It is forty minutes later at the front of the line to enter the Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag presentation at Pax East 2013 when I felt Ubisoft was attempting to usher in a new era of responsibility for video game companies. They are not allowing anyone under the age of eighteen to enter without parental supervision, going so far as to walk the line and ask people directly how old they were. A young man behind me is accompanied by his mother. A woman to my right seems to be asked that question often, and answers both frustratingly and embarrassingly that she's twenty.
We reach the front of the line, conversing with one of Ubisoft's Frag Doll Cadettes [sic] guarding the booth entrance. When we are allowed in, a man hands us an inflatable sword. I admit to myself that the sword is a pretty cool idea and shuffle in. Another of the frag dolls is inside with a microphone, encouraging people to move quickly and take a seat. I am in the front row.
“I bet it feels good to sit down,” she says – or something like that. “I've been up on my feet for the past couple of days, so maybe I'll join you.”
I know the last part ver batim because what happened next is indicative of the type of behavior I believed Ubisoft was trying to avoid by keeping underage players out of line.
A man responds. He is likely in his mid thirties. He is definitely overweight, crude, obnoxious, and everything I think people would never want to be. He says to the woman/fellow gamer/fellow human being, “You can sit right here,” and pairs the statement with a slap on his knee.
No one under eighteen allowed.
To her credit, she shrugs it off with as much dignity and grace anybody could have. She says something that neutralized the situation and continues. My impression is that it happens to her often.
“OK guys, we gave you inflatable swords at the door. Please blow them up so we can make sure they inflate. Sometimes they don't and we'll switch them out for you.”
Excellent foresight and also a great way to get attention around the convention hall.
“Now, whenever you see something you like during the video we're going to show, I want you to shout and swing your sword in the air.”
Wait, what? I look around for cameras. No, really, I do. I think I'm being watched. Right now I'm part of some advertising beta test. I am a victim of classic misdirection. Who's on first? In any case, I don't feel like I'm an adult anymore.
It only gets worse. She starts yelling, energizing the room like a professional wrestler. “Are you guys ready for some Assassin's Creed?”
The room yells back. Manic state. This is the stuff of a Palahniuk novel.
The video commences and we are introduced to the world of Assassin's Creed by the Ubisoft development team. They discuss when the game takes place, the play style, the things you would expect from a video documentary just before release. Scenes of violence roused shouts from males in the crowd. Closeups of the debonaire, womanizing protagonist elicited shrieks and yells from a group of women in the back corner. I couldn't bring myself to turn around and look for swinging swords.
But then, my favorite part of the video. A well rendered (even for an alpha build) pirate ship sails toward the camera. The angle is such that we can see the side of the ship, the cannon slots, and the intricate textures that give the ship's hull realism and graphical depth. It cuts through the water with rigging and sails stretching against the wind, all before a beautiful whale breaches through the water in front of the ship.
A collective “Ooooh” sounds through the room. I am one of the voices.
A voice over in the video says, “You can kill whales.”
The next scene – or maybe not because I was so astonished I nearly blacked out – is a gameplay sequence of the player character being attacked by a shark while underwater. The shark swims by once and misses, allowing the player to draw their sword (which naturally would come with a pirate when they're swimming.) He readies himself as the shark makes a second pass and, when the time is right, he shoves the sword into the stomach of the shark. The shark keeps swimming, dragging the player along as the sword tears through its gut.
More “Oooohs” from the crowd. I, meanwhile, am stunned.
For the rest of the convention I ask myself why any of that was necessary. I'm sure one of the developers in the video explained that pirates would kill whales for money. But why does the player need to kill whales? More to the point, why does an Assassin need to kill whales? Shouldn't an Assassin be more concerned with killing people? Shouldn't an Assassin/Pirate, especially in the context of the franchise, seek to destabilize Templar influence by raiding their supply lines? You know, be a Pirate?
You know something else that pirates did? I'm sure it involved an obnoxious fat man asking a woman who just wanted to do her job to sit on his lap – at gunpoint.
My anger with Ubisoft is, I guess, two-fold. First, they insisted on creating an environment that implies the people gaining access are mature or can be held to a higher standard of behavior and opinion by an adult supervisor. Yet, from the beginning of the presentation, the emotion of the crowd was exploited to generate excitement over objectivity.
I considered that perhaps Ubisoft was merely responding to the latest accusations of violent video games warping society, and that the age restriction was merely a way of placating special interest groups and other concerned people. If that was so, Ubisoft had an excellent opportunity to show Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag in a mature way. Maybe they could better explain why I had to shout at a television monitor, or why killing a marine species that is in the present day facing extinction is a component of their game experience. Maybe they could have talked more about open-world exploration or putting together combat chains. Maybe one of the four large Ubisoft bouncers making sure we didn't record anything could have kicked the guy out of the room for talking to a woman that way.
I just wish someone else in that room was over the age of eighteen and could explain it to me.