So I've been playing a pirate for a little over 12 or so hours now. And I gotta say, it's bliss. Naval battle, looting ships, searching the Cayman Islands for treasure, hunting, and, yep, assassinating. Assassin's Creed 4 is a welcome return to form for a series that had lost its ways. Trouble is, I'm 12 hours into the game and I have no friggin' idea what's going on.
Assassin's Creed plots are tricky at the best of times. There's an everlasting battle with Templars and...non-Templar people, weird sci-fi alien things and a present day story about a Matrix like machine that has, um, something to do with the Templars and the Garden of Eden, I think? In Assassin's Creed 4, the team at Ubisoft have managed to design such a thoroughly engaging world that the main mission has become a co-star to explorative side quests. The Autistic completionist inside me wants to make sure I have ALL the treasure, have collected ALL the animal pelts, and upgraded my ships with loot as MUCH as possible. Out of the several handful of hours that I've already sunk into the game, only a small portion of them have been spent on the main mission. As such, when I go back to a main mission, I have very little idea of what the frig is going on.
This is also due to the fact that the scenes are poorly written and unengaging. It's not what you're in the game for, despite Ubisoft's attempts at making the story interesting by shoving as MUCH WEIRD SHIT AS POSSIBLE into it. The series has managed to straddle history, action adventure, sci-fi, spy, thriller, political and plain old video gamin' platformer. But no dice.
You're in the game for the world. The greatest success of the Assassin's Creed story has, and will always be, exploring historical worlds with glee. The world's are huge, expansive, and addictive. Unfortunately, it comes at a cost to the story.
But it's not like Assassin's Creed is the only one following the trend. Grand Theft Auto V's story is confusing and uninteresting, but the world is rich and mesmerizing. I haven't spent a lot of time exploring Call of Duty, but I don't think anyone sits down to play it because of the gripping story-telling. Increasingly, AAA developers are not pouring their resources into story. They're pouring it into gameplay and technical achievements. Part of this is the economics of the business, which writers such as Tom Bissell are far more equipped to comment on than I. Games such as GTA, Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed are unnervingly expensive to make, both in human resources and in sheer cash. In order to stay competitive, big studios HAVE to place a priority on developing a huge, open, technically cohesive world. Apparently, that's what the market wants, as sales figures of these games prove.
But it's a chicken and egg scenario. I'm not so sure who started the trend. Was it gamers demanding a richer and more graphically stunning world to play in? Or the developers trying to out-do each other in size and scale?
It's an enigma, because the exceptions to the trend are startling. The Last of Us, a game that proved to be a huge gamble for Naughty Dog in the making, is a distinctly unfashionable single player linear narrative tale, set in a gloriously built technical masterpiece of a world. The game has competed with Grand Theft Auto V for many 'best game of 2013' lists, but it's an undeniable success, and an unforgettable experience for any gamer. Whether it's an economic success in the face of GTA or COD monoliths is doubtful. More's the pity, in my opinion.
It's fallen to the independent sector, where expectations for graphics and technical achievements are far lower, for innovative gameplay and story-telling to really shine. Is it any wonder that TellTale's Walking Dead game won so many critic's hearts in 2012, and was controversially named game of the year over many big developer titles? Other beautiful narrative masterpieces include The Stanley Parable, Gone Home and Papers, Please. All cost less than ten bucks to buy, take less than half a day to play from start to finish (another thing big developers can't get their head around, quality over quantity), and are compelling, well-told stories. They are also the most talked about, and generate the most anticipation. There's an unending buzz emanating out of studios such as TellTale, whose forthcoming Game of Thrones and Borderlands spin-offs are likely to overshadow many blistering technical achievements in larger games for the PS4 and X1.
We need both kinds of games, of course. I need to be able to go live a pirate fantasy adventure AND enjoy the compelling narrative of a smaller title. Games that manage to achieve both, such as Last of Us, are increasingly rare, but deservingly applauded when they do come along. The explosion of the independent market, thanks to services such as Steam, along with the proliferation of iOS and smart phone devices, has seen the video game world fundamentally shift. It's difficult to over-state the change. Just between you and me, I don't think we're in for a brilliant generation of gaming from the PS4 and X1. I think it will be a challenging and tumultuous time, and many big developers will not survive the shift as consumers make more complex demands. The continuing turntable of Nintendo is a testament to this epochal shift. We need this, given the blisteringly long and innovative growth the industry found in the previous generation. Gamers are set to reap some fairly revolutionary rewards.