The Most Dangerous Game: Multiplayer in Assassin's Creed
The multiplayer in Assassin’s Creed is fun. A lot of fun. The kind of fun that is rare in most multiplayer games and the kind of fun that makes a person want to write an article about it with one hand while juggling a dagger with the other. It is a heart pumping, tooth baring dance of subtle movements and razor thoughts. You must match your wits against other humans and understand their minds in order to beat them. You’re an inverse Bladerunner, trying to find the humans hiding in a population of robots. You’re also a human trying to seem like one of the robots in the crowd.
We’ve already discussed the multiplayer of Assassin’s Creed on this site before and our own RJ absolutely accurately describes it as a psychological battle of wits. RJ describes the two main multiplayer strategies as “stealth” and “aggression” which is a simplification of the actual process. A more complex description is that the multiplayer experience requires stealth, subtlety, misdirection, luring, hunting, conspicuousness, aggression, and defensiveness. Any of these tactics can be mixed and matched and switched between while you play. During the course of hunting a single target a player might switch from stealth to subtle misdirection back to stealth and then to conspicuous hunting based on the situation at hand. There is an ever present process of assessment and behavioral adaptation, a process which is absent from your typical multiplayer experience which can be played by rote or by instinct.
The basic premise of standard AC multiplayer is that you are given a human target to kill and it’s a one hit instant kill system. Killing the target completes the contract and results in points. Killing the wrong person gets you no points and you lose your contract until a the game gives you a new one. Stealthy, subtle kills get you more points. Kills made while careening through a crowd or running across rooftops get you fewer points. A conspicuous kill will get you around 100 or 200 points while a stealth kill can earn you up to 600 points, and you get extra points for killing your target in a different way from your previous target. If you have certain perks active those scores are doubled to 400 and 1200. Adding to that, if you are being conspicuous your target can counterattack and stun you, canceling the contract on his head. This all happens in medieval cities filled with NPCs that look like the human characters playing that match. Making yourself seem like a mild mannered NPC is a good idea if you want get the jump on your target and if you want to slip under the radar of your opponent. The crowd is your jungle and your behavior is your camouflage. The game supplements this by allowing you to merge with a crowd of NPCs so your character will automatically gesticulate like he’s talking or will autonomously walk with them along their path.
Those are the fundamentals. What bumps the game up to the level of a “subtle dance of subtle movement and razor thoughts” is that success is much easier to achieve by understanding your opponents’ behaviors and by misleading your opponents to the nature of your own behavior. Seeing through your opponent’s tactics let’s you get one step ahead of him while he’s trying to stay one step ahead of you as well. Cat-and-mouse style competition isn’t a totally unique video game multiplayer experience, but it is extremely rare. You actually have to think about what everyone is doing and the intent behind their actions in order to win. A certain amount of introspection is required; if someone killed you through the use of a clever tactics or subtle ruse then you have to actually consider how you fell into that trap and how to avoid it in the future. In typical games like Call of Duty, Halo, classic Quake 3: Arena, etc. it isn’t important to spend too much time thinking things through; if someone kills you with a more powerful weapon then shoot faster and use a more powerful weapon next time. What is important in those games is the testosterone gut reactions of a trigger happy sharp shooter because that is ultimately what will win. Those games are more about instinct, quick reflexes, DPS, etc. Plowing forward thoughtlessly and instinctively is usually a more valid tactic than holding back. The opposite is true with multiplayer in AC. Plowing forward will usually get you killed by more patient players who will shake their heads in pity as they poke your broken corpse with the toe of their boot. You have to subvert your instincts and actively choose a tactic that will work in your favor.
What you end up doing is constantly analyzing everything. You assess the movement vectors of other characters to see if they are filled with the sense of intent that means they’re out to assassinate you. Can you play it cool or should you just book it down the nearest alley? You analyze the subtle behavior of your target to see if they’ve noticed you. Can you take your time for a subtle kill or should you just make a break for their throat? Skillful players engage in a variety of behaviors to throw people off their scent and when two players are engaged in this cat-and-mouse, rock-paper-scissors type of game it creates a subtly intense gaming moment that cannot be conveyed through any screenshot or gameplay video.
The Assassin’s Creed multiplayer engages the player’s mind in a way most games do not and this is part of what makes the game so refreshing. Competing against AI bots or playing against humans who act like bots is supremely unsatisfying. Success against bots means almost nothing and success against bot-like players means you were faster, stronger, harder than everyone else but not necessarily smarter. You were a better animal than they were. In AC success means that you have used your wits to look into your opponents mind and unravelled his plans. Psychologically defeating another human being is the ultimate validation of mental competency and AC touches that nerve. Watching your target and predicting where he is going, surreptitiously intersecting his path by hiding in a crowd of NPCs, and then killing him once he blithely walks past is a grin inducing thrill. If the same thing happens to you it can induce head slapping chastisements of, “How did I not see that coming!”
Part of what creates AC’s cognitive elements is that the game punishes players who rush themselves. If your target or the person hunting you start running around, the game readily indicates them with a flashing icon, and that’s in addition to the conspicuousness of running through slow walking NPCs who never go on roofs, and that’s in addition to getting miniscule amounts of points for making conspicuous kills. That mixture of tangible mechanics and less tangible social context punish impatient behavior. Encouraging the player to slow down gives them a little bit more time to actually think about what’s going on. Despite this “slowing down” effect the player still needs to make rapid fire decisions and quick cognitive reactions. Considerations must be made but not the languid considerations of doddering old men slowly playing chess in the park. Even though you’re holding back compared to a game like CoD you still need to remain on your toes ready to sidestep your enemy’s tactics.
It’s worth briefly noting that a few other multiplayer games encourage the same cat-and-mouse ebb and flow similar to Assassin’s Creed. In Myth: The Fallen Lords, a real time tactical game not well known outside its devoted cult following, you maneuver your army in order to destroy the enemy’s. Certain units are more effective against other units, units like archers can hurt your own troops so you can’t just rush everyone into a battle at once, and high ground has genuine value. What results is you micro your army like a rotating rock-paper-scissors triumvirate as your brain churns out calculations on whether you should fall back or if you should just go all in and crush your opponent. Another multiplayer game that has this cognitive element is Gears of War, a third person cover based shooter, which has the veneer of a frat house but the structure of speed chess. Shooting accurately is important, but out thinking your opponents to get a better position on the map, tricking them so you can flank them, or manipulating them to split up can place the odds greatly in your favor. Both those games are completely different genres than Assassin’s Creed but they both encourage players to slow down and be more thoughtful. Unlike AC they both do it by utilizing permanent loss. In Myth once a unit is dead it is dead forever and you can’t get more, and in Gears once you die you’re dead for the rest of the match with no respawning. The game will end quickly if you just go rushing in.
It’s too bad that more multiplayer games aren’t able, or willing, to create the type of experience that Assassin’s Creed provides. It is one of the few multiplayer games whose gameplay follows a narrative arc with a buildup, climax, and denouement as opposed to the perpetual climax of most FPSs. It is more nuanced with more interpretation, decision making, and more room for thought. I don’t know why its type doesn’t have a more significant presence in the gaming landscape. Maybe it’s because some people struggle with social interpretation in a virtual world. Perhaps people are turned off because the game cannot be analyzed through pure numerical analysis of clicks per second and damage per second. Whatever the case it’s the gaming world’s loss that there aren’t more games like this since hunting and being hunted by other human beings and emerging victorious is one of the most satisfying feelings you can get.