The old adage “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” is pretty dead-on. (Okay, fine, it’s also a song lyric.) The idea of contrast is important in making what matters stand out. Happiness emerging out of sadness; sated hunger after starvation; you get the idea. After all, a roller coaster has to go up to go back down, right?
In that, there is actually more to say. What if a roller coaster was just the best bits? What if a roller coaster only ever went down? Or, if you’d prefer, it can go only in loops. All that time you spend going up, waiting, listening to the dull clink of the chains rattling your train higher and higher, is eliminated and the rush of falling faster and faster towards the ground is your immediate reward.
One of the early trailers for Assassin’s Creed III featured a major run of gameplay that showed off Connor’s new and expanded list of abilities. One of them included a running assassination. We’re not talking about a hearty dive blades-first or an airborne death from above but a one-and-done moment of advantageous fighting. And then he does it again.
Just moments before, however, we see Connor sneak up on a fort and clamber up around some trees. It ends with him engaging a small group of guards, fighting and counterattacking and dodging his way to victory. It looks exciting, but we are reminded—somewhere in the back of our minds where rationality persists—that fighting in Assassin’s Creed games are never that fun.
Granted, it has improved with each game, and by improved I mean they make each fight take less and less time. Edward Kenway in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the most capable fighter of them all, his kill combos and counterattacks the most potent of all the robed predecessors. Two swords and two guns and a lust for blood will make anyone deadly, I guess.
And yet the running assassinations still stand out. Enemies seem even more open to the efficient attack in this iteration. We have a whole franchise dedicated to teaching us that you should sneak around instead of getting into blade-addled scraps (though the sneaking mechanics never quite supported that invitation), so see an opportunity to blend the rush of a quick and brutal kill with the entropy of battle is welcome.
Imagine, however, if we could just do that with every enemy. Picture if every enemy you came across was defenseless against your galloping death stride. That isn’t very much fun. Killing the citizens of Athens in God of War gets tiring after, what, 10 seconds? The civilians of Infamous in a minute? Consider, then, how much time you spend actually fighting capable enemies. Is it necessarily constantly more fun experience? Probably not.
But it is more rewarding, much like the running kills are in Black Flag. You understand and have gone through the struggles of hacking and slashing and shooting your way to not do it anymore, so the moment you get a leg up on the hordes before you, it feels earned. It feels special. It feels like all that time spent going up the coaster was well worth it just to go back down.
It’s strange and counterintuitive. Spending time purposefully impeding the joy of the player doesn’t make a lot of sense when you’re trying to give them a good time. But the key to it is proper design, which I would argue the times you get to dive from a crow’s nest onto someone’s neck or drive a guard into the ground with your hidden blades or pull off a double counterattack are well designed. They make that ride back to the bottom exciting.
The ups and down have to pace themselves. A slow descent into a free fall imbues both turns with drama and excitement and anticipation. But a single drop or an hour long ride to the bottom just doesn’t work. And in Black Flag, if you can work your way to the top, the game will make it worth your while on the way down, blades-first.