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.

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.

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

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser