The Emergent Politics of Assassin’s Creed

Assassin’s Creed first came out in November of 2007 and has spawned a franchise with 7, soon to be 8, games in the main franchise, a dozen side games, and a number of other tie-in media. It is a massive franchise that is to many a moribund, lumbering part of the videogame landscape. Its overarching plot concerns two groups: Assassins and Templars, who have been fighting in the shadows for all of human history and working with various Great Men for their own ends. In addition to that, there’s an Ancient Alien conspiracy involved as well. In short, it’s a delightful setting that hits a lot of my buttons in the right way. Given how many installments this franchise has, looking at it as a whole and the emergent trends within it becomes interesting, so let’s get into it.

First, it’s important to give some more meaningful context to just what it is I’m talking. The first Assassin Creed, or AC for short, was set during the 3rd Crusade and had the Knights Templar, a Christian monastic order who have been the source of numerous conspiracies theories, locked into a secret war that is as old as humanity itself with the Assassins, a Muslim sect who gave us the word assassin. They’re fighting over artifacts from a Precursor civilization, known as the First Civ and this war has lasted long after the Crusade, up until the current day. The games following that have focused on different time periods as well as a continuation of the modern day plotline.

This is all pretty straightforward but raises the question of am I talking about emergent stuff? As I mentioned above, this franchise is huge, and has had multiple creative teams working on it. At best, this means poor communication creates a less cohesive whole; more realistically this means that different people have different interpretations and opinions of how things should work that get canonized. Also, these games aren’t very smart, or rather, they don’t set out to be. They’re part historical parkour part muderfest; these games are open about being theme parks.

Now, this raises the fair question of just what they have been fighting over for all human history?  In theory, the Assassins are dedicated to the enlightenment and liberation of all of humanity, the titular creed is “nothing is true, everything is permitted”. In short, they’re anarchists, revolutionaries. The Templars on the other hand, are convinced that they need to control humanity and through their guidance can lead humanity to better heights. In short, they’re technocrats, the Establishment.  Given this kind of setup, AC by definition is some flavor of punk.

This is especially true in the earlier installments. AC1’s targets are the ruling members of both sides of the Crusades who are by and large war profiteers. The modern day Templars have formed Abstergo, your typical cyberpunk megacorp. AC2 has the Italian Assassins be primarily drawn from the lower classes: sex workers, thieves and mercenaries. It is revealed that most of the 20th century, with the exception of the Lenin in the Russian Revolution, was orchestrated by the Templars; Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were Templars who thought that industrialization would be the perfect means of control.

While the setting is punk, the games are less so. AC1 is more focused on two hidden monastic orders fighting one another and are somewhat disjointed from the rest of the world. AC2 on the other hand, is a bit of a mess due to the main character of Ezio Auditore di Firenze. The first problem is that Ezio is the son of the wealthy merchant, he’s a part of the Establishmetn and while he gets along with thieves, sex workers and the like, he also gets along with the Medici. Second, Ezio isn’t really concerned with being an Assassin; he just wants to kill Templars because they murdered his family.  The games shy away from actually embracing these punk origins in favor of more generic conspiracies fighting one another.

This is inevitable given how the games approach history. If no small part of the appeal is supposed to be interacting with the Great Men of history, then that is going to predispose the narrative to embracing the Great Men theory. In turn, narrative necessity means that the Assassins need to ally with some of these Great Men. The ultimate result is that it moderates the Assassins from being anarchists into generic good guys who have a cool catchphrase. They become a part of the system and cannot destroy it.

This is coupled with the fact that anarchism or any sort of ideology that the Assassins should theoretically support hasn’t really done all that well historically and you don’t want every game to be a tragedy. Again, this idea is tied to the Great Men presentation of history; by focusing on these big shifts you ignore local shifts or shifts in societal norms.

This moderation of the Assassins isn’t enough though, in a lot of ways the first two games have been pushed to the sidelines as much as possible. It seems that the writers looked at AC, realized that there was a problem in moderating the Assassins, didn’t stop to think about their own assumptions that lead to happen and decided to take the series in a different direction. Instead of being revolutionaries, they’re morally ambiguous good guys who aren’t that different from the Templars. Considering that the Templars include Hitler, that’s an interesting claim to put forward.

