Game within a Game.

The following article was original written and published as part of the Video Games and Human Values Initiative in 2009. Due to changes in the the design of the VGHVI site the original form of this article is no longer available, so I sought and obtained permission to republish it here. A .PDF version is also available.

Game within a Game – Freedom and Control in Assassin’s Creed

At the heart of all games is the dichotomy of freedom and control.  This dichotomy separates the desire for self expression and exploration that goes to the root of play, and the rules and structures required by a game.  It separates the player’s desire for meaningful choices and the ability and willingness of the designer and underlying technology to provide them.  Games offer us the ability to visit detailed imaginary worlds conjured by the minds of talented designers, and implemented with the latest technology, while at the same time they demand that we accept certain inherent limitations and abide by specific, sometimes counter-intuitive, rules.

Even a game like Assassin’s Creed that appears to offer unprecedented freedom is full of artificial constraints and restrictions on player agency.  However, I argue in this paper, Assassin’s Creed walks a different path to most games.  Its game within a game structure serves as an embodiment of all the restriction and artificiality inherent in games, yet instead of distancing itself from these limitations it attempts to embrace them, making them a part of the narrative conventions of its story.

The game- story opens at some undisclosed time and place where a character named Desmond Miles is kidnapped and experimented on by the mysterious Abstergo Industries as ‘Subject 17.’ In the course of these experiments, Desmond Miles relives the experiences of a distant ancestor, the disgraced assassin Altair ibn La-Ahad.  Desmond enters Altair’s world through the use of a device identified as the Animus.  It is presented to him, and therefore us, as a means of experiencing a virtual world, albeit one constrained by certain rules and conventions, one decidedly game like.

“Vidic – When we switched the animus control scheme to use standard videogame controls I guessed that the subject’s learning curve would improve, but the increased acclimatisation rate we are seeing in these slacker types is astounding.”[1]

In some ways the Animus of the game-story is the prototypical game system, a mediating device that enables us to experience an imaginary world and enact the role of somebody other than ourselves.  The Animus is for Desmond a liminal object[2] that sits on the threshold between two worlds, allowing interaction between them in the same way that a console controller does for us.

Our conduit into this ‘other world’ is equal parts guide and jailor, providing freedom to explore with one hand while restricting our ability to take direct action with the other.  As Desmond is restricted to the events of his ancestor’s memory, so we too are restricted to those actions defined by the game’s designers.  While playing we can no more transcend the designer’s world than Desmond can, while inside the Animus, step outside the bounds of Altair’s recollections.

For a supposed prisoner Desmond is a curiously willing participant in the Animus experiments.  Every morning he gets up and dutifully enters the world of Altair. He makes the occasional cynical comment, on one occasion asking his captors: “Oh, wonder who I get to kill today.”  But like the dedicated gamer he will return regardless of the complaints he voices.

Even the name of Desmond’s liminal object is itself a play on this notion of accessing a different character.  Carl Jung uses the term Animus to describe the masculine aspect of the female psyche.  It is said to be responsible for the qualities of rationality, authority, objectivity, initiative, courage, conviction, action, aggression, and brutality.  The animus, along with its counterpart the anima, are responsible for the archetypical image of the opposite gender Jung believed was inherent in all of us.[3]

Accurately fulfilling all the characteristics usually associated with the masculine aspect Altair can be read as the embodiment of everything that is traditionally considered male.  He is “an anthropomorphised phallus, a phallus with muscle.”, he is the archetypical action hero “a simulacra of an exaggerated personality”[4].  Extending such a reading to the entire game, Desmond takes on the role of the archetypical action game player.  If within every man is the mental image of the archetypical woman and vice verse, Assassin’s Creed seems to be saying that within every player is the mental image of the archetypical player character.

Assuming the role of Altair’s the initial illusion of available freedom can be intoxicating.  If it looks like you can reach somewhere you usually can, although it may take some effort.  This superficial freedom to explore is liberating and can lead to hours simply spent running around the rooftops and climbing towers.

This freedom is not provided gratis, for the player’s ability to directly control the actions of Altair is limited.  The player does not control the precise timing of each jump or the placement of each hand or foot.  The player’s role is once removed; they are the director of Altair’s actions, providing the route, guiding but not necessarily controlling.  All actions in Assassin’s Creed are contextual, just as are all actions in any game; devoid of context every game can be broken down to pressing a specific button in a specific sequence at a specific time.

