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by G. Christopher Williams

16 Dec 2009

One might observe that the opening few hours of Assassin’s Creed II resemble the pacing of a story told in a still life painting (that is: going nowhere fast).  Blessedly once the player has a larger sense of the picture of the game as its vistas and views unfold, it becomes a canvas much much more vividly alive.

While this metaphor between painting and game might seem just a cute criticism, it is also a rather appropriate one for a game that is set in one of the most fruitful eras and locations for painting in Western history, the Italian Renaissance.  Also, it is notably a game particularly focused on vision and seeing as the game’s protagonist, Ezio, is an assassin who can only get his bearings in the world by scaling buildings to overlook the places in which he will be hunting his prey.  This need translates into one of the major objectives in gameplay. Unlike other open world games, which usually feature a fairly clear sense of the layout of the place that the main character will be residing in through a map in both compass form and/or accessible through a pause menu, both Assassin’s Creed games require the player to uncover the details of such maps by reaching perches noted on a map that is otherwise obscured by a fog of war.  The fog of war is removed when the player figures out how to reach a perch and presses a “sychronization” button that results in a long sweeping camera pan around the city revealing its heights and depths to the player on the main screen but also as it clears away the obscurity of the mini-map.

Renaissance painters are frequently cited as the chief developers of the landscape painting in the history of art, so this camera pan, which has qualities of the landscape painting (revealing the immensity and grandeur of size of human surroundings) seems particularly fitting for this second game in the series.  After all, it is set within this time period. 

The Healing of a Madman

The Healing of a Madman (1494), Vittore Carpaccio

While one might note that landscape painting very often revels in showing the small stature of humanity in relation to their surroundings, art critics have noted the complicated relationship between landscapes and human beings especially as they relate to human power and authority.  The central thesis of Kenneth Robert Olwig’s Landscape, Nature, and the Body Politic is that in landscape painting the viewer discovers that “our environment, conceived of as landscape scenery, is fundamentally linked to our political landscape.” Olwig’s observations concerning the landscape painting that developed during the Renaissance is especially indicative of this correlation between nature and the political.  For instance, he describes the world controlled by a Renaissance prince in terms of how it is viewed as landscape by such a ruler:
One characteristic of that world is that it was observed at neither ground level nor from a vertical point infinitely above, but somewhere in between—a compromise, as it were, between the vertical and the horizontal.  From the vertical axis were taken such elements as pagan gods and goddesses floating in the sky and tableaux showing the unvarying cycle of the season; from the horizontal axis, pastoral landscapes of Virgilian inspiration opening out to the horizon, that is, reaching deep into the recesses of an elongated stage.  The potentate viewed the entire spectacle from a well-placed, elevated seat.  HE was the force that made it all happen and now he could see it all—an essentially harmonious universe—going through its paces before his commanding eye.
Interestingly, in Assassin’s Creed 2 such tableaux’s become the object of Ezio’s studied eye and not that of a Renaissance potentate.  Having to crawl up the walls of Venetian churches or bell towers in Florence, Ezio finds himself at the “top of the world” to study and map the region and its doing.  That so much of Renaissance Italy’s heights are marked by churches and the like, though, is indicative of Olwig’s thesis.  As much of the game suggests, most of the powerful men of this period were directly or indirectly related to the church, and thus, the “elevated seat” of rulers could often be mapped to the elevated steeples and bell towers of the churches of the area and the men who control the knowledge of the world and cosmos that occupy those spaces and would normally then “control” those heights.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1558), Pieter the Elder Bruegel

That Ezio climbs to these heights himself is indicative of his character as assassin and general troublemaker.  In attempting to figure out his bearings and to suss out the mysteries that underlie the landscapes (both their physical space but also the political realities that the cities represent and that he will involve himself in) before him, Ezio takes it upon himself to share the perspective of the vertical and horizontal worlds controlled by his opposition.  That Ezio is capable of surviving on the rooftops is suggestive of his challenge of those normally “seated” there to view the spectacle.  He wants to be able to view this spectacle too.  He may be able to wrest control of the heights, or at least, do so long enough in game terms to understand the lay of the land beneath him, what treasures and objectives that it holds (again, in game terms, since the mini-map provides information on collectibles and mission starting points).  In this sense, the game mechanic of revealing maps by climbing towers in order to understand how to proceed next is emblematic of the narrative, as those physical spaces represent the political world that Ezio needs to map and wreak havoc upon.