By pushing for the two sides to not be that different, that’s exactly what happens. You have two conspiracies who are really good at wiping out branches of the other side and getting their team on top. It creates a false moral equivalence between the oppressed and the oppressors by just presenting them as the same thing. Of course, talking about how the two factions are just different shades of grey who could work together if only they stopped killing each other requires me to discuss AC’s metaplot and the First Civ. The short version is that there was the First Civ, who used humanity as slaves. They were also trying to stop the world from ending and between their efforts to stop that and humanity having enough First Civ DNA to use their tools to rise up against them. The end result is that the First Civ is wiped out and leave a bunch of their stuff around that humanity ends up using. A First Civ survivor has been able to use these tools to manipulate people and is probably the reason for why the Assassins and Templars have been fighting for all of history. So it turns out that the real answer is some sort of mythical moderate position that lacks any substance. It ultimately means that the Templars, an organization that is devoted to establishing and maintaining all of the world’s ills, is basically right, but maybe they should put a human face on it.

So how is surprising and why does it matter? It’s not surprising; we’re talking about one of the biggest AAA game franchises right now after all. Made by a major publisher and focus-group’d to seeming perfection. And it’s exactly because it’s such a big franchise and because of the subject matter that talking about this is relevant. History isn’t some objective and immutable record, it’s a collection of stories that tell us where we came from, but these are stories that are fought over constantly. This is why we have histiography, basically the study of history.  The presentation of history in pop culture, and this ultimately liberal moderate wistful thinking is nonsense.

That’s all I got for this week, next week is a surprise for both you and me. Till next time.

 

 

Monetization of Mods is a Terrible Idea

Valve recently tried to monetize Skyrim’s mod scene by allowing modders to charge for their mods*. This proved to be disastrous as it turned the modding scene, a functioning collectivist system that is one of the main selling points for Bethesda’s games, into an app store with Valve’s known nonexistent quality control that turned into a vicious race to the bottom. As a result, the program was scrapped in a few days. While this will undoubtedly come up again(I would be surprised if the next Fallout or Elder Scrolls game wasn’t more tied-in with the Steam Workshop so that it really would be an app store) the issue for the time has faded from the public eye. What prompted me to write about this was that Extra Credits** did an episode about this that I wanted to respond to. Let’s not waste any time and get into it.

First, let me explain my background. Bethesda games always get me interested. Morrowind is one of my favorite games and I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit looking through mods. The same is true, albeit to a lesser extent for Fallout 3 and New Vegas. I’m also not a big fan of Extra Credits for a number of reasons. Their videos are too short to really go into detail, which by default makes the analysis surface level. As a result it doesn’t really do much. They’re not being presented as a springboard for discussion, and I’m not wading into youtube comments to test that, but they’re not really saying much either to feel like you’re learning. At best it can give you fodder for thought but that only goes so far.

Their basic argument is as follows: since this is going to come up again, we should actually think this through. They break this down into the question of whether this is good for modders, would this be a good shift for the community as a whole, would paid mods be good for players, will paid mods be good for developers and would paid mods be good for Valve. I’m going to break down my response to each of these points individually.

‘Would these be good for modders’ focuses on the fact that it’s better for modders for to be paid for their work. This is at best a naïve argument and at worst one made in bad faith. I”m a firm believer in everyone should be paid a living wage for their labor, that doesn’t really apply here. The fact that modders aren’t paid is something they understand from the beginning and accept. Everything doesn’t need to be commoditized; some people are happy with their hobby being a hobby and don’t want to go pro. The idea that modders should be paid for their work implies that they’re getting a fair deal, which they’re not. Not only were they only getting 25% profit, but that only happened once a mod had been purchased a certain amount of times. Until that point it was 100% to Bethesda; a fact conveniently omitted in the video. Ultimately, this turns the modder into an independent contractor, a more formalized and exploitable appendage in the videogame industry. An industry that is well-known for its poor working conditions.

