Phil Hartup on videogames

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Face it, Black Flag would have been better without the Assassins. Arrrrr we tired of videogame franchises?

Make a game about being a pirate, let the player be a pirate, spend the money you would have spent on building the modern world part of the game on more pirate things. Like a parrot.

Edward Kenway in Assassin's Creed 4 has to be a pirate and a ninja.

Franchises are the way things are done these days, this is a fact that it is impossible to escape when talking about video games. Franchises roll over the years, building up a fan base, building up a brand, nurturing a specific set of skills in their players as core elements of the game mechanics are refined over time into a more perfect interpretation of developmental intent. In some ways this is a good thing, you don’t get the sort of budgets that games like GTA V or Skyrim demand without that gradual expansion and growth of expectation. That’s the good. The bad is that conceptual mistakes made early in a series can persist, game mechanics can become stagnant, games can become unwelcoming to new players. So does there a point come when you just have to take that cherished franchise and put it out of its misery, before it enters terminal decline, or can a good sequel always save the day?

The Assassin’s Creed series is just such a franchise. What may have at one point been envisaged as a trilogy has sprawled into a series that sees all kinds of releases popping up on all kinds of platforms, from PCs and latest generation consoles to mobile phones and table tops. It’s not paranoia; there really are assassins everywhere now.

So when Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag appeared, the sixth major release in a series that is only six years old, it was not exactly greeted with a sense of awe and wonder. This was not a game that was long awaited, we all know we’re going to see at least one Assassin’s Creed game every year, usually more. Fans of the series rejoiced in much the same way that people who like Christmas rejoice, they knew it was coming and they knew what to expect. Folks who have gone off the series, or were never turned onto it in the first place, well they mostly didn’t care at first.

But then something strange happened, it became apparent that Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is actually a good game, not in the perfunctory yet polished way that we would expect a franchise game to be good either. There’s some actual good gaming to be had in Black Flag, it respects skill, it has lots you can do, it has great style and flair for action, it’s a very enjoyable arcade pirate game. With emphasis on the arcade of course, the ship combat is to the age of sail what Afterburner is to building an Airfix kit. But credit where it is due, Black Flag is fun.

But there are flaws to Black Flag, big ones that are a product of its nature as an Assassin’s Creed game. When Black Flag strikes off on its own as a pirate game it is good, but the collected baggage from six years of Assassin’s Creed titles gone before weighs it down.

First and most obvious is the story. Black Flag is a story about a man who goes into an office and uses a device to access memories of his ancestor’s life as a pirate. This is a terrible story that it is impossible to get invested in at all. The actual fun bit of the game, the bit where you are a pirate, that’s basically a dream sequence. The game takes that most relentlessly awful plot device, saying that it was all a dream all along, and drops that on you like streak of seagull shit right after the first tutorial. It doesn’t even have the common human decency to wait until the end of the game.

Why does it do that? Why does it leap from the player finding his sea legs and buckling his swash in the pirate-infested 18th century Caribbean to giving you a tour of an office and telling you that all you are doing is helping to make a video game? Because it’s an Assassin’s Creed game, and Assassin’s Creed games are not games about assassins, they are games about people remembering their ancestors being assassins.

Part of me, I will admit, is tickled by the setting. The verfremdungseffekt caused by the present-day story, the way that the games push you back from the action is an interesting experiment. The way that Black Flag is effectively a game about the design of the game that you’re actually playing, that could almost be Brechtian, inserting an additional layer between player and principle avatar in the game. You are not dashing pirate captain Edward Kenway, you’re a white collar peon in an office cubicle. This game within a game line is something Assassin’s Creed can legitimately claim to have pioneered, at least in major releases, Max Payne’s hallucinations notwithstanding. Part of me respects that they had the guts to take a big budget series and continue to play these kinds of mind games with it.

However, while I respect the creativity, it’s clearly balls. Make a game about being a pirate, let the player be a pirate, spend the money you would have spent on building the modern world part of the game on more pirate things. Like a parrot. Parrots are better than offices.

The baggage of Assassin’s Creed hangs heavy on other parts of the game too. Because the main character, Edward Kenway, is an Assassin’s Creed character he has to act like an Assassin’s Creed character. The daft little wrist blades return, the idiotic stealth system has to be in play and the nearly-ninja fighting style has to come back. Amid a world of colourful and credible buccaneers, marines, brawlers and brutes our hero stands out like a pickled egg in a bag of Skittles.

Those combat systems had their place in other games but in Black Flag they feel like they are stopping the game from being what it wanted to be. There is a cheeky little pirate game in here that really didn’t need all that faff. Roaming the sea, nicking things from the King of Spain, antagonising whales and digging up buried treasure, what’s not to love?

The last and perhaps more dispiriting piece of baggage from the Assassin’s Creed games in Black Flag is the lazy and gratuitous violence that permeates it. I love violence in games as much if not probably more than the next man, but in Black Flag the callous, casual and visceral nature of the slaughter runs so contrary to the humour and cartoonish tone of the game that it just feels sordid. You play a pirate but the game mechanics are built around playing an assassin and there is a clear gulf between Edward the lovable rogue as he is presented by the game and the way you murder hundreds of people in it.

The term ludonarrative dissonance could be applied, but it’s more than just the game play and the story that are at odds. The game wants us to love Edward, this greedy, thieving Welsh killing machine whose forte is murdering people while they are looking the other way, but it gives us little to love about him. He does develop as a character but by the time he finally works out what is really important in life he’s killed more people than yellow fever and you might just be forgiven for thinking that his personal enlightenment wasn’t worth the cost. A more nuanced approach to the life of the pirate would have been very welcome, but when your pirate is built as a murderer first and a buccaneer second that nuance is harder to express.

It is clear that if Black Flag was just a game about pirates, unencumbered by all the baggage of its Assassin’s Creed branding, it could be a much better game. But is it a game that would ever get made? Without the ability to borrow assets, mechanics and ideas from the other games and without the ready-made fan base and high profile would Black Flag have been a prohibitively expensive gamble? We can only speculate, but it does show that while there is still life in the Assassin’s Creed series, that life is suffering from the weight of its own systems and selling points.

Some franchises have a better handle on the business of choosing what to keep and what to discard over the years. The Far Cry series embraces a diverse array of settings and characters, with the Far Cry name travelling very light in terms of mechanics. One Far Cry game might share very little with another, all that is generally consistent is that the game will take place in a remote setting. The GTA franchise also is consistent only in the core mechanic of stealing cars. Every time a franchise picks up a piece of mechanical or narrative cargo it becomes harder and harder for it to substantially improve or adapt and for Assassin’s Creed this may be an even greater problem down the line.

In the case of Black Flag the game is still good. For all the clashes of tone and content, the ridiculous meta-narrative, the many wafer thin game mechanics and the awkwardness of playing an assassin in a pirate hat, Black Flag provides an enjoyable sandbox/paddling pool to muck about in. That is enough. While it may not feel the most natural title in the series Black Flag has a good claim to being the best Assassin’s Creed game so far.