As the player explores, they find some locations that either cannot be accessed or that seem important but are inconsistently empty.  The former occasion carries a ‘Memory Not Accessible’ warning from the Animus.  The player is destined to revisit these locations at some point in the future but until their journey through Altair’s memoriestakes them there those locations are either entirely inaccessible or serve simply as empty stages awaiting their moment in the spotlight.

On closer examination Altair’s Holy Lands are full of those artifacts of gaming, collectable objects that serve no purpose other than to be found and consumed by the player.  Indeed, the game encompasses three expansive cities teeming with people most of whom are little more than scenery.  Even the natural laws are put on hold inside this world; it is always the same time of day despite Desmond supposedly spending hours at a time connected to the Animus.

It is thus clear that the Animus is not simply granting Desmond access to his genetic memories, but  also filtering them, modifying them.

“Vidic – Lucy, didn’t you say that the new animus update allows us to jump to the assassination mission without doing all of the investigation missions? We need the animus to fill in the blanks on some of these if we are going to make our deadline.”

The expediency of game-story means that only the important elements are presented to the player.  The environment inside the Animus is not a recreation of the real world though it makes pretentions to it.  The laws of time, space and causality do not operate the same way in games as they do in our own world; we accept this fact as part of the deal we make when we choose to play.  Altair’s world is a carefully crafted illusion, a stage upon which only certain performances can be enacted.  Though provided with the opportunity to visit the cities of Acre, Damascus or Jerusalem the means by which Altair can interact with the world are limited to those necessary to the furtherance of the plot.  Intimidation, Pick-Pocketing, Eavesdropping and Combat are the actions that make up the majority of the game.  Though the scope to explore the game’s version of the Holy Land is large, there is surprisingly little narrative embedded in the environment itself.  There are objects and characters hidden throughout the game but these serve a purely supplemental purpose, for example collectible flags, or Templar Knights that exist solely to be slain.  The latter are guarding chests which are ultimately meaningless in the larger context of the game.  They cannot be opened and what they contain is never mentioned.  An apparently perfect opportunity for narrative is wasted; instead the game chooses to rely on didactic cut scenes for its exposition.  Freedom to explore the story is sacrificed for the controlling hand of the designer.  Combat itself, usually the domain of direct action and immediate response is an equally restrained affair; brutal, violent and graphic, but almost balletic in its application.  Altair is able to dispatch dozens of foes without injury provided the player is able to time their button presses accurately.  As in the gameplay of a rhythm action game, all fights can be won with a single button.  Blocking automatically, Altair can counter any attack if the player masters the timing.  When the player makes a successful counter, they are presented with a graphic sequence of Altair dispatching his foe with brutal efficiency, a sword through the gut, a dagger across the throat, or any of a dozen other graphic scenes of melee combat.  These counter attacks get increasingly violent as more of Altair’s abilities are returned to him, however the player is never granted any more control of their execution beyond the act of initiation.

Even the assassinations themselves, scenarios that that seem ideal opportunities to exploit the freedom available to Altair, are heavily proscribed affairs.  They end almost universally in a chase or fight against the intended victim and his enraged guards.  As in the game’s combat, the player can initiate the assassination, but the eventual outcome is rarely under their control.

Each successful assassination is bookended by a nominally interactive death-bed monologue from the victim, aimed at informing Altair of how wrong he, the player-character, has been, and how he is a pawn in a larger game.  Proud and arrogant Altair is still ultimately as much a puppet of his masters as those whom it is his mission to assassinate.  In these death bed moments, often akin to BioShock’s famous reveal, Altair is told time and again that he is a tool of a higher power, a puppet, blindly obeying his masters without questioning.[5]  Regardless of whether he realises it his world is designed so that the only option available is to continue on his murderous path, and so he does, unaware until the end that he is truly no more in control of his fate than anybody else in his world.

Similarly during those few times outside the Animus when the player controls Desmond the options available are limited to basic movement and interaction.  The player’s agency is restricted to those actions that further Desmond’s plotline or return you to the Animus to further Altair’s.  Players’ control of Desmond is direct but heavily restricted.  Desmond is the archetypical player his inability to control his fate is analogous to our own lives and the lack of power we all have over the whims of fate. Yet for all his freedom, for all his certainty, Altair is just as much a victim of circumstances beyond his control as the imprisoned Desmond is of Abstergo, as the player is  of the game design, as we are of our own lives  Rationality, authority, objectivity, initiative, courage, conviction, action, aggression, and brutality, these might be the aspects players take on as characters in a game but ultimately these can only be used in service of the game itself.  There is no freedom except that which is granted by those really in control, it is the philosophy of the assassin’s themselves: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

As Desmond gives himself over to the Animus with its indirect control, self contained laws of physics and time and artificial restrictions in order to experience the world of Altair, so too do we give ourselves over to games and all their artifice in order to experience the worlds they present to us.  We allow restrictions to be placed upon our actions in order to feel an illusion of freedom, in order to explore an imaginary world and wield imaginary powers.  Assassin’s Creed is as inherently restrictive as any other game, all it’s freedom is an illusion, but at the same time it shows an awareness of its own restrictions, and takes pains to explain away as much of this artifice as possible.

