Ubisoft, hélas! The French developer’s particular poetics of excess
Ubisoft’s games, in all their messy, faceless glory, can be called many things (“bloated,” “mindless,” “overstuffed”) but “minimalist” is the not one of them. As the years rolled on, and the company moved away from the platformers and shooters it was once known for, they helped codify a new type of game: that of the open-world sandbox. In doing so, they created a genre that relied almost exclusively on a glut of content, an overflow of activities, side-quests, collectibles, and viewpoints.
Their recent games, most notable the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Watch Dogs, and Far Cry, exemplify this trend. Each presents an open world, usually divided into sections that can be slowly “reclaimed” over the course of the story. Within each section is a litany of collectible items and side quests linked to lists found in the menu waiting to be checked off.
It’s here where the maximalist style of stuffing their open worlds with stuff to do divides opinions. Some appreciate the time value that so much content can give a sixty dollar game. Others aren’t quite so charitable. (“Ubisoft Game is filled with side activities such as This Gambling Game, Beating Up Enemies Until You Are Told To Stop, Looking For Collectibles, and Tailing Somebody Somewhere For Some Reason,” Tim Colwill wrote in his humorous review of the Ubisoft template.)
But I’ve always found something admirable in the way Ubisoft throws subtlety and precision in the dumpster in favor of gangly, sweeping comprehensiveness. Their games engage in something that Umberto Eco, the (sadly) recently deceased Italian philosopher and novelist, called the poetics of excess.
In an essay entitled “Hugo, helas!” about the French author Victor Hugo, Eco praises Hugo’s Ubisoft-like tendency to forgo subtle characterization and nuance in favor of entire chapters devoted to descriptions of buildings and passages upon passages of names and details that descend upon and overwhelm the reader, until they are immersed in it and the words become pure sound. “In Hugo,” Eco writes, “there is always an excess in the description of earthly events, and an indomitable desire to see them always from God’s point of view.”
Similarly, Ubisoft’s titles immerse the player in so many ways to be your character, that the discrete missions and quests emulsify into something deeper. Let’s focus on Assassin’s Creed, since, like Hugo, it’s a franchise interested in the primal forces of history.
Each Assassin’s Creed game casts players in the role of an assassin, whose primary role is to hide in hay and be tangentially, but always secretly, involved in every major historical event of their respective settings. Connor, the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed III which is set in the American Revolution, witnesses the Boston Tea Party, fights in the Battle of Yorktown, and rides clumsily along with Paul Revere to warn of the incoming British, for example.
In keeping with our Hugo theme, let’s focus on the French Revolution-set Assassin’s Creed Unity, which is so indebted to Hugo that two burly brothers met in the very first mission are named “Victor” and “Hugo.” The opening moments of Unity, as with most Assassin’s Creed games, are almost comically brimming with cliché. The hero’s father is murdered tragically, instigating him to set forth on his journey. He meets a mysterious mentor figure who knew his father and draws him into a larger, more mysterious world. It’s all familiar narrative devices to anyone who’s read Joseph Campbell or seen Star Wars. But cliché is a vital tool for the poetics of excess. Eco says that “while a single cliché is kitsch, shamelessly letting fly a hundred clichés makes an epic.”
It’s Assassin’s Creed’s willingness to hit every single trope straight on, again and again, that brings it out of the realm of laziness and into audacity. One has to admire the way the story unfolds in the most grandiose way possible, even if the individual moments that make it up are less than inspired. “Excess can turn even bad writing and banality into a Wagnerian tempest,” Eco says.
The side-effect of embracing every cliche under the sun is that characters tend to never emerge further beyond their assigned archetype. But it is the exact simplicity of those characters that allows Assassin’s Creed to use another of Hugo’s favorite tricks: that of narrative actors as symbols for actants, or the forces that those actors represent.
Arno is not the most well-fleshed out of characters, nor is his forbidden paramour Elise, a member of the Assassin’s mortal enemies, the Templars. But it is through the simple cipher of these characters that the game’s larger ideas can be expressed; in Arno and Elise’s case, they represent Unity. Here, Eco is clear on Hugo’s stance on actors and actants. “Hugo is not interested in the psychology of his wooden or marmoreal characters,” he writes. “He is interested in the antonomasia to which they relate or, if you like, their symbolic value.” Similarly, the rest of the characters are valuable not so much for their individual personalities, but for the forces they represent in the larger machinations of history and revolution. The conflict between Arno’s bellicose mentor (named Bellec of course) and the Assassin council is a classic depiction of Action versus Caution. These symbolic incarnations extend to the larger franchise itself, with the Assassins as a whole standing in for Free Will and Anarchy while the Templars represent Order and Control.
Lastly in our exploration of Assassin’s Creed and excess, Eco writes that “the poetics of excess is [most] apparent through the technique of the catalog and the list.” Here is where Eco’s analysis and the Ubisoft style of game design are most closely aligned: the hated, derided, but hopelessly addicting lists. Lists of animals to skin, flags to be collected, and side missions to be completed. Many Ubisoft open-world titles can be thought of chiefly as a series of lists.
Similarly, Hugo delighted in lists. In one section of Ninety-Three, Hugo’s own depiction of the French Revolution, the author spends three chapters describing the hall where the National Convention met to draw up a new constitution. Fifteen grueling pages are dedicated solely to the naming of every single member of the Convention and brief biographical details. The sequence is so endless that Hugo was almost certainly aware that his readers would skip parts of it. Eco theorizes that these immense lists are included, in part, to convey the idea of largeness in a demonstrative way. In the beginning of Notre Dame de Paris (known more famously as The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Hugo uses similar excessive descriptions to express the largeness of the Parisian crowds. “[T]o create the idea of public celebration and the participation of the aristocracy as well as members of the bourgeoisie and the populace, to create the impression of grouillement (to use Hugo’s word), of a teeming mass, the reader has to digest a vast series of names of characters who may be historical but are completely unfamiliar and therefore meaningless.”
Compare such excess to Unity’s “Paris Stories,” a tremendous series of short side quests that send Arno running errands for Madame Tussaud, facilitating love letters between Napoleon’s fiancé and her lover, and blackmailing aristocrats for the Marquis de Sade. These missions are the video game equivalent of Hugo’s lists: short but innumerable experiences that make up the whole of Paris in the late 1790s collected in catalog.
“The catalog becomes useful when something has to appear so immense and confused that a definition or description would be insufficient to show its complexity, especially to give the feeling of a space and all it contains,” Eco writes. In that sense, Assassin’s Creed Unity is a success in depicting the enormity and complexity of the period, regardless of whether one finds that depiction nuanced or even accurate. But nuance and accuracy are not the goals of the poetics of excess. The goal is to bring something so far through the mire of repetition and slog that it emerges on the other side looking unique and new, to explore the grand driving forces that turn the wheels of history, and to depict the enormity of life through endless lists of collectibles and tasks.