I built a new PC recently, and it is glorious. For years I had limped on with a laptop hogtied into a miasma of cables that somehow fed into a mouse, keyboard and monitor, its mobility card humming away only to randomly shut the whole contraption down at a moment’s notice, though only if I was playing Diablo 3 or Guild Wars 2. Typically, I stumbled through games in slightly reduced resolutions somehow managing to hold things together only to cross my fingers while throwing salt over my left shoulder and dancing jigs in and out of a pentagram sketched on the home office wooden floor for this very purpose as I waited for cutscenes to reach their jagged stutter-filled end. Somehow, and don’t ask me how because I do not know, this rig survived games released during Obama’s second term despite the fact I had caught the machine trying to escape only days before he was re-elected. “The stress!” my machine cried. “I can’t take it! I’m giving it all I’ve got!” I had during research trips used this same laptop for numerous Star Trek viewings, rendering the device with its own odd form of acquired vocabulary, expostulating in borrowed phrases and desperately trying to recoup its energies for another stab at an extended run of XCOM: Enemy Within while thinking fondly back to its halcyon days of successfully running Microsoft Word and an Internet browser simultaneously for hours (hours!) at a time, in the depths of a period that its owner will refer to only as “graduate school.”

Now all has changed. I play new games effortlessly. Skyrim had the audacity, the audacity I tell you, to inform me that it recommended I play the game at “high” settings. I chose “ultra”, set my face to the wind and ventured bravely on. The whole experience has left me wondering what on earth people are playing that my current system could be described as “mid-level.” The term seems so disparaging to me, but it seems that mid-level systems cost as much as they do because that’s the price you pay for not playing your games across three monitors with a combined screen resolution that sounds made up, a rejected equation from a blackboard on the set of Good Will Hunting or the meaning of life distilled into vaguely mathematical language. No, my mid-level system is doing just fine. I’ll be slowly scaling back down to the “medium” settings where I belong and eventually worse as the years arrive at the door, but I’ve seen the top now and there’s no going back. True, I can feel if not hear the derision descending from the mountaintops above me, but I take the third floor rooftop garden I now inhabit over my position in the street dodging oncoming vehicles any day.

The question hanging in the air from before I turned my machine on, before I rammed my graphics card into the motherboard with what had to be too much force, before I received the cornucopia of Amazon and New Egg boxes to my door, was this: what game will I play first? Bob asked me the very same question on our podcast.

The answer is Spelunky.

I know that’s incredibly anti-climactic, and that’s how I felt immediately after I started the game, but there we are. I’m addicted to Spelunky but am still terrible at it as all the people I follow that play the game and were once almost as terrible as I now bemoan their luck at failing to defeat the game on two machines concurrently while perfecting a new type of egg salad. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but that’s how it feels down here in the “not very good at videogames” gutter sometimes. The one redeeming factor of getting older, at least in this particular facet of my life, is that I now have an excuse to be bad at them. Additionally, video game enthusiasts my age seem more open about the fact they’re terrible at games. Some interesting parallels with a career in academia there, actually.

Funnily enough, after moving through a rotation and installing numerous games, I’ve come back to Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. I picked the game up on sale at Amazon a few months ago along with two of its sequels, but my old setup didn’t have a prayer of playing the games with any kind of acceptable framerate, even before these uncultured eyes. My current computer gripes with the game for a few moments after loading too, though a quick Google search assures me this is common across many systems. Then, shortly after the game has settled down, the stuttering goes away. I don’t understand why; this is clearly a technological question with the same essential issue at hand at whatever was wrong with my parents’ television in the 1980s. Simply thumping the television seemed to work. Happily, my PC magically fixes whatever the issue is without any need for physical abuse. I’m just going to go along.

I think I hate Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. That’s preposterous. I don’t hate it. I hate myself playing it and I thus have contempt for the game by extension. I’m more conscious of the time I spend playing games than I ever have been. This is partly a product of my job and partly a product of my desire to write. It’s entirely a product of my failing to enjoy games the way I used to, as exercises in fun in and of themselves. Increasingly, games need to do something to wipe away the gentle gnawing of responsibility that now seems to invade my waking hours. I need to be able to shut it out. I make video games earn this, I make them live up to a standard I don’t enforce within a cinema or that I only choose to enforce at a certain point of a novel. The issue is exacerbated of course by the horrendous tutorializing that now infects the entire medium. Even someone like me, who is frankly “bad at games” in many derivatives of that idea, doesn’t need to be spoon-fed game mechanics two hours after the opening credits first ran. That’s not the whole story however. I know games have the potential to take up considerable amounts of my time for many hours to come. I don’t have an issue with this, in fact I welcome it; although I think there is a place for six hour video game experiences I don’t necessarily feel that should become a model. I’m fine with a game taking up a lengthy amount of time, even if that means weeks and not a weekend at this point in my life.

