The Burnt Offering is where Stu Horvath thinks too much in public so he can live a quieter life in private.
This is a reprint of the letter from the editor in Unwinnable Weekly Issue Seventy-Three. You can buy Issue Seventy-Three now, or purchase a one-month subscription to make sure you never miss an issue!
I finished Assassin’s Creed Syndicate the other day. I played it not out of a sincere interest in the story of the Frye twins (which is good, because it was a scattershot gloss) but because I suffer from a powerful compulsion to play Assassin’s Creed games.
This stems from a long standing interest in the history of the Knights Templar and, to a lesser degree, the assassin order of Hassan-i sabbah that, in all honesty, culminated the first time I read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum back in college. Everything after that – the Dan Brown book, Jordan Mechner’s comic, the Broken Sword games, the Assassin’s Creed games – have all been attempts to recapture the feeling I got from reading that sublime novel for the first time. This is the historical fiction equivalent of an opium addict chasing the dragon.
I have played all the core Assassin’s Creed games. Every fucking one of them. The first was a novel, though failed, experiment. Assassin’s Creed 2 introduced Ezio and his story, which spanned Brotherhood and Revelations, the collective high point of the series. I got a Vita specifically to play Liberation which, again, felt like a novel but failed experiment. I tried really hard to like Assassin’s Creed III, but no. Black Flag brought a measure of redemption which was promptly squandered with Unity, the series’ black pit of despair. After that, I thought I was free, until I heard Rogue was pretty good and, well.
Now we have Syndicate.
Funny story: at E3 2012, Ubisoft was giving out copies of Assassin’s Creed: Encyclopedia. My friend and E3 housemate Sam Machkovech scored a copy and I threatened his life for it. To this day, I am pretty sure he thinks I was kidding. Eventually, we brokered a trade – the book in exchange for a toy of Claptrap from Borderlands II that someone gave me earlier that day. The Encyclopedia is still on my shelf, next to the hardcover art books for the series and the not-very-good graphic novels. I am pretty sure I have a couple novelizations kicking around, too.
Typing and thinking about this is exhausting.
Early on, Assassin’s Creed had narrative ambition. Why else would you stick in a science fiction framing story and then keep it in despite everyone loathing it? Why else would you tell the story of a character’s life over three games? The stories were focused, exploring one or two key historical events and their aftermaths through the main character’s perspective.
Somewhere along the line, this started to be secondary to all the collectible clutter of the open world map. As the narrative splintered, the games spackled over the cracks with feathers, sea shanties and treasure chests I had to chase down.
They’re not secrets. They can all be revealed by purchasing a map from any vendor on the street. They glow white, these little icons, spread in a mess all over the map. I am playing Janitor’s Creed, watch me tidy this city up. It is like shaving with tweezers.
Another funny story: the most satisfying session I had with Syndicate was one Saturday when my wife went out to her parents’ place for the day. I ignored all the story missions. All I did was open chests. I had been pretending they didn’t exist in anticipation of this very day. You see, Daisy watches me play sometimes. Having her know I played The Witcher 3, a game rich with story and character, for an obscene number of hours was one thing; but I didn’t want her to witness me squandering an entire day opening imaginary chests. Such a display might leave her questioning my sanity, her decision to marry me or countless other things.
Later that night, when a friend (hi Ed!) asked me what I’d been up to all day, I told him I spent all of it opening chests in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. I could see judgment in his eyes, but also something else. Regret? Sadness? Kinship? Probably all of the above. I know this, because I know Ed has played Black Flag and knows the siren call of the collectible.
I cleared out the entire city of London of its chests and pressed flowers and rare beer bottles and helix glitch whosits before proceeding, unimpeded, with the rest of the story. I even took over all the districts from the rival gang, the Blighters, a meaningless accomplishment that the game ignored. The story didn’t adapt to my criminal domination of the setting. Blighters still skulked around every corner, flaunting their colors on my turf.
I killed every single Blighter I came across. Right to the end, there were plenty of them even after I assassinated their leader. Fucking ridiculous.
I realized then what the perfect Assassin’s Creed game should be.
I see a map. I see it filled with collectible icons. I also see it filled with white dots. Every dot represents a person going about their business in the city.
There is no story. The city itself can be an abstraction, the flickering Platonic ideal of an open world videogame city.
I want to clean up that city completely. I want to open every goddamned chest. I want to kill every last person wandering the streets and I want them to stay dead forever. I don’t want to stop until I am running around an utterly empty, quiet city devoid of distractions and diversions.
I want to obliterate. I want to render unto ashes. I want to be the instrument of the End. Perhaps then, as the last waypoint marker fades into darkness, Assassin’s Creed will be free to become interesting again.
* * *
This week, I talk to Tina Kalinger about Retro Yeti Games’ 404Sight as part of our ongoing sponsorship from Unreal Engine 4. Matt Marrone delves into the world of fiction podcasts. Rob Rich returns to Transformer toys after a ten year break. Finally, Gus Mastrapa finishes the first part of Daisy’s long journey in Dungeon Crawler, Part Thirty-One.
Next week, we’ve got an all Star Wars theme issue, so get hyped for that. Then we’re done until the launch of the Monthly in January.
And that’s me. It’s my birthday and I am due for a couple rounds of drinks. Be well, friends!
December 10, 2015
Jersey City, New Jersey