Assassin’s Creed Was Actually Pretty Good

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The Assassins Maria (Ariane Labed) and Aguilar (Michael Fassbender) in the Assassin’s Creed movie (20th Century Fox)

After reading a number of less-than-kind pre-release reviews of the Assassin’s Creed movie, I was very skeptical when my friends decided to go see it. But as a long-time player of the games, I decided to join and ended up being positively surprised. The movie is actually pretty good. Of course, not everything is exactly as it is in the games. But it does get the general idea of the Assassin-Templar conflict across, as well as the idea of genetic memories being accessed through the Animus. The story holds up in regards to consistency, which is not something that many movies can claim for themselves these days. And the acting and cinematography are spectacular.

The only hitch is that if anyone played Assassin’s Creed the way Michael Fassbender’s character Aguilar acts throughout the movie, they’d receive rather low grades in stealth. Let’s just hope 20th Century Fox skips the part where Ubisoft decided to make Pirates of the Caribbean games.

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Beyond Consequence – The Post-Consequential Society

When I first came up with this nickname, beyondconsequence, I imagined a state in which I sought to think past the consequences of thoughts and actions. However, I soon realized that no matter what I did, my thoughts and actions had little impact on the world, be it my immediate social environment or the wider sphere of the internet and public consciousness. I began to notice an unshakeable status quo that had little to do with me or anyone else as individuals. In Frank Herbert’s Dune Chronicles, both Paul Muad’dib Atreides and his son, God Emperor Leto II, recognized this form of stagnation as one of the greatest dangers to humanity. Now I find myself in a world where those two fundamental forces of the universe, that of stability and that of change, are at war with each other. They have probably always been. But presently, the latter is losing. And we’re all fighting a desperate fight to turn the tide in this battle.

Humans seek to make an impact on the world as they perceive it. Be it by founding a family or pursuing a career, be it by creating works of art or going into politics. As soon as we’re not faced with the genetically imprinted need for bare biological survival, we try to go beyond it and leave a mark that in some dimension or another that proves the fact the we existed. This desire pits us against overwhelming odds, namely the heavy inertia of human civilization which seems to like staying the way it is. Although it does slowly mutate over the centuries, it leaves very little room for our personal stories. That is one of the reasons why we go and follow the stories of others, be they fictional or not, who have succeeded at what we secretly seek: They made a difference.

We read books, watch movies, and play games. In these we find reprieve from the sold-state reality that so indifferently rejects our attempts at changing it, by eroding its solidity by grasping parts of it and trying to force them into a different aggregate phase. Some make use of more radical measures of escape. They create fictional worlds of their own, narratives in which they shape the way their protagonists make a difference. Yet others who lack access or the ability to build fictional impacts try to break out of their invisible cages–a term coined by David Foster Wallace–by subscribing to real-world movements like nationalism or radical interpretations of religion, all in the hope that the promise of a meaningful engagement with the cause will bring about the much desired imprint on the world.

We can create Facebook profiles or Youtube channels, WordPress blogs or Instagram accounts, and with them entertain alter personae to reach others, to affect their lives. I, for my part, am a journalist, an author, and a photographer. Yet the impact I have had on the world so far is ephemeral, marginal at best. Although I am hardly the best in the aforementioned disciplines, the lack range of my doing has little to with its quality, I believe. Instead, I am one of many who seek to touch others and by way of acknowledgement find a form of identity that can be read in the consequences of my actions. That is why I read, research, talk to people, write, and take pictures. It’s also why I play games. I find myself and many others to be truly beyond consequence, but not in the original sense of the term at the time of its conception, but at a point where what I do has little in the form of meaningful consequences for the world. For even if I became the most famous journalist, the most successful author, or the most admired photographer, I would only contribute to the stagnation at hand. My work would be devoured by the meatgrinder of public consciousness, and tomorrow it would be the work of someone else entirely.

Ultimately, none of us can kick Earth out of its orbit. And I’m not suggesting that we should all band together to attempt it. I’m more curious about what this state of society will evolve to. Certainly, the path to public attention has never been as permeable as it is today. But feeding public attention with short-lived hypes only contributes to the disintegration of the truly meaningful. But what is that? If we can’t rely on our peers to justify our identities, if we know that the gatekeepers whose task it is sort the consequential from the inconsequential only seek short-spanned attention, how do we anchor ourselves in a reality that chaotically evolves into stagnation? I consider this ontological paradox to be the greatest challenge of my generation.

Since I don’t only write…

… but also dabble in photography, I have linked my Instagram account to the sidebar. Enjoy my mind-boggling attempts at taking interesting pictures.