The other part of their argument is based upon the notion that Bethesda taking part of the cut is supposedly fair because of licensing and IP. This entire line of argument is nonsensical as it’s predicated upon several faulty assumptions. First, there’s the idea that turning a modder into an independent contractor is a good thing. Second, is the idea that making mods are on the same scale as making a game. Third, there’s the idea that this arrangement is anyway fair. Since they used the number 75,000, I’ll use it here; in order to make 75,000 dollars off of a mod that costs a dollar you need to sell in the order of 300,00 copies. To put that into perspective, on May 21st, 2015, Skyrim peaked with 34,104 players. Even if every player bought a copy of this mod, that’s $8,526. I have no idea how the 75k/a year figure is even remotely realistic or what it’s trying to prove. Most mods aren’t these massive projects like Darkest Hour or Arsenal of Democracy**, they’re maybe the size of some DLC package or smaller. Of course, this entire line of argument is based upon the idea that because Bethesda has put in the time to cultivate these products, they can turn what was essentially free advertising into an additional revenue stream and people should be thankful that Bethesda isn’t taking as much as they could in the name of protecting nebulous concepts.

“Would this be good for the modding community” is answered in a way that conveniently sidesteps any real issues that did or could emerge.  They open this segment by talking about a host of legal problems that will emerge as modders use things that they don’t have the license to use. Most of these things should be irrelevant to the modding community, it doesn’t matter if they put Lord of the Rings into Skyrim or added something from the Witcher. What does matter is using other mods as a foundation. Mods aren’t things that are independently developed; it’s a sprawling interconnected web. How many mods work because of the Skyrim Script Extender? How many mods build off other mods and use their assets? How many mods are just assets to be used by other people? The answer: a lot. Not only that, but right now you have feuds over people not attributing others or giving credit when they do build off of other mods if they requested that. These issues quickly escalated once money was introduced as you had certain base mods becoming monetized and things built off of them were not or vice versa. You had people download mods from the Nexus, reupload them to Steam Workshop, claim them as their own and charge money for them. Monetization long term would have destroyed the modding community. There is no community because you’re no longer collaborating on something open; every other modder just became your competition.

The second part of their argument, which for some reason isn’t in the previous segment but provides the illusion that there would still be a community, is how this would theoretically enable modders to do this fulltime if they want. This allure of money will supposedly grow the modding “community”, as people will be drawn to this new money-making opportunity.  This seems unlikely for three reasons: 1. This requires the influx of people to already be competent modders, since there won’t be pre-existing assets they can draw upon like there are now. 2.How many of these people will put in the time investment to even try and make a profit? 3. Given how unlikely it is to actually make a living under the model we’re discussing, why should modders rely on that and not Patreon? How many artists, writers and other creatives have been able to support themselves with Patreon? Answer: a good number. Again, it’s worth repeating that by making modders independent contractors they become a part of the video game industry and end up doing this work for bad pay in the hopes of being hired into an unstable industry with poor working conditions.

“Would this be good for the players” is answered in a way that is again disconnected from the reality of the situation. Surprisingly, they linger on the point about how one would have to pay for utility mods as that’s a perfect example of why this entire scheme is horrible for the players. A common complaint is that companies will released unfinished games and just leave the problems to be fixed by the mod community. This statement was of varying degrees of truth before, now that you’re paying for mods, it means that you are paying extra to make the game functional. I’m curious how the price of a game is no longer the price of the game, just the entry free to a license so I can start to spend more money to make the game functional is better for me. This also ignores the reality of mods in that they’re a bit of a crapshoot. Mods being free is integral to how they’re used as they’re a crapshoot. Leaving aside the issue of quality of content for a moment, mods are modifications to the game, they’re not a part of the game and this means that they can break the game. Sometimes that break isn’t obvious and it happens hours down the line, but you accept the risk when you download a mod. Sometimes that break isn’t that big and sometimes it eats your save. This issue becomes even more pronounced when you have multiple mods running. This isn’t an issue that can be fixed through the professionalization of modding, it is literally a structural issue with mods.

