It's fitting that I would discuss the ways narrative and gaming are starting to really collide and create new emotional reactions in games, reactions I've never had to a book or a film, just as Ubisoft starts to get serious about becoming an entertainment company that produces films, books, games, and anything else they want.
Last night, I was invited to an event in Hollywood that illustrated just how fuzzy lines are getting these days. Ubisoft, the same company behind "Prince Of Persia" and the upcoming tie-in game for James Cameron's "Avatar", scored a sizeable hit two years ago with "Assassin's Creed," a game set in two different time periods.
In one, you're in the near-future, as a guy who is kidnapped and forced into an experiment involving a machine that uses your DNA to tap into ancestral memories. The other time period involves your actual ancestor, a member of a cult of assassins, as he carries out missions in the ancient Holy Land. It was a beautifully designed game, with some breathtaking ideas in it, and although it got very redundant by the end, I still viewed it as a fairly amazing overall experience. The worst part was the ending, a cliffhanger so abrupt that it practically left a scar.
Much of the original creative team returned for the new game, which hits shelves on Tuesday, November 17th, and to help launch the game, Ubisoft decided they wanted to test something that is one of the company's larger, long-term goals. They don't see themselves as just a game studio. Eventually, they want to produce films and TV shows that work in tandem with their games to tell large-canvass stories. I'm not just talking about adapting games to films, either... and that's the reason I think their idea is both exciting and inevitable.
I've used this description a few times when talking about the success of guys like JJ Abrams or Joss Whedon, guys who embrace new ways of interacting with their audiences, but Ubisoft has an opportunity to take things even further. The idea is basically treating a film the way you treat a ride at Disneyland. You don't just focus on the actual three-minute ride. Can you imagine if Disney just had plain buildings for each ride without any of the set dressing they use now? At Disney (especially if you go to Walt Disney World in Florida), the experience begins the moment you approach the ride. Everything is designed to work on you as an overall cohesive entertainment experience, engaging you the entire time you're in line, selling you a reality. By the time you actually get on the ride, you've already had so much fun with all the details you've seen that the ride just becomes part of the experience instead of the whole thing. When they're really smart, they put you out of the ride in the middle of the gift shop and still make you feel like it's just part of the fun, and not just a way to get your wallet.
That's the model Ubisoft has in mind. They want to create these large-scale intellectual properties and then work to make sure that every aspect of the story is told in a way that enhances or expands or enlightens every other part. They don't want any one thing to be "the" asset while everything else is just some throwaway to promote it. And I agree... there's a cynical way to do this, and a genuinely creative way to do this. Tonight, on Spike TV, you'll get a chance to judge which way Ubisoft is doing things.
From the press release:
"'Assassins Creed: Lineage' explores the events that happen just before the upcoming release of the Assassin’s Creed II game begins. The story revolves around Ezio’s father, Giovanni Auditore da Firenze, and it provides insight on the game’s back story and why Ezio begins the game on a quest for revenge. The short film was developed by Ubisoft’s Hybride Technologies, the visual effects company behind the visual effects for films such as 300 and Sin City. It will globally premiere in its entirety for the first time in high-definition on Spike TV on Wednesday, November 11 at 12:00am Midnight.
'As Ubisoft begins to expand into other media beyond games, we are excited to be working so closely with our valued partners at Viacom to debut this new story in the Assassin’s Creed universe exclusively on Spike TV,' said Tony Key, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Ubisoft. 'Spike has long been a leader in supporting our industry with excellent editorial programming, so it was a natural choice to team up with them for the U.S. public unveiling of this revolutionary new short film.'"
I know... I know... it's a lot of marketing talk. You want to judge for yourself? Here's the first part of the film, which will eventually be available in full at YouTube:
Okay, so there you go. That's what Ubisoft put together. As you can see, it's not a trailer in any conventional sense. It's also not just an adaptation of elements from the game, although most of the actors who appear in the game were used in the film as well to create real unity between the two and all of the sets in the film are based on the digital assets that were created for the game, which is a first, I believe. Instead, this is genuinely a way to tell part of the story that wouldn't fit in the game, but that enhances your understanding of the historic era the game is set in, as well as the stakes that are at play.
The film was directed by Yves Simoneau, who also directed the much-viewed pilot episode of "V" that aired last week, and it runs about 40 minutes total. Hybride, a Montreal-based FX house that worked on "300" and "Sin City," was in charge of completing the 750 FX shots that turned an all-greenscreen environment where the film was shot into stylized but realistic renderings of sets in Rennaisance-era Florence, Venice, and Rome. It's ambitious, and as a short film, it's decent. As a signpost on the road to the future of entertainment across multiple platforms, it's downright riveting.
This is what Marvel's been trying to do by taking control of their properties back and financing their own films. This is what any successful brand is going to need to do in the future. It's what Microsoft should have done if they were serious about making a "Halo" movie. They've got the money, so why not gamble that $150 million if you really believe in it? That way, you are in charge of every step of the thing.
What impressed me most, technically speaking, is the way they took all the environmental models from the game, all meticulously researched and constructed, and ported them over to the pipeline for Hybride to use in the film, so that the sets are the exact same sets. It's impressive work, and in motion, you'd be hard-pressed to guess that you're not looking at any real sets. I love that there seems to be some debate online about whether or not the actors are live-action, with some fans insisting that this is all a "Final Fantasy" style render. It's not, but since they used the actors for both the live-action footage and to play themselves in the game, it's a little disconcerting to watch how closely it all lines up.
As you can see in this photo, even the floors were painted green so that they could later texture map in various stone and marble surfaces:
I'd say that if you have any interest in using more than one media to tell your story, you should tune in to Spike tonight to check this out, or you should track down all three parts as they premiere online. Even if I didn't love the movie, I was deeply impressed by it, and I look forward to seeing how Ubisoft (and other companies) head further down this path in the near future.
Can't wait to play the game.
"Assassin's Creed II" will be in stores November 17th.
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