Liberating the Machine

1. Like the rest of The_Critical_Is, I’ve been spending time with two Assassin’s Creed games: Liberation, a spin-off of Assassin’s Creed: III set in colonial New Orleans, and Freedom Cry, a downloadable series of missions for Assassin’s Creed IV set in Saint-Domingue. Both of these games are my first experiences with the Assassin’s Creed series; I’ve spent the most time with Liberation. As EA wrote last weekLiberation focuses on Aveline de Grandpré, a French-African assassin who moves fluidly between three personas that “embody the three aspects of her identity:” society lady, slave, and assassin. “Each person,” EA writes, “comes with a different set of skills and limitations,” including sleuth, parkour, deception, and—surprise, surprise—assassination.

2. I want to talk about these different sets of skills and limitations, and how they condition ways I as a player can project myself into the gaming world. I’ll start with assassination, principally because it’s the part of the game that I’m worst at.

3. Proposition: there are two ways to describe any action that happens in a video game. The first is what happens within the hermeneutics of the game itself, on the level of narrative: what the character is doing, how the character moves through space, what happens in the environment around the character. The second is what happens on a mechanical and technological level to produce the effect of the first: how the hardware renders software commands as pixels and sounds, how the game runs routines and subroutines prompted by my physical interactions with some kind of interface (in this case, buttons on a controller), and so on.

4. Counterpoint: this is a false dichotomy, because the two modes (one might call them narrative and technological) are constantly conjoined and intertwined, each productive of the other in various ways. Game designers themselves recognize this. Take, for example, the existence of menus, radars, scales, damage calculations, and points counters in practically every game. These are visual representations of the mathematical functions underlying gamic activity. A highlight for me are moments, common in many games, in which a character instructs the protagonist how to do something, and in doing so, refers to buttons on the console’s controller. They’re inexplicable to the game character, but valuable to the player.

“Counterpoint: this is a false dichotomy, because the two modes are constantly conjoined and intertwined, each productive of the other in various ways.”

5. Rejoinder to the previous two points: it’s a false dichotomy, but I’m still going to try to sit in it for the rest of this essay, because I sense that it will help me highlight the relationships that emerge between Aveline as a character and me as a player, and help me make (some) sense of the interplay of our bodies.

6. So, with those two modes in mind, how does combat work in Liberation? In the first mode, the narrative mode, I could say that combat centers around counter-attacks, on Aveline assuming positions of defense, and cutting through rare moments of enemy weakness to land killing blows. In the second mode, the technological mode, I hold down a single button, which instructs the software to run “counterattack” functions, producing animations of Aveline deflecting attacks, until I am prompted to press a different button at certain moments, which allows Aveline to strike.

7. (Already, both modes of description bleed into each other. Where am I? Where is Aveline? Which of us is the machine?)

8. I am, to remind the reader, terrible at this combat system.

9. There’s a scene early on in Liberation, practically the second or third thing one actually does in the game, in which Aveline, after infiltrating a plantation in her slave persona, gets cornered by three white men in a barn. In what is essentially the closest thing the game has to a combat tutorial, I managed to get Aveline killed more times that I care to admit. I couldn’t wrap my head around how to time button presses properly, how to wait for cues to counter-attack, or how to avoid enemy attacks—reader, this is a game called Assassin’s Creed, and I could not for the life of me assassinate anything.

10. A friend sitting next to me tried to walk me through the gameplay. “Hold this button down,” she said, “Release when you see that prompt.” My reflexes, built up from years of Street Fighter and The Legend of Zelda kept wanting to mash buttons, expecting them to map onto parries, thrusts, and stabs. At one point, fed up with the combat system, I turned to her and asked, “Just tell me: what goddamn button do I press to make Aveline do anything?”

“Reader, this is a game called Assassin’s Creed, and I could not for the life of me assassinate anything.”

11. I’ve been thinking about how a game’s design provides specific afforadances and limitations for engaging with space, character and narrative. The classic example, for me, is the first level of Super Mario Bros. You can more or less do two things in that game: run and jump. (And shoot fire. But let’s set that aside for now.) Within the first ten seconds, you learn how to explore the world exclusively through the lense of those two actions. Jump over the Goomba to avoid dying. Jump on the Goomba to kill it. Jump underneath a ? block and get a reward. Move to the right. Ever tried moving left in the original Super Mario Bros.? You can’t; the game blocks you off. The things behind you are unimportant: forge ahead, rescue the princess.

