In 2009 Steven Porfiri was accused of never having played a video game before by someone on a GameFAQs message board, and the insult has haunted him ever since. Now, as the Senior Games Writer for Merry-Go-Round Magazine, he’s finally been given a platform to prove that not only has he been playing video games, he writes about them as well. I Played a Game Once is an inside look into what he is playing, and how it has any bearing whatsoever on our current moment. It’s basically like Carrie Bradshaw’s column but with more discussions about save-scumming.
Alright, look, I love Assassin’s Creed. The idea of going back in time and being a badass assassin and influencing events from history and uncovering conspiracies is stuff that just really warms my cockles till they’re piping-hot. Sure, sometimes you can’t jump off of a ledge properly and sometimes you might end up swan-diving into cobblestones, and sometimes the missions are less “stealthy assassin” and more “clumsy juggernaut,” but there’s something appealing about the ethos behind Assassin’s Creed.
I recently took advantage of a pretty solid sale and picked up ASSASSIN’S CREED ORIGINS and ASSASSIN’S CREED ODYSSEY. For those who are somehow less tuned-in than I am, ORIGINS and ODYSSEY represented a major turning point in the Ass Creed series for many longtime players. Right away you can tell that things are different. At some point between ASSASSIN’S CREED SYNDICATE and ORIGINS there was a bit of a paradigm shift in terms of how the game should be played and what it should feel like to play it. To put it as bluntly as possible, the game now feels like you’re playing The Witcher 3: Assassin’s Creed. There’s a leveling system, and a loot system and a navigation system that’s more similar to RPGs like THE WITCHER 3 than Ass Screeds of years gone by. The game has been changed, and there’s something about it that firmly ticks a box of mine, but I couldn’t be sure what it was.
I took a step back. At one point or another, ASSASSIN’S CREED SYNDICATE had been released for free on Ubisoft’s Uplay store, and boy oh boy if there’s a free game to be had, then I’m gonna get it. So I finally booted up SYNDICATE, which came right before ORIGINS, to see if I could pick apart any major differences. For the most part the most major difference was that it felt like an Assassin’s Creed game, or more accurately, another game in the trajectory that Assassins’ Creed had been heading down. There were gadgets! Templars! Famous people from history that when you saw ‘em made you do the Leonardo DiCaprio Pointing meme. That’s the cream of the crop as far as Assassin’s Creed goes. Creed of the crop? Possibly.
According to Know Your Meme, in the year 2015 Buzzfeed uploaded a video of various feminist writers playing GRAND THEFT AUTO V for the first time. At one point in the video one of the panelists exclaimed that the reason why she hated video games was that they “appeal to the male fantasy.” The clip, as evidenced by its sheer presence on Know Your Meme, was memed to all hell. But because I’ve scratched out “Male Feminist” and nervously re-written “Ally” on my Soy Boy ID card, I’m here to inform you that, subjectivity and personal taste aside, this writer wasn’t and isn’t entirely wrong. Speaking to any gamer in good faith will tell you that for certain games there’s a power fantasy being sold to you when you purchase a game. This isn’t the case in every single game; my mom doesn’t play CANDY CRUSH because she enjoys role-playing a small girl with an insatiable bloodlust for the destruction of sweets. But for most games, the player is being offered the opportunity to be a big tough man who can kick/punch good, shoot real good, sneak real good, or even talk real good. And for most fans of games like Assassin’s Creed, sneaking and stabbing real good is the fantasy being sold. And I feel like I’m included on that list.
There was something about ASSASSIN’S CREED SYNDICATE that felt right to me, but I couldn’t quite put my cane-sword on it. The sneakin’ and punchin’ and alt-history felt good, but there was something else, something more visceral that made my brain squirt happy juice. So I tried a different tactic, and finally installed my copy of the 2014 THIEF remake that I’d purchased… I have no idea how long ago. I got it either because I was in the throes of an Assassin’s Creed fascination, or I think because Yahtzee compared it to DISHONORED and the barrage of penis metaphors didn’t dissuade me. I wanted to see if what I really liked about ASSASSIN’S CREED ORIGINS was its further fulfillment of my power fantasy of being super sneaky and invisible, able to get in and out of places unseen while conducting whatever dark business I needed to unbeknownst to those within.
