Quiet Time 2

ac4edwardThere’s a short story by Poe, Silence- A Fable. It’s not what might be thought of as stan­dard Poe psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­ror, (but to be fair, he wrote with far more vari­ety than he’s often cred­it­ed.) There’s some­thing of William Blake about Silence, a blend of flesh and sym­bol­ism and a bib­li­cal scale and style. A demon sets the scene- a tumul­tuous sec­tion of the river Zaire in Libya at a time unknown. This sec­tion of the river doesn’t flow as a river ought, it swells and crash­es and stag­nates with­out run­ning into the sea. On the shore, trees thrash and crash though there is no wind. A red moon shines omi­nous­ly down, and when the rain falls it meets the ground as blood. Beside the river is a great grey rock, and engraved on the rock are the char­ac­ters DESOLATION.

Upon the rock stands a man, locked in soli­tary con­tem­pla­tion. The demon hides, and seeks to tor­ment him. He calls upon the ani­mals to raise up a ruckus, the hip­popota­mi and ele­phants roar and scream. Still the man stands and con­tem­plates, still the rock reads DESOLATION. The demon calls up a tem­pest, wind and rain and thun­der. The river and the trees are thrown all about by the weather’s strength. Still the rock reads DESOLATION. Still the man stands and con­tem­plates.

Now the demon is furi­ous. He calls out a curse, the curse of silence. All stops. The wind and the rain and the river and the trees, all silent. The very clouds and moon in the sky stand still. The char­ac­ters on the great grey rock change to SILENCE. The demon looks up, and the man stands ter­ri­fied. From this view the man turns and flees far, far away.

There’s a recur­ring sec­tion of Assassin’s Creed IV that makes me uncom­fort­able.1 I already sense the sec­tion I refer to will be one of the defin­ing fea­tures which sticks in my mind long after the game is fin­ished with. A year from now if you ask my endur­ing mem­o­ries of Assassins Creed IVI’ll men­tion some enjoy­able ship-to-ship bat­tling, my sur­prise and delight dur­ing a storm as forks of light­ning crash into the sea, and the act of tak­ing forts.

Forts in ACIV are to the sea­far­ing part of the game what the view­points are to the land-based parts of this and the pre­vi­ous titles. Viewpoints are par­tic­u­lar­ly high por­tions of archi­tec­ture or geog­ra­phy which your pro­tag­o­nist climbs and ‘syn­chro­nis­es’ with in order to reveal the sur­round­ing area on the map. Ostensibly they are the way the assas­sins recon­noi­ter, though in prac­tice they make up one of the recur­ring motifs upon which these games have become based, an action repeat­ed across gen­er­a­tions by the mem­bers of a blood­line from which the main char­ac­ters are drawn. As large parts of ACIV take place with your char­ac­ter at the helm of his pirate ship, The Jackdaw, view­points were not going to work out.

That’s where the forts come in. The game’s very size­able map is split up into irreg­u­lar sec­tions each under the con­trol of a cer­tain fort.  Attack and occu­py the fort, and you take con­trol of the area, reveal­ing the details of that sec­tion of the map and open­ing the fort itself as an area that can be entered and explored.

My very first fort made me uncom­fort­able. For a long time after­wards, I took my chances in leav­ing the forts alone, mak­ing my own life hard­er in hav­ing to nego­ti­ate large sec­tions of hos­tile waters. Here’s what hap­pened: Having can­non­balled the hell out of the place, me and the boys came ashore and flood­ed over the fort’s defend­ing reg­i­ment. While the grunts faced off against one anoth­er I went straight for my tar­get, stop­ping now and then to deft­ly res­cue the life of a crew­mate by stab­bing some moth­er­fuck­er. Having climbed high above the cap­tain I leapt in slow motion and my hid­den blade ensured he was gone from this world before he could even real­ize the dan­ger. A lit­tle blue mark­er drew me through a door to meet the fort’s com­man­der.

