Playful Flânerie in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate

By Theresa Krampe*

Imagine yourself standing under a gaslight on a broad street, watching well-dressed people in petticoats and top-hats walk past. The air is filled with the rattle of carriages and the smell of horses as growlers, cabs, and buses go by at a lazy trot. The year is 1868, the place of course London, and, judging by the unmistakable sound of Big Ben a little further down the street, the time is precisely 12 noon. You start walking, past St. Margaret’s Church and Westminster Palace until you set foot unto Westminster Bridge where the angry curses of the carriage drivers and the cracks of their whips mingle with the steady thrumming of steamship engines in the waters down below. In the distance, black smoke rises from the chimneys of huge factory buildings. Lambeth, on the other side of the Thames, greets you with the usual dusky corner pub, colourful shopfronts, and a bustle of voices and sounds, loudest among them the shouts of news-boys: “Fifty copies!” Somewhere between Westminster Rd. and Union Street, a soft rain sets in and the passing carriages splash your boots with sooty water.

Walking towards Westminster Palace; screenshot by Lettete

Neo-Victorian Videogames?

Saturated with period drama nostalgia, this brief scene is based on a gaming session of the popular videogame Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (AC:S) set in mid-19th century London. Given the recent infatuation with all things Victorian from literary fiction via film adaptations and TV-series to theme parks or steampunk conventions,[1] it is hardly surprising to find Victorian themes, settings, and aesthetics in videogames as well. Indeed, videogames as interactive media seem particularly prone to encouraging playful engagement with the Victorian age, which is central to the movement frequently termed Neo-Victorianism. If “Neo-Victorian fiction provides the imaginative possibility of re-walking the Victorian streets” (Martin 2015), then videogaming has taken this idea quite literally. Transported into Victorian London, the player of AC:S is free to explore its streets, pubs, warehouses, back alleys, or even sewers, providing plenty of opportunity for immersive strolls through an immensely detailed and (almost) historically accurate cityscape.

As is typical of Neo-Victorian works, Syndicate’s London is not a homogeneous, clearly bounded city but a spatio-temporal palimpsest, haunted by the traces of countless Londons filtered through more than a century of rich literary heritage and vibrant artistic imagination (see also Banerjee, n.pag.). What is more, the game overlays its city map with a second map representing the gameplay opportunities afforded by the game’s rules and mechanics. I will therefore devote this entry to a closer look at how AC:S creates a multilayered, yet highly immersive ‘virtual city’  through a) the co-presence of multiple maps and images of the city, and b) the spatial practices afforded by its gameplay.

Between Historical Authenticity and Virtual Playground

Simply looking at AC:S, one is immediately struck by the attention of detail and the sheer beauty of the city recreated in the game. From the look of the skyline, the network of streets, and the architecture of the buildings, down to the design of chimney stacks and the very cobble of the streets, AC’s London feels, for lack of a better word, authentic. In fact, according the developer’s own information, Ubisoft went to extraordinary lengths to “get things just right”, collecting considerable amount of data and working with expert advisors (Creative Director Marc-Alexis Côté qtd. in  2015, n.pag.). This also holds true for the animation of the city. All NPCs (non-player characters), even those players cannot interact with, show behavior patterns corresponding to their (historical and social) roles, e.g. going to work in the morning and returning home at night, taking cabs and buses, selling produce, cheating on their wives, or getting drunk at the local pub.

At the same time – another characteristic trait of Neo-Victorian works (Banerjee, n.pag.) –  AC:S of course remains “wrapped” in our own age. The gameworld is thus as much an interpretation as a recreation of the Victorian age, and clearly reflected through a 21st century consciousness (Milne 2016, n.pag.; see also Elizabeth Bowen qtd. in Banerjee 2013, n.pag.).  The game’s representation of gender and sexuality, for instance, reflects and must be contextualized against contemporary debates, not (only) Victorian values.[2] The protagonist Evie’s self-sufficiency and weapon skills seem decidedly unlikely traits in a Victorian lady. The queer overtones of her brother Jacob’s quest for identity formation, in turn, strongly resonates with game culture’s excruciatingly slow recovery from its long history of misogyny, homophobia, and general lack of diversity.[3]

