Monday, August 27, 2012

The visual realism of Assassin's Creed III

(A comment I was going to leave for an Assassin's Creed III trailer on YouTube before I learned about the word limit.)

Eh, the game is all right, if you like chop-fests. No, seriously, the game is phenomenal—the amount of detail in the textures, the smoothness of the animations constructed on the fly, the beautiful lighting, the sophisticated particle effects. The state of the art has really reached an astounding state. It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the technology from Altair moving among the NPCs in Jerusalem to Connor in the Colonies displacing knee-deep snow as he walks through it. A significant increase in detail and realism at each stage. And on top of the technological advancements is the game’s concept itself—locating the different stages of the game at significant points and places in history so that the user’s experience ends up being effortlessly, invisibly educational. Grand concept, impressive execution.

While watching one of the trailers for AC3 the first time, however, I had an unexpected negative reaction to Connor on the battlefield chopping a path through the Redcoats. The effect was different than Ezio taking on a dozen Templars in battle gear with his sword and retractable knives and all. It was different seeing Connor using a sleek steel tomahawk to actually chop up soldiers dressed in natty uniforms and armed with quaint guns. The game almost seems to be celebrating the killing. At one point, soaring orchestral strings accompany the hacking of British soldiers. At first, of course, I thought he was going after the British, which made the seeming celebration of the beauty of efficient killing even more disturbing. But even after I read that he killed only Templars in that scene, the scene was still disturbing because of the number and detail of the kills.

I understand the need for the kills in the context of the game and the use of the tomahawk in the context of Connor’s heritage, and that episodes in American history actually were as gristly as this. But I feel that things are different with the game this time around. With advancing game technology making characters look progressively more like real people than constructs of uv-mapped polygons, it becomes more significant that players feel a surge of endorphins and dopamine when hacking away at the characters. You can say “Nobody dies in a game” and you’d be absolutely right. They’re just polygons. But it’s also true that a part of the brain does not perceive it as just software moving polygons in response to user input, and that is the part of the brain that motivates the user to play the game. If you were to replace human models in the game with donut models that spurted jelly or creme when stabbed, the effect would be comical and the game would be fun to play for a while. Assassin’s Creme III. But the user wouldn’t have the deep visceral reaction to it that he has to gameplay involving animated models that closely resemble humans. The more realistic the characters look, the more significant that reaction is.

So, Ubisoft, since users would never, on their own, cap the number of kills they make in a game so that things don’t get out of hand, you could do that. You could easily reduce the number of Templars to be identified among the soldiers. As game worlds continue to look progressively more real, you could diminish the importance of the kill in the gameplay and emphasize instead the decision, the clue, the plan. It’s true that movies present very real-looking violence to the viewer, but the difference with realistic games is that the player isn’t a passive viewer of violence, he initiates and propels the violence. Ubisoft, you’re making a killing from a part of the player’s brain processing the game’s visual information the way it does. Play carefully with that part of the brain.

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