Control Analogs and Immersive Impact in Assassin’s Creed


For you to feel truly immersed in a game, to have the visceral sense of being in a virtual world and being embodied in an avatar, there has to be a close association between the actions of your character and the input which produces those actions. The wide variety of actions you can perform in an open world game like Assassin’s Creed means that there is a number of different control schemes. The ways in which each of these schemes enable you to execute actions depend on different methods. Combine that with the fact that all of these disparate tasks must be completed using the same input hardware, and not all of these schemes are equally consistent with your actions on screen.

Wampa Stompa: Walking in place is constant reminder that you are not actually moving, but it worked well for the lumbering Rancor in Kinect Star Wars.

Generally speaking, game control schemes do not provide true motion analogs, wherein the player and their avatar are performing the same action (and while there are some successful attempts to create these experiences with new technology, motion controls often work against immersion and precision rather than in favor of it).

To create a more widely applicable definition of a motion analog, let us say that it is any method where you have a similar sense of continuity with the control mechanism as you would with the action you are executing in real life. The closest examples would be actions that are performed using some form of mechanical or electronic interface. Steering a vehicle, for example, especially in flight, is a strong motion analog.

And to clarify, continuity or continuousness in and of itself is not a necessary condition. What is important is the coincidence between the action you are performing on the controller and the action you are performing in the game. If pressing a button on a controller causes your character to flip a switch or pull a trigger, this is a motion analog even if it is not the sort of sustained action you experience when steering, aiming, or walking.

For most entries in the Assassin’s Creed series, the core controls do not produce a strong feeling of immersion. Actions proceed automatically with the press of a button. The idea of being embodied in your character was apparently of such low priority in the first game that its primary social stealth mechanic spared you the burden of having to walk under your own power. You were locked into groups and became a spectator, rather than a free and purposeful wolf mingling among sheep.

Order of Monks: In the original game, hiding amongst the crowd meant your lockstep integration with a conspicuous formation of friendly NPCs. Subsequent games afforded you continuous control of your character, allowing you to walk normally and mingle freely. This change was essential to the new multiplayer mode, which required you to fool other humans with more sophisticated social stealth techniques.

In the case of the series’ trademark free running, you aren’t manually traversing the environment so much as you are triggering AI behaviors to interact with a navmesh. Similarly, attacking or blocking just means beginning an animation that interacts with an AI character in a way that you as a player has very little influence over once the action is initiated. Because gameplay is so closely tied to an extremely complex animation system and your input method is a simple button press, it fails to produce a strong sense that you are performing the actions.

With the naval combat that was added in Assassin’s Creed III, you have a strong motion analog, in part because steering can be successfully mimicked on a controller, even if it doesn’t reproduce the feeling of spinning a giant wheel. Furthermore, because the water is dynamically simulated, it produces constant feedback. The constant feedback, combined with your continuous, analogous control of the ship allows you to be immersed in a simulated world rather than caught in a static game loop.

Naval combat takes place on a dynamic battlefield. Factors are constantly changing, so they have a range of ever evolving effects, from minor to major, from now to later. Wave height, for example, impacts the battle in a nuanced way that could not exist in an environment as simplistic as the game’s melee combat. That is, shooting your cannons at the crest of a wave increases your range and otherwise improves your firing angle, but may also cause you to miss if your target rises too high or dips behind a huge swell. The dynamic simulation of all these factors make it strongly analogous to a live battle, at least when compared to the melee combat.

Killer Instinct: Few moments in the series satisfy the assassin’s lust for precision targeting. Planning a course of action and executing your intent are meant to be a major part of game, yet you are given but blunt instruments.

Outside of sea battles, the bocce ball minigame is one of your few opportunities to control the variables of a dynamically simulated outcome.  You choose a type of throw, aim the ball, and attempt to release it with a certain amount of power. This does not recreate the act of throwing or even resemble the action, but it allows you to execute your intent to the degree of precision that you would experience in real life.

This is not motion analog but an intent analog. Essentially, this is anything which allows you to transform a precise intent into a particular in-game outcome. An intent analog may also be a motion analog, but is not necessarily accomplished by performing a similar action and may not reflect motion at all. Issuing a command, like pressing a button to tell your crew to set sail, is another example that fits these conditions. In the case of bocce ball, the analogy is strengthened because the consequences of your action are physically simulated, such that the outcome is not predetermined and the mechanics accommodate real world thinking rather than impose game logic.

And that is the other dimension of immersion. Along with the visceral impression of the visuals and natural engagement through the control interface, there must be an ontological similarity between the real world and the virtual world. Your conception of the virtual world must somehow match understanding of the real world. If an object is thrown into the air it will fall back down. If you look and move in one direction, the space persists behind you in the other. You can predict the consequence of your action, but cannot be certain because of the dynamic, independent variables that affect the outcome. And this is why controls are so important to immersion. If your input is merely triggering an action that has a predetermined reaction, the sense that you are responsible for what happens starts to disappear.

Ideally speaking, you would have complete control over your character, but until the point that this is possible, other solutions bridge this technological gap. After six major releases, the melee combat in Assassin’s Creed is still not as satisfying as it should be, but I think UbiSoft can be forgiven for not creating a control scheme which requires the same level of concentration or offer the same flexibility as real life parkour would. The ease with which the player can scale buildings should be understood from the point of view that your natural talent for climbing is a fictional analog. While you as the player are not so gifted an athlete as Ezio, but for the characters you control, free running is as instinctive as walking.

Walking normally is such an instinctive behavior that having to move each foot individually rather than pointing an analog stick in the direction you want to move would be extremely disruptive. And because this is an unthinking behavior, you do not have to reproduce all aspects of its motion to experience that analog association. Likewise, it is so natural for the assassin to climb buildings and leap across rooftops that placing a greater burden on the player to guide these actions is likely to undermine their relationship with their avatar rather than strengthen it. Ultimately, players need to be able to execute their intent, and whatever gives them the strongest impression of having done that will likely be the best choice.