And this was the crux of THIEF; the gameplay loop centers around the player character, Garrett, going into various locations and stealing precious items, cracking skulls, and hopefully slipping through the fingers of the city guard. More or less like Assassin’s Creed but all in first person. An “immersive sim,” as those who are smarter than me call it. But while I did enjoy cracking skulls and lifting jewelry, it wasn’t exactly a solid substitute for Ass Creed. Sneakin’ and stealthin’ was the power fantasy I craved, wasn’t it? Or was it something more… visceral?
Consider CIVILIZATION VI—with almost 190 hours in the game, and about 150 hours in CIVILIZATION V, Lord knows I have. As I learned the more games I played, Civilization is not a passive town-building game. Depending on your Civ, your preferred victory style, and other variables, there are more or less specific milestones you have to hit, buildings to construct, and units to send out to ensure your victory. It’s a checklist, more or less, a plan of attack that even almost 300 hours into the franchise I’m still learning and trying to figure out. Planning and reacting is more or less the core of Civilization, but for some reason I can never quite get my plans to play out the way I want them to. Maybe someone builds the Wonder I needed, or maybe the Aztecs start getting way too comfy with how close they’re settling to me, or maybe I just can’t get any DAMN iron but as much as I enjoy the Zen aspects of Civilization, I just can’t get my plans to work out.
Going back to the differences between ASSASSIN’S CREED ORIGINS and SYNDICATE, as well as the differences between ORIGINS and its earlier counterparts, in addition to bringing the RPG elements to the forefront, the big change in the game is how streamlined moving around the world is. Even going back to the original ASSASSIN’S CREED, the freerunning mechanics were triggered by literally pulling one of the triggers, and in the game doing things like climbing walls, leaping from rooftops, or balancing on ropes were considered “high profile moves.” As the games progressed and eventually led to SYNDICATE, these moves were then controlled by two different triggers, one for “Freerun up” and one for “Freerun down.” The clunky and specific nature of these moves is often what caused players to leap into a river when they meant to scale a wall, or scale a wall when they meant to climb down a ladder. ORIGINS took great, uh, strides, I guess, in streamlining gameplay so that as long as you’re holding the sprint button you’ll do whatever the situation calls for.
Another aspect of this is their handling of Eagle Vision, the mechanic through which an Assassin spots hiding places, bad guys, good guys, targets, and glitches in their perception of reality that reveal untold truths of humanity that were long forgotten and best left that way. As one does! This has been done by making Eagle Vision literally the Vision of the player character’s Eagle. At any point, the player can summon their eagle Senu to fly over wherever they happen to be, highlighting guards, predators, and treasures that the player can then keep their eye out for. And this absolutely rules.
Nothing feels better for me than coming across an encampment of Romans, or bandits or what-have-you, calling my eagle to scope out every single thing about their setup down to where they keep their good Kush (This is an ancient Egypt joke), and then systematically popping out of bushes and hay bales to kill their captain, grab their stuff, and even sabotage their signal flares if I’m feeling like it. To give SYNDICATE credit where it’s due, it also had this system of tagging enemies and loot, but ORIGINS has streamlined the whole system so that it runs like a dream.
Like the warrior-poet from the A-TEAM once said, “I love it when a plan comes together.” Given my skills and the difficulty of the game, ASSASSIN’S CREED ORIGINS has been riding that sweet, sweet immersion line graph just right. And given the state of the world, given the state of many of our lives at this point, can we truly be faulted for indulging in the power fantasy where a plan is executed perfectly? I think it’s fair to say that at this point anyone who had a plan for how the year of Our Doom Two-Thousand Twenty was supposed to go has been royally screwed out of it. In my limited understanding of human physiology, I’ve come to understand that when a person feels a craving for a specific food, that means they’re missing out on a specific nutrient that food provides. So by that logic, it seems that I have been craving an experience where I can have a plan for how a situation is to play out, and be able to execute that plan with minimal deviations from it. I’m craving a pretty boring fantasy, but one that feels like a delicacy all things considered.