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how to do things with videogames

Space and reverence in Assassin’s Creed 3

Here’s an example of how you might respond to Bogost’s book.

Below is a 30-second video that shows an iconic element of the Assassin’s Creed series. In the games, your character is able to climb certain high points. Once you reach the top, there is a brief cut scene where you take in the panoramic view. After, you can dive safely to the ground. Acquiring the view gives you an advantage as it expands your map, improving your ability to navigate the city and find important clues and missions. However, this moment also reflects an interesting treatment of space and a certain reverence for American history (though with a crucial caveat I will get to in a moment).

Let me begin with space, which is addressed in chapter six (“Transit”). Here Bogost focuses on the ways videogames ask us to navigate spaces and makes a connection to an experience of slow discovery that has been largely lost in modern life. Assassin’s Creed 3 (AC3), like other games before it like Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim, is an open world. There is a linear narrative to pursue, but there are many side quests and other activities. One can also just explore a wide and visually rich environment by foot, on horseback, and by sea.

In our conversations about video games, we have lamented that video game experiences are impoverished in comparison to real life. I wonder if we want to make that argument about other media? Certainly a video game will not match the experience of a stroll in the park, a hike in the mountains, or even a walk through your city neighborhood. But I wonder… Does A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream provide the experience of camping in the forest? Does reading “Mont Blanc” convey the sense of climbing a mountain? Will reading The Big Sleep offer the same experience as driving the streets of LA? If I watch a Woody Allen or Spike Lee film, can I say I’ve spent a day in NYC? Of course not. Media/art are part of life, but they are not life. Instead, we might say that media experiences can enrich our lives: a day in NYC will not give me what a Woody Allen or Spike Lee film does.

AC3 is set during the American Revolutionary War, primarily in Boston, NYC, and the surrounding rural areas. We have many artistic and historical accounts of this period. We have documents, art, literary works, and other artifacts of material culture from the time. And we have a historical studies, biographies, and fictional treatments of the time. As we might say of any of these pieces of media, AC3 offers an experience of a time and place, an encounter with a particular space. The open structure of gameplay allows the player to explore and experience 18th-century Boston in a unique way, not available in paintings or texts from the period or even in contemporary filmic recreations. Is it the same as walking the Freedom Trail in Boston this summer? No. But modern Boston cannot offer the views in the clip above either.

Of course, there are limits to representation, and there are historical inaccuracies in AC3. You can read about some of these issues as they were reported:

Any history, whether scholarly or popular, as well as any literary or artistic treatment of the past will offer a particular representation and point-of-view. A video game, like a film, novel, or painting, balances an obligation to accuracy with other aesthetic concerns. Even a scholarly history will need to make choices about where it places its focus and must make interpretive judgments. You can see that AC3 raised a debate about the decisions it made, just as the recent film Lincoln did. Nevertheless, I would content that moments such as the one depicted above, invite players into some reverence for the past, not unlike the cathedral scene Bogost discusses in chapter 3.

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About Alex Reid

Associate Professor and Director of Composition in the English Department at the University at Buffalo

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