Assassin's Creed - A Systemic Game Without True Systemic Gameplay
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Not A Matter of Narrative
It’d be a sad thing if Assassin's Creed’s narrative conceits were really what was holding the series’ gameplay back. Lucky for us, that’s likely not the case. The main problem is nothing unchangeable, and they wouldn’t even need to alter the story much to get it done.
The new Main Assassinations are already better than they’ve been previously (except for AC1’s, which were about on par with Unity/Syndicate in terms of freedom of approach). The main problem is a gameplay problem, not a narrative one.
A Lack of Verbs, Options and Do-ables
The player simply lacks the tools to do creative things, or if they’re given such tools, then they only have a single use and only where the developer says they do: and if you don’t like it, player, deal with it. A game like Dishonored or Metal Gear Solid V excels systemically and mechanically (even if you strip out the narrative completely) for the exact opposite reason: the player not only has various Verbs -- actions they can exert onto the game-state, they all have various interesting effects. Also, most of these items are organic and fluid, rather than being rigid or limiting. They behave consistently with all elements of the game that interact or intersect with them, and they combine together in interesting, but most importantly, consistent ways.
It's about the agency given to a player in a given environment – and that’s something for which consistency of rules/gameplay is extremely important, even borderline necessary. Full Syncs wouldn’t get in the way of this either, neither story-wise, nor gameplay-wise. Full Syncs are (mechanically) checkboxes that a player can tick for performing specific actions during a specific mission. Metal Gear Solid V proves that it’s very possible to have Side Tasks like these in the middle of missions without torpedoing the highly systemic and organic nature of the game. You can even look to Dishonored for a slightly lesser example of this. Dishonored also has checkboxes the player can tick for playing a certain way, they just all happen to be the exact same across each mission: "Never Killed Anyone" and "Never Detected." It also has a multitude of side objectives or "Special Actions" such as raiding an artist's house, unlocking a safe, poisoning a still or a glass of wine, and so on and so forth. None of these get in the way of the organic nature of the gameplay. What's more, they also tend to be all but invisible until you've already done them and you see your results at the End-of-Mission Screen.
It all comes back to the player lacking tools for creative problem-solving, and the game’s own mechanical rules being inconsistent.
A Recent Example of Mechanical Inconsistency -- Assassin's Creed Syndicate
The player can shoot a Hallucinogenic Dart into a heat source, and enemies will be affected, but it won’t affect Civilians, and if the player is standing close enough, the cloud will not affect them either. In a game like Dishonored or MGSV, this would absolutely not be the case.
The game should not discriminate between game entities in a way that removes the applicability of effects. It makes sense, and is mechanically consistent, for the player to be affected by the Hallucinogenic Cloud AoE, likewise for Civilians to be affected by it too. If that’s not a good thing to do, or if it Risks Desynchronization, then that's a consequence that organically grows out of the gameplay, and falls upon the player to understand, master, and play around it. It is not the game’s duty to protect players from their own errors, and a large part of gameplay, learning, enjoyment, and feeling clever with your own gameplay is removed because of seemingly “small” things like this.
The game should not care about whether or not the effect of something is hitting a guard, a player, a civilian, or whatever else. The effect is the effect. It acts on all entities that it can act on consistently. It is consistent game-behaviors like these that lead to emergent gameplay situations, where players accidentally do something and immediately start asking, “Wait what, you can do that?!”
Potential, There for the Taking
Assassin’s Creed is completely lacking in gameplay like this, because all of a player’s Verbs are one-use only. They’re not multi-dimensional, they’re not organic and not recombinant. They aren't applicable to a variety of situations in a fluid and systemic way. You never get the, “You can do that?!” in Assassin’s Creed anymore, not since AC1, and a few of the later games, but very few.
Before jumping to change the narrative aspects of Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft should highly consider examining the ways players interface with the worlds they build for them. They can restructure their gameplay to permit more consistent rules, which players can exploit and take advantage of if they've the idea to do so.
This basic principle is mainly what separates the Dishonoreds from the Assassin’s Creeds, and the most heartbreaking thing to me as a veteran of both franchises is that if any series on the market currently has the potential to do something impressive with systemic gameplay, Assassin’s Creed would be the one to keep an eagle's eye on.