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.

MisanthroPlay #44 Gunstar Weirdos

Slightly delayed as Robert gets over jetlag, comes our episode on Treasure's classic Gunstar Heroes. Alva and Robert discuss their experiences with the game, what makes it so special, and how spiritual sequel Gunstar Super Heroes measures up.

This week in We Play: Prey, Cosmic Star Heroine, Birthdays: the Beginning, Injustice 2, The Caligula Effect, and Strafe.

Listen to it here.

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.

MisanthroPlay #43 In Between Days

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This week's episode is short n sweet, just like us! Robert and Alva let their hair down to gab over Wonder Boy: The Dragon's TrapTumbleseedFlinthookPrey and The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky the 3rd. We couldn't get around to Full Throttle Remastered, but we still had a LucasArts tangent.

Listen to it here!

That Time that Telenet Sampled Kraftwerk

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The Time that Telenet Sampled Kraftwerk

by Robert Fenner

 

It's no secret that video games and electronic music go hand in hand. Retronauts' Jeremy Parish has written extensively on the symbiotic relationship between video games and experimental music group Yellow Magic Orchestra, while Yuzo Koshiro's passion for rave culture is well-known and documented in his excellent Streets of Rage soundtracks. Akira Yamaoka has expressed that his work on Silent Hill was inspired by Coil (although he doesn't actually seem to like them); Yasuhiro Kawakami may have accidentally exposed his love of Wham! when working on Shinobi; and it's obvious that  Falcom's Sound Team JDK and animation studio Agent 21 both had huge Bananarama fans on board for a time.

It stands to reason. Of course video game composers are music buffs! But I'd like to talk about one title that went beyond mere homage: Exile, a little-known action RPG from Nippon Telenet sub-studio Riot.

Better known in Japan as XZR II: Toki no Hazama Ni (Exile II: A Brief Moment in Time), the title was actually a sequel to an equally obscure microcomputer RPG about a Hashishin named Sadler on a quest to assassinate Syria's Caliph. XZR II saw Sadler continue his adventure in an uneasy alliance with Knights Templar founder Hughes de Payens, on a pilgrimage to locate an artifact capable of uniting the world under one God, to eliminate holy warfare forevermore. Spoilers: things don't go well.

XZR II was successful enough to warrant a 16-bit remake for PC Engine CD and Mega Drive. This remake ditched the number but kept the subtitle and rebuilt the game from the ground up. The result was much more attractive, playable, and accessible, and also excised an awkward late-game sequence in which Sadler time-travels to Manhattan to fight mohawked sk8er bois. Both of these remakes made it to America under the simple title Exile. Working Designs localized the Turbo-CD version, doing a fair job despite being forced by NEC to remove references to Christianity. Renovation handled the Genesis port, which… well, it's barely a step above machine translation.

Naturally, the soundtrack was revamped as well. The original release featured an FM synth soundtrack by Tenpei Sato (Disgaea) & director Shinobu Ogawa. It was catchy and competent, but did little to stand out from its contemporaries. The Turbo-CD remake, on the other hand, is an unabashed Redbook Audio tribute to electronic music, courtesy of a Telenet super team of Shinobu Ogawa, Hiroto Otsubo, Michiko Naruke (Wild ARMS), Takahiro Umezu & Minoru Yuasa.

A trip to see the monks of Mount Koya is accompanied by a piece called "Zen Gun", which combines a thumping TR-909 drum line with taiko samples. Boss theme "Ultimate Rave" does exactly what it says in the title, coming from the same school as Streets of Rage. The team's love of the TR-909 is even right there in track list, with the piece "Tango 909".

As I mentioned earlier, Exile's soundtrack goes beyond imitation and homage. Perhaps channeling Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock", Exile cheekily samples electronic pioneers Kraftwerk's album Computerworld. Not once, but twice!

In the track "Big Junction", a sample of the vocals from "Numbers" can be heard plain as day at 00:20. It's a very daring and flagrant breach of copyright, and one they evidently got away with. Later in the game comes the dungeon piece "Scramble Bones". At 00:39, a synthesizer arrangement from the second half of "Home Computer" provides a bridge for the song to loop back from. It's not as blatant as vocoded German language in a Japanese video game, but still instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with Computerworld. Curiously, this particular sample even made it onto Nobuhito Koise's arrangements for Mega Drive, transposed to the Yamaha YM2612 chip:

Incredible, isn't it? The sampling obviously isn't kosher, but I wonder if Kraftwerk are aware that they're featured in a JRPG from 1991. It's a hell of a musical choice for a game set during the Crusades, but it works: Not only were the sound team able to have a lot of fun flexing their enthusiasm for dance music, the full soundtrack, illicit sampling and all, is strangely appropriate to Exile's subversive spirit of anti-traditionalism. I'm for it.

Telenet would later go legit with their electronic music fandom. In 1994, Wolfteam commissioned Yellow Magic Orchestra's Yukihiro Takahashi to compose the soundtrack for Neugier. While there are some stand-out pieces, there's plenty more that underwhelm. It's especially disappointing as the full soundtrack itself only has eleven songs, making it shorter than Neugier's already-short adventure. Oh well.