Tuesday, March 27, 2012

How I Found Peace with Assassin's Creed 3

My college years were spent exclusively studying the past. I majored in History, emphasis on European Ancient to Renaissance, emphasis England, with a minor in religious studies. I had some amazing professors who eschewed force feeding students names and dates in favor of telling stories, including the more scandalous ones as tantalizing dessert on top of the potential dryness of historical regurgitation. I was so lucky to have these resources in this regard; people who had a great passion for their field as opposed to those who just go through the necessary motions to propel students along their grand collegiate path. I adoringly soaked up every detail about the Plantagenets and Tudors, Romans and Greeks, Constantine and Charlemagne. So much bravery, so much weakness, so many amazing tales to tell. I chose my major due to a fierce craving to learn the timeline of Western civilization...but as the dates crept closer to present time, I constantly found myself losing interest. With the exception of the Battle of Culloden during the Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland in the mid-1700s, the French Revolution later that century and the latter years of Victorian England (Jack the Ripper, obviously), I have almost zero interest in anything after 1688, the year William & Mary took the throne in England during the Glorious Revolution. After that, I feel as though everything dissolves into politics. Romance dies, modern governments develop, my passion fades…and a nation is born.

American History 101 was the only class I ever took on the topic, and I barely passed it with a B-. It was a prerequisite course for graduation. I had a professor who was something of an intern and nothing he said sparked or inspired in any way. I did the bare minimums and put it behind me forever. In the decade since graduation, I have read some historical fiction regarding the American Revolution or the Civil War, but it still fails to be anything other than ho-hum, gun-wielding, political teeth-gnashing greed over the right to own land and people in my eyes. Persecuted English folks move to a free land to turn around and persecute natives and burn people at the stake. So much conflict, so little resolution. New America is still such a baby, in terms of the great timeline, and I spent enough time sitting on top of Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia, attempting to experience the same feeling I get when I sit on a bench on the Royal Mile of Edinburgh, Scotland, to know that the latter evokes strong emotions in my core while the former completely fails to engage. I have no great love for American history, yet have an enormous pool of love for European history.

Because of this, my initial reactions to the news about Connor and Assassin’s Creed 3 were fairly negative. For the first couple of days after the press release, I was sure that my golden days of Assassin’s Creed were behind me, Altair and Ezio’s stories so intertwined with my love of their time periods and settings that to separate them in any way would obviously mean death for my adoration of the series. My first impression was ‘I hate this so much.’ I was totally the girl crying about the cities and how the American setting would ruin my experience, as climbing ship masts and tiny church steeples was nothing like seeing Rome from the top of the Colosseum or Istanbul from Hagia Sophia’s spired heights. I pouted about the bow and arrow combination and snickered at the precious logo on the top of Connor’s tomahawk, saying things like ‘didn’t we just play Read Dead Redemption?’ and ‘assassin’s shouldn’t be involved in battles, they should be subversive and trying to undermine both sides’. Such a whiny jerk, I know. Even though I knew the new game wasn’t going to be in the French Revolution setting I craved, I guess I just wanted the developers to stay within the confines of my own desires and wishes, keeping it in Europe and outside of the range of gun-heavy warfare. Deep, heavy sighs ensued. But then I started to have a change of heart. I mean, really, the only person I am affecting here is me, and my lack of open-mindedness is pretty boring. So, instead of continuing to act like an entitled brat about the new game, I am going to let go, embrace Connor, and see the game as the potential gift that Ubisoft is giving me: a chance to experience the American Revolution from an interactive standpoint, thigh-deep in a story I already am utterly devoted to, in order to feel the same way about a time in history that I would have otherwise ignored in favor of my comfort zone.

This line in a recent article on Kotaku started to reform my thoughts on AC3:

"History is this big challenge," creative director Alex Hutchinson says. "It's a huge, rich resource to mine. But then, half the time, it doesn't do what you wanted it to do. People didn't die a lot in the revolution. Common people did. Famous people did. Finding people to kill was six, seven months of reading to find people who died…Every assassination target is a real person who dies at the right time at the right place. How they died we'll let you get a little bit artistic."

It’s easy to forget how much these guys care about the historical aspects of the franchise when it isn’t set in the historical context I wished for all year long. But they do. And that matters to me, as both a fan and great lover of the past in general. I am the girl in the movie theatre who decries all of the minor mistakes filmmakers make when portraying past figures (number one complaint: perfect white teeth on everyone), so it’s very important to me that even when taking liberties with historical narratives, that most of the recreations are painted by people that think these details are important. And I believe the creative folks do care about these things – they make it a point to care every time. And this matters. If the people that loved Brotherhood enough to bring life to a virtual Rome, circa 1499, are the same people loving Frontier America from 1753-1783, I feel like I am in a great position to see this new world of the assassin through their eyes, and potentially fall in love with a time in American history that I never would have immersed myself in for any other game series. Even if it means climbing to the tops of trees like a spider monkey rather than basking in the view of Jerusalem from Solomon’s Temple.

