Altaïr Ibn-La'AhadThe highest rated video-game adaptation of all time, according to Rotten Tomatoes, is The Angry Birds Movie. Despite its ornithological inaccuracies the stunning quality of its cinematography secured it 44%. The struggle of video games is often their source-material. Games don't have to rely on storytelling to create an experience. Some classic video game characters have as much complexity as a triangle drawn on paint. Others have plots as intriguing as the steady fall of irregular blocks into neat positions. Narrative progression also has a strange dynamic in games, cut scenes sandwiched between long playable content.
None of this is a problem if the game-play elements give rise to the sort of addictive enjoyment of arcade games. We don't need to know about Pacman's childhood, or his motivations to enjoy gobbling up those white dots. His relationship to Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde aren't the cornerstone of our enjoyment. Transferring these worlds into films presents a difficulty. In order to create something entertaining or edifying they must craft character and story. This might explain the video game curse. It doesn't explain Assassin's Creed.
Curse or Coding.
Outside of big indie projects, most modern A+ rated games are quite filmic in nature. Games like The Last of Us have embraced a high standard of story-making and character building. However when many games aim for this filmic quality they often fall flat. Their characters are lazy, uninteresting and interchangeable. A cast of forgettable figures, usually action heroes or psychopaths ready to slaughter, depending how the player is feeling. Typically, an 'all-American' brooding white male with a personality that has far less definition than their graphics. The amorphousness of video game characters can be frustrating, especially when the game-play doesn't cut it. Games are often guilty of lazy, paint by numbers backstories, if they bother with them at all.
Assassin's Creed married great game-play and compelling storytelling. As a series, they have reveled in traveling to different places and different times in order to relate diverse stories bursting with exquisite resolution color and character. Though they have been rightly criticized for their lack of playable female characters, it is a franchise that rooted itself in history and showed a great love for the faces and stories of history. It wove them into its wider arc of intrigue and told a story on an epic scale. The characters of both the wider Assassin's versus Templar narrative were stylish and interesting characters, with great obligations but also great individual motivations. The characters whose stories we lived in the animus gave each game a completeness. Their world was brimming with opportunity but also relationships, history and important decisions.
The Assassin's Creed movie was baffling, in that it failed to continue the games' well-earned reputation for storytelling. It was billed as 'the film to end the video game curse,' and it should have been. Yet somehow it delivered a cinematic experience akin to a bad video game. It failed where its source material excelled.
Callum Lynch and Aguilar de Nerha will not be remembered with the fondness of Desmond, Altair or Ezio Auditere. Other than a mechanical and overwrought single scene in which Callum's mother is brutally murdered, we learn nothing of Lynch's life up until this point. We meet him in jail, convicted for murder, and later have the past blotted over with vague references to him being a shady man with nothing to lose. Nothing to lose or care about. We don't really learn what he wants, who's important to him. He is obsessed simply with this one awful incident in his childhood, handily having been put on ice so that he can look better with his shirt off. He is the ungrounded character of a bad video game, unlike his richly coded counterparts.
What does that mean? You need to shoot everybody again.
There is a, sometimes unfortunate, formula to the way games tell stories. The best games have made use of elements, like playable cut-scenes or mid-game-play story progression to break this pattern. But The Assassin's Creed movie has given this formulaic feel to its film bizarrely. It is difficult to care a great deal about what Aguilar is trying to achieve as his life is a string of set pieces, interrupted only by tense stand-offs. Hurried, expositional conversation, stress how important everything is and, ensure the steady flow of playable parkour and kick-ass assassin-ing. The only problem is that they're not playable, yet take up so much of the film that the characters we meet in the cut-scenes are unimportant. It is likely Assassin's Creed has fallen prey to a similar practice in Hollywood film-making where budget and action take precedent over drama. You can't build a film experience around set-pieces. Even a film like Mad Max:Fury Road, ostensibly a two hour car chase, knows not to rely on set pieces for content.
Mad Max tells a fairly compelling story though where it really succeeds is in its colorfully painted, detailed world and the themes that its apocalypse strikes upon. At times the scenes in the 1400s were well enough managed and put together that they might make a person think about the terrifying power of fanaticism and demagoguery. The darkness and brutality of the thirst for power, were all elements of the film's plot but the dialogue was so badly written that none of it really landed. Every line was a staid attempt to artificially raise the stakes or a quote borrowed for its weight by a parasitic film. There was nothing added to the conversation.
Gripping story-telling is dependent upon the dissemination of information. What we learn, when and how we learn it, shapes our experience of the story. Games aren't always focused on this, instead preferring to quickly key you in so that you can get on with playing. At the very beginning of Assassin's Creed Lynch is told everything (for people who want to control free will, the Templars sure are big on the freedom of information act). This wasn't the experience of the Assassin's Creed games, which have you confused and intrigued as you unravel the secrets the game and progress to the grand finales. Instead, it felt like the film was front-loading so it could get to the fighting. Without narrative framing, this can only be so gratifying. They quickly catapulted to judgement day and then used flimsy broken logic to put their uninteresting protagonist in a place to save the day.
Plot holes are strewn about as they hurry through the mass tangle of information. The shared prisoner canteen for highly trained ruthless enemies is ludicrous. The fact a man as important to them as Calum Lynch is granted just enough time with the other assassins to fulfill their plot functions is laughable. And the film is brought to a quick resolution after the 'kill-the-baddy' super bad ass moment. All those powerful Templars run away from three people and a smoke bomb. Stand on roof, cue credits. Though why, when they have them contained, they choose to use swords and not the negotiating skills of the machine guns, we see them holding at various points, is beyond me. I assume this is because they didn't want to add the extra game-mechanics. Wait...
The difficulty level is stuck on 'novice.'
Watching Assassin's creed is like watching a YouTube walk-through. Nothing is really all that much of a struggle. Having said this, you can watch Assassin's Creed as a tutorial and its entertaining. I'll admit part of me is just angry that Lynch synced in twenty minutes. He didn't have to do much, other than be carted around by his assailants until everything clicked into place and offered him a chance to kill them all with the skills they gave him. He just becomes awesome, it takes no investment for his character or the audience. I spent 53 hours collecting feathers and viewpoints for that shit! The films ease is the opposite to what they achieved with their infuriatingly challenging unlockable content.
When you managed to get your assassin's blade or when you unlocked advanced eagle vision it meant something. Equally, when you hunted down the Apple of Eden or discovered your village had been wiped out by Templars, you cared because you got finger cramp struggling. Other than watching Fassbender continue DiCaprio's quelude experience on screen, we saw no struggle. Whenever something is needed, a handy NPC comes along. An NPC equipped with one standout feature, a face scar or being the only women. This substitutes for character development, as a way to allow you to differentiate between the interchangeable masses. Dodgy double agents, are given ham-fisted moments of suspicious behavior to alert your attention. It felt like watching a scene in Eagle-Vision, where you knew whether everyone was blue, gold or red from the outset. Without the plenitude of characters in the games the big reveals weren't shocking but predictable.
Ultimately, the writing is at fault. It feels like sloppy work-around writing of a man who needs to thread together two random levels exhibiting different game-play tools. Maybe they wanted to keep that authentic video-game feel, that their game series didn't have. Or perhaps it was the lack of clarity from having three listed writers and multiple studio disputes during production. There is of course the distinct possibility that the film just isn't finished, it is Ubisoft. Unfortunately character depth, thematic interest and quality storytelling can't be downloaded as a patch, or a DLC.