So we have a sense of expectation, a certain stress borne of the idea of getting something positive out of the game. Will I look back upon the six hours or so I’ve spent playing Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood as time well spent? I’m not sure I will. Not in the way that I very much consider my time playing The Last of Us to be time well spent or the copious amounts of time softly invested in Crusader Kings II. Or Spelunky, for that matter.

So, bearing in mind that I may yet make my peace with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, why am I so frustrated by the experience of playing a game where the rictus of fingers that was once my right hand lies affixed and unflinching to a position that holds down the right trigger for what feels like hours at a time as I watch the avatar on screen run, jump and climb around when I find such joy in the experience of playing a game where my right index finger holds down its trigger for the entirety of a playthrough as I watch the avatar on screen run, jump and climb around? Obviously they are completely different games, but why is it that a similar practice in each game can have such drastically differing effects? The immediate answer is of course that yes, these are different games. Spelunky is essentially a platformer, a roguelike platformer that prides itself on its difficulty but a platformer nonetheless. The avatar’s jumping around is very different from the parcourt being simulated, serenaded, elevated in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. In Spelunky, you jump around until you die. Ezio Auditore is jumping towards some kind of purpose.

So we get to the nub of it. What exactly is it that I expect from games at this point in my life? Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, by all accounts, delivers on many of the fronts that the current video gaming audience expects. It has lavish production values, the art is very nice indeed, the city of Rome is realized with much care and attention to detail. The history tends to be dealt with in a particularly interesting way, something rather dear to my heart. However, I feel quite strongly that Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood ends up hoisting itself by its own petard. The cutscenes are very well done indeed, but dear me there are a lot of them. These scenes are thus presented as the main vessel for the game’s storytelling, and that’s fair enough, if a little limiting. The content of the cutscenes, however, is occasionally crass and consistently devoid of subtlety. Ezio Auditore enjoys the sexual appeal of The Witcher, himself a character from games that treat sex so laughably badly as to essentially exempt themselves from serious criticism. His closest ally early on in the game is Machiavelli, a man who even if one is to ignore his reputation seems certain to betray our hero at some point. Frankly I’ll be impressed if he doesn’t; it would qualify as a twist, not because of the real Machiavelli’s authorship of The Prince but because of the obsession of so many video game plots with turning the protagonist’s closest friend/ally/advisor/mentor against him. Who knows if I’ll get that far, however. I really don’t feel like rescuing Catherine of Siena because my protagonist fancies her and I’m not warming to the Borgias as the villains of the piece. Taking the Borgias and driving straight past outlandishness into embarrassing self-parody, now that’s impressive. This is the Borgias we’re talking about.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is guilty of setting standards for itself and then getting distracted by cleavage. That’s not to say the game is defined by sexist attitudes, as I do not believe it is; however, it’s an odd fix to be in when you are being promised a story that reaches into the complex politics of Renaissance Rome and touches on historical themes and individuals and then you complete one of the game’s many “missions” following an attractive woman with some vague intent of impressing her. When Lucrezia Borgia cavorts on screen on front of an angry crowd as some kind of hyper-sexualized demon. When the game informs me that, yes, I have to hold down on the right trigger and follow an NPC again. That I will always be doing this, that I will be sending my son to college in a generation’s time with my index finger holding down its relentless pressure on my early twenty-first century game controller.

That’s a big part of the problem, isn’t it? Control. I’m spoiled, I expect control. But The Last of Us didn’t give me control. Dark Souls withholds control from me as much as possible. I loved both games. I can dip in and out of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood as much as I like, but it’s not the same as dipping in and out of Spelunky. I boot up Spelunky, and promptly see my character impaled, stomped, crushed and crumpled. I start another game, or I don’t. I have a smile on my face. Perhaps not immediately after the character dies, but before and shortly afterwards. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is a chore at this point. Must I? Must I kill this NPC to gain control of this part of the city? Must I locate the religious cult’s headquarters to unlock another part of some armour set I care little or nothing about? Must I follow another NPC? Must I sit through another cutscene, wondering if the voice actor is an American imitating an Italian accent or an Italian mocking the simulacrum of Italian-ness that he suspects his American audience awaits? Must I?