Inimicus Ex Nihilo

Or how to deteriorate the substance of the antagonist. The phenomenon of enemies appearing out of nowhere in locations and quantities determined by the creator of the scenario has become commonplace, especially in game design. While opponents undoubtedly have to spawn, the way they appear is crucial to the way they are experienced by the player and reader. Making them spawn in seemingly random places and undetermined numbers in plain view is reminiscent of the deus ex machina, the god from the machine. It is extra-diegetic because it slaps us in the face with the fact that there is a power that is external to the narrative it coordinates. Call it scripted events. Whereas careful writing and game design omit this clumsy mechanic and let the enemy emerge from the flow of events, more and more writers appear to make use of it, possibly owing to a lack of imagination.

The Bad Guys

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Enemies spawning out of a portal in Halo 5: Guardians as seen in GhostRobo’s playthrough video on Youtube.

The problem with this sort of enemy insertion is not only a narrative one as explained above but one that also tears at the logic of combat. If the enemy can truly appear out of nowhere, what exactly prevents them from spawning en masse right on top of me and wiping me out on the spot? The answer is simple: absolutely nothing. Therefore, the enemy is either stupid for not doing so or he is spawning in the scripted locations for gameplay reasons. Those, however, should remain in the background as much as possible and not be rubbed under our noses as is often the case. The Halo-series has certainly developed this way. While in the original game Halo: Combat Evolved developed by Bungie and its several sequels the enemy was usually already in place or was delivered by dropship, implying an enemy combat infrastructure, the entries made by 343 Industries gave themselves over to the habit of popping enemies onto the battlefield from nowhere. Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians are guilty as charged. Especially the final engagement in the latter game largely consists of enemies spawning in waves into a room that has to be defended by the player. Why they don’t spawn all at once at maximum strength right on top of the defenders remains a mystery.

Another series that went down this path is Dragon Age. BioWare started with Dragon Age: Origins, a game where enemies were in place most of the time. Their ongoing presence provided the player with a sense of persistent threat. It also created a sense of accomplishment when that threat was defeated. The player was often tasked with assessing the situation before charging into combat. In the painfully rushed sequel Dragon Age 2, a vast amount of engagements with the enemy consisted of hostiles spawning from all possible directions. It became a grind against incalculable odds, and a sense of laziness in the design persistently nagged at the experience. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, the latest game in the series, the player had to regularly close rifts which, as you guessed, spawned new enemies once the present ones were defeated. This is another example where the player is defended by unexplained mechanics. For should the enemy appear at full strength at every rift, the game would certainly be unplayable. The result is an erosion of both the trust in the enemy’s capabilities and in the sense of accomplishment once he has been overcome.

How to do it

There is nothing wrong with the occasional ambush. However, the ambush should not be the core mechanic. An enemy that has tangible limitations, both in regards to numbers and infrastructure, that arise from believable diegetic exposition is more interesting to the problem-solving party. Faceless hordes we knew nothing about the moment before they appeared constitute quite the opposite. Presence gives the enemy identity and intent. This is who they are and that’s why they’re here. From there on, the player has to decide for himself how to be tackle the issue at hand. Sneak past, run past, or engage and neutralize? Examples where this is continuously executed well are stealth-based games and strategy games. The Deus Ex-series has always presented the player with present problem to solve.

A good example of how this can be achieved in literature is Andy Weirs The Martian. Albeit lacking a sentient antagonist, the protagonist’s main enemy is the hostile environment of Mars. The constant threat and known problems the stranded astronaut Mark Watney faces are what make this novel so captivating. It is because the dangers are quantifiable most of the time, while surprises are employed sparingly yet effectively to show the limitations of protagonist who cannot know everything, either. By telling us what’s going on, Andy Weir keeps us fascinated and playing along. Naturally, the amount of planning and research that go into the development of such a story are immense and constitute the diametrical opposite of inimicus ex nihilo.

We Can Only Write Funny Stories

I have recently been thinking about the way I write stories. There’s a peculiar style to it: They tend to be dark stories with a cynical sense of humor. And whenever I try to deviate from it, say try to write a light yet serious story, or a dark story with no humor, the story ends up being no good. So am I stuck with this forever? No, probably not. But it does make me think about how this style relates to me. It appears to come more naturally. Fictional worlds are determined by limitations and struggles, but the characters and the narrator cope with their environment by not allowing it to drag them down. No matter how serious things get, humor is their weapon against despair.

And I’m certainly not the only person who writes like this. As far as I can tell, most science-fiction shows that have been released in the past 20 or so years have juxtaposed adversity with humor. Or maybe it’s just me laughing at the dark humor in Battlestar Galactica. But Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Wars: Clone Wars, Andromeda, The Expanse, Stargate: SG1, Stargate Atlantis, Stargate Universe, and all the other shows I have watched had their fair share of humor. Games tend to be the same way. The greatest science-fiction games are both serious and humorous at the same time; I am thinking of Mass Effect and Halo.

