Saturday, December 12, 2009

History is a game – Assassin’s Creed

First “God of War” and it’s sequel took Greek mythology and turned it into a bad ass adventure game with lots of blood, monsters, sex and a Ragnarok storyline (if you’ll let me mix my mythologies). The game was fun to play and the storyline was a great mix, something a talented writer had to think out and execute, and still keep in mind game play and entertainment.

Then I stumbled into “Assassin’s Creed” a game that takes history and turns it into something fascinating and interactive. The game itself takes place during the third Crusade when King Richard of England was facing Saladin with The Holy Land as the prize. With key locales in Acre, Damascus and Jerusalem, the art department worked overtime to create vivid locations, populate them with period accurate characters and costumes and give everything a lived in feel that immerses the player in the medieval world.

You play as an assassin dedicated to a sect of killers that works outside of politics. Their goal is preserve the Holy Land for everyone, not to conquer it. This allows the player to tackle both sides of the war, Christian or Muslim – both become targets. The game forces the player to use stealth, information gathering and deadly fighting skills in combination. You find the target, get close to them and then take them out, before the whole town takes you out. The game was a blast to play, even if it did get a bit repetitive here and there. The atmosphere provided by the graphics, sound effects and music were top notch.

But let’s get back to the story or a minute. I explained the main action of the game, but there is a framing element that provides the game with two important features. This framing story is a 180 from the Crusades – it’s science fiction. You start the game in the near future. Your character is a test subject for a large corporation. He is required to link up to a machine that uses genetic memory to plunge his mind back into past lives. These past lives are etched into his DNA and provide him with the persona of the assassin during the Crusades. Ok, maybe it’s more like science fantasy, but it’s an interesting idea.

Since the time traveler isn’t physically going back into time, it is only a persona traveling along engrained memories, this explains how the assassin can “die” but return to the memory at a certain spot (save point). It also allows the writers to mix history up a little bit. According to the game, the history books are based on perceptions of those who are in power. But the true memories are in the character’s DNA. So who’s to say that a group of Assassin’s wasn’t manipulating events in the past, and made sure that their involvement was never known.

During the game, the player jumps from this future state, learning a little about why he was picked and what the corporation is after, to engaging the dangers of the Crusades. Links between both stories become clearer and clearer and leads to revelations on both stories.

The other reason for the future storyline becomes clear at the end of the game. The Medieval storyline is concluded with a solid climax, but the future storyline ends in a cliff hanger. There may be further need for other memories in the future, so the main character is kept on hand – just in case. This can lead perfectly into a sequel. Guess what “Assassin’s Creed 2” is already out in stores in time for the holidays. This time the memories seem to occur during the times of the Venetian trade empire. A very interesting cut scene is available to view showing the square of San Marco as well as the canals of Venice (not to mention some new weapons and sneaking techniques).

Clever game writers were able to do two things here. They could create a game based on a rich time in Western history. The Crusades provide them with plenty of opportunities for intrigue, combat and colorful settings (even if they seemed to borrow from Ridley Scott’s take on the Crusades in “Kingdom of Heaven”). But they also had a framing story that allowed them to tweak with history in a believable way (at least for the game’s world) but provided the perfect outlet for sequels.

Have you played “Assassin’s Creed”? What did you think of the two storylines and their effectiveness? Is this the type of thing that can only be pulled off in a game, or could this have been done in a book or movie? Ever read a historical fiction that tamped with history? Did it work?

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