Monday, January 4, 2010

Ambiance Saves the Day

Despite the many wasted narrative opportunities of Assassin's Creed 2, the world of Renaissance Italy draws me in, charming me even during the most tedious missions. Writing last week's piece about death and family in AC2 makes it seem as if I did not enjoy my experience with the game. On the contrary, I had a great time playing as Ezio and put in far more hours into the game than I would have had it not enraptured me so. Yet, once again, I am justifying my appreciation to myself. Why would a game, with so many mechanical flaws and narrative inconsistencies keep my attention for so long? Why are some games so pleasing despite all their well deserved criticisms? The answer is in the atmosphere.

Simon Ferrari of Chungking Espresso recently lambasted Assassin's Creed 2 with a 0 out of 5 stars review. The article is hyperbolic, hilarious and shockingly accurate. Leonardo Da Vinci's character is utterly wasted, the flying machine scene is absurd and misused, all the quicktime events are useless, and the camera can be a pain. Even the tomb scenes I relished are painfully flawed. Lastly, the game fundamentals, combat and platforming, are irksome enough to warrant heavy use of courtesans and speed walking on ground level, ignoring the game's famed verticality.
There are no points in Simon's article that I disagree with in particular, yet none of the many maligned design choices ruined my own experience. Some of his final questions illuminate the reason: "What do you like about this game? Building up your estate? Why don't you play a Sim game instead? Why should I have to return to my estate constantly to collect my 20-minute tithe?" I do, in fact, enjoy building up my Auditore estate. The monetary limit requiring my return serves as a reminder to check on my ever-expanding villa. I do not play a Sim game instead because it is not the same. It is the ambiance of Italy that I love.

I not only enjoy collecting material to furnish a large estate, I also enjoy collecting famous Italian paintings in particular. I purchased every available painting in the game, and eagerly show them off to anyone watching me play. The Auditore gallery provides an artistic walk-through of Renaissance art. Each piece has a small bit of information about the painting, often more than the real Uffizi Gallery in Florence provides. My excitement at purchasing a new painting in AC2 is similar to the excitement of eying a recognizable piece of art across a gallery show floor.
The atmosphere of the bustling city of Venice is just as pleasing. Bumping into the Piazza San Marco is instantly remarkable, particularly for those privileged enough to have visited Italy. The clothing of the Italian denizens add to the tone of the game. Even the guards with their uninspired fighting tactics but extravagant attire, and the largely useless, but visually striking and historically significant weapons add to the game's aura. Each city's architecture is a pleasure to explore and buildings of note satisfy a traveler's curiosity with historical information. One building's blurb, "If you weren't reading this you would be up there by now," is more offensive than the occasional screen tearing because it disregards the joy I receive from probing optional information.

The melding of science fiction with historical fiction is also satisfying. I find the glyphs that appear on famous landmarks are interesting despite the weak narrative because they add a level of mystery I had not presumed to exist. Each puzzle encourages me to imagine stories behind various historical events in the context of the game and how they might fit into Ezio's tale. The pay-out is ineffective, but the sci-fi elements are fun and subtly change the game's ambiance. Assassin's Creed 2 succeeds for me because it is a biased and sci-fi tinged atmospheric spectacle.
To give a small sneak peek at this week's podcast, Scott and I had similar conversation about Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. While I will gladly defend many of Naughty Dog's design choices, I cannot deny the role ambiance plays in my enjoyment of Uncharted 2. I find the "Indiana Jones feel" of the game fantastic, which means what I find to be minor flaws could be glaring flaws for those not enveloped in the game's atmosphere. Similarly, one of the reasons I find Krystian Majewski's Mass Effect Interface Fail series so interesting is because, despite the fact these design errors are egregious, I still enjoy the game. Even the visual elements of the shoddy interface support the science-fiction-space-opera atmosphere very well.

How to include "ambiance" in the critical discussion of a game is difficult. Ambiance is hard to measure. Basic mechanics can contribute to atmosphere, along with cinematics, character models, voice acting, level design and more. It may also be more subjective than these other game elements alone, particularly for a title like Assassin's Creed 2 that relies on a believable simulacra of a real time and place. Valuing ambiance above all else is dangerous, certainly. Ignoring it completely as a critical design element, however, is an unfortunate mistake.


  1. First, lulz!

    But seriously:

    James Ranson-Wiley at Joystiq speculated that AC 2 previews a new way of learning history. While I will always prize function over form, this idea is extremely intriguing and exciting.

  2. Jorge,

    Thank you for taking the time to craft such a thorough rebuttal. I'd been hoping for something like this since the day I wrote the piece.

    I'm glad you took me to task for the Sims comment. It was definitely one of the lines I popped in there explicitly to be hyperbolic, and, yeah, your counter is exactly right. Those who enjoy this game, like Michel in my comments, like it because they become engaged in the environment and say, "Yup, Italy."

    Now I'll go on the defensive a bit. I agree with your concluding statement, that ignoring what you call ambiance is a critical oversight. I come from a film studies background, where we use the term "mise-en-scene." Theorists like Andre Bazin thought of mise-en-scene, in conjunction with penetrating camera movement and lens-based depth of field, as composing the "objective reality" of cinema. And, as you've argued, it's just as important with games.

    In fact, it's almost completely overlooked in the games studies articles that I've sifted through. Raph Koster had a blogpost a few months back where he referred to it as "dressing," which I found remarkably dismissive. I recently wrote a chapter about documentary games, and one of my main arguments was that mise-en-scene should be the core focus for designers with a limited budget and access to outdated 3D-engines. Mise-en-scene explains why I played Fallout 3 for 80 hours even though I despised the core combat and most of the basic level design.