Symptom of a Larger Issue

So I feel that I have to ask: Is that a symptom? Do we have a dark outlook on the future? Of course, the works mentioned above are mainstream media. But those are written for and watched/played by millions of people. Evidently there is something to it that makes these dark stories with humorous elements in them extremely popular. The prime example is The Martian, a novel which takes the humor-versus-adversity complex to the extreme, and it was successful. Meanwhile, excellent stories like Ex Machina that present us with a sublimely uncanny vision of an uncertain future with no comic relief are doomed to obscurity. Naturally, that is also a matter of marketing. But that means that there is more corporate trust in stories that make us laugh in dark environments.

Hence, are we writers subconsciously aware that humanity is steering toward a dark future? We need conflict in our stories. Without conflict, there is no story. But I feel that we don’t trust our own utopian vision anymore. We seek a prosperous future, we hope for one, but we find ways to write futures and propagate them in mass media that are glum and dark and scary, where there is nothing else left to us but to laugh cynically at darkness. Which takes us straight back to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and human detachment. Wallace satirized this in a novel that is so meta that it is frightening. Infinite Jest is hilarious while its characters are on the brink of collapsing into existential singularities in which they would be caught and not even light would escape.

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So how do we escape from this predicament? As writers, we have no obligation to make anyone happy. You don’t have to laugh. You don’t need to read my story if you don’t want to. You don’t have to like it. But what can I do to write a story that genuinely loves the future while still being interesting to read? Well, here is the battleplan: We need a sort of post-sci-fi, a genre that builds a worthy future that has arisen from the angsty crises we so often project. That future needs an antagonist, a villain that is not stereotypical, perhaps a being out of darker pasts. Also, unlike many utopian stories, the utopia must persevere and not be destroyed. It may even change in the course of the story, but it should not collapse.

I feel the need for stories which confirm the efforts of those referred to derogatorily as “Weltverbesserer” (world-improver) or Gutmenschen (people who think of themselves to be so good that they are naive). Victory of empathy over hatred would be a good start. Yet I do not want it to manifest as a political program but as literary one. As writers, we don’t tell how it should be but we draw how it could be with words. The core idea is to build and confirm a bright future for a change, not laugh at a desolate one because there is nothing else that can be done.

Everything has to be Awesome

Rey (Daisy Ridley) in Star Wars The Force Awakens, Walt Disney Studios 2015

Rey (Daisy Ridley) in Star Wars The Force Awakens, Walt Disney Studios 2015

Warning: Star Wars The Force Awakens spoilers!

Star Wars The Force Awakens left me with mixed feelings. Now, a few days after seeing the movie, I have come to the conclusion that the reason doesn’t lie with the story or the acting but with the way the movie is made. That specific style of movie-making has an uncomfortable aftertaste. Every aspect of the movie is desperately trying to be awesome and amazing. It takes no break from this strategy even at the most mundane moments. From the moment «Star Wars» first scrolls down the screen all the way to the credits, The Force Awakens wants you to love it, every last bit of it. Thus instead of peaks of action we get a permanent bombardment of scenes that are supposed to inspire awe. Unfortunately, this does not always work. While I liked some scenes very much, others made me cringe. Hence the mixed feelings.

In many ways, The Force Awakens is A New Hope‘s younger, inferior brother. And he knows it. And he’s desperately trying to compensate. J.J. Abrams and his writing staff took Episode IV as a blueprint for their movie. In that regard, both movies have similar flaws. The best example are the protagonists Luke and Rey. They are both kind of Mary Sues with great skills to begin with. Neither of them needs to develop during the movie in order to rise from their underdog position to mastering the final challenge. There is very little character growth in both cases. However, Luke is written completely differently from Rey. Luke is awkward and clumsy. He is naïve when he removes R2’s restraining bolt. He gets knocked out by the Sandpeople. He can’t handle himself in the cantina without Obi-Wan’s help. The list goes on. Rey is awesome at every turn. Like Luke, she’s highly skilled at many things, but she never exhibits a discrepancy of ability toward the challenge at hand. She doesn’t only know how to fight, she also pulls the moves like she’s standing in front of the camera. She doesn’t only know how to fly, she flies like it’s a contest of who can pull the most outrageous maneuver and live to tell about it.

A Matter of Style

At first I wondered if it was the gaping plot holes, the absurd physics, or the complete and utter ignorance of military procedures and tactics that prevented me from loving The Force Awakens. But no, for A New Hope has some of these issues as well, to some degree or another, and I still love it. The problem is rather the hamfisted attempt at making every single scene a fan favorite. It’s a style of movie-making that has no confidence in the merits of its story, characters, and world-design. The cinematography awkwardly tries to impress all the time, and unnecessarily so. Abrams’ Star Trek reboots suffer from the same illness, though to an even greater extent. Star Trek Into Darkness was nothing but an incoherent sequence of eye-candy scenes without any substance whatsoever. I am grateful, at least, that The Force Awakens was not equally botched.

