Assassin's Creed: A Film Review

by Alva Chua

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Assassin's Creed

A Film Review by Alva Chua

I’m not quite a fan, but I’m certainly familiar with Ubisoft’s game series Assassin’s Creed. Despite negative reviews, I wanted to watch the new Michael Fassbender branding vehicle for myself to find out how someone who had enjoyed some of the games might feel. Video game adaptations are a tricky business, and there’s something to seeing how they get adapted, which is often more interesting that the films themselves.

This is not the case with Assassin’s Creed.

There’s a bit of vague promise in the opening, in that there is little to criticize at first and the smoky lighting seems to have something to hide. Then characters start out curt and reserved, only to remain that way. Video games with less technical power behind their visuals tend to rely on starting with good-looking character models, built with faces designed to express the emotions they are meant to contain over the duration of the story. What they lack in the ability to act they compensate for with lighting and camera angles. Assassin’s Creed does this with competent living actors.

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Worse still, the camera seems to cut away every time someone is about to emote. Fassbender’s Callum Lynch gets to look “Angry” or “Concentrating”. Marion Cotillard gets to look “Scientist”, and almost gets to cry for a split second before the camera cuts away again.

If they had somehow managed to squeeze some emotion out of the split seconds everyone seemed to get, the script would not permit it. Video game films can be full of the worst exposition and pointlessly descriptive prose and clunky one-liners imaginable. I longed for such things here. The Templars are a secret society that runs the world, and are dedicated to eradicating free will. We know this because Jeremy Irons and his superiors say this repeatedly, but never emphatically. There is no statement or sense of motivation, they simply say “We are dedicated to eradicating free will,” pretty much without inflection, over and over. Looks like someone got to you first, buddy.

Every other character simply makes statements that are descriptive of their character, or instructions to other characters. If you’re one of those geniuses who wanted Objective Video Game Reviews, here’s Objective Character Dialogue. For the first twenty minutes I thought that the protagonist’s catch phrase was going to be “I’m hungry.” because it was the most personal thing he said. I guess he really was just hungry.

The most spectacular thing in this film was how they managed to waste a close personal scene with Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender. Although if I was Gleeson I might have just punched Fassbender in the face.

Which brings us to the action. The action in Assassin’s Creed is just fine. There is definitely enough of it, and the Animus VR rig turns out to be a high tech excuse to show Fassbender fighting both clothed AND shirtless simultaneously. I hear some people like that kind of thing.

The complete lack of any character definition, especially in the historical sections, robs the action scenes of there intensity. I don’t know enough about these characters to care, and nothing is surprising enough for me to notice it otherwise. I don’t want to ruin any twists, but there is a surprising moment when violence breaks out in a facility that happens to be full of medieval weaponry that just happens to be lying around everywhere.

There are a couple of novel moments where you see crossbows fired from a first-person camera view, but these feel wrong for the setting, and echo mechanics that the source game doesn’t have. Seeing these moments made me think of Dwayne Johnson in the terrible DOOM adaptation, which added a feeling that video game films often have. That sense of being sneered at or patronized. I hope that Assassin’s Creed is simply a terribly dull film, and not one that has been stripped down and simplified to talk down to a perceived audience. Even the very first game in the series had more character than this.

E3 2017: The Cat in the Hijab

by Robert Fenner

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E3 is a crass and vulgar spectacle.

Within the hallowed halls of the Los Angeles Convention Centre, large video game publishers compete to build the most elaborate fetishes to capitalism. Perhaps most notably, Nintendo built a beautiful, gleaming simulacrum of a utopic metropolitan city centre, all the while a not-insignificant population of minority homeless camped outside, dressed in rags and sleeping on broken mattresses in the 90+ degree heat. The juxtaposition of the two in such close proximity was eye-opening, to say the least.

Despite this, it wasn't all quite so stomach-turning. Tucked away from the more flagrant displays sat the IndieCade Megabooth, a humble display boasting a DIY aesthetic that managed to fit over a dozen playable games within half the amount of space that Bethesda used to showcase a non-interactive trailer for The Evil Within 2. It was here that I played andyman404's The Cat in the Hijab, a short narrative experience made for #ResistJam.

The game puts you in the hijab of the titular cat, a Muslim feline lady riding the subway following the election of a right-wing reactionary politician. Many of the other commuters won't pay you any mind, but you soon find yourself accosted by a racist who dubs you a terrorist and demands you get out of "their" country.