Somehow, this will cause the quality of mods to rise. This isn’t impossible, but it’s highly unlikely when you consider that modders can no longer stand on the shoulders of other mods anymore. In the pursuit of money the following things will happen: big and ambitious projects will be finished, mods will be higher quality with fewer bugs and will be launched as close to launch as possible in order to maximize profit. There is absolutely no way for all of these things to be true, especially since working solo on such projects isn’t doable so modders will team together…into what amount to development studios on an incredibly precarious funding structure; at this point you’re better off learning how to design mobile games honestly. It’s important to think of modders as independent contractors/dev studios in this model because it quickly reveals the rest of the problems. A lot of games are just not that good, what makes mods any better? What’s to keep someone updating a mod so it remains compatible with the game in light of patches and expansions? What’s to keep a mod from being Early Access? Abandoned Early Access? What’s to keep a mod developer from any failing that an indie dev has?

‘Is this good for developers’ is the most coherent part of this video, although that’s awfully faint praise. This is mainly by virtue of the fact that they recognize the power and issues that game developers face in monetizing mods and spend most of the segment asking questions that clearly weren’t asked when this program was conceived and implemented. While this might be mistaking the forest for a tree, but I found the issue of DLC to be another example of them not understanding what modding actually is. Not all games are equally modable and the Workshop doesn’t have to support games that rely upon DLC. They did not stop being unthinkingly pro-corporation in three minutes and ask why any of this is the case. On the subject of their paradigm, it’s also worth mentioning what they don’t talk about. In theory, this experiment was bad for Bethesda since it generated a big amount of negative publicity and torched goodwill. A big reason to buy a Bethesda game was because of all the mods you could use; now that they’ve demonstrated a willingness to shift that arrangement in their favor, the disaffected player has no recourse t register their displeasure by not giving them money. It’s also fair to say that any damage done almost assuredly isn’t significant to do any meaningful harm and there will be enough buy-in from the community for this to work when they try it again.

‘Is this good for Valve’ is a question that they flippantly answer yes with an image of an avatar of Valve carrying sacks of money. It’s a silly question with a silly answer that is actually worth discussing in its own right. Steam has become basically become the industry standard for pc gaming, even if you can buy it elsewhere you need to have Steam to run it. This is another way for Steam to make money in a way that they want as much liability as they do with Early Access. It’s good for them because it can’t be bad for them.

Overall, the monetization of modding is a demonstrably terrible idea that would only grow the industry by turning modding into the development periphery. EC’s claims to the contrary primarily based upon ignoring what actually happened in favor of a pro-corporate optimistic agenda. Till next time

 

 

*’Mods are modifications to the game that add new content such as quests, items, unofficial patches and graphic changes

**An internet group devoted to explaining the game industry and game design. You can find them at youtube.com/user/ExtraCreditz

***Mods of Hearts of Iron 2 that became actual Paradox games.

Marvel’s Daredevil is Fine

Apologies for the hiatus, real life got in the way and this had to take a back seat. Hopefully I can get back into a groove.

 

Marvel’s Daredevil is the latest TV entry to the MCU, available on Netflix. This means that the whole season is out (and it’s already been renewed for a second season). This means that I can talk the full season with ease. This also means that I will talk about spoilers with impunity, so you’ve been warned.

Given the sprawl of the MCU at this point, it makes sense to just quickly note what I have seen. I’ve seen all the movies up to Avengers, only Guardians in Phase 2 and haven’t seen Agents of Shield. Also, I have basically no knowledge of Daredevil outside of general osmosis and what I remember from the movie.

First, my overall spoiler-free impression of the show is that it’s fine. The show is entertaining enough but has a number of failings. If you like superheroes/the MCU then you’ll probably enjoy this. Also, this show is incredibly violent, so if that’s not your thing then pass. Now, let’s get down to some more meaningful discussion.

 

Beware of Spoilers ye who enter

 

The show hits most of the technical elements well. The acting is excellent all around, but Vincent D’onofrio as Wilson Fisk stands out the most. Vincent does something with Fisk that only Tom Hiddleson as Loki has done in the MCU: played a villain that was actually memorable. Our first introduction to him with the juxtaposition of the awkward date immediately followed by decapitating a guy’s head via car door leaves a lasting impression. An impression that is built upon when we learn his back-story and just see him have such presence in every scene he’s in.  While everyone else is good, this is a point that I’ll keep coming back to in that these are familiar characters.

