it never really paused to ask if the narrative and mechanical foundation of the series could support it.
Because the Assassin's Creed series started with stealth in mind, and despite the fact that no one likes the stealth mechanics in the series, you are forced to play this game as the world's sneakiest pirate. Far from a bloodthirsty, drunken, knife-biting scallywag, Edward Kenway spends inordinate amounts of time sneaking (hilariously) undetected through tropical shrubs; eavesdropping on powder-wigged Cumberbatches; and tailing (hilariously) other ships in your own ship at just the right distance, even though with your in-game spyglass you can see, like, eight times that distance, and presumably they have spyglasses on other ships.
There have always been two modes of movement in the world of Assassin's Creed: slow walking and insano-sprint light-speed parkour. There's no in-between. This was a net positive in the twisty warrens of Istanbul and Jerusalem, where hopping from tiny ledge to tiny ledge should be as simple as possible. It's a disaster in almost every context in the new game. If you are, say, running away from a fight, you are at constant risk of accidentally brushing up against an object that triggers you into a vault, or a kickflip, or a scramble. It's like playing Tony Hawk with your body. The reason for this klutziness is obvious: The movement system in place is indistinguishable from the one in the previous game in the series.
(Also, you are the world's worst pirate at sword fighting. Combat in the Assassin's Creed games has always been bad, and in the context of a pirate game it is laughably awful. Like, the single thing a pirate game should be good at is swashbuckling, right?)
Why? Beyond the fact that it is time-consuming and difficult to code new and more polished mechanics, why is this game, with such a promising setting, saddled with such old and broken systems? The answer seems to be no better than this: Because it is an Assassin's Creed game.
AC isn't the first or even the most notable series to mistake repetition for legacy. The Resident Evil games in recent years have recycled the same cast of unappealing characters, the same preposterous narratives, the same overwrought cutscenes, and the same "spectacular" set pieces. The series mistook some of its worst features for what people actually liked about it and may never recover.
Predictably, the parts of AC4 that have been added or fine-tuned specifically for this game, the parts that are not self-consciously "Assassin's Creed," are its strongest features. The 18th-century Caribbean setting is vivid and sometimes beautiful; the avast ye landlubbers pirate-culture stuff is all on point; the ship-to-ship cannon fights are really, truly, fun.
Last month, game critic Tevis Thompson wrote a divisive essay called "On Videogame Reviews". Thompson's argument was an old one, made eloquently: Game reviews are too much written in the context of game culture. The people who write them are too willing to grant the assumptions that popular games make, too willing to take these games on their own terms. Thompson wrote:
You can't question a game's genre. You are supposed to take the game on its own genre terms, see what it's trying to do within them, and then evaluate it fairly. But what if what it's trying to do is dumb?...
Reviewers speak about videogames genres as if they're well-established categories. They are not. They are in constant flux, and any supposed convention is up for debate. In practice, genres are either marketing labels or convenient shorthand for writers who do not know how to describe their videogame experiences. They keep our expectations in check and our criticisms either in a comparative/historical mode or at the level of the nitpick. We do not ask why we're here, what it's all about. We narrow and focus on surfaces, features, the presumed genre facts, not our experiences of them. It's not even that thinking in genre terms can't ever be useful. It's that in videogameland, we don't know the difference between a genre and a rut.
This is one reason modern games can be so dispiriting: They seem, at times, to exist only within an incredibly narrow feedback loop of publishers, superfans, and designers. It's not surprising, per se, that Ubisoft would attempt to graft the broken mechanics of their series onto a new setting and put it out in time for Christmas; they're a company with a profit margin. But it is surprising that gamers and game writers seem happy to settle for the incoherent result.