Ubisoft published a gameplay trailer for Assassin's Creed Unity in which 15 people are stabbed to death, mostly via wounds to the neck and throat.
It's okay if that makes you uncomfortable.
The two-minutes of footage is trimmed from an extended gameplay demonstration shown last month at E3. It's fair to assume this is the footage Ubisoft believes is the best gameplay, the stuff more casual fans should be sure to catch. It makes the biggest impact in the shortest time.
In the brief trailer Arno, the game's new hero, walks through the beautifully rendered Paris of the French Revolution, leaps from a perch atop a cathedral and participates in copious amounts of murder. That the trailer doesn't include every kill from the extended gameplay session speaks to the game's death count.
I was embarrassed by how the trailer made me squirm.
Am I getting soft? I've played through a majority of the Assassin's Creed games. I've stabbed plenty of necks in what must be 100+ hours of combined playtime in the the Crusades, the Renaissance, the American Revolution and the Golden Age of Piracy. Something's different about this footage.
I partly blame the packaging. Combining all of the kills into such a brief window has the numbing effect of a supercut, a critical format that strings together an exhaustive number of clips to prove a point. At E3, we created a violence supercut to show how blood lust is one of the industry's favorite marketing tools. We weren't the first to have this idea and we won't be the last. What's interesting about this trailer is it seems to crib that idea, while stripping away all critical subtext. It's a celebration, not a condemnation.
I partly blame the packaging
Some people are okay with the level of violence in popular games. Ubisoft is aware that Assassin's Creed is a game about assassins, but the series is also beloved for its expansive worlds, apocalyptic meta-narrative and attention to historical detail. More so than possibly any other annual AAA game, the Assassin's Creed franchise is about something other than violence. And that's what disappoints me about this trailer, and perhaps the future of the series — and other franchises that have made traumatic violence the fulcrum on which everything else is balanced.
This trailer portrays extreme violence — and yes, stabbing someone in the neck or sticking their decapitated head on a stick is extreme — as beautiful, sexy and cool. We know this because similar adjectives, awarded from various video game sites, are wedged between all the killing. This is the gameplay trailer, and so you're lead to believe this is a game about killing, just killing. That everything looks so realistic makes it all the more nauseating.
That's the difference between the previous Assassin's Creed games and this one: now Assassin's Creed looks hyper-realistic, and now the marketing material is focused on graphic violence.
This trailer portrays extreme violence as beautiful, sexy and cool
I don't want to play the game as described by this trailer. And I think it's important to say that out loud, if you feel the same. I think you should tell people, even if it's just your friends or the people at GameStop who badger you to make the reservation already.
It's surprisingly difficult to speak critically about violence, because you will be admonished by your peers. There are plenty of people who think that recognizing video games are too violent or too sexist or too negative in any capacity will reveal a hole in the industry's armor, allowing society to deal a lethal blow to the entire medium.
But that's false: criticism is healthy; it solves problems; it prevents issues from festering until they actually do become that dreaded hole in the armor. If you do voice your opinion, you'll probably be met with pithy replies like, 'Surprise, a violent video game is violent." And that's fine for the people who are comfortable with that idea, people who are okay with the notion that something they love can and should be reduced down to taking someone's life by realistically slicing their esophagus multiple times in a row.
I think, or at least I hope, that people want more. That as games mature, "neck-stabbing" isn't a phrase that reminds you of a specific game, like some perverted version of Name That Tune. I don't want to watch a trailer for a good movie that's just a collection of the curse words and nude scenes.
Marketing the wrong things limits your audience
The trailer is misleading. I know when Assassin's Creed Unity is released, this isn't the game I'll get. It will be about movement and daring escapes and history and spectacular set pieces and drama. That's the game I want to play.
But marketing plays a role in game development, especially at the level of multi-million dollar AAA games. And if the studio gets the sense that non-stop-bloodshed is what the audience wants, they will ensure that's what it receives. Only if we speak up, will the studio look at its audience differently. Until then, they will act off the rapturous applause they receive at E3 when a someone's head explodes like a watermelon thrown off a 7-story building.
If you'd like an example of a trailer that conveys a different marketing method, look no further than the history-focused vignette Ubisoft ran yesterday in Europe. It hints at fictional conspiracy theory near the end, but overall it's a fine primer on the history of the French Revolution. Maybe Ubisoft has divided their marketing, targeting different audiences with different trailers. Maybe this is them having their cake and eating it, too. Marie Antoinette would be proud, even if she never said anything about cake and that idiom is English.
If that's the case, Europe's the intelligent one with distinguished tastes and richer interests; and America, I guess we're "'Merika," an idea of a nation viewed by ad agencies as the silly one who can't get enough mindless killshots. But we know that's not true. We're more than that! And that's why we'll start saying as much; we won't just remain silent because we don't want to look uncool.
I don't mind violent games, but I can't stand the idea that a marketing department thinks violence alone is enough to sell a game. The Assassin's Creed series presents a rich, complex world that is filled with things to do and places to explore; a series that made us fall in love with sailing a pirate ship. It's sad that images of pure violence are seen as the way to reach the largest audience.