All was quiet in his office. Away from the vio­lence out­side, which was already over, the adren­a­line of bat­tle already began to fade. The day was ours, this area belonged to me now. And there he was, this failed man, this man who pre­sum­ably had ordered his sol­diers to fire upon me and fight me to the death. And who can blame him?  I mean, I am a pirate. I did come here to fight, kill and pil­lage. And now he stood in this quiet room with his sword undrawn and his hands in the air. A defeat­ed man in a defeat­ed place. He sur­ren­ders. Above him is a lit­tle green dot and the word ‘Kill’. Now, I’ve already stopped. I’ve walked into this room with my swords sheathed and my guns hol­stered. The battle’s over… isn’t it? I wan­der over to this sorry excuse for a war­rior, who looks more like a politi­cian in his white wig and floun­cy jack­et, and I start to press other but­tons than the attack one because maybe there’s some other choice. There isn’t. He watch­es me in silence and I watch him in silence. I can’t leave the room. Eventually impa­tience over­whelms con­cern and I slip a blade into his ribcage. The screen fades to a vic­to­ry cutscene before he can even crum­ple to the floor.

I guess you can see what I’m get­ting at. It’s not so much the fort bat­tles that make me uncom­fort­able, it’s the step­ping away from the bat­tle scene and into an unarmed man’s office to mur­der him. It seems silly, almost hyp­o­crit­i­cal to feel this way. In the course of this game I’ve killed hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of sim­i­lar men. It’s called Assassin’s Creed, Jim, for cry­ing out loud! But look at the way I’ve termed that, (with­out, I promise, mean­ing to do so, I’ve lit­er­al­ly just noticed it myself): I killed all those oth­ers, the fort com­man­ders I mur­dered. Something about the way I cause their deaths feels dif­fer­ent, some­how out­side or apart from the man­i­fold acts of vio­lence which pro­pel me through the life and times of Edward Kenway.

Kenway, I sus­pect, would have no such inhi­bi­tions. This is all com­ing from me. He is, even in the com­par­a­tive frame of videogame pro­tag­o­nists, a fuck­ing psy­chopath. At one point Edward’s expla­na­tion to a vic­tim of his blade is “you stood between me and what I want.” The man is dri­ven, at least ini­tial­ly, by a gross­ly inflat­ed super­ego, a des­per­ate, mani­a­cal detach­ment from the needs and val­ues of other human beings. And to an extent I am ok with inhab­it­ing that char­ac­ter, it’s actu­al­ly rather typ­i­cal of a videogame pro­tag­o­nist, though exag­ger­at­ed, and cer­tain­ly not out of char­ac­ter for one who takes the role of a pirate. But back I come to these bloody fort com­man­ders, the point where I am pulled out of Edward’s char­ac­ter, the point beyond which I am not will­ing to hap­pi­ly inhab­it the role of swash­buck­ling arse­hole any­more.

To be sure, all videogame char­ac­ters are not cre­at­ed equal. There’s a hier­ar­chy of impor­tance with play­er char­ac­ters at the sum­mit and down at the base those blurred ani­ma­tions that make up the back­ground of a scene, prac­ti­cal­ly the scenery. It’s usu­al­ly pret­ty easy to delin­eate which char­ac­ters are where on the scale- more impor­tant folks get more graph­i­cal atten­tion, names, lines of dia­logue that push the story along, more atten­tion from the cam­era. Down the scale you get the name­less, voice­less bods whose very faces don’t belong to them singly but are copy and past­ed to make up vast num­bers, the vir­tu­al man­i­fes­ta­tions of the sub­al­tern of Post-Colonial the­o­ry.

This is hard­ly the first time I’ve had an emo­tion­al response to the death of a videogame char­ac­ter, (let us col­lec­tive­ly pour one out for Aeris) but I sus­pect it’s the most extreme I’ve had for such a minor char­ac­ter. Combat with such char­ac­ters, like it or not, is part of the gram­mar of games, one which has been passed down prac­ti­cal­ly since their incep­tion in order to pro­vide chal­lenge which is reward­ed with progress. This, for me, is where much dis­cus­sion of vio­lence and videogames (and the dread­ed ludonar­ra­tive dis­so­nance) falls flat. Actions with­in games do not direct­ly cor­re­spond with actions out­side videogames, there are gameplay-driven hoops through which one must jump which, whilst fre­quent­ly inspired by real world actions, are at best sim­u­lacra of such. Even in these days of games with high graph­i­cal fideli­ty and ana­logue move­ment, all actions with­in videogames are rep­re­sen­ta­tions of more lit­er­al actions, rep­re­sen­ta­tions that must parse with­in the strict­ly lim­it­ed pos­si­bil­i­ties of the game world. Assassin’s Creed games excel at draw­ing atten­tion to these moments with their game-within-a-game struc­tures and repet­i­tive motifs of ‘syn­chro­nis­ing’ and so on. The ‘gamey­ness’ with which the ances­tral lives play out under­scores that this is a story fil­tered through gam­ing gram­mar. Do we truly believe that an assas­sin would need to climb this build­ing in order to learn by-heart the sur­round­ing area? No. Do we believe that some­how when cer­tain tar­gets are killed the rest of the world drops away momen­tar­i­ly so they can have an assassin-to-victim chitchat? No. Then why assume the moment-to-moment com­bat between pro­tag­o­nist and local sol­diery is any­thing more than rep­re­sen­ta­tive? These are all nar­ra­tive con­ceits.

