You can compare the new Ubisoft video game "Assassin's Creed" to a lot of games. It's got some "Prince of Persia" in it; it's got some "Grand Theft Auto."
Those whose jaws drop at screenshots or TV commercials of Ubisoft's big holiday game might see some important qualities. They might see high-definition, swashbuckling, wall-climbing action, set in the 12th century during the Third Crusade. They might see a game world that makes the Jerusalem and Damascus of a millennium ago the setting for open-world, almost "GTA"-style action.
But Patrice Desilets, the Montreal creative director, who hand-delivered an early copy of the game to MTV News a few weeks ago, sees something else, something that is important to him: "I got this idea of justifying everything in a game so that you don't feel like you're in a game." It's an unusual idea, one that may be among the most radical ideas attempted in a game this holiday season and one that he thinks "Assassin's Creed" almost accomplishes.
To explain what Desilets means involves a small spoiler. Actually, it involves very lightly touching on the game's big spoiler, the one that is revealed just a few minutes into the game. Without giving it all away, just accept the following: The character gamers see in screenshots — the assassin Altair — is indeed the game's main character. But as has been hinted in the many advance previews that include scenes of 12th-century Middle Easterners spotted with graphical flashes of DNA helixes and high-tech computer-text, Altair's experience in the Crusades is not the game's full story. There's a twist.
And that twist allowed Desilets and his team to explain many of the things that never get explained in a game. Why is this game broken up into several levels? Why is any? This one, the game makes clear, is broken up that way because each level is a memory. The controls in this game are unusual. The four buttons on an Xbox 360 or PS3 controller, configured in the cardinal directions of a compass, are used to control the head, each arm and (as a pair) the feet. But why are any video game characters being controlled by a controller? In "Assassin's Creed," Altair — whose missions are memories, remember — is being controlled like a puppet by whoever is trying to remember his adventures.
If this makes it sound like the game is some sort of experimental modern-art project, it's not. For the most part it asks of its players to climb and to kill, to focus on action and to weave through some of the thicker crowds of people ever rendered in a game. That crowd size, by the way, is 120-strong, up from the 35 the developers originally shot for when they started making the game four years ago.
The game was born, in Desilet's words, from naiveté. "We thought it was next-gen and we could do anything we wanted to," he said of the earliest days of the game. At the time, the development team consisted of just 10 members fresh off the critically acclaimed "Prince of Persia: Sands of Time." His team didn't have development kits for next-generation games, just a lot of ambition.
So they went for a game with big crowds. And they tried to craft a character who certainly justified his place in a game — doing so by not looking like he was built with the limitations of standard game characters. "We envision character movement differently," Desilets said. He specified that his team wanted fluidity in its hero's movements; no jerky animations snap him or slide him back into the next position ready for more input from the player. "Our characters don't slide. ... In 'Assassin's,' Altair will change his footing depending on where he stops." That required the team to make animations for times when players stopped Altair's movement on the left foot and a whole other set when Altair is stopped on his right. The team created 250 key frames of climbing animations, each designed to make Altair look natural as he scales buildings. Altair can't swim, and he still runs into invisible walls, but he's been made to feel more real, to not seem like a game character and to move like a living thing.
The justification concept could only go so far, and Desilets found himself on the losing side of an argument that almost broke it all apart. Throughout the game, there are collectible flags. Players can find them in nooks and crannies throughout the game's massive cities, gaining 100 of one type or 60 of another. The game tracks them. But do they really make sense? "They have nothing to do with Altair," Desilets admitted. He suggested he could have done without them but said others on his team thought players would enjoy gathering them. But random flags ... could they be parts of memories? "I managed to justify them," Desilets said. "I tried to do it in the instruction booklet and say that [Altair] had a thing with flags." In fact, the booklet states that planting flags in the 12th-century land of the game "was a popular way to lay claim to an area, but in the assassin's mind, these were false claims." Removing the flags is a way for the assassin to voice his disapproval. Such was Desilet's manner of masking an impurity in his game. Note that there are no rewards for gamers who collect all the flags other than pride. "It's almost a statement for gamers," he said. "It's a statement about the futility of collecting things."
All this justification stuff is a "style," Desilets said. "Maybe I'll do a game that doesn't justify anything." Maybe. "Prince of Persia: Sands of Time" used the style to explain why a video game character has multiple lives — the Prince's adventure is part of a story he's telling a girl, and every time he dies, he says in a voiceover that he's remembering the story wrong and then, as the player starts a new life, correcting it. "Assassin's Creed" now smoothes some more edges.
So Desilets could try something else. But if he doesn't, if he stays on this path, might he create a game that finally, completely makes sense?
"Assassin's Creed" shipped this week for the Xbox 360 and PS3.
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