    So my defense is: I'm not ignoring this stuff, I just don't think AC2 captured the mise-en-scene of these Italian cities in a particularly remarkable way. The brute fact of San Marco's existence in the real world *is* impressive, but I don't find Ubi's modeling of it to be. That is why, in the comments, I argued that they captured the architecture but not the texture. Perhaps it was the lack of John Woo flocks of doves? (joking)

    And even that is giving them a bit too much credit. When I visited Venice, my primary takeaway were the canals. Right when you get out of the main railway station, you usually take a boat trip to whatever section of the city you're heading to. Yet most of the canals I encountered in AC2 were these tiny rivulets with a stepping-bridge over them. Is it possible that this is in fact historically accurate, and somehow the water has eroded away at the land mass to make the canals larger over time? Certainly. Yet I think they could have done more to make the gondola and exploration of the canals a core feature.

    To return to the estate, my biggest problem with it was that most of the upgrades I bought had no effect on gameplay other than unlocking two little treasure chests on the top of each tower. If I fund a bordello or thieves guild in my city, I should be rewarded for my patronage in some concrete way, no?

    Your inclusion of UC2 in this piece makes me wonder if I should write about it. I'm finally making my way through it now, and I'm fairly certain I could complain about it just as much as I did AC2. Maybe it'd be best to sit this round out, though. Thanks again, you've given me food for thought!

  3. @Scott:

    James Ranson-Wiley, whoever that is, should have given you this link:


  4. Me again.

    I'm glad you used that word. The last two games I played were glaringly flawed, but I loved both of them despite them. Uncharted 2 and Brutal Legend, however, don't fit the Killer 7 argument, so there has to be another explination. Ambiance is a good word. Atmosphere was the word used previously to explain the appeal of the early Resident Evil games and the Silent Hill series. But it isn't an all encompassing term, merely part of a larger whole.

    Like Simon brought up, it could be the equivelent of film's mise-en-scene. A lot of people seem to barrel over game's flaws because of what they try to describe as you do the ambiance of a game. Before I took the introductory film course last semester I could understand film's grammer, but not articulate it. I feel that is where we as a whole are in games. We understand them, because we grew up with them. But I'm begining to think we don't understand the gammer of modern games, merely the tropes, the conventions. And if we do understand the grammer we cannot articulate it properly. We have moved on to the point where we can look at games as something more than programs and now we (read I) are fumbling to described them as creative works, using a language unique to the medium's unique characteristics.

    Tell me if I'm off my rocker.

  5. You're not off your rocker Eric. We should remember, though, that medium-specific terms aren't always strictly required. Ambiance is a general term, perhaps most used in interior decorating... but it's still obviously useful here. Mise-en-scene comes from staged theatre, but it works just as well in cinema and (some) videogames.

  6. @Simon

    "Yup, Italy" isn't the reason I enjoy playing in these cities. I've never been to Italy. I can understand how lame they must feel to someone looking for pieces of the real thing--I felt the same way about GTA4's Liberty City.

    I'm going to write something longer within the next few days, promise, but I just want to suggest that adding realism or a more accurate mis-en-scene would lead to uncanniness. I believe game worlds work the same way as robots and 3D animation. If it looks like a real city, the fact that it doesn't behave (or is inhabited) like a real city would be disconcerting.

  7. @Michel:

    Blargh, I didn't mean to write your opinion off or simplify it quite as much as I did there with the Yup Italy thing. I wanted those two words to stand in for the compelling personal experiences you and Jorge have already shared.

    I can't wait for your fully-fleshed out argument about how the cities work based on your architectural and city planning knowledge, but I'm a bit curious how you think mise-en-scene leads to an uncanny valley. Really it's just a matter of placing objects that belong... where they belong. You want to avoid clutter, but the key "evocative objects" (as Sherry Turkle, I believe, calls them) that compose how you relate and live in a space need to be there.

    There's this one scene in MW2 where you're fighting in suburbia, and you can go inside the houses. You'd think American game designers would know what the interior of an American house looked like, but it's completely unrecognizable. That's a mise-en-scene fail.

  8. First off, awesome conversation.

    I am not familiar with the 'mise-en-scene' idea, but I like it. This is why I should read more film theory works. The suggestion Simon mentions, that low-budget developers focus on establishing a consistent atmosphere, is excellent too. The work Tale of Tales does accomplishes that philosophy nicely.

    The conversation you're all having about realism and an the uncanny valley is interesting. For those looking for complete architectural realism in AC2, Ubisoft fails. That being said, I think they succeeded because they "only took the good bits." My memory if Italy is not great, but it is good enough to remember icons. The Venice they make in the game is the Venice of post-cards and brief tourist adventures.

    Simon's waterways rivulets comment is indicative of this. I remember getting lost because of inconvenient bridges more than I remember the wide streams between buildings. AC2 mirrors my own memory of the experiential Venice.

    That doesn't say much for the 'new way of learning history' Scott mentions. Experiencing history though, is an altogether different claim.

    With the inclusion of these 'evocative objects' Simon mentions (btw, I love that term), even evocative objects that are not realistic, support the mis-en-scene. The MW2 example is a good one. It's a failure, but not an uncanny valley.

    What about that scene in MW2 where you come upon an enemy soldier rifling through a fridge for something to eat? It's a tonal departure, which I'm ok with, and intentionally plays with normal domestic behavior skewed in a war zone.

    I think started rambling a bit there, but so many good comments has that effect.