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Art vs. Apps in 'Assassin’s Creed: Unity'

The companion apps for Unity highlight the antagonistic relationship between the art of games and the business of games.

One of the most ridiculed aspects of Assassin’s Creed: Unity is the map. It’s littered with collectible icons.

This by itself annoyed many players, but more annoying is the fact that a good chunk of those collectible treasure chests can’t be opened unless you link your game to multiple companion apps. It’s an awkward and frustrating integration of “social hooks,” but these apps are worth investigating because they include something fascinating. Sadly, they’re not fascinating for narrative or lore reasons, but for academic reasons: The companion apps for Unity highlight the antagonistic relationship between the art of games and the business of games.

First, there’s Assassin’s Creed: Initiates. This seems to be a separate app that launches from within Unity itself. Not in a neat meta way, as if our in-game avatar were launching a separate app, but in an awkward forced-integration sort of way. The Initiates app looks and controls like a web page, complete with mouse cursor and text that doesn’t quite fit on a TV screen. It looks like something that has been hacked together, so it’s understandable why most people would want to ignore it.

Second, there’s the official Assassin’s Creed Unity Companion App. This is an actual game that must be downloaded separately on a phone or tablet. Thankfully, it was designed to be played on phones or tablets, so the app at least looks professional and slick, but it’s still annoying to have game content locked behind a piece of software that must be separately downloaded on another machine.

The annoyances inherent in these apps are enough to push most players away, but they’re worth investigating for anyone interested in the conflict between business and art. In short, the apps contain side content that existed in previous Assassin’s Creed games, but was cut from Unity for narrative reasons.

Part of this is speculation. One of the reasons that I’ve always been a fan of the series is its willingness to play around within its formula. Yes, you’ll always be running around a historical location stabbing people in the neck, but your periphery activities often change. Additionally, they often change based on narrative context.

To recap: Assassin’s Creed II introduced glyph puzzles and pages of Altair’s journal as collectibles, thus kick starting the franchise tradition of hiding thematic material behind collectibles. Brotherhood then removed the journal pages because the players had found them all, kept the glyph puzzles, and introduced Assassin recruit missions because at this point in the story Ezio was a leader. Revelations removed the glyph puzzles because the character that left them for us to find no longer needed to leave them for us to find, kept the Assassin recruit missions, and added a tower-defense system because Revelations was all about the Assassins defending their territory from Templar incursion. Assassin’s Creed III smartly did away with the tower-defense, both because it wasn’t very fun and because there was no need to defend anything anymore, kept the Assassin recruit missions, and introduced sailing. Black Flag removed the recruit missions because Edward wasn’t actually an Assassin, but it integrated most of those mechanics into a Facebook-esque strategy game that had you hijacking merchant ships for use in combat and trading. Oh, and it made sailing an integral part of the game because you were a pirate.

Finally, we get to Unity, which removed sailing because you can’t sail in Paris, removed any sort of recruit-style missions because Arno is never in a position to lead anyone, and added several types of side-quests (like detective missions, and riddle hunts reminiscent of the glyph puzzles). Unity also doesn’t include factions within its world. There is no thief guild, no mercenary guild, no courtesan guild, or any equivalent to these. In previous games, those guilds often provided you with a list of in-game challenges like “Distract 10 guards with courtesans,” “Perform a Leap of Faith 10 times,” etc. Without the guilds, those challenges don’t exist anywhere in Unity’s world.

This is where the apps come in. Initiates is really just a list of in-game challenges that tracks your progress and tries to describe your playstyle based on which challenges you’ve completed. I remember playing Assassin’s Creed II, walking into any guild base, up to a giant chalkboard, and seeing most of this same information from within the game itself. No app needed.

The Companion App is a mobile game dedicated to recruitment missions. You recruit Assassins, send them on progressively harder missions, level them up, and repeat this process until... you get tired of it. This is a side-quest promoted to full game.

These side-activities were removed from Unity because that’s what happens in an Assassin’s Creed game. The formula is tinkered with as various side-quests are thrown at the wall to see what sticks. There was an artistic reason for that removal; it was about evolution and experimentation. The re-addition of those features seems to be a business move. These are, after all, features that people liked. If the developer wasn’t going to put them in the game proper, then the publisher was going to find a way to bolt them onto the sides.

This isn’t an excuse for the apps, but rather an explanation. Understanding what these apps do makes them seem less intrusive. There’s a reason for their existence, even if that reason goes against the original artistic intention of Unity. In theory, they even seem beneficial for players. Who can argue against the re-addition of removed features?

I think the most important takeaway from Unity is not that companion apps or “social hooks” are bad, but that implementation is everything. Unity locked game content behind these apps, and teased that locked content by dangling treasure chests in front of players. To be cynical and realistic, if Unity had just not shown us any of the rewards, if it hadn’t teased players with possibilities, but had instead been vague about the rewards and just given us those special items without fanfare after we jump through the appropriate hoops -- then people likely wouldn’t complain. Mainly because they wouldn’t know what they were missing, but that’s the point.

It’s easy to hate a locked chest. It’s harder to hate an invisible locked chest.

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