Hey folks! Fireside this week. A bit of a change-up in terms of the coming attractions. I had planned to start “Textiles, How Did They Make It?” next, but I want to do a bit more reading on some of the initial stages of textile production (that is, the production of raw flax and wool) and I simply haven’t had the time. Instead, next week (hopefully!) we’re going to dive in to the last A Song of Ice and Fire/ A Game of Thrones topic I wanted to treat in depth: the Dothraki. It’s been long in coming – I am striking here while the iron is ice cold – but I wanted to make sure I had my details straight.
For this week’s musing, I want to return to last week’s discussion just briefly (this is going to be a relatively short musing, but I hope the recommendations will make up for it). “Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and the Unfortunate Implications” certainly struck a cord; it has by far the single most first-day views of anything I have posted here and the second highest view count of anything on the site. It apparently achieved enough visibility that Darby McDevitt, the narrative director for the game and lead writer on multiple Assassin’s Creed titles, made a point of popping in on twitter to offer his own discussion and defenses to the claims being made. He makes some good points but also acknowledges some of the – necessary from his point of view – weaknesses of the story.
But I want to talk in more depth about one argument he made which bothered me a bit more, which was that the game made up for the unfortunate content of the early sections with much later portions of the game and its ending:
Which he then continued:
And I don’t want to sell him short here at all; he admits that there is something of a weakness to this approach. At the same time, there is something – I don’t want to say disingenuous, because he is open about this – perhaps discordant with this response, given how the Assassin’s Creed games are structured. It comes down to this: first, Assassin’s Creed games are very long; second (and as a consequence of the first), few players actually finish most of the game’s content; third, Ubisoft’s creative teams are very much aware of these two facts and indeed actively mobilize them as features of the game in how they are framed and marketed.
Now the premise of the original post was subjecting AC:Valhalla to the sort of analysis I’d use with a historical text or a piece of modern art of literature. And I think that is entirely fair: these games are cultural products, just like a film or a novel, and they deserve both the respect and the scrutiny that comes with that. But that in turn means we also should talk about genre and the limitations it places on the product. And when it comes to this point about fixing the game’s problems in the back half, genre matters quite a lot.
For those who are largely unfamiliar with the series, modern Assassin’s Creed games are designed as expansive, open-world sandboxes with very long playtimes (this is typically offered as a feature – a lot of game for your gaming dollar, euro, or what have you). Generally, the mainline entries in the series have a minimum intro-to-credits time investment of around 50-80 hours and fully completing all of the side content often doubles that figure in terms of the total time invested. For story-driven experiences, these games are absolutely massive and the time investment they demand in order to actually get to the end game content is huge.
Completion rates for these sorts of games – for games in general, but especially for very long open world sandboxes – are extremely low. Now, the folks designing these games know this. Just about every major game developer has systems for tracking statistics like who does what content, where do players succeed or fail and game completion rates; since nearly all games these days need (or at least request) an internet connection (at the very least to download patches) it is pretty easy to get that data. Often developers will celebrate successful games by releasing some of this data in fun infographics listing how many quests have been completed or what enemies are most troublesome, that sort of thing. I don’t very much mind this sort of limited data collection – it is doubtless very valuable for making better games; some people I know mind it very much and I respect their reasons. But the point is that it is very common and Ubisoft clearly does it too. Which means they are obviously well aware of their completion rates when designing the games they make.
But there is another way that I know that the developers are thinking about game completion when they design the game. Because it is integral to the design and marketing of the game. This may take a bit more explaining if you unfamiliar with Assassin’s Creed. I should note that to explain this, I am going to have to drop absolutely massive spoilers for the earlier games in the series (but not for Valhalla), so you have been warned.
The story of each Assassin’s Creed game is fundamentally bifurcated. Each story begins as a work of historical fiction, set in an identifiable historical era, studded with actual historical figures and events from that era. This is the part of the game everyone is familiar with and the only part which appears in marketing materials (or even, generally, reviews). If you have only a passing familiarity with these games, this is probably the only part of their structure you are aware of. But anyone who has played any of these games to the end knows that each Assassin’s Creed game goes through a by-this-point-predictable series of reveals which fundamentally re-contextualize the story. These reveals, by now old hat to long time players, are still reveals because they are new to the player character who is generally different in each game (and to many players who, on account of the low completion rates, may be reaching ‘the big reveal’ for the first time in any given game).
The first major reveal is that the political forces the character believes are arrayed against them are, in fact, being manipulated by a vast evil conspiracy to control humanity which is either termed the Order of the Ancients (pre-1189 or so) or the Templars (post-1189) and that this evil conspiracy is opposed by an equally vast (morally grey) conspiracy looking to liberate humanity called the Assassins. That reveal tends to happen about 10-25% of the way through the game, sometimes earlier, sometimes later. It slowly becomes apparent that these factions either wield or are seeking powerful, seemingly magic objects.