You're given a range of options of how to respond, ala a LucasArts adventure, which run the spectrum from polite reasoning, to telling your aggressor in no uncertain terms to go fuck themselves. However the interaction is resolved, you are then free to continue to wander the subway car, looking for a seat or interacting with others. You may run into a good-hearted, but misguided soul who tells you that you don't have to wear an "oppressive" headpiece in a "civilized" country--you can choose to react with scorn, or try to educate them that your choice to wear the hijab is an exercise of your own agency and freedom.

My playthrough of The Cat in the Hijab ended when I bore witness to another cat, who happened to be a trans woman, on the receiving end of harassment. I could ignore the exchange, take advantage of the situation and become an oppressor myself, or sit with the victim and speak directly to them. Lacking the heart to take the former two options, I sat with the cat and together we ignored the bigot, chatting about movies (a recognized and recommended tactic to shut down overt public bigotry). When the cat's stop arrived, I accompanied her off the train just in case her oppressor tried to follow.

And that was the end of the game. All in all, I found it to be a cathartic and sweet experience, as well as an educational one. It teaches valuable techniques on how to be an ally when witnessing abuse, and also highlights how absurd bigotry is against anyone from a different background, whether it be religious, racial or gendered. It may sound a little heavy-handed, and maybe it is, but desperate times call for loud and clear messages of positivity and allyship like those found in The Cat in the Hijab. I truly appreciated the game's presence as a port in the largely violent storm that was the rest of E3.

You too can play The Cat in the Hijab for the low, low cost of free.

RPGFan: Persona 5 Review (Excerpt)

by Robert Fenner

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The Persona series has always held a special place in my heart. The first three entries released over the course of my adolescence; a tumultuous period during which my time was divided between parents who lived on opposite ends of an ocean. No matter where I was, I chased after unattainable acceptance as I grappled with teenage awkwardness, existential angst, and my own sexuality. Things were messy. When I immersed myself in "Lunarvale" or Sumaru, I took part in narratives that seemingly understood just how messy these years could be. It was as if the overarching theme of these titles was "There's no magic fix to your problems, but it's OK to be you." 

I was an adult by the time Persona 3 & 4 set the world ablaze. Both games were excellent: tightly-paced marriages of dating sims/visual novels with compelling RPG systems. Navigation, combat, and fusion were all at their most speedy and accessible, while individual characters had endearing personalities and lengthy story arcs over which to flourish. While I enjoyed both Persona 3 & 4, I couldn't help but feel that something had been lost. These protagonists were the most important people in their respective worlds; popular and charming saviors who served as all things to all people. They were too perfect. The aspects that resonated so loudly to me had been replaced with a recontextualisation of adolescence as fun and flirty escapism into an idyllic unreality. 

Now, a full eight years after Persona 4, Persona 5 has arrived to tell the story of a delinquent student's year under probation. Would this entry bring a little nuance back to this series? The answer is, no, not quite — though that doesn't mean Persona 5 isn't a great time. 

(read more at RPGFan)

Writing Round-Up, March 2017

by Robert Fenner

As always, I've been awfully slack about sharing my work here. But that doesn't mean I haven't been working away. Check out what I've been up to, even if it's not front page news.

TxK "Review"

by Alva Chua

The hangover dissipates, but despite remembering mutant camels, I may not be qualified to review Jeff Minter’s TxK.

It’s simple enough. In an era where far too many games trade in nostalgia for their own sake, the sharp minimal vector graphics remain stylish without hammering their point home.

Like its eighties inspiration, Tempest, you are staring into a pit and sliding along the edge, shooting at enemies that rush towards you. If you wanted to fulfil an urge to move frantically and shoot into a screen, there are times when TxK fulfils that need as much as the latest military-themed first person shooter.

The game remains interesting to look at, and escalates to visually challenging as the screen fills with more level elements and enemies, though it never overtly goes as far as Minter’s Space Giraffe in creating a carnivorous neon ecosystem to devour your eyes

Then there’s the air-horn, right on the title screen. Harking back to a Jericho of raves when I reviewed games for a living. To have called it reviewing “professionally” would be highly inappropriate.

TxK is the same game that Jeff Minter has been making since he made Tempest 2000 in 1994. There’s something of Don Quixote in releases of the series appearing on failed consoles and experimental multimedia disc players over the years. The elements of the game remain true throughout each iteration. Initially simple but ultimately disorienting graphics, a pounding soundtrack that someone uninformed will refer to as “techno” and basic high-score chasing survival gameplay.

TxK and the Tempest series are never overtly nostalgic, but structurally only comprise elements that evoke nostalgia. It’s inescapable in that effect. Presenting this latest release in a portable format only serves to make its effect more palatable and direct. Food-pill gaming for a retro-future.

One of the level names, “C Sickness”, is the punchline to a joke I told myself back when I was eleven.

I might actually be overqualified to review TxK.