I’m playing Assassin’s Creed III at the moment, and good golly gosh it’s buggy. I was trying to climb up a wall, but I got stuck with an outcrop just above me. Instead of leaping up to it, as the character’s supposed to do, he was flung way into the air (and subsequently fell to his death). Pictures below. Anyway, I’m trying my hardest to get something out of this game other than an increased loathing of Ubisoft. There’s some interesting stuff cropping up about running through the trees – let’s talk about that for a bit.
So if you’ve never played an Assassin’s Creed game before, a big part of the series is the whole free-running thing. You sort of climb up walls and run along rooftops, and the sound of your footsteps on tiles is the most satisfying thing in the world. Mechanically, the idea of free-running is that you hold down a button (right-click) and your guy will just sort of go. He won’t jump off a building or do anything harmful unless you explicitly tell him to – so you very much just point the character in the right direction, hold down the ‘run’ button, and off you go. Within the sphere of that singular input, there’s a whole bunch of actions that the character will perform. They’ll climb walls, sprint across rooftops, jump safely between ledges or windowsills – all this sort of thing. All of the actions that come under the umbrella of free-running are absorbed into this one input of right-click.
The simplicity of the controls should mean that the game plays quite smoothly. However, at least in the case of AC3, it’s buggy as hell, which sort of impacts that smoothness. I don’t necessarily mean in the sense of formal bugs either – like the fling-into-the-sky one before. Sometimes the game doesn’t quite pick up what you’re doing, so that you’ll intend to do one thing and it’ll try and do something different. So sometimes you’ll be trying to climb up a weather vane on top of a building, and your character will run right past the weather vane and jump into the abyss.
One of the other things about the free-running is that when you’re on the rooftops (and you’re always on the rooftops), there’s a sphere of different directions you can go in. So in this screenshot above, there’s basically 360° of possible ways to go. And then when I’ve moved (say) five feet, there’s still 360° of direction. Because of this sphere of possible directions, players are having to make ongoing choices about how and where they want to move. Most of those choices are boring. If you’re heading down to the other side of the building, you don’t need all this choice. You just want to be on the other side of the building. The act of running is also a pretty singular action – within this one rooftop, there’s one animation for the singular action of running. It’s visually just not very interesting.
Enter tree-running. This is something that’s new to ACIII, and it’s worth noting that Haytham, the English character, can’t do it. Well, he can a little bit once he’s an NPC, but he can’t do it when you’re playing him. It’s just Ratonhnhaké:ton, or Connor, the Native American, who can do it. You can see the tree limbs out above, and they sort of arc off into the distance. There’s a few differences between this and free-running in the city that, to me, creates a more interesting experience.
Firstly, notice that each limb is only a few metres long. There’s a limb immediately in front of Connor, and then another one just round the other side of that trunk (Connor can climb round trunks). In terms of the animations, you can see how they’re going to change quite quickly. Jump to middle branch, move down branch, slide round trunk, move down other branch, use higher branch as thing to swing off to jump to next branch – it’s very busy. The animation changes frequently, so there’s always something going on for you to look at. Note again here that we’re only using the one button – you hold down right-click, and Connor just goes. When the animation is singular, as in the rooftop discussed above, I think it’s very easy for players to disengage, get bored. When the animation is rapidly plural, as in the tree-running, there’s much more visual stimulation, much more engagement of the player in what’s going on.
The other thing is the the branches are very limited in terms of your scope of movement. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We noted above the 360° scope of movement across rooftops – it’s fine, but it’s not necessarily super engaging. The choices are mostly irrelevant. Here, the branches are very restricted in terms of scope of movement, and that’s both simpler and more engaging. You can see in the image above there’s really only one way to go. You can jump to the branch right in front of you, and then curve over towards the right, with that double-forked tree in the background. From there we might find an intersection, two or three possible directions to travel in, but at the present moment our direction is one-dimensional: backwards or forwards. That simplifies things. By constraining the options for movement, the game forces us as players to make more decisive decisions. Say our goal curves off to the left. When do we get out of the trees? Do we get down from that second tree and start jogging towards our goal? Do we follow the trees to that intersection and see if there’s a junction that goes our way? There seem to be some branches in the far distance that look runnable – maybe we’ll try and get to those. Suddenly we’re more engaged in the game, making more active decisions – compare it to the first example with the rooftop. We jog in the direction of our goal, and it’s passive and boring. It’s just moving towards the little dot on the screen, and there’s a distance counter ticking down, and… ugh. Here, we’re making decisions about when to get out of the trees, we’re visually engaged because there’s all these little things going on – it’s great. Busy, engaging, fun.
One final thought – I’m out of time for today, but it’d be interesting to look at that mid-level between rooftops and street-level. That’s got a singularity of direction, in that it follows the line of buildings, and it also creates an environment where you’re often switching between jumping and running and climbing. It would be cool to explore the differences and similarities between that mid-level and the tree-running. Maybe next time.