How Assassin’s Creed Lost Me

There weren’t many games like the original Assassin’s Creed. Sure, there had been stealth-focused games before (think Syphon Filter), and there had been games set in ancient times (mostly strategy games such as Age of Empires). But no game had melded the concept of stealth gameplay in an historically inspired setting underpinned by a dramatic, science fiction story. The tech being shown in those first videos, of your assassin gently pushing his way through an enormous crowd of people, truly signalled the beginning of a new console generation. Your PlayStation 2 couldn’t do this. That’s not to say the original game’s faults were overlooked — reviewers noted its repetitiveness and lack of other interesting things to do outside its main assassination missions. So, developer Ubisoft set out to make improvements. Assassin’s Creed 2 is an example of a sequel done right. All the great storytelling and epic vistas from the first game, with less repetitive gameplay and much more to see and do. The trend continued with Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, a spin-off of sorts that followed AC2’s protagonist on further adventures.

The third mainline entry is considered something of a misstep. AC3’s main character lacks the charming personality of AC2’s Ezio, and the plot fell a bit flat. AC4: Black Flag, however, was just the course correction the series needed.

Only, after that, something happened. Gamers started to fall out of love with the Assassin’s Creed series. New (annual) releases were met with far more middling reviews, and laughable bugs plagued games after release. Controversy swirled about the lack of playable female characters. Things got stale.

I wasn’t around for that. I fell off the bandwagon after my second agonizing attempt to play through Assassin’s Creed 3.

What happened? I was so in love with the worlds in Assassin’s Creed, with its lore and presentation. How could I lose interest so profoundly?

For a long time, I couldn’t put my finger on it. The games didn’t become less involving, or less interesting. If anything, the worlds got bigger and more detailed as technology improved. While I’m one of the few that really enjoyed the focus on sci-fi storytelling, I don’t think it bothers me much that games after Assassin’s Creed 3 have minimized that aspect of the plot. So that’s not it.

No, I think the problem is Assassin’s Creed, like other similar open-world games, just got too big.

Each game has a central plot that players can focus on, but only if they have the resilience to ignore their map. See, Assassin’s Creed games require you to climb onto tall structures in order to survey the land. Once you’ve done so, your map for a particular area is filled in, along with every optional quest. In this way, these games have become a completionist’s nightmare. There are so many subquests and fetch quests; your map is positively brimming with them, even early on. Some gamers, myself included, find themselves paralyzed by choice. Meaning, give us a seemingly infinite selection of things to do, and we’ll end up doing nothing. Many people experience this problem with their Steam libraries, where Steam sales lead to a growing collection of games that will never be played, because there are simply too many to choose from.

By turning each game into a collect-a-thon, into a hidden object puzzle where players feel like they should chat up every quest giver for fear of missing something cool, the developers sucked the fun out of the experience for me entirely.

Now, obviously, there are a lot of people that enjoy that sort of experience. This isn’t a multi-million-selling franchise for nothing. But I’ve never felt the need for my games to be so full of content that I can’t complete them in a reasonable amount of time. Particularly these days, there are so many worthwhile experiences in video games that I can’t let myself be held up by a game that doesn’t know when to quit. When I was a kid, with no income and three to five new games to play a year at best, I would’ve been thrilled to play a game like the recent Assassin’s Creeds; I would have squeezed every last dime of value out of those. Nowadays, with the explosion of the indie space and the continuing one-upsmanship in the AAA arena, who has the time?

There’s another side to this jam-packed method of game design, and that’s the very real problem of developer burnout. In her review of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Kotaku’s Heather Alexandra brought up this point, which isn’t one I’d thought about in the past, but one which I won’t be able to help but consider moving forward. Each subquest, optional assassination mission, and hidden item scavenger hunt requires human beings, game developers, to create. These games are massive and technologically impressive to begin with, and stuffing them to the bursting point with content comes at a cost. Developers lives can be ruined by the crunch required to make these gigantic AAA games. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not worth it.

Maybe it’s easy for me to say, because I’m less than enthusiastic about overstuffing games with meaningless extra content just to pad out its length or increase its perceived value. But I find myself drawn to more focused games. Even an epic and lengthy roleplaying adventure can be a focused experience if it’s done properly (see Persona 5 for an example of a super-long game that doesn’t feel padded in any way).

Now, with developer Ubisoft’s shift toward a more roleplaying-driven experience for the Assassin’s Creed series, I’m at least intrigued once more. Last year’s Assassin’s Creed Origins got rave reviews, and this week’s newest release, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, seems to be doing just as well with critics. So, we’ll see. If I can keep my eyes off the map and focus myself into the experience, maybe I can rekindle my love of Assassin’s Creed once again.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey launches October 5th.