Why Assassin’s Creed Origins is Cleverly Stupid (or Stupidly Clever)

Premise

This article is not supposed to be a content based commentary on the game, rather it is a meta-comment, about what Origins represents for the videogame medium and for me, as a long-time gone player who still considers Assassin’s Creed II one of his favorite games of all times.
So if you randomly stumbled upon this article expecting some piece about why Origins is outstanding, or why it sucks, or how crappy the PC controls are, close it real quick.

Brilliant writing for boring plot-lines

The main story of Assassin’s Creed games was great up until the end of Ezio’s trilogy, and kept the player engaged until AC 3, the title that puts an end to Desmond Miles adventures. After that, the main plot both in the modern and ancient era stopped having an actual relevance and value for the mass audience, and for the saga as a whole. It became more and more sort of an excuse, to give a reason for the main character to kill bad guys in some well polished historical context between one climb and the other.

This sort of twist in the narratives has not gone unnoticed for the fans of saga, who have harshly criticized a once story centered game to have become first the archetype and then the symbol of modern, open-world games, characterized by being full of different things to do and interact with, but lacking any emotional and plot-based factor that pushes the player to actively engage with that world. Well despite the fact that the story of Origins is far better than that of many other iterations of this saga, the so called main-quest plot is still failing to create an actual connection between the characters encountered through the game and the player. Nonetheless there is another thing that the writing part of this game achieves so successfully to strike me enough to write this piece: it is funny and self-conscious of its own “mediocrity” as a story.

Let us be honest: in any open world game, the main story is always somewhat an excuse to get you feel lost among thousands of side quest activities and long game sessions, and the only reason it is there is to make you feel that there is some sense of progression and you are not just jumping, cutting and looting (but indeed, it is 90% of what you are gonna do, believe me). Still, the way Origins manages to entertain you without providing a necessarily compelling story is ingenious.

Just to make this more understandable imagine this: you are within the first hour of the game, and start doing side quests, so you move to the nearest exclamation mark on your map and talk with a desperate old lady who begs you to go and save her son, who has decided to embark in a dangerous journey and has never come back. All pumped up, you move out of the dialogue just to notice that the game is notifying you that there is an objective for another side-quest a few meters from you. So you switch objective and think: “Great! More EXP!“. You already forgot about the old lady worrying about her son and urgently asking for your help, despite the fact that the story she gave you is supposed to be the reason you are gonna do that mission. So you head towards this other objective, which consists of meeting an old friend in a tavern, getting drunk, going through a fist fight with the previously mentioned old friend and pass out. So crucial for the social well-being of Egypt and its population, at least as much as saving the only son of a desperate woman, that even the mission is started by a NPC asking you if you are sure that you don’t have anything better to do than getting drunk at the tavern (your quick answer is that there is always time, of course there is, that is the reason we play videogames!). This reminded me of the abrupt interruptions present in Fallout 4, that your character was giving to NPCs when you tried to skip the dialogue (“There is a settlement that needs your h-” “Minutemen… Jesus…”).

It looks like they want to send a message to the player, something like: “how the fuck am I supposed to provide you a compelling story if you want me to provide you with absolute freedom and side quests ranging from saving/killing human beings to hunting hippos and getting into drunk fights? And you even complain about the story not being good enough? YOU WANTED THIS“.

How to make a young-adult, long-time player, feel old

Apparently at Ubisoft they know very well that the player’s focus in games such as this is to get exp and equipment to improve your level, so that you can do higher ranked quests, get even more exp and better equipment and so on, until you finish the game. This is crucial so that a hundred hours of playing later, you will feel like you actually achieved something and did not simply roam around doing the most various and often pointless activities just to kill time (because that is what ultimately you are gonna do when you turn on you console or PC, or watch a movie, or even go to a museum).
Consider the new RPG-like structure of the game, which looks like the perfect example of this pointlessness underpinning modern videogames mechanics: they provide you with thousands of different weapons, all unique and with dozens of bonuses and related statistics, but in the end nothing substantially changes the fights you are gonna have. Yes you are gonna move different, slash enemies differently, but it is not like the experience is gonna be as different as it can be if you decide to use a slow but strong hammer, or a fast pace, thin sword in Dark Souls (or maybe it does on very high difficulties, something I have to try to experiment yet but cannot surely be considered part of the core experience). In the end, the ultimate factor that is gonna decide what you are gonna do is your level and that of your enemies, if you have a level that is high enough there is no challenge that is gonna require you to use that weapon instead of another one, or to apply and develop a precise strategy to reach you target. Come on, you could even play this game drunk, high and blind, with a level 1 weapon, but with a max level character and go through the whole game with the blink of an eye.

Nonetheless, they throw so much pointlessly new stuff (I swear that I looted a shield that I already had in my inventory once, just to go check and find that it wasn’t added at all, being already there) in your face to continuously keep millennials’ attention hooked on what to do next, that I felt old for the first time playing a videogame, and I am a millennial. After a few hours I started having a feeling that could be described as my brain yelling me something like: “this is too much, stop, all these weapons, all those plots making no sense at all and all these completely different videogame genres mixed all together… ARGH… IT IS TOO MUCH FOR ME… Who is this old lady, why is she talking to me? Why does everyone know my name and want something from me here? Let me play that brainless stealth game once again, please”.

Just a game that is more than just a game…

To close this piece it is important to say that despite all this hate I just expressed, Origins is still a great action game, that improved on many points the weakened franchise and set solid ground for future developments of an action, RPG-ish game that I am convinced is gonna influence the future of this industry as much as the first two chapters of Assassin’s Creed did in the previous console generation.

Nonetheless I feel like brilliant writers that can manage to fool around with the player in such a smart way that he is entertained by it, could work on great, compelling stories that break your hearth and wet your eyes, if they where provided with a digital environment that left the player less freedom and more of a narrative experience. In a similar way, I am confident that developers would be way happier to be able to give proper attention to details of their work they cannot properly address within the current publishing model, rather than spending time to program poor animations of hurray for the enemies to be used when they kill you, while calling your corpse an idiot (because, yes, there is also this and much more awesome sarcasm in Origins).

I am sure that the outstanding marketing sector of Ubisoft could achieve to make a huge sale success of a story driven Assassin’s Creed as well as they do with the current open-world trend. The question is if the company will ever be willing to take such a risk and provide the audience with something “they don’t know they want yet” instead of simply giving them what they think they want, but are never fully happy about once delivered. In the meantime, I am gonna enjoy the hours of content present in the yearly issued, freshly polished, “new” Assassin’s Creed and its great frustration-born humor.

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