A common element of gaming is immersion. Developers attempt to engage us in the experience of the game, bridging the gap between reality and the virtual experience. A game is considered successfully immersive if the game world becomes real in the mind’s eye of the player. Mass Effect brings us into an intragalactic adventure, while Grand Theft Auto V shows us around a fictionalized Los Angeles. The developers want us to be a part of the world they’ve crafted, so we feel agency in continuing to play and affect the events of the game. There is one game series, however, that bridges the gap between reality and virtuality in a far different way, one series which understands that it is a simulacrum of reality without attempting to create a new reality: Assassin’s Creed.
Simulacra, as defined by postmodern author Jean Baudrillard, are representations of reality. There is a disconnect between the reality and its representation, which then influences the way reality is perceived. Simulacra are not copies, but become true in their own way. They bridge the gap between reality and virtuality, creating a hyperreality, an indistinguishability between what is real and what is false.
First developed by Ubisoft in 2007, Assassin’s Creed puts the player in control of Desmond Miles, a man captured by the enigmatic Abstergo Industries and forced into a machine known as the Animus. The Animus scans the user’s DNA and allows the user to live the memories of their ancestors, genetically imprinted onto them. The user, and therefore the player, can explore the ancestor’s life and interact with a virtually-created version of the past. Whether in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade or in Paris in the midst of the French Revolution, we are integrated into a world that constantly reminds us of its construction. We watch the world literally load around the user, the buildings and people coded into existence, and then we are free to explore a recreation of the past. A constant display keeps us informed of the character’s health and location. Glitches can appear, hidden in the environment. We are transported into an incongruous virtual existence when performing a high-profile assassination. While most games attempt to fully integrate us into its reality, Assassin’s Creed reminds us that it is nothing more than a representation.
Most games struggle to hide their limitations in the gameplay. Invisible walls, invulnerable NPCs, and player death are explained away in some convoluted fashion, which invariably breaks the flow of the game and acts as a reminder that we are interacting within a virtual experience. Assassin’s Creed, on the other hand, takes steps to remind us that it is a virtual reality. Inaccessible areas cannot be loaded without sufficient data. Killing random civilians breaks the code of the Animus, as the user is not acting in the fashion of the ancestor. When the protagonist dies, the simulation has to be reloaded. Assassin’s Creed presents the medium’s limitations proudly, incorporating them directly into the world of the game. This brings the player into the world of the simulacrum more-so than hiding the limitations. It is this self-awareness which helps the virutality of Assassin’s Creed to thrive as a series.
How, then, does this affect how we interact with reality? When we explore Rome in 1503 during Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, how do we experience modern-day Rome when we’ve already “explored” it? What about someone who has grown up living in Los Angeles, and explores their hometown in the form of Grand Theft Auto V‘s Los Santos? These simulacra of the locations give us new perspectives into the reality, allowing us to explore the settings in new and drastically different ways. Our reality, then, becomes a hyperreality of its own, in which our experience with the virtual has now been affected and changes the way we experience the world.