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The Assassin's Creed effect
Edge #186, March 2008
As you've already been told (once a year since at least 1994), the last 12 months constituted the biggest year ever for videogames (unless you were Sony, in which case it was the biggest year ever for failed attempts to pump water from the bowels of your sinking PR barge). A recent Biffofamily get-together was evidence of this, notable for the regrettable fact that barely any of my relations spoke to one another. They just sat on their fat arses communicating via Pictochat, and competing on 42 All-Time Classics.
Between Mario Galaxy, BioShock, The Orange Box, Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Call Of Duty 4, I probably added the most games in the best part of a decade to my fictional Dungeon o' Game Love. Heck, I don't remember a year so defined by videogames since whichever birthday it was that I first got a Game Boy, and my father choked to death on a Tetris cartridge.
Whether you're an arthritic, borderline senile 60-something, a girlie with a pony fixation or a hardcore gaming zealot with self-esteem issues who has never met any of his friends in person, you've never had it so good. However, he says, puncturing the euphoria as effectively as a flaming porcupine attempting to mate with the Hindenburg, we're not there yet.
As I'm still working my way through the 2007 backlog, there are a couple of games I've been playing quite a bit of late: Assassin's Creed and Mass Effect. Despite a mixed critical reaction they're not bad games, but in both instances I almost gave up in the first half hour of 'play'. It was only the urging of friends that kept me plugging through their interminably dull openings. I'm glad I did, but - by gawd - they don't half make you work for the meat. Imagine a pork pie with a four-mile-thick crust, soused in an ocean of tramp-strength turpentine, and you wouldn't even be close.
I'm all for games easing you in, and hand-holding you through an invisible tutorial, but in the cases of Assassin's Creed and Mass Effect that isn't what's happening. If you think of them as action movies, it'd be like opening the entire Star Wars saga with that tedious senate debate from The Phantom Menace rather than the iconic Star Destroyer crawl. We can whinge until we're blue in the ankles about cutscenes versus in-game storytelling, but if the likes of me are considering giving up on a game before it has even begun, there's surely a bigger issue here. This is about grabbing the player from the off, and neither Assassin's Creed nor Mass Effect do that. In the case of Assassin's Creed, its developers seem determined to tell a story that I refuse to believe a single player cares about (and don't get me started on the exciting futuristic sequences, where you get to control your character as he walks to his bedroom, gets into bed, goes to sleep, wakes up, gets out of bed...).
I'll let Mass Effect off to a degree - it is an RPG, albeit one wearing a pair of split-crotch shoot-'em-up Y-fronts - but there's no excuse for Assassin's Creed's seemingly endlessly talky opening 40 minutes. It possibly wouldn't matter if the cutscenes were in some way interesting, or witty, or engagingly framed - but they're not. They're one step removed from talking heads, talking about things that are of no remote interest to anyone other than the person who was paid to write them. And it's a shame, because - once you get there - it's a good game. In fact, it's a far better game than many reviewers seemed to give it credit for (apparently, the free-running controls took the gameplay out of the player's hands... Hello? Was Pac-Man rubbish because you didn't get to hand-craft the mazes out of wood?).
Games have to grab your audience by the eyebrows from the very off, otherwise you're sunk - and I'm sure that's the difference between Mass Effect and Assassin's Creed being awarded so many six out of tens (or lower) instead of sevens or eights.
Even Call Of Duty 4 starts with a slightly hackneyed training sequence - the one oozing, diseased ass in an otherwise award-winning donkey sanctuary. It may have been a bit rubbish in the end, but Call Of Duty 3 at least had that training level bleed into the main game, by having it interrupted by a Nazi attack. And while we're on the subject of openings (matron), I was also slightly upset by Mario Galaxy's first five minutes. Overall, there's no doubt that it's one of the most perfect videogames ever made, but the beginning is nowhere near as epic or breathtaking as, say, the opening of Mario 64. I found this so distressing that I ate my own dog.
I find it confusing to believe that there are game developers who still haven't understood that the key to gaming is interactivity, and delivering the play experience that players have paid for. Let us now draw a line in the sand, and say: 'No more'. Let us make 2008 the year when redundant cutscenes, dull training levels and endless talky opening bits are consigned to the dustbin of history. In five years, wouldn't it be good to look back on them as archaic and pointless as the term 'interactive movies'? Yes. Yes, it would.
Mr Biffo co-founded Digitiser, Channel 4's Teletext-based videogames section, and now writes mainly for television
Do you know of any important moments from the annals of Digi history that have been omitted? If so, then mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) right now, man. Credit will be duly given for anything that gets put up.