But for all that rea­son­ing I’m treat­ing the death of the fort com­man­ders as some­thing I’m respon­si­ble for. More ridicu­lous­ly, I’m treat­ing their deaths that way all the while excus­ing myself for the deaths of the other char­ac­ters.

I think it might be the quiet. What Poe is sug­gest­ing in Silence- A Fable is that while it takes strength and deter­mi­na­tion to look upon the tumul­tuous des­o­la­tion the world offers us every day, from wars and nat­ur­al dis­as­ters to the minor frus­tra­tions of a late bus or bro­ken zip, true hor­ror lies in silence. When every­thing qui­ets, we humans, with our double-edged sword of advanced con­scious­ness, have nought to look out­ward upon and must look inward. Those moments of quiet enhance our aware­ness; make us focus on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Sometimes we might not like what we find.

True silence is a rare thing, jar­ring and instant­ly notice­able. We might fre­quent­ly find our­selves in quiet sur­rounds, in a field far from the hus­tle and bus­tle, or late at night in our beds, but how often is it truly silent? There’s usu­al­ly a bird chirp­ing or a car in the dis­tance, or even our own foot­steps on the ground. Likewise, cog­ni­tive silence (if you’ll excuse the term, I’m sure there’s a bet­ter one) is infre­quent these days. We fill the lit­tle gaps in our day check­ing Facebook or Twitter, 24 hour news sta­tions or sim­ply float­ing aim­less­ly through the point­less recess­es of the inter­net, liv­ing rest­less, noisy lives.

Like most, espe­cial­ly AAA, games, much of ACIV is action or move­ment between actions. If it’s not a fight it’s chas­ing col­lectibles, sprint­ing through crowds, plan­ning attacks, gen­er­al­ly achiev­ing things. God knows how long it’d take to see and do every­thing there is to do in the game. Maybe you’ll just sail your ship around for a lit­tle while, but even then the seas are infest­ed with other ships to observe and attack or leave to their own devices. You’re hard­ly ever alone, even in the most dis­tant parts of the high seas. Even then, the weather’ll change or night will fall, and so on. Something is always hap­pen­ing. And of course that’s prob­a­bly part of the design, as games must be high on enter­tain­ment and low on down­time. To steal a term from TV and radio, “dead air” is a car­di­nal sin. But that’s exact­ly what I expe­ri­ence just before I mur­der those com­man­ders, when off the back of a sub­stan­tial bat­tle I’m removed to a dif­fer­ent, quiet, enclosed scene. As in Poe’s story, the quiet is enhanced by the sheer fact that it’s a notice­able ces­sa­tion of the pre­vi­ous upheaval. And I pay more atten­tion to those 5 steps between me and the poor name­less bas­tard I’m going to kill than I do to all the var­i­ous boss­es and tar­gets and fully fledged char­ac­ters I’ve put down in the rest of the game.

  1. Actually, there’s more than just one sec­tion, I quick­ly packed in the har­poon­ing of rather beau­ti­ful crea­tures of the sea because it felt… well, wrong. []

Jim Ralph

About Jim Ralph

Jim Ralph currently resides in sunny Winchester, England. He'd love to hear from you, personally, with any thoughts on his writing or lucrative job offers.

2 thoughts on “Quiet Time

  • Michael Elliott

    I felt very sim­i­lar­ly dur­ing these sequences, and you have expert­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ed that impres­sion.

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