The second major reveal is that the objects these factions are seeking – and indeed, the factions themselves – are under the control of a species of immortal, highly technologically advanced aliens who present themselves to humans as gods (I am calling them aliens because they are not humans; they are presented as probably also being indigenous to Earth, though) some of whom still exist and continue to meddle in human affairs wielding fantastic technological powers. The ‘magic’ objects are actually advanced alien technology. These aliens often correspond to the pantheons of various pre-modern paganistic religions, such that the player may meet figures like Poseidon or Hades, who are in fact these aliens.
And if you have never played these games before, but only absorbed the marketing material, you are probably responding to all of this with some degree of confusion. These games are actually about ancient super-technological aliens manipulating vast conspiracies? Yes! But only sort of. Integrating such strong science fiction and fantasy elements in historical fiction carries risks, both because genre subversion is going to irritate people who are there for the historical fiction, but also because presenting a clear technological explanation for things like the player’s heroic abilities (they’re part techno-alien) or visions and intuition (not magic or mysticism, but alien tech) strips away a lot of the mystery and mysticism makes this genre appealing to people.
But the developers have found their way to have their cake and eat it too. By repeating the same reveal pattern in every single game and (almost) never beginning an entirely new game with a post-reveal character who is aware of and already interacting with all of this crazy alien stuff, the developers ensure that casual players who only ever play the first 30 hours or so will have a relatively pure historical fiction experience, with perhaps a bit of plausibly silly evil conspiracy thrown in. Meanwhile, the committed, long-term fans will plow to the end of each game to advance the meta-plot about the techno-aliens which connects all of the games (and pays off the modern-world framing narrative, which is also, by the by, massively de-emphasized in the early parts of the game but is often where the true climax in the late game occurs).
You can see this in the marketing for these games themselves. If you look at the promotional material for Odyssey or Valhalla, you will note that the Isu techno-aliens and their plot doesn’t appear (and neither does the modern-world framing story). The games are marketed – towards that casual audience – entirely as historical fiction experiences. And because that information is buried back deep in the game as a big reveal (even though by this point series regulars know this reveal is coming), it isn’t generally discussed by reviewers either (many games will actually condition review copies on not discussing this material; I have no idea if Ubisoft does this but the raw consistency with which reviewers do not discuss the late game techno-alien reveals suggests to me that at least everyone understands, even if in an unspoken way, what is going on). To a degree, I feel like I am breaking kayfabe even bringing it up.
All of which is to say, Ubisoft uses the length of their games and delayed reveals to intentionally segment their player-base, allowing them to deliver one sort of experience to one group of players (a grounded, somewhat realistic historical fiction action game) and a different experience to another group of players (a conspiracy and science-fiction soaked massive meta-plot), based on how likely those players are to complete the game, or more correctly, how likely they are to get through the first half or so.
In short, the developers at Ubisoft’s various studios, including Ubisoft Montreal (which makes most of the mainline AC games and made AC: Valhalla), know full well that most players will not see the back half of their Assassin’s Creed game, because that is a major design feature of the game.
And that is why I find the argument that fundamentally boils down to “we try to overcorrect by showing a gradual weakening of the Norse’s dominance […] giving greater exposure to Saxons and their strengths [later in the game]” because the designers here know that most players will never see that part of the game. It is core to their marketing strategy that continues to present a game about techno-aliens as grounded historical fiction!
Now I can understand the frustration that a writer (or a narrative director) is going to have working in that situation. Setting up a status quo and then subverting it is a big tool of fiction writing and can make certain messages land harder. It is painful to take that tool out of the tool-kit. But I think, when dealing with tricky subjects (like the history of raiding slavers often lionized and used as emblems by modern violent white supremacists) there has to be an awareness that the responsible part of the narrative cannot be consigned to the part of the game almost no one plays. The completion rates for Odyssey were less than a quarter. I wonder what portion of players made it to the back 10-15 hours of the base game where the techno-aliens appeared; I cannot imagine it was over half.
Game developers, including game writers, work within the constraints of their medium. If the failing here was that they did not take into account – as professional and experienced veteran game writers – that their entire game was built around a segmented player base, most of which do not play the entire game, well, then that is a failing indeed.
Consequently, I am not persuaded that Valhalla‘s problems become understandable in light of the late game experience, because the game is – like every game in this series – fundamentally designed around the known fact that most players do not see that late game experience. By virtue of the genre and the design, the nuance has to be upfront, in the part of the game everyone plays, not hidden in the game-dev equivalent of fine print for just the hardcore fans. None of which is to bash on McDevitt who has a hard job, made harder by the very structure of the games he has to construct and the tricky historical ground they are set in. Nevertheless, I do not think late-breaking reveals can save the tone or implications of these particular works of fiction, where are fundamentally built around the assumption that most players will not see them.
So I think my criticism of Assassin Creed: Valhalla‘s story and setting holds, regardless of any late-game reveals.
On to the Recommendations!
