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Control Mechanics As Storyteller in ‘Assassin’s Creed II’

young_ezio_auditore_by_costa_geablader-d2zlvwlIn my year of trying to catch up to playing classic games of this console generation I’ve finally made my way to Assassin’s Creed II. Having heard nothing but good things about this game but not doing much research on it, I went into it with a clean slate. The first thing that caught my attention was the complexity of the controls. The tutorial ‘race’ with Ezio’s brother took me numerous attempts to win. Understanding this is a tutorial, I braced myself for the new controls to come. However, my clumsiness as a player worked for narrative development as well. Desmond/Ezio is an inexperienced and reluctant assassin. He isn’t mystically trained in the black arts of death; no magical charms make him a better killer or gymnast for that matter. Ezio is a basic everyman and his clumsiness traversing rooftop to rooftop and constantly plummeting to his near death makes sense because he is an average (albeit athletic) teenager and not a trained killer.

clumsy_ezioEzio’s assassin skills incrementally progress throughout the game as my skill as a player progresses. This progression reinforces Ezio’s personal growth throughout the story as he grows from young man to seasoned veteran spanning from 1476 to 1499. I stood amazed, as my bull in a China shop Ezio, literally stumbling over people in large crowds and accidentally assassinating civilians when I was trying to jump ledge-to-ledge, became a smooth and methodical executioner right before my eyes.

This isn’t to say that this happened overnight. The controls of Assassin’s Creed II are difficult to master. Buttons have differing contextual purposes depending on environment and often the player and the game are on different pages. An example of this is trying to jump from post to post in a watery cave. The normal button configuration on land would be a breeze, however, when placed in water the game assumes you want to dive headfirst into it. These type of double functioning button controls, and subsequent mistakes, break the allusion of the storytelling. Playing and replaying a scene over and over reminds you, you are playing a game. For a game that prides itself on a cinematic storytelling style this can be distracting to downright frustrating.

But, as true in life so is true in game – practice makes perfect. Assassin’s Creed II is a difficult game to master but not in the traditional way most games are difficult. Its hard to kill Ezio, even falling off buildings rarely does the trick. Fights are relatively easy. His movements are fluid but the controls amount to little more than button mashing and parrying. Assassin Creed’s difficulty comes from its controls: timing that run and jump, precisely scaling that wall, and mastering that running-wall jump. Learning specific movements in environment can be punishing but they are always doable. Controls make take time to master but with repetition comes the payoff. This hearkens back to classic games where there were no difficulty settings. Some levels were hard. Landing that jump took multiple attempts. It was matter of fact and all apart of the game. The controls of Assassin’s Creed II abide by these rules.

The mechanical limitations of the game medium are also brought into the game narrative to surprisingly successful results. When Ezio enters the animus or completes a level, the cities of Renaissance Italy come to life piece by awe-inspiring piece. The player knows this is a fictional world and no amount of polygons is going to change that, however the game makes this part of the story showing the player how in-game cities were actually built. This is further reinforced through level design. In most games there is an invisible wall the player can no longer move beyond; the end of the world. Assassin’s Creed II makes these invisible walls visible and the animus tells the player: you shall not pass. Actually, the animus tells the player, these memories havent been synchronized yet. Since Ezio cant remember what the area beyond the invisible wall looks like, he cannot yet see it.

The “Bleeding Effect” also lends itself to story propagation. The Bleeding Effect is the blending of real-time and genetic memories and skills as a result of prolonged use of the animus. When Desmond awakes from the animus in game play interludes he realizes he has developed the same agility and fighting abilities as his ancestor Ezio. This is addressed in the story of Assassin’s Creed II often requiring Desmond to perform simple puzzles and tasks with his newfound abilities. This mechanic also makes sense from the players standpoint because by the time the player has their first return to controlling Desmond they have developed considerable game play growth through the games trials.

The narrative of Assassin’s Creed II is steeped in conspiracy theory. The conspiracies strand from the past with the Knights Templar to the modern with Abstergo Industries, creators of the Animus project. Subject 16, a previous captive of Abstergo, has left clues to a puzzle inside his time with the animus for the player to find. This meta, game-within-a-game consists of matching historical paintings, simple riddles, and the like but also enhances the narrative. Some may find this addition too gamey but I feel it highlights the many layers in which the player can enjoy the game.

Assassin’s Creed II designers deserve a lot of credit for understanding the limitations of the medium, understanding what makes game play fun, and understanding their IP and driving all design decisions to a unifying principle of reinforcing the story. This is not to say Assassins Creed II’s story is flawless. It is mixture of science fiction, historical revisionism, and Hollywood storytelling conventions that come together to varying levels of degree. I can suspend my disbelief for the animus technology, for the fact that Ezio would have to have the upper body strength of ten Olympic gymnasts, and the conspiracy theories littered throughout history. It becomes a little harder when everyone Ezio meets is apart of a secret society of assassins and fist fighting the Pope, well yeah, just sit with that for a while. Nonetheless, Assassin’s Creed II‘s complex controls and thoughtful level design greatly enhances the immersion for the player to better appreciate this artisan-crafted world.