Must I?

This seems like an attack on Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, but it’s not. It’s very much an attack on myself, an examination of my own motivations. What do I want from games now, anyway? It’s really not that long ago that I would have adored Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, luxuriated in it, finished it and shared my satisfaction with the world. Was Borderlands 2 as inferior to the original as I suspect, more crass and more unsettling in its adoption (as opposed to mockery) of sophomoric humour? Or have I just changed my expectations between the first game and the second? It’s not as simple as talking about wanting games to be more concentrated into briefer experiences, as Valve have done so expertly with the Portal games. It’s not as simple as rushing to the growing virtual Williamsburg of the indie game scene, either. I still like those games so frequently described as “AAA”, I still enjoy them. I’m still excited by them. They seem to be moving on from me, however.

I don’t think it’s as simple as growing out of the medium. Trust me, I have plenty of immaturity left. I don’t think that Grand Theft Auto V is doing the same thing the GTA games have been doing for a decade and that the generation behind me remains unbothered. My utter failure to complete Grand Theft Auto V and the disgust that drove that decision have not diluted my interest in revisiting the game’s predecessor, a game where Liberty City felt alive and where the central story, though a little simplistic, seemed open to dark themes but did not succumb to them. One could argue that Grand Theft Auto V gives the audience what it wants and we have to deal with it, but nothing about that game gives me reason to think that its creators had such complexity of the dynamics of cultural reception in mind. Satire and parody are not the same thing, a fact that earlier Grand Theft Auto games seemed to grasp but that seems absent in its latest iteration.

It’s remarkable just how dated Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood feels. Sure, the medium trundles along at an astonishing pace at the best of times, but it does feel like we are in the midst of interesting transitions here, in our expectations of storytelling and the expectations of a generation in love with video games, all grown up and looking to the medium to transcend itself. It’s unfair to expect video games to mature narratively at a rate that matches technological cycles of graphics cards and consoles, but it’s fair to expect changes within the community as a whole that would encourage such change. Perhaps we need to embrace what video games do well. Spelunky is a phenomenal video game. It’s more fun than Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood in short bursts, one could argue because the former game is driven by experiences centred on short bursts whereas the latter is not. However, Spelunky delivers a long-form experience, largely by virtue of the player’s own involvement in driving narrative.

It’s a narrative that exists beyond the mere experience provided by the mechanics of the game itself, but it’s one with remarkable depth: rationalization of a character’s continued expirations, discovery of secret characters, secret goodies, secret levels. Spelunky’s true genius arrived with the concept of the “Daily Challenge”, the guarantee of one game a day that would be the same for everybody and thus the opportunity to see how you fared in comparison with your friends. Nothing new there in the world of video games. Daily Challengers started recording themselves playing, and now entire communities exist around the concept of recording your Spelunky run. Many of us talk while playing, in an odd form of video blog revival. Some people play music while they play, some people look to find others to play alongside and some people just play and upload the video with little or no aural addition. I participate in a forum where I can go and share my experiences of the game or just check and see how the other guys are doing. We share our experiences and laugh at amusing character deaths, congratulate each other on reaching landmarks within the game for the first time. Each of us has crafted our own story.

This is where video games’ real strength lies, of course. I need to sit down and write about Crusader Kings II finally, as this is an area where the medieval strategy game excels, essentially providing a platform for the player to tell his or her own story to themselves. This is where I am now, playing the same opening level for well past the umpteenth time in Spelunky either in response to someone else’s experience or to develop a new experience of my own, as the letters comprising Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood in my Steam list look on forlorn, begging me to return to the beautiful recreation of Rome that took thousands of hours to build, to revel in the parcourt gameplay that has drawn such plaudits for several years now. It’s not happening. Ezio Auditore’s story holds promise but he wants to make me work to get there, to slog through gameplay choreography I don’t really feel like performing, and he has to play to the expectations he believes exist among my fellow audience that have yet to leave puberty either physically or intellectually. Spelunky lets me tell my own story, and I’ll be done for tea.

Further reading:

L. Rhodes – Lost Lives

L. Alexander – The Tragedy of Grand Theft Auto V

One thought on “Assassins, Spelunkers and storytelling

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