Although I still think the logo tomahawk is ridiculously precious and pray that Desmond's story doesn't take place in first-person perspective, I am now a much more open and willing pupil, eager to help Connor on his trek through an America on the brink of Revolution in October. As long as I continue to have access to a hidden blade, all is right between me and my beloved Assassin’s Creed.


Friday, March 16, 2012

Screenshot Friday!

I played all of Skyrim in January, managing to do so without taking any preplanned time off work or ‘unexpected’ sick days. Late nights and weekends were spent traversing the lands, blasting fire spells at dragons and earning the respect of the various clans about the realm. I am proud to say that I finished the hell out of that game, only leaving the Dark Brotherhood quests aside (because, duh, evil), my final steps in Skyrim moments after the grande finale. And then, I was done…and a tad uncertain as to what to take on next. I’d heard loads of praise about another RPG, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, but wasn’t sure diving right back into a min/max questventure would be the smartest plan. The open world aspects of Skyrim gave life to all of the terrible sides of being an obsessive completionist, and boot stomping into another without taking the time to decompress and quietly ponder on all that occurred previously would assumedly be bad for my health and social relationships.

So I played Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. And it was…so much…I can’t… Later, I promise.

I started Reckoning shortly after Alan Wake. So…yeah. Not so much with the meditation time.

It’s extremely difficult to judge the worthiness of a game after finishing one that could be it’s fraternal twin. Side by side, their appearances are quite different, but the overall DNA structure is almost identical. I could say this about other RPG’s along the same vein, but it’s jarring to flow from one to another almost seamlessly, barely having enough time to forgot one finger pattern in place of another while performing practically all of the same tasks. Chatting up folks who need random errands run for them, picking flowers to turn into delicious potions, trying to save the realm from civil war and supernatural danger, coming to terms with being ‘a chosen savior’, fast traveling from one side of the map to another…god, I don’t even know which game I am even talking about anymore. I am starting to feel as though 2012 is going to be the year I exceed my own limit on saying “I’ll get that necklace out of that dank cave for you”. And I didn’t even know I had a limit.

Don’t get me wrong, though, I think Reckoning is sparkly fun. The controls in combat are practically perfect, and in third person, which I prefer (playing TP in Skyrim was wrecked, IMO), and the weapon choices are neat. As opposed to other RPG’s where you must state your class and carry on, Reckoning allows you to mix it up quite a bit, and as a result, the tactics feel quite personal, such as a mage with a penchant for laying traps and stealth, or a warrior who can conjure up a demon helper in a fight. I like having a powerful staff in one hand and badass chakrams in the other. Mages carry talismans that function like wards when activated, but more similar to a shield than a spell, which is fantastic. My character is totally cartoon gorgeous, as opposed to the shadow-faced geometrical one in Skyrim. All in all, happy.

There is one way I am failing the game, however. I pick up too many quests and don’t complete them in a timely manner. Ideally, I would receive a request to do something random, perform said random task and then march back to whoever made the request and claim my reward before heading back on the road to main quest town, but…I have a problem. I take everything that crosses my path and tuck it away to do ‘later’. Two terrible results of this: one, I see the 29 side quests patiently waiting in my inventory journal and freak out, spending an entire evening performing these mundane tasks joylessly, merely to check them off of the list, or two, I randomly come across them flashing on the mini-map and pick up/kill/talk to/whatever the quest, but have no idea what just happened, the motivation behind it, who gave it to me or how it fits into the big picture of the narrative, or if it does at all. I play Reckoning like someone randomly flipping through a book and catching only phrases here and there. Since only the main and faction quests seem to have a continual drive through them, I don’t think it matters too much, but occasionally I get confused by what the hell is going on and only have myself to blame. Ah, well. Carrying on.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Back From Outer Space...and Skyrim

Coming back to writing after a rather extensive break is one of the most surprisingly difficult endeavors I have yet to task. Keeping this blog alive has been a labor of love for over two years now, but at some point in December the sheer responsibility of it washed over me, bringing with it a waves of doubt and uncertainty. I started to read my own work and judge it both critically and terribly. Instead of powering through this phase of icky self-consciousness, I abruptly stopped writing. Probably the worst reaction, in hindsight. Because here I sit, my fingers patiently waiting for my brain to unravel a knot of thorny briars wedged between a blank page and a stream of easy keystrokes. I convinced myself that if I wasn’t writing that I could just be playing again. Not having a critical experience, but a sinuous player-to-game interaction, working my way through the mountainous regions of Skyrim without quietly noting the scenic representations as codes in a computer, and the narrative outlines as virtual reality and not the output of a team of talented writers. I could just be there, and in being there, accept all of it as truth without over-analyzation. I was wrong. Once that faucet has been turned on, even pulling on it with all of your mental might does not keep the drips from keeping you awake at night. So here I am, and (hopefully) here I intend to stay.