12. Corollary: think about a first person shooter, like Doom, Halo, or Metroid Prime. Games like these rely on a single, basic way of interacting with the world: shooting it. Alexander Galloway, in his essay “Origins of the First-Person Shooter,” talks about how the “gamic vision,” the subjectivities and gazes that video games promulgate, “requires fully rendered, actionable space,” and that furthermore, in first person shooters, the “subjective perspective,” of seeing not only through the eyes of a protagonist, but through the magic of mimesis, as the protagonist, “is so omnipresent and so central to the grammar of the entire game that it essentially becomes coterminous with it.” Couple that with the one way you can interact with the world in an FPS, and one quicks sees how fear and moral outrage can emerge. The mechanical becomes the social.

13. Liberation is in a third-person perspective, the classic behind-the-protagonist-at-a-comfortable-distance point of view common to three-dimensional gaming since the N64 years. The game offers me a rich, thoroughly realized world to explore, a New Orleans of rooftops, corner markets, barracks, slave trading posts, plantations, docks, gates, and people, so many people, milling through the city, many of whom are harmless but just as many of whom will capture me at the slightest provocation. I have to avoid drawing their attention as I bound across rooftops and sneak up and down latticework.

14. It’s easy to slip into saying “I run, I jump, I climb,” when talking about this game, rather than “Aveline runs, jumps, climbs.” There’s freedom and agility in the ways that the game allows its protagonist to execute daring feats of acrobatics, and these activities are so visceral and thrilling that I cannot help but project myself inward, into the game, into its action. The game makes it simple to explore: I hold down a button to enter what’s termed “High Profile Mode,” which I gather is the game’s term for activating catlike reflexes, and then run around. The running, the jumping, the climbing, the landing—the game handles that all for me. I just run.

15. Except combat. There, I hobble, I stagger, I fall flat on my face.

16. And when I was frustrated with the game, I blamed the system, the controller, even Aveline herself, for my shortcomings. It was no longer me up there on the screen, unresponsive to button presses and flailing about. That was Aveline. That time, it was her fault, not mine.

“There’s freedom and agility in the ways that the game allows its protagonist to execute daring feats of acrobatics, and these activities are so visceral and thrilling that I cannot help but project myself inward, into the game, into its action.”

17. Question: when I say “I run, I jump, I climb,” how much am I projecting myself into the character and inhabiting her, and how much am I erasing her? Is there a difference?

18. I concede that much of this is my own fault. Liberation‘s combat system isn’t simple, broken, or stupid. I can sense (and other, more experienced, players have assured me to the existence of) real complexity roiling underneath. But I’m noticing that one of the things that makes combat difficult for me to grasp is the way it plays by fundamentally different rules not only to other kinds of combat that I’m used to, but other parts of Liberation itself.

19. To wit: exploration functions under a mode of radical simplification. I press a button, move forward, and the game takes care of the rest. I’m not belittling this kind of gameplay: it’s freeing, on some level. It flattens the need for skill and asks me only to let myself go, push myself into the game, and experience its agility. Moreover, this simplicity makes my mental transferrence easy: “Yes, I just push the control stick in the direction I want to go, and come hell or high water, I can keep going forward!” Only the tallest walls stop me—well, the tallest walls and white men with guns and knives.

20. A straightforward, uncomplicated reading of Liberation: this is a game constantly modulating what it means to be free. The game contrasts free, agile movement with carefully constructed limitations of where one can go, when, and in what way. It gives the player ease and mobility until it doesn’t, and the whiplash is meant to be instructive.

21. But to return to a previous question: where am I? And if I am in the game, where is Aveline? Are we coterminous? Are we coterminous only when it is convenient for me to imagine us as coterminous? When we oscillate, do we do so with equal mobility? When I project inward, does Aveline project outward? How could I see her mapping herself onto me? Is this an impossible presumption?—she is, after all, a computer character, and I am a living, breathing human. Although, when it comes to comparing which one of us has the skill, the mobility, the agility, Aveline trumps me in every regard. She is and is not my avatar; I am and am not controlling her. The game underscores this: yes, I press a button and guide Aveline through New Orleans, but I do not manage or control her acrobatics. I do not control her specific counterattacks—I merely set up the conditions for her to counterattack. There is a dimension of computational autonomy to Liberation. Unlike Street FighterThe Legend of Zelda, or hell, Wii Sports, I do not control granular aspects of the character’s movement. I might control general principles or environmental conditions, but not specifics—those are the character’s and the character’s alone. I am a part of a larger technological system producing animations, interactions, and digital environments.

22. Which one of us is the machine now?

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