Thus, landscapes serve both the interests of this political narrative as well as the interests of uncovering the mysteries of power in the game.  Ezio is constantly trying to see the order of the conspiracies that underlie the hidden power structures that have embedded themselves into the landscape.  Be it in unraveling the mysteries of the Codex or by locating the glyphs that also mark the heights of these politicized buildings, the mysteries of Assassin’s Creed II are all about gaining enough height and perspective to put the pieces of a picture all together.  Climbing towers to fully come “to know” the landscape beneath him becomes a metaphor for fully coming “to know” the grounds under which power lies.  To climb to these heights is to rebel and to attempt to see as a potentate or a god might, which is ironically exemplified by the artifact of power that so many are seeking in both games.  The apple of Eden involves coupling the concept of rebellion against authority with knowledge, thus, overcoming one’s lowly stature as mere mortal and becoming powerful “like a God.”  While taking on such authority through knowledge is warned against in the traditional views of this story, the man that so comfortably scrabbles over rooftops and cornices, the assassin Ezio, simply seems less afraid of a fall.

by Spencer Tricker

16 Dec 2009

A refreshingly straightforward document of the band’s landmark 1969 Woodstock set, the record serves as a noteworthy addition to the rarefied pantheon of Live Albums That Emphatically Do Not Suck. Among the songs the Family Stone performed that August night in ’69 were “Sing a Simple Song”, “You Can Make It If You Try”, “Dance to the Music”, “Stand!” and, of course, “I Want to Take You Higher”. Noticeably, each title is either a command or else reminiscent of some ancient proverb. There’s a consistent spiritual element to the band’s central ethos; one that today’s more cynical audiences might consider played-out but regardless continues to be an inspirational force to upcoming musicians and open-minded listeners. As for Woodstock and its associated madness, music fans can and should make of it what they will. One thing’s for certain: While this particular concert-for-the-ages boasted performances both legendary and mind-altering, you sure as hell didn’t need LSD to get down with Sly & the Family Stone.

by Katharine Wray

16 Dec 2009

“Obese Individual’s Agony” states a sign indicating the start of a hike trail. Lost and Loster, the published version of signspotting.com, is great stocking stuffer for your co-worker who constantly emails you superfluous forwards of dogs wearing hats. Japan’s inherent politeness, for example, resulted in this translation of “No Smoking” sign: Building Asks A Smoked Visitor In The Outside Smoking Section That You Cannot Smoke In. Confusing mistranslations resulting in hilarity is the running theme of Lost and Loster. This clearly illustrates that real life really is better than fiction—nothing made-up could be this funny.

by Aaron Sagers

16 Dec 2009

It’s clean-up time in Miami and police department blood-spatter analyst Dexter Morgan is on trash duty. Based on the serial killer vigilante from Showtime’s Dexter, this action figure has a creepy likeness to actor Michael C. Hall (which is a lovely thing, in case he’s reading), and comes with a police identification, butcher knife, blood slide and garbage bag to assist with his bodies of evidence. And at only 7-inches tall, you too can have your own “Dark Passenger” to join you in the carpool lane of crazy.

by Christel Loar

15 Dec 2009

BlackAdder is comedy done right. Nearly 30 years after its creation, the beloved British series continues to be watched and worshiped, recited and referenced, lauded and, of course, laughed at. Blackadder Remastered: The Ultimate Edition DVD set collects each of the four series and all of the specials in new, digitally restored from the original program masters form on six discs. The set also features new episode commentaries with Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Ben Elton, Richard Curtis, Tony Robinson, and Tim McInnerny; several new interviews with Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Richard Curtis, Ben Elton, and Tony Robinson; Footnotes to History, a guide to the real historical figures and events depicted in Black Adder hosted by Tony Robinson; a behind-the-scenes of Black adder Back and Forth featurette entitled Baldrick’s Video Diary and the wonderful 25th Anniversary documentary Black Adder Rides Again. It’s an embarrassment of riches even the Black Adder himself would want to share. Even the packaging is perfect, opening like a beautifully bound and well-worn history book (look closely at the illustration of Baldrick’s family tree on the front leaf; it may explain a few things!). Essentially, if Blackadder is the prime example of how to create and produce a near-perfect comedy—and, that it be—then Blackadder Remastered: The Ultimate Edition is exemplary of the way to make a near-perfect DVD set.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

In Defense of the Infinite Universe in 'No Man's Sky'

// Moving Pixels

"The common cries of disappointment that surround No Man’s Sky stem from the exciting idea of an infinite universe clashing with the harsh reality of an infinite universe.

READ the article