The question of historicity is further complicated where historical accuracy conflicts with the ‘fun factor’ or playability of the game. In fact, designers of AC are known to have shortened some of the actual geographical distances in order to avoid lengthy and uneventful journeys in the game (Lynch 2015, n.pag.). Seen through the lens of gameplay, that is in terms of affordances and limitations, the game map is not so much an accurate representation of the city, but turns into an assemblage of labyrinths and racing courses, links and dead ends.[4] A playground in which players can engage in wild carriage chases, free-run across rooftops, or engage in boxing matches and fights with rival gangs. Players, that is, may perceive the setting in terms of climbable- and non-climbable architecture, possible escape routes, and other environmental factors facilitating or hindering the quiet assassination of opponents. Or they may (temporarily) ignore the main quest, instead using the game as a sandbox for spatial practice and/or becoming a tourist in Victorian London.

Schematic map in the game interface ; screenshot by Lettete

Mapping and Counter-mapping: Gameplay as Spatial Practice

As briefly mentioned above, Neo-Victorian cityscapes in general and that of AC:S in particular are characterized by the presence of multiple maps, some literal and some metaphorical. The former, often represented as 2-D (or sometimes 3-D) schematic maps that help players keep track of the gameworld, are conventional elements especially in open- or semi-open world games (Aarseth 2001, p. 57). Drawing up the game’s interface – which will suspend the progression of time in the gameworld – players have access to a representation of the city map showing not only districts, streets, railways, rivers, and architectural landmarks but also information pertaining to both narrative and gameplay, such as icons marking the location of the player and quest destinations or text boxes revealing which of the rival factions currently controls which part of the city. In an ideological reading, this map of London imposes order on the unruly city and caters to the player’s need to see and know; an expression of 21st century societies thirst for data (Murail and Thornton 2017, p. 14). Similarly, in his much-cited essay “Walking in the City” (1988), Michel de Certeau associates this god-like view with “panoptic administration” (p. 96); the desire to comprehend, organize, and dominate the city. The view from above is then contrasted with a bottom-up view from street level, encompassing the everyday, spontaneous, and unruly practices of its inhabitants.

Bird’s eye view over Westminster; screenshot by Lettete

Both perspectives are afforded in AC:S. On the one hand, game mechanics encourage the climbing of high structures, including iconic landmarks such as the Queen Elizabeth Tower or Buckingham Palace, in order to gain a bird’s-eye view of the city. This will “synchronize” the map of the city in the interface, which causes the appearance of additional icons providing further information about places and events in the city such as the location of side-quests, and unlocks the ”fast-travel” mechanic, a kind of teleport[5] to a specific location. Synchronisation, like De Certeau’s god-like view, thus increases the player’s control over the map/city by means of knowledge and surveillance tools as well as the affordance of instantaneous transfer from one location to the other (see also Gann 2015, n.pag.).

Randomly walking the streets of London, on the other hand, is allied with De Certeau’s fragmented mole’s-eye view. Especially in the literary imagination, it is also strongly associated with the figure of the flaneur; the stroller and observer of urban life.[6] As I have indicated above, AC:S also permits players to merely wander the streets and explore the virtual urban environment at a leisurely pace, ignoring the game goals defined by the main quest. Engaging in a kind of sandbox play, gamers may thus create very individual experiences of virtual London.

At the same time, as players – and with them the avatars Jacob and Evie – freely move between the broad streets of Westminster and the slums of Whitechapel, between palaces and sewers, public and private, they also challenge a multitude of social dichotomies including for instance divisions along the lines of class and gender. In De Certeau’s terms, walking is resistance; it is the random movement that cannot be controlled in and by panoptic organisation but manipulates spatial organisation from within. Finding their way about the city, encountering or never noticing its inhabitants, actualising some narrative branches while neglecting others, observing social norms or transgressing them, following quest goals or pursuing their very own versions of the game, players thus intervene in the spatial organisation of the city, inserting unruly and subjective paths, nodes, encounters, citations, and experiences into the urban imagination.

