Ubisoft announced Assassin’s Creed 4 today, a week after the rest of the internet announced it for them by leaking everything from box art to Gamestop posters to plot synopses to bar codes. The timeline of the game’s development doesn’t make it strictly a reaction to the reception to Assassin’s Creed 3, but a few words I’ve read in the previews have pointed to that being at least part of why Edward Kenway is who he is. One of those words was “Ezio,” and if the plan is to have Edward be like the charismatic Italian from the three Assassin Creed 2s, then the series has a chance to be great again.
There are plenty of problems with Assassin’s Creed 3, but I want to focus on one of the biggest problems for me. Assassin’s Creed 2 was one of my favorite surprises of this generation, Brotherhood was nearly flawless, and Revelations had some incredible high points, and easily avoidable low points. The element holding these games together was Ezio Auditore, and his journey from the easily-angered novice assassin in AC2 to the world-weary snarker in Revelations, the end of his story. Ezio was a fantastic character, one of the best of this generation, and I think that’s in no small part due to the fact that he was never afraid to smile.
The gameplay of Assassin’s Creed 2, for me, was running along rooftops, boffing archers in the back of the head, and then throwing dirt in the eyes of guards that came to investigate before inserting hidden blades into eye sockets. When I was done with that, I’d run up to the highest thing I could find and then fling myself off of it into a hay bale. Do you know what that is? That’s hilarious. And while Ezio wasn’t cackling like a madman as he plummeted 150 feet into three feet of hay, he handled most twists and turns in his story with a wink and a nod, a general acknowledgement of how crazy these things were. Sure, he may be chasing after the most corrupt of the Borgias, but he’s going to take the time to chat up the pretty lady. He might be investigating the disappearance of Altair’s artifacts, but he’s also going to go on a picnic with this gorgeous bookseller who seems to be the only other person in Constantinople with the same level of smirk.
Connor lost all of that. He had an unbearably tragic backstory, sure, but so did Ezio. There was hardly ever a smile, hardly ever an acknowledgement that this was fun, just grim political drama played out around a young man who couldn’t be bothered to even learn what was really happening. There was no fun in Connor, which was strange because much of the game was still fun, if you define fun as springing out of a haystack with an ax to ambush an innocent deer.
Another series had a similar problem for me, which is a shame, because five years ago I considered Final Fantasy to be my favorite videogame series. Final Fantasy XIII, the showcase for Final Fantasy for this generation, told a story that was almost entirely devoid of mirth, and what comedy that was there seemed to be a little too close to a minstrel show with the portrayal of Sazh. This is a series where Cecil regularly broke out into dance, Bartz was Bartz, an octopus played the piano, Cloud dressed in drag, Squall dreamed he was a moron, Zidane paused mid-escape to grab a girl’s butt, Jecht got drunk and fought a shoopuf, and Vaan repeatedly botched talking to girls. It’s a series that wasn’t afraid to laugh, and it was much stronger for it.
Why is it so important to be able to smile? Because without it, we have no point to return that character to. Lightning’s always been a bitter pill, Connor’s always been a stoic jerkass. Why do we want to get invested in this character? They’re not any fun, they don’t have anything to be happy about.
Compare to the Investigation Team in Persona 4.
Persona 4 Golden is one of the funniest games I’ve ever played. That humor serves two purposes — it humanizes the characters, and it endears them to us. It also gives us something to invest in — we’re not hoping for some fantasy time when the characters can be happy, we’ve seen it. We see it in how they interact with Nanako, with the trip to the beach, with the ghost stories together at the ski lodge. A smile doesn’t prevent the writer from being able to deploy drama throughout the game, it just weaponizes that drama. Separating Connor from Achilles doesn’t make us feel anything but anger toward Connor because it’s Connor’s own fault, and they just yell at each other all the time anway. Separating Charlie from the rest of the Investigation team because you know all those wonderful moments because you played them, you laughed along with them, you’re invested in them. Angry Man With Gun isn’t a character any more than Joe Doom was in Doom.
It’s okay for videogames to be fun, and it’s okay for the protagonists to have fun when they’re in the game. It feels like a bunch of people missed that this generation and made as many humorless games as they could, all in a row, and we were buried under a glut of grim-faced men holding guns on box art, because in the grim dark future of videogames there is only grimacing masculinity and laughter is for babies.
Even To The Moon wasn’t afraid to crack jokes, and I bawled during that game. Repeatedly. Those jokes further made those characters people, more than any number of maudlin chords and This Is When You Are To Be Sad moments would have, so when those moments did come along my heart broke just like it was supposed to. The jokes never took away from it, they just made it so much more powerful in the end.
It’s supposed to be fun, people. Don’t be afraid to smile.