Over at Kiwi Hellenist, Peter Gainsford has an excellent rundown of the (lack of) evidence for ancient Mediterranean use of cannabis as a psychoactive subsistence. I have certainly encountered the assumption that the Greeks and the Romans used cannabis this way, often rooted in the assumption that cannabis use of this sort is some sort of fundamental human universal (often in the form of statements to the effect that ‘people have been getting high off pot forever’). But this is one of the classic traps of doing history: assuming that current values, knowledge or practices are so obvious or just plain normal that they must have existed in human societies ‘since forever’ when in fact different societies are often very different from each other! Gainsford does a solid job in showing that there really isn’t much evidence for this sort of usage among the Greeks or Romans, even in the very sort of texts (either the medical corpus, or the botanical works of folks like Theophratus or Pliny, both of which are obsessed by the uses and properties of plants) to suggest it.
Meanwhile, over at Tod’s Workshop, Tod continues to produce some of the best and most interesting archery tests using his ‘lockdown longbow’ (a crossbow designed to achieve launch velocities and energies equivalent to a 160lbs-pullback longbow). Most interesting and most recent is his “Arrows vs. Brigandine” test, a particular set of tests I had long wanted to see; brigandine was one of the most common armors of the later Middle Ages (often worn by poorer combatants) but is rarely tested or even considered when compared with the higher status rigid plate defenses. Each time I watch one of these tests, I do so with my own Archery, Distance and ‘Kiting’ post open. This time I was somewhat surprised by how well the arrows performed, although looking back at what I wrote, I shouldn’t have been. It is important to keep in mind, after all, that Tod is testing at extreme close range, with a bow at the very top end of the likely launch energy distribution, and with a direct fire angle: effectively perfect conditions for the bowman (or worst-case conditions for the armor). In those conditions, relatively thin steel plate is vulnerable to the most powerful bows. But it is exciting to see the thing demonstrated!
Meanwhile, a new administration is beginning to look at staffing the major security agencies and that makes it a pretty good time to think about security policy. Reaching back into the summer, I’d like to recommend two podcasts from the Net Assessment podcast over at War on the Rocks, the first about (but not with) Michèle Flournoy’s June article in Foreign Affairs and the second with Emma Ashford over her article (also at Foreign Affairs). Flournoy is the most likely person at the moment to end up as the Secretary of Defense and her position likely represents what Biden White House policy will look like, at least in its ideal state. Ashford, by contrast, (and also Chris Preble in the podcast, both of whom have been through the Cato Institute) takes the opposite view of the issue and complains generally about what she views as a false foreign policy consensus. My own views align more closely with Flournoy’s (something that was very much in evidence in a set of twitter conversations I had with Ashford) but the ‘restrainers’ (that is, those arguing for a more limited, ‘restrained’ role for American foreign policy) absolutely have a point about the willingness to spend lots of money. I do find the argument for allies to adopt ‘porcupine‘ strategies (and for the USA to assist that with arms sales), as advanced by Preble, Ashford, and others, compelling but also not sufficient in the absence of a credible way to deliver meaningful conventional US forces into the theater in a time-table that matters.
Finally, a book recommendation! This week, it’s a book I realize I mention regularly in the blog and in the comments, but haven’t actually got around to directly recommending, Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization (2006). Since I have complained quite a bit about ‘megahistories‘ lately, it seems only fit to offer a proper macro-history that I think it done responsibly. Gat’s book is not a history of battles, but of war in the broad sense. He thesis starts with the questions why humans do war (beginning with the motives of food and sex and then moving to more complex motives which derive from those) and then based on those motivations, the assessed how war has shaped humans.
Perhaps the most explosive of these arguments, but one I find very convincing, is his argument that military mortality in the deep past of human history when we all lived as hunter-gatherers was high enough, for long enough that it exerted evolutionary pressure on the emergence of anatomically modern humans; that is, stated bluntly, humans are evolved for war. This argument, which emerges in his first chapter, is a point of fierce debate among archaeologists and anthropologists (it is rooted in rival conceptions of human nature, after all) but I think Gat has the right of it, and I recall reporting when I first read the book that I wished I could ‘frame Gat’s first chapter,’ a position I still hold.
Subsequently, he sees the rise of the state as a consequence of that human propensity for war, in an argument that will not be entirely unfamiliar to blog readers, as I used it as part of the basis of some of the Fremen Mirage. At the end, he concludes that the human propensity for war has become maladaptive, due to the rising power of human productivity (meaning the war is no longer the best way to get resources as compared to industry and trade) and the rising destructiveness of war (meaning that the costs of war outweigh the gains). Consequently, as Gat poses it, the question is if we can hold off on destroying ourselves (with nuclear weapons) as our genetic programming would suggest long enough for evolution (either social or genetic) to catch up to our sudden, newfound destructive power.
I especially recommend Gat to anyone who has read, or is considering reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, a book I am continually asked if I have read. Quite frankly, I think Gat simply has the better, more rigorous form of Pinker’s argument (which naturally also means somewhat different, more reserved conclusions).