Behind the facade; screenshot by Lettete

Neo-Victorian videogames, then, have multiple functions, from the recreation of temporally and spatially distant locations, enabling a kind of virtual tourism, to the engagement with the present through self-reflexive “play” with the past. The multitude of spatial practices they afford, including the audiovisual representation of the city, the scripted narrative arcs but also the individual and potentially transgressive activities of the player and the sharing of experiences via video streams or blogs ultimately contribute to the making and unmaking of place in the contemporary imagination, influencing people’s experience of urban environments both virtual and actual.[


* The author wishes to express her gratitude to Lady Kurai, benefactress of low-budget gamers and bestower of steam-libraries.

All images copyright Ubisoft; for more information please refer to https://www.ubisoft.com/en-us/videopolicy.html

[1] Neo-Victorianism has by now become a shorthand for a variety of works that engage with Victorian literature, culture, or aesthetics (Banerjee, n.pag.). Examples include literary fiction such as John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) or Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (2013), various films, TV-series, and adaptations, the steampunk movement, and even theme parks such as Dickens World, Kent.

[2] Questions of imperial ideologies in the game and the ways in which the presence of the Empire is felt in the 19th century capital, e.g. through ethnic and linguistic diversity, by far extends the scope of this brief entry and warrants a discussion of its own.

[3] These problematic dimensions violently surfaced during what became known as ‘gamergate’ in 2014, when self-identified gamers engaged in online harassment of feminist critics and their allies.

[4] For further reading see e.g. Espen Aarseth’s 2001 article “Allegories of Space: The Question of Spatiality in Computer Games.”

[5] According to Aarseth (2001), teleport mechanics privilege gameplay over concerns about “actual” spatial relations such as proximity/distance, see eg. p. 67.

[6] See Baudelaire, Charles (1995). “The Painter of Modern Life.” In: Id. The painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. 2nd ed. London: Phaidon. 1–35.

References

Ludography

Ubisoft Québec. Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. Ubisoft, PC, 2015.

Bibliography

Aarseth, Espen (2001). “Allegories of Space: The Question of Spatiality in Computer Games.” Zeitschrift für Semiotik 23: 152-71.

Banerjee, Jaqueline (2013). “Neo-Victorianism: An Introduction.“ Victorian Web. http://www.victorianweb.org/neovictorian/introduction.html. Last accessed 17.01.2019.

Certeau, Michel de (1984). “Walking in the City.” The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: U of California P. 91-111.

Gann, Jack (2015). “Walking in the Virtual City: Assassin’s Creed and the Armchair Flâneur.” Leedstrinity. Web. http://www.leedstrinity.ac.uk/blogs/leeds-centre-for-victorian-studies/walking-in-the-virtual-city-assassins-creed-and-the-armchair-fl%C3%A2neur. Last Accessed: 08.01.2019.

Lynch, Gerald (2015): Assassin’s Creed Cockneys. How Ubisoft is Recreating Victorian London for Syndicate. Gizmodo. http://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2015/08/assassins-creed-cockneys-how-ubisoft-is-recreating-victorian-london-for-syndicate. Last accessed 17.01.2019.

Martin, Susan K. (2015). “Neo-Victorian Cities of the Dead: Contemporary Fictions of the Victorian Cemetery.” In: Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben (eds.). Neo-Victorian Cities: Reassessing Urban Politics and Poetics. Leiden/Boston: Brill/Rodopi. 201-226.

Milne, Duncan (2016). “Neo-Victorian Review – Simulacra and the City: Accuracy, Interpretation and Dissonance in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.Victorianist. Web. https://victorianist.wordpress.com/2016/07/15/neo-victorian-review-simulacra-and-the-city-accuracy-intepretation-and-dissonance-in-assassins-creed-syndicate/. Last accessed 08.01.2019.

Murail, Estelle, and Sara Thornton (2017). “Dickensian Counter-Mapping, Overlaying, and Troping: Producing the Virtual City”. In: Ead. (eds.).  Dickens and the Virtual City: Urban Perception and the Production of Social Space. Cham: Springer. Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture. 3-23.

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