I was at the public library recently, and the most wonderful thing about it was the feeling of anonymity. There were a bunch of people around, reading and browsing and bickering about cellphones or something, but none of them knew me. For today, that’s going to be my definition of anonymity: there’s people all round, but none of them know who you are. You’re anonymous. I’d like to suggest that in Assassin’s Creed, this category of anonymity doesn’t really apply, because although arguably people don’t know who you are (sometimes), I’d suggest that the NPCs aren’t really worth treating as people at all.
So the first condition of anonymity is that there’s a bunch of people around you. At first blush, that would seem to be the case in Assassin’s Creed: there’s NPCs everywhere. But let’s qualify the term ‘people’ – in fact, let’s replace it with the term ‘agents’. An agent has agency – they engage with and grow and develop and change the world around them. The guy who rides the rubbish truck has agency, because he’s removing garbage from your house so it doesn’t build up and mutate into a world-destroying fungus. The librarian has agency; people on the street have agency. NPCs in Assassin’s Creed don’t have agency. For the most part, all they do is walk around the block in circles, or stand and talk in the road all day. You can sit and watch them, and those assholes won’t go and eat or drink or poop – they’ll just stand there, because they aren’t agents. They have no agency.
There’s a couple of glimmers of agency here and there throughout the series – arguably the antagonists have some degree of agency, and the guards can kill you – but even then, the guards don’t really have any existence outside of patrolling and trying to kill you. They don’t go home to families or stop to poop. They have a function within the game, but that’s different to saying that they’re fleshed out characters with actual agency. Nothing moves forwards because of the guards, right – they don’t actively develop the world. They may be developed themselves, with better armour or weapons or whatever, but they aren’t the ones doing the developing.
The other response is that sometimes guards act like actual human beings in cutscenes or whatever, during story missions, but that’s a pretty superficial agency. We can say that it’s not agency within the game, per se – it’s agency within a video clip, and then maybe some heavily scripted agency within a very strict set of parameters around a given story mission. It’s a glimmer, at best. The most telling weakness there is that if you walked away from that moment, the guard wouldn’t go on to continue existing with the same level of agency. He’s probably just going to get blinked out of existence because you’re not in that specific mission any more.
So basically nobody except the player has any agency in Assassin’s Creed, which leads me to argue that the first parameter hasn’t been fulfilled. There aren’t real agents around, so you can’t be anonymous, because they aren’t agent-y enough to not know who you are. That’s kind of the point of anonymity, right – there’s a bunch of people, real people with agency and lives and opinions and habits, and they’re all around you, but none of them know who you are. From their perspective, you are a stranger. That’s what anonymity is about (at least as far as this article is concerned). In Assassin’s Creed, nobody’s going to look at you and think ‘I don’t know who that is’, because nobody else has any agency. You’re not anonymous; you’re alone.
To clarify, obviously I’m not saying that NPCs need to have perspective or consciousness or anything like that in order to have agency. You can simulate agency easily enough. Imagine a game: it’s a space travel game. You’re flying through space, and there’s an NPC – and that NPC has been programmed with certain parameters. They’re actually pirates, and they want gold. Say you’re flying along, and the pirates scan you, and realise you don’t have any money, and then decide that they can’t be bothered boarding you because you don’t have anything worth stealing, and then they leave. That would be easy enough to program – and it’s a great example of an NPC having an existence outside of and unrelated to the player. They don’t just exist while the player is around, so that there can be a cinematic experience when the player finally shows up. They’re independent agents running around in the world doing their own thing – and maybe that’s the best way to describe it. There’s not really anybody in Assassin’s Creed who does their own thing. They’re all just there for your benefit.
And yes, again, arguably the pirates are still fictional characters which means that ultimately they’re there for the aesthetic pleasure of the player, but on a fictional level, the point is that there are characters who exist inside the story whose fictional existence is not limited to Being For the Player. It’s like the difference between seeing a cut-out squirrel in the Tunnel of Love and seeing a real squirrel in a park. Sure, the gamekeeper might have put the squirrel in the park for your aesthetic enjoyment, but at the end of the day, that squirrel’s going to go home and cuddle up with the missus and a bowl of nuts. That’s not something the cut-out squirrel’s ever going to have.
In that sense, I wouldn’t ever really call you anonymous in Assassin’s Creed. I think a better term is isolated. This seems to be one of the issues that video games have: they’re so obsessed with the significance of the player that they’re slow to give weight to other characters within the game. That in turn makes video games, for me at least, often quite lonely experiences. Of course, that loneliness isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless you want to make your game feel populated – say if it was set in a city like Rome or Venice. Yeah, then it might be a problem.