A symptom of this style is the disregard of metafictional information. For any story, and especially for a Star Wars-story, what’s happening off the screen is just as important as what is happening on the screen. Yet The Force Awakens fails spectacularly at being an exposition. At no point does the movie explain what the awakening actually is, even though the word is right there in the title. At no point is it explained where the First Order came from, what the state of the galaxy is, and how that physics-defying superweapon was built. It reminds me of a comic book. Generally, one doesn’t expect an explanation of Superman’s powers or Bruce Wayne’s wealth in every issue. They are simply taken for granted. Unfortunately, the writer of a movie does not have the same luxury. In fact, he must explain key aspects of the plot to the audience, or risk having everyone wonder why all these shiny scenes are happening in the first place.

Micro over Macro

The bigger picture gets constantly sacrificed on the altar of the moment. Sometimes that sacrifice is worth it, often it isn’t. It is as if the whole of Star Wars-lore has to bow to The Force Awakens instead of the latter enriching the former. Why would we care about some Stormtrooper suddenly pulling out a completely ridiculous melee weapon which seems to serve no purpose in a firefight other than to look cool and give Finn an opportunity to play with a lightsaber? Or why should we wonder why a single TIE-Fighter can wipe out the heavy turrets of a Star Destroyer with a few shots from its anti-fighter blaster cannons? So long as there’s a pretty explosion, why would we bother wondering about what kind of implications this has for naval combat? At times, it’s painful to watch how this movie was simply not thought through all the way to the end. There are great ideas, certainly, and some of it is formidably executed, also thanks to the performances of Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, and John Boyega. But a good writer cannot indulge in the luxury of subjecting the whole of the movie to individual ideas and hope that the actors will save it. The quality of a scene is not determined by its stand-alone performance, but by how it can contribute to the movie as narrative work.

Nukes to the People

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1956)). Orion Publishing Group. Cover art by Chris Moore.

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1956). Orion Publishing Group. Cover art by Chris Moore.

If I had to pick a single word to describe Alfred Bester’s novel The Stars My Destination, I would choose restless. The story can’t catch a break. It jauntes relentlessly from one setting to another, from one narrative phase to another, from one unresolved problem to another. Jaunting is the the ability to travel instantaneously, only utilizing the power of thought. It is the central phenomenon that governs Bester’s futuristic society. Still, that society is much the same as ours 400 years before: a war-torn humanity where governments and super-corporations struggle for power. The representatives of the latter are described similarly to how Brett Easton Ellis framed his sociopathic protagonist Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. It is a pained and sick society that’s also reminiscent of the United States during the Cold War, where everyone is a potential Soviet spy. Only the conflict in the novel is not between the West and the East, but between the inner and the outer solar system.

The sine qua non of the story is PyrE, “a thermonuclear explosive that’s detonated by thought alone.” The substance is the holy grail all parties are after. Yet it is in the possession of Gulliver Foyle, the protagonist, who is the only one who doesn’t know what PyrE is–until the end. When he does learn, he decides to distribute bits of the substance among all of humanity. Anyone in the possession of PyrE can detonate it by just thinking at it to explode. It is as if the powerbase of the Cold War, the nuclear weapons arsenal, had been handed over to the people, and now everyone was walking around with their own personal nuke.

Foyle’s intention is to liberate the people whom he sees as oppressed by a corrupt establishment which brought the war forward against the interests of the people in the first place. But can people be liberated by handing them weapons of mass destruction? It is the optimistic note of the novel that suggests that the upper establishment is so detached from the vast majority of humanity that they are willing to risk complete cataclysm just to serve their ambition. It is an argument against the notion that those in power become corrupted because they are human. In fact, it flips this rationale around and postulates that they have forsaken their humanity because they are in power.

That may be true, but the core issue remains that violence is a phenomenon of all life, one of which humanity is not exempt. Even Bester’s text does not deny this. There are the jack-jaunters, outcasts by all definitions, who teleport themselves into the houses of their victims and rob them blind, kill them if they get in the way. These individuals are situated on the far side of the social spectrum from the establishment, but operate in the same league of violence. The spectrum bends into a circle where one arc is inhabited by the violent and the rest by the others. In The Stars my Destination, those others are the civil society which is being oppressed from every direction. They are the disenfranchised. Foyle’s solution is to emancipate them by giving them access to weapons of mass destruction. It is a political statement and an expression of blind trust in the allegedly homogeneous mass of average human beings, one that implies that the potential for ultimate destruction is better placed in the hands of the average man than in the hands of the elite.