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.