(The following contains minor spoilers for Assassin’s Creed Unity)
There has always been an uneasy tension between art and finance. Someone has to fund Shakespeare, but “Evening Rose from Sephora by any other nameTM would smell as Doritos Sweet Chili Heat” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
Unfortunately, that’s what it feels like to play Assassin’s Creed Unity. The latest entrant is a 41GB advertisement that exists primarily to sell more Assassin’s Creed, which is sort of crass considering that players have to pay $70 Canadian for the privilege.
It was probably inevitable. Ubisoft has been sneaking more and more brand elements into Assassin’s Creed for years, whether through U-Play or the invitations to rate each mission. For the most part, the features have been relatively unobtrusive. Rating each mission required more button clicks than not doing so, and there was never any sense that you were obligated to join U-Play to access the material on the game disc.
With Unity, that balance has shifted. The world map is littered with neon treasure chests you’re not allowed to open. It’s difficult to figure out where the story begins because the game is too busy telling you about all of the other ways you can spend money on a product you’ve already purchased. So much effort has gone into making that material visible that it defines the tenor of the experience. There’s a game. But it’s hidden behind the billboards.
It’s a shame, because Unity would be plenty good without all of the artificial distractions. The interiors make for some of the best assassinations the franchise has ever offered, the density of Paris serving as proof that geography matters when it comes to gameplay.
More importantly, Unity may have the best – or at least the most concise – ‘A’ story in franchise history. Arno Dorian and Elise De LaSerre get to live out their own adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, an Assassin and a Templar who might have a chance at love if their families would just stop killing each other. It has passion, tragedy, and Bellec, the doomed, lovable cad who stands in for Mercutio.
It also has a pleasantly direct through line. Assassin’s Creed typically meanders, a fact that is reflected in both the narrative and the gameplay. I’ll spend hours pursuing side quests and collectibles, and while it’s great for sightseeing, in truth it happens partly because the main story is often too convoluted to hold attention.
With Unity, the inverse is true. The side quests are dull. The story is compelling. I kept playing because I wanted to know what happens.
It works because Unity is strangely removed from the overarching universe of Assassin’s Creed. The Animus is a framing device that reminds us that these stories take place within the context of a broad, eternal struggle, a process that tends to depersonalize those involved. Each Assassin – from Altair to Ezio to Connor – is a quasi-mythic superhero able to live according to dogma thanks to his unique awareness of Those Who Came Before. They react to pre-existing circumstances in a way that sets them apart from the rest of humanity.
But that’s not how it works here in the real world. People compromise their ideals when it’s expedient, like a progressive couple tolerating a racist uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. No matter how strong the belief, people make decisions that go against it if limited information and short-term self-interest dictate those decisions.
That’s what Unity captures so brilliantly. While the Assassins and the Templars may be preoccupied with absolutes, the motivations of the individuals that comprise those organizations are deeply personal. Arno and Elise care less for their respective sides than they do for revenge and their devotion to each other. They are by turns inconsistent, irrational, contradictory, and sincere, a beautiful combination that describes pretty much anyone I can think of.
Arno and Elise are profoundly human, two lovers convinced they’re right even when they lack the comprehensive knowledge needed for that certainty. Their uncertainty drives many of the precipitating events of the story (most notably whenever Arno impulsively kills someone he shouldn’t), grounding the plot in the character rather than the abstract maneuverings of a dead civilization. In Unity, things happen because Arno and Elise make them happen, and the interplay between characters raises the resonance and the dramatic tension.
Yet the story is the tangent in a game about marketing. As much as I want to like Unity, the lasting impression is one of overwhelming pettiness. It’s like I’ve glimpsed the Matrix. I don’t see Paris. I only see microtransactions, popping up all over the map and scrolling through menu screens pushing dozens of weapons that serve no significant gameplay purpose. Assassin’s Creed has been fragmented into smaller and smaller pieces, each of which is given equal billing to the larger story even though the cost of unlocking each reward is increasingly disproportionate to its in-game value.
What’s odd is that I don’t have any problem with microtransactions in concept. If people love a game and want to throw more money at it, I won’t criticize a corporation for finding ways to collect that revenue. I’m cool with cross-platform apps and exclusive content because I know there are fans that want to engage with a favorite franchise in as many ways as possible.
However, there are other fans that don’t want to go through all that trouble, and Unity is designed to alienate those players. I just want to play Assassin’s Creed. I should be able to do that if I’ve purchased Assassin’s Creed. I shouldn’t be made to feel ungrateful because I want a more streamlined experience.
The shameless marketing is so severe that it ultimately negates the game’s artistic merits. Ubisoft wanted to see what it could get away with, and the result is that I like Assassin’s Creed less than I did before playing Unity.
That seems counterproductive given the financial value of an emotional connection. Frozen is a commercial juggernaut, but you don’t need to purchase an Elsa doll to enjoy the movie. If you would like to do so, Disney will be more than happy to make one (or dozens) available, but no matter how insidious the toy line gets, it will always exist as an entity distinct from the film. The Disney princess brand is cynical. The film it is based on is (relatively) pure.
Assassin’s Creed Unity displays a pathological unwillingness to let the content speak for itself, even though the brand doesn’t exist without a standalone game called Assassin’s Creed. It is not an aspect of the brand. It is the brand, the raw material from which everything else is derived. To play Assassin’s Creed is to engage with the brand in its purest, most concentrated form. It is the surest indication of interest in the brand because it displays a willingness to consume the stealth gameplay and libertarianism that Assassin’s Creed tends to propagate.
But for Ubisoft, playing Assassin’s Creed is no longer an adequate display of fidelity to Assassin’s Creed. Ubisoft is so blind to the absurdity that it is willing to poison the well – to make the core product less appealing – in order to squeeze a higher yield out of two sickly apple trees at the fringes of the orchard.
For me, that’s the tragedy of the whole endeavor. Assassin’s Creed is not necessarily the best triple-A franchise – I’ll be the first to admit that it has many flaws – but I still think it’s one of the most important because it demonstrates that mainstream video games can be ambitious. Unity is not creatively deficient. There’s a lot about the game that I’d like to admire.
Sadly, I can’t do that solely because Ubisoft got greedy. It’s so blatant that it undercuts everything positive the game might accomplish, the equivalent of a theatre dropping a banner across the stage halfway through Act V. There is no artistry if audiences can’t see it, and gaming will never be taken seriously as an art form until it prioritizes content over pay walls.