The overall goal of the Animus is to access a repressed portion of Desmond’s genetic memories.  In order to achieve this access Desmond is forced to relive the memories of his previous ‘life’ as Altair, staying synchronised, staying as true to the real memories as possible in order to fully integrate the personalities of Desmond and Altair, thus granting Abstergo Industries access to those vital memories.  In order to be allowed to continue to wield power Desmond is required to conform to the archetype of Altair.

This ultimate goal of complete synchronisation between Desmond and Altair embodies the transformative potential of the experience of gameplay.  Altair’s abilities start to bleed back into Desmond, transforming him.  In the final moments of the game some of those latent abilities unlock fully granting Desmond a few moments in which he can use Altair’s ‘Eagle Vision’ to tell friend from foe; that is, a few moments in which his time within the game has altered his perception of reality.  Desmond’s time as Altair has had a profound effect on who he is.  He has left changed, different, enriched by the time he spent inhabiting the mind of his ancestor.  As we are when we give ourselves over to the experience of playing, allowing the game, and through it the ideas of its creators, to color the way we look at the world around us.

To study Assassin’s Creed is to study the very essence of the video game itself. For all its technological advances Assassin’s Creed is still intrinsically bound to the fundamental structure of games; eternally locked in the struggle between freedom and control.  For all the fictional explanations surrounding the Animus, the player of Assassin’s Creed is ultimately just as much a puppet as Desmond or Altair.  Rather than a puppet of a mega-corporation or of a secret society, however, the player is the puppet of a French-Canadian Creative Director named Patrice Desilets and his team at Ubisoft Montreal.

The dichotomy between the freedoms of interactivity and the restrictions of imposed constraints is the core conflict that exists throughout all games. It is a challenge that all game designers must face, “If he draws his lines too loosely the game will be dull because winning will be too easy…  On the other hand, rules are lines that can be drawn too tightly, so that the game becomes too difficult. And if a line is drawn very tightly indeed the game is squeezed out of existence.”[6]  The situation is worse for those designers that that seek to present some form of narrative[7] within their work.  Attempting to obscure this dichotomy with sophisticated narrative devices, or clinging to a hope that players will be complicit in pretending the division does not exist, is a methodology that does little to confront the problems at the very heart of the interactive medium.  Assassin’s Creed highlights a way in which designers can explicitly acknowledge this interplay of freedom and control and use it to serve the narrative goals of the game.  The nature of this dichotomy seem best studied through direct engagement with it in our game stories, by building mechanics around it, by making it a part of the very structure of the game itself and allowing their players to find their own answers through exploration, and play, after all “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”


[1] Throughout the game’s manual, various notes have been ‘scribbled in the margins’, these are purportedly from one of the scientists working for Abstergo Industries implying the manual itself is an extant object in Desmond’s world.

[2] Janet Murray introduced the concept of the luminal object as one that is “located on the threshold between external reality and our own minds.” Janet H Murray Hamlet on the Holodeck, 1997 (Chapter 4 “Immersion”, Page 99).

[3] Carl J. Jung Marriage as a Psychological Relationship (1925) http://www.haverford.edu/psych/ddavis/p109g/internal/j_anima.html

[4] Barbara Creed, From Here to Modernity: Feminism and Postmodernism Screen,1987

[5] “It is a very disturbing sensation, but an effective one, an original twist of plot and emotion unique to the medium. It forces the player to seriously think about their own agency. Being betrayed by others is a common twist, but being betrayed by yourself is something else entirely.” Andrew Vanden Bossche Analysis: Would You Kindly? BioShock And Free Will http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=24822

[6] Bernard Suits Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, 1990.

[7] “The story is the antithesis of game.  The best way to tell a story is in linear form.  The best way to create a game is to provide a structure within which the player has freedom of action.” Chris Crawford, The Art Of Computer Game Design.

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