Video game analysis: Send me a postcard and write it in blood

Editor’s note: The following blog was written by a Opinion-blogger. The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of NordicGameBits or the other writers and authors of the community. 

Last week, we thought about how we could take a model of narrativity – that is the process of how one story or coherent piece of meaning gets from one mind, the game designer, to another, the player – and adapt it to suit video game analysis.

We used this model:


And re-stated it like this:

message is conceived by a developer, who attempts to express this by placing formal elements into a game. This game is then filtered through a discourse and an interpretative act and becomes a perceived message in the mind of the player.

Today and for the next two weeks, I will look at some very broad categories of formal elements and how they are deployed as overarching design-paradigms to achieve the delivery of a certain type of message to the player. Don’t worry – we’ll get to details in three weeks, but for now it is illustrative to stay at the larger level, and to do that, let’s look at one of my favourite AAA games for analysis, Assassin’s Creed 2.


Overall messages of Assassin’s Creed 2

What is the conceived message in the overall design of Assassin’s Creed 2? We have no direct access to the thoughts of the developers behind the game, but we can estimate through journalism such as this or developer diaries such as this give us a fair idea that one of the main conceived messages is this: you are in renaissance Italy and you do cool stuff.

We can look at reviews such as this and get the sense that this is well realised, even though we again have no direct access to the minds of players. I can tell you that when I first visited Venice after playing Assassin’s Creed 2, I could actually find my way broadly around the city’s main quarters because of my knowledge from the game. While the game world is by no means a 1:1 model of the city, the sense of being there conveys a sense of broad and emotive familiarity that translates nicely to being there in the real world.



Said differently: Assassin’s Creed 2 simulates the idea of Venice as a place.

While the place is not rendered completely faithfully, it felt natural to walk around in the city and casually point out how I carried out assassinations in the environs. A bit embarrassing for my wife, I imagine, since we were on our honeymoon, and not everyone in our immediate vicinity could be expected to grasp that I was talking about a game. Although, if they looked at my physical condition and compared it with tales of leaping across rooftops, they could probably deduce that I was – in a sense – lying.

The point of making Venice in Assassin’s Creed 2 is not to render accurately, but to render in a realistic style. A certain amount of accuracy helps to achieve this, but the effect that is sought is to confirm the already existing ideas about Venice in the mind of the player.

In our model, this means that we as designers must try to place formal elements into the game that support the general discourse of the idea of Venice. This includes canals, many famous sightseeing spots and a rich soundscape that invokes the street life of a South European variety.

(A fun contrast to this is to look at Shakespeare’s treatment of Venice, which is characterised by no canals, one sightseeing spot, and a heavy emphasis on the dubious characteristics of Italians – a favourite subject of English renaissance writers. But I digress.)

This focus on confirming player expectations of place helps achieving half of the conceived message – you are in renaissance Italy. This has the same effect as a postcard. We want to dream of being somewhere we are not, and a good postcard can give us that.

Here is an actual postcard from Venice:




Here is promo art from Assassin’s Creed 2:



So we as developers have to render sufficiently realistic places to invoke the sense of place that already exists in the discourse so that we can control the interpretive act that shapes the perceived message the player has in his or her mind. That is, if we want to design games in this broad aesthetic paradigm, which I call Thinking It’s True.

This is a design paradigm of many AAA games – most recently, Dragon Age: Inquisition seems to work squarely in this paradigm – and it concerns the idea that the key to immersion, the player’s experience of being fully engaged in a game, is an immersion of place.



This can be problematic, however. While there is a near-perfect immersion of place in Assassin’s Creed 2, which I experienced by recognising having been places before I had actually been there, I’m happy to report that I did not in fact murder any templars with concealed blades on my honeymoon. This is not necessarily a problem, but another thing might be. To illustrate this, take a look at this piece of promo art from the game:

It’s a safe bet that people have been murdered close to the Basilica di San Marco, but probably not so spectacularly. The cool things you do clash with the sense of immersion of place in the game. But it is more in the mundane actions that the immersion in place is truly fragile. Take a look at this video:

As painfully illustrated here, the gorgeous and immersive rooms that we truly find ourselves in in Assassin’s Creed 2 can be fully undermined by the inability to meaningfully act in them. This means two thing: actions must be easily available to players and they must be meaningful, if we are to convey the conceived message that the player is doing something cool.

Please note that the really big problem here is that the player really expects that an assassin at this time and place should effortlessly be able to perform the actions attempted in the video. Since so much effort has gone into making a place we as players can see ourselves being in, we also assume that the character we identify with has the same level of authenticity. This is what is broken by the failure to perform mundane acts, leaving it impossible for at least some time to truly believe that anyone as clumsy as Ezio evidently is above could do cool stuff in the renaissance.

(This might be somewhat analogous to how the experience of a cool special effect in an action scene in a film can be greatly diminished if there is no character conflict involved in the action scene that contains it.)


Summing up

We can thus identify two big categories of formal elements that can be emphasised in our design: place and action. The feeling that overwhelms us as players when we play scenarios like the one in the above video is that of two formal elements clashing. The game spends so much time trying to immerse us in place without integrating actions as easily performable or immersive.

This means that to a certain degree, Assassin’s Creed 2 is a partial failure. It succeeds wildly in making me think I’m in renaissance Italy, but it fails in consistently making me conceive that I’m doing cool stuff there. The great moments one can have and that I have had in Assassin’s Creed 2 occur when certain scenerios line op the two formal elements satisfactorily.

So, we have identified two formal elements: place and action. We’ve also taken a glimpse at a game that clearly prioritises place. Next week, we’ll look at a game that clearly prioritises action, and I’ll consider what you can achieve through these two design strategies.


(BTW: here is a cool photo-blog mixing screenshots from the latest Assassin’s Creed game and actual shots from Paris)


I’m an associate professor at the Dania Academy of Higher Education in Grenaa, Denmark. We offer two AP level educations focused on game development, one for programmers and one for designers. I teach a flurry of different analytical disciplines, and I will be blogging about various forms of analysis from gameplay and narrative analysis of games to marketing analysis and even occasionally object oriented analysis in relation to game development. My focus is on making analysis a practical skill. I hope to produce insights and lessons for use in further design, rather than analysing for pure fun and knowledge – though that certainly also has its place. Oh, and a warning: I have a weird background for games – philosophy and the study of religion – which may bleed through from time to time. I will try to blog at least once a week – always on Thursdays, occasionally also on Mondays.

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