There’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 IV, I’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.
- 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. [↩]