Whenever I tell people I am interested in architecture and video games I invariably get the question, “Oh like Assassin’s Creed?” It makes sense, Assassin’s Creed is a massively popular franchise that is primarily known for recreating historic cityscapes. Up to this point Assassin’s Creed has been the low hanging fruit in terms of the discussion between games and architecture that I’ve avoided because sometimes writing about the most obvious thing can be the most difficult.
Now in it’s 7th major console iteration, Assassin’s Creed is somewhat taken for granted. When the original game released in 2007 it was revolutionary (and that is not hyperbole). While the Xbox 360/PS3 generation made an immediate impact as they thrust gamers into the HD era, few early games capitalized on the new technology in any way other than graphical fidelity. To me, Assassin’s Creed felt like the first game I played on PS3 that could not have existed on the previous generation. Assassin’s Creed was the game I showed to non-gamers to show them what a PS3 could do.
The original Assassin’s Creed was a graphical marvel, the sharpness of the buildings, the intricacy of the ornament, the dynamic lighting all highlighted the new era of HD gaming. Yet good graphics are not enough to revolutionize gaming (just ask Ryse Son of Rome or The Order:1886). Three dimensional open world games were nothing new, far from it, Grand Theft Auto 3 popularized the platform 6 years before the release of Assassin’s Creed. What Assassin’s Creed revolutionized was the way in which the game allowed gamers to interact with their environment. Up until this point, buildings in games had only ever existed as borders, they were literally walls that served to funnel gamers down the intended path of exploration. Assassin’s Creed threw this convention out the window, not only making every single building climbable, but making the scaling of buildings the desired method of navigation. Players were no longer relegated to traversing streets, the entire environment opened up and navigation was left entirely to the discretion of the gamer. Suddenly, the vertical plane became just as, if not more important than the horizontal.
As an architectural history nerd what I love about the franchise is the level of detail and care put into each and every building. Ubisoft does an incredible job of recreating formal characteristics and ornamentation to produce an environment that looks and feels believable. While perfect one-to-one accuracy has never been the goal of Ubisoft when recreating a historic environment, the studio deserves so much credit for creating an urban fabric that feels like the real thing but more importantly, is fun to play.
Every iteration of Assassin’s Creed finds a new way to expedite the building traversal—the latest iteration, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate gives players a batman-esque rope launcher that allows your to instantly propel yourself on top of a building. While operating under the guise of efficiency, additions like these lose sight of what made the first few AC games so great. Climbing to the top of a landmark like the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence or the Castel St. Angelo in Rome used to be a game in itself. There was a sense of grandeur and intimidation when facing these architectural behemoths that made finally getting to the top and accomplishment in and of itself. Getting to the top of these monuments was almost like a platforming puzzle that provided a sense of satisfaction that is no longer there in more recent iteration. Of course no matter what iteration of AC you’re playing getting to the top of a huge monument means you will be rewarded with a synchronization point, an aspect of the AC games in which the camera zooms way out and rotates 360 degrees around the player standing on top of the buildings revealing the beautifully crafted city all around you. For me, this one part of AC never gets old and still manages to awe me.
While each console iteration has moved forward in time chronologically (except the jump from 3 to 4) I hope that Ubisoft stops what seems like a natural progression. Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is unique in many ways. It is the first game that takes place in the modern era. It is no longer acceptable to walk around the streets of London with a sword on your belt and streets are wider than ever to accommodate the new carriages. What is perhaps a bit overlooked is the architecture of the time. The industrial era is a massive turning point in architecture as it ushered in an era of mass reproduction. The proliferation of iron in the 19th century made the creation of identical beams and columns easy. Suddenly buildings could be taller than ever before, they could span distances further than ever before, they could be more repetitive than ever before. When the Eiffel Tower was erected in 1889 it was the world’s tallest building. The tower is made entirely of iron and could not have been built with any other material available at the time. This leap forward is civil engineering is seen in 19th century London as well. Built to house the Great Exhibition in 1851, the Crystal Palace, another building constructed with cast iron was the largest indoor spanning structure of its time, it is also incredibly plain and smooth. One of the defining features of Modernist architecture is the elimination of conventional detail and ornament, two aspects that are crucial to the navigation of buildings in Assassin’s Creed.
While the invention of iron (and later steel) is great for contemporary society, it makes for boring gameplay. The reason climbing buildings in 12th century Damascus and 15th century Florence was so fun was because the buildings were beautifully and intricately detailed with Medieval or Classical ornament. It was the ornament more often than not that the player was using to scale a building. Take a look at a modern skyscraper and tell me how much ornament you see. Does it look like a building that would be fun to climb? Do you even seen anything that looks like it could be grabbed onto? Or does it just look like a vertical column of steel and glass? Naturally Ubisoft could take artistic license and make these buildings a bit more interesting to climb but they would still be repetitive and monotonous. Even the modern day Desmond portions Assassin’s Creed games avoided platforming on modern structures. For the most part you spend your time as Desmond running around and climbing the same buildings as his 15th century ancestor Ezio did because climbing up a steel structure isn’t fun.
Ubisoft has shown that scaling tall buildings and jumping from rooftop to rooftop isn’t necessary for a good Assassin’s Creed game as AC 4: Black Flag remains one of the best entries in the franchise but it fear that if current trends continue that the series may depart too far from what made me fall in love with it in the first place.