You know the scene in the movie. Our hero has just left something flammable or explosive behind. He lights a cigar, enjoys a few puffs, then tosses the cigar over his shoulder. As he strides slowly and indifferently away, an explosion of flames marks his passing. Pretty cool, huh?
Countless movies have riffed on this cinematic image. Richard Rodriguez’s Desperado, for instance, springs instantly to my mind, but there are countless others. There is a certain cockiness on display in these scenes that develops the hero as a badass in such scenes that seems driven by a number of the details of such a performance. Part of it is the cool and frequently slow walk away from the scene, part of it is that the hero never looks back at the destruction that he is responsible for. As a result, we are left with an image of self-assured competence and professionalism on the part of the hero. He is so certain of the outcome of his actions that he doesn’t even bother to check on his success and has no fear that the flames will reach him. After all, he understands destruction so intimately and so consummately, why bother?
The latest Assassin’s Creed, Brotherhood, adopts this well worn cinematic chestnut from almost the beginning of the game and repeats it quite a number of times. Our familiar protagonist, Ezio, is interested in wresting power in Renaissance Rome from the Borgias. Part of this campaign involves Ezio removing a number of Borgia Towers, posts for militia funded by the wealthy family, whose presence in the neighborhoods and outlying boroughs of Rome has quashed seditious sentiment against this ruling family. After assassinating an officer in command of such a tower, the game demands that Ezio ignite the tower itself as a signal to that area that it is free from Borgia influence. Every time that Ezio does so, one of these classic cinematic explosion sequences ensues. Typically, after reaching the tower, the player hits a button to ignite the tower, the camera pans away showing Ezio coolly lighting a brand and dropping it into the tower, before stepping to the edge of the tower (without bothering to look over his shoulder, of course) and commencing a slow dive away from the exploding edifice. Again, pretty cool stuff.
What is especially rewarding for the game’s audience, of course, is their own complicity in this familiar scene. It isn’t just Ezio that seems exceptionally cool and competent at this moment, the player does as well. After all, responsibility for the destruction of the tower is in the player’s hands from the initial strategizing necessary to enter the Borgia patrolled area of the city undetected to the tactics adopted for pulling off the assassination of the Borgia officer to the ascension and destruction of the tower itself. While blowing the tower itself is accomplished through a simple single button press, the process of getting to the point where an elegant enough expression of raw chaos is possible in such an easy way is much more complex (for more thoughts on deadly elegance see “Elegance is a Shotgun”, PopMatters, 17 March 2010). Thus, the ignition rewards through the satisfaction it produces; it proves the player’s own competence and professionalism as an assassin and freedom fighter (for more thoughts on performing competence see “Locomotion, Parkour, and the Illusion of Competence in Video Games”, PopMatters, 9 December 2009). It is no wonder that Ezio’s casual and indifferent demeanor parallels that of the Hollywood badass.
It should be noted, though, that the Assassin’s Creed series has long provoked a kind of sublime satisfaction in the act of execution, one that is less voyeuristic than the cutscenes in Brotherhood and far less than those of the cinematic variety. It is difficult to express emotive responses that we have when playing a game and why certain actions evoke the responses that they do in us because of their abstract nature. However, if I had to describe what it is like to kill in Assassin’s Creed, many of the same descriptors that I have used to describe the destruction of the Borgia Towers would be ones that I would use to do so. Kills, especially stealth kills, in Assassin’s Creed are elegant, sublime, provide the player a sense of their own competence and, especially, a sense of satisfaction. Much of the reason for this is the way that the animations and mechanics of a stealth kill mimic the performative qualities of the kind of scene of indifference to death and destruction that belong to the cinematic hero that I described earlier.
Because efficiency is called for in moving stealthily in Assassin’s Creed, the player quickly learns that there is a fairly effective approach to stealth kills in the game. Dangling from the edge of a rooftop, when the player sees a guard’s back turn it is a matter of quickly hoisting one’s self up, sprinting near the soldier, then dropping into a slow walking approach right before engaging Altair or Ezio’s blade into that enemy’s back. Running is, of course, dangerous even behind such enemies’ backs. From a gameplay perspective, quick movement raises the awareness of the AI. While getting into position quickly is crucial to success, this issue of awareness makes dropping an assassin into a slow pace right before the kill frequently essential. In other words, the mechanics enforce the drama of the killer calmly and calculatingly approaching the victim. A sense of tension and dread is provoked in each of these brief encounters.
While the first-time player of Assassin’s Creed may find themselves enrapt in the execution animation, watching the fluidity of how Altair or Ezio kills ceases to remain engaging, again, by necessity. Given that the player most frequently kills out in the open, on a rooftop or on a city street, the next essential step in the arc of effective stealth play is assessing the scene, checking on the position of other potential hostiles, and looking for spots to drop out of sight again quickly. Since both Altair and Ezio’s default movement style is a slow walk, this means that after the moment of the kill, the player is generally immediately moving away from the victim, not checking on the victim’s status. Instead, the way that the player finds that he needs to begin reassessing his environment results in both assassins’ bodies exuding that familiar cinematic confidence in their capacity to kill. Indifference becomes a marker of professional detachment and attention to priorities, the next kill. The indifferent assassin walks away from the body without a glance behind.
Personally, when I kill in Assassin’s Creed I don’t ever want to see the body hit the floor. I want to only hear it. I am moving on to considering which guard goes next, and my confidence in the mechanic of the single button kill results in a sense that I have full confidence in my own and my assassin’s skills as killers.
As a result, nearly every kill ends in this indifferent and slow walk away from my victim. I am so certain of the outcome of my action that I don’t even bother to check on my success. But moreso, I have been habituated to play in a way that enforces a certain dramatic performance.
Much of Assassin’s Creed is filled with actions much like the ones that I have described, the player finds that most situations require some forethought, assessment of the environment, tactical approach, all followed by a rapid burst of activity that ends in slow glides that “move” the player towards a requisite indifference to the execution just performed. Such climatic bursts, followed by a kind of observational repose, tend to turn the execution into a sublime performance of calm cool and confident professionalism.