I spent over 100 hours exploring the realm of Skyrim. Pretty typical for an Elder Scrolls game, I hear, with players spending much more than that navigating the land, picking up as many quests as possible and leaving almost every virtual stone unturned. After trying and failing to play Oblivion due to the sheer volume and mass of its countryside and the amount of unachievable quests pulling at my journal bindings from the very beginning, I was sure I would taste the waters of Skyrim, find them chock full of unappealing minerals and spit it out just as quickly. But instead, I found something beautiful and something utterly terrible. The beauty I found in every tree root and every sawtoothed mountaintop. Encountering a dragon is a humbling and majestic happenstance, destroying and absorbing its soul a painful yet necessary task. Standing stones and statuesque figures litter the landscape, while the skies darken to reveal green and yellow patterns against the pinpoints of twinkling stars. The bards sing poetic notes filled with the tales of heroes and monsters. My favorite quests lie North of the actual continent and into an environment encompassed entirely by ice flows and snowscapes. Skyrim is ridiculously beautiful, in all sights and all sounds.

But playing Skyrim isn’t always beautiful. Sometimes it’s terribly compulsive. After several hours of play, I often went to bed in the twilight hours of a work night feeling less accomplished and more strung out, waking up the next day with itching eyes and a throbbing skull, the results of telling myself ‘just one more mission to check off the list, and then I will be xyz'. And with the exception of the main quest and a few of the ones within the more narrative centric lines, most of the random NPC quests felt utterly shallow. If I met a man in a tavern with a terrible story about a loved one dying in a mine, he would without fail ask me to retrieve some memorial trinket from said mine. I would do so, bring it back to him, he would give me money or another bobble and we would never speak again. These tasks, although prefaced with loss or love or some other ridiculously strong emotion, would result in nothing other than a brief tip of a hat before continuing on our merry separate ways. This combination of weak character relations (especially since they allow you to have a spouse, which results in a companion no different from any other, except he/she will give you money) and lack of consequences of almost any action (even carrying through with the civil war plotline only results in a change of guard uniform around the realm and a shrug) made the experience seem surface on every level. And I think I felt this so strongly because of my tendency to have the best damn time in video games when I can see my relationships developing and/or can see the effects my actions have on the surrounding environment.

I hate to compare Skyrim to Dragon Age, but in terms of what I am looking for in a potential time sucking RP experience, playing a shallow quest-to-quest adventure just isn’t as rewarding as playing a quest-to-quest adventure that also includes meaningful conversation and, yes, I’ll admit it, sexy time. When my second go-around Hawke disrobed and became a rogue to please mage-hating Fenris, the careful choice of dialogue options to propel our relationship ‘to the next level’ was one of the most fun times I have had in an RPG. It wasn’t just the “Hawke as Kirkwall’s Champion” narrative that made playing it feel rewarding, it was seeing your interpersonal relationships develop or fail with your party members that gave the game the gravity to keep bubbles of joy brimming up on every surface, as opposed to the weak ‘carry on’ sentiments I felt while plodding my way through Skyrim. Being Dragonborn was never as fun as being sassy Hawke, Champion of Kirkwall, enemy to Anders, friend of Varric and paramour of pretty Fenris. It may have held more weight and respect, globally (re: people slobbering all over Skyrim vs the disdain for DA2), but for me, my time (two times, actually) in Kirkwall was absolutely more enjoyable and resonating than the 108 hours I spent slaving away as the Dovahkiin, where my only reward for completing a monumental task was to be able to continue doing into perpetuity, long after the final battle is won.

Now, I will understand if you respectfully disagree with me, as many of your personal drives probably aren’t motivated by character relations but by the epicness of the overall task at hand. Feeling like the Dragonborn, battling Alduin, and following the prideful path of great power and responsibility over an entire nation is pretty neat. But for me, having a drink in a tavern with a companion who tells me their own grand story and building that connection is infinitely more rewarding. In conclusion, Skyrim, I loved you for your pretty face, but am happy to leave you behind (...until DLC is announced /cough). I hear something enticing is on the horizon, and it's name is Witcher 2.

This article about Skyrim on The Ontological Geek is the best.