The only technical element that isn’t that great is the fight cinematography. While the hallway fight scene in episode 2 stands out, later fight scenes are more of a chore and not terribly engaging. The fight with Nobu stands out as being an utter mess; interweaving it with the rest of the episode just makes it worse. As I mentioned before, this show is incredibly violent; while the actual gore is minimized, these fights are long. By the end of the Russian arc, I was bored more often than not.

One of this show’s big conceits is that Daredevil is a street level hero. This means that instead of Nazis or god-like aliens, the villains are far more mundane, in the order of organized crime. This works as the explanation as to why these heroes don’t overlap(The Avengers can’t handle every mob boss and Daredevil would be tissue paper against the Chitauri) but it isn’t perfect. While the Battle of New York and the reconstruction effort that follows are used as the basis for Fisk building his criminal empire in Hell’s Kitchen, it does produce a certain dissonance.

Daredevil is a weird pastiche of genres and tropes. You have things ranging from Matt’s father throwing fights for the Irish Mob, to ninjas, vigilante crime fighting, the backdrop of the MCU and some weird reporter tropes. While not having the supers of the MCU show up, people seem rather well adjusted to the fact that an alien invasion dropped out of the sky or the Norse gods are real rather well. In regards to weird reporter tropes, both Urich and Fisk deride the Internet and blogging with the show offering no counterpoint, which is weird. In an age where the value of the citizen reporter/social media/random bystander taking video in conjunction with the in-universe detail that essentially every institution is corrupt. This strange political commentary brings me to my main problem with the show.

In so many ways, this show feels empty. While individual episodes drift along, with so much filler, the real victims are the characters and setting. The relationship between Matt, Foggy and Karen is underdeveloped. This is mainly due to the fact that Matt is off doing his own thing while Foggy and Karen are doing their thing. Any sort of payoff that is supposed to happen in the second half of the season isn’t really there. The fact that ‘Nelson V. Murdoch’ needs to spend time developing their relationship while they’re fighting is indicative of this problem. This is a largely contextual problem: Hell’s Kitchen feels empty.

Despite the fact that both Matt and Foggy grew up in the area, they interact with a grand total of three people who have any shared history: the frenemy police contact, Matt’s priest, and the bar that Matt and Foggy helped out. None of these are particularly deep and the scarcity of these relations stand out in a way that makes Matt and Foggy appear to be outsiders. This could have been modified by writing in some more direct history with Elena Cardenas. On one hand, Elena Cardenas is clearly meant to be representative of Hell’s Kitchen as a whole, which is a fine storytelling technique. The problem again, is that Elena is one character who might as well exist in a vacuum. This in turn is a problem because of the show’s politics.

Fisk and his cabal of evil-doers are on some level, meant to be the personification of gentrification. This has the potential of being meaningful but the message is lost in execution. Fisk’s agenda is fairly nebulous and because Hell’s Kitchen isn’t really a place; you don’t really see a fight or care. This presentation is so tepid, so amorphous that you can hardly call it a political statement at all.

If Matt Murdock going on about “his city” and how he needs to protect Hell’s Kitchen then the fight has to have stakes to. Gentrification needs to be shown as the imperialist force that it is. But it’s not, and this brings us to the show’s other political problem. This is something that we’ve seen before so many times before. How different is this from Batman Begins or Arrow? The difference in the main character’s wealth isn’t a meaningful difference and Murdock even does the deeper voice when he’s crime fighting. How different is this from any other lily-white, heteronormative, patriarchal thing that the MCU has produced?  The measure of self awareness in calling the usual motivation for these heroes an excuse doesn’t count when it then goes onto play these tropes completely straight. Nor does it count that there are fan theories about how Murdock and Foggy are bi or how Matt and Fisk are autistic. Nor does it erase the fact that the only two minority characters get killed. How many superhero origin stories have we seen at this point? By this point I’d be happy if a new character or team started in medias res just so we have something different. In so many ways, this is a story that we’ve been told before, multiple times.

If you’re looking for a superhero story that’s fine and doesn’t do anything new then Daredevil is right up your alley. It’s fine, not great and not bad.