I don't typically critique games I haven't finished, but I'm making an exception this time because I want to focus on my first few hours with Assassin's Creed II. A couple of issues are keeping me at arm's length from this game, and I thought it might be useful to explore them. Many of my online friends have encouraged me to persevere, ensuring me that the game comes into its own after 4 hours or so. So I'm not giving up. I've found much to enjoy about the game too, and I hope to explore that in another post.
Playing Assassin's Creed II makes me wincingly recall Edward G. Robinson's infamous "Where's your Messiah neoow?" from Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. Grossly miscast as a corrupt overseer of the enslaved Hebrews, Robinson brings a discordant 30s-era gangster movie gravitas to the period Biblical epic. I adore Robinson's work in many other films, but his death in The Ten Commandments - swallowed up in a gaping crevice that opens when Moses smashes the commandment tablets in a rage - arrives like an unintentional gift from Mr. DeMille. Finally, mercifully, Robinson stops talking.
The voice acting in AC2 doesn't approach such calamity, but it draws attention to itself in similar dissonant ways. The problem with many of the vocal performances in AC2 is that they come off sounding exactly like what they are: actors doing dialects. Taking nothing away from the talents of the Canadian actors who comprise nearly all the roles, the characters in the game sound like an assemblage of native-English actors practicing a variety of thick, inconsistent Italian accents. As a result, the dialogue feels "performed," as if constructed to reinforce for an English-speaking audience how authentically Italian these characters are.
Sadly, Roger Craig Smith (Ezio, the game's protagonist) has a particular penchant for laying it on thick, and his performance often seems more driven by inflection and dialect delivery than character motivation. When a game asks us to accept familial relationships - a driving force in AC2's story - the actors must make good on those definitions. Smith, Elias Toufexis (Frederico Auditore), Ellen David (Maria Auditore), and Romano Orzari (Giovanni Auditore) play brothers, mother and father, but they sound more like actors who studied with different dialect coaches. I say this not to degrade these actors or their work. I believe they're doing the best they can.
English-speaking writers who set their work in non-English-speaking locales always present a challenge to actors and directors. When Shakespeare says we're in Milan, what does that mean? Are we all, audience included, now Milanese too? In which case we can speak Elizabethan English, but assume it's all really Milanese? Or are we looking in on Milan from our local perspective, magically granted the ability to understand these characters who clearly do not speak English? And if so, should they have dialects?
Actors and directors have faced these questions for many years (although it's worth noting that 'realistic acting' didn't really exist before the 20th century), and now game designers must grapple with them too. From my experience, having seen and practiced a variety of approaches and solutions, the key to success is consistency. Whatever you do must be done well and carefully implemented across the board.
So if the bad guys in Star Wars speak with English accents (except James Earl Jones, who overdubbed an English actor's performance...but that's another story), and the good guys don't (except Alec Guinness), then establish that convention and hire the best actors you can find to bring those characters to life. None of it makes any sense, of course, but no one questions the man with the confident gait who knows where he's going. If the conceit we're asked to accept is a cast of native-Italian characters speaking English with Italian accents, those actors must deliver the goods.
I admire Ubisoft for its obvious commitment to getting AC2's Italian cities right. Florence, a city I know well, is a magnificent achievement in rendering a real-world location as an explorable game environment. Stunning in fact. I'm told Venice is even more impressive. The amount of research and devotion AC2's dev team lavished on this aspect of the design is clearly seen in the final product.
I wish they had devoted even a fraction as much attention to the performances. Ubisoft sent a team of designer/devs to Italy in order to research its environs and develop a genuine feel for the place. I wish they had reached outside the city of Montreal to cast AC2's gallery of Italian characters. If studying photos of Florence wasn't good enough for a Montreal team of designers - if actually being there made such a difference to the visuals - why not make the same commitment to the characters?
I've got another issue with Assassin's Creed II, and it has to do with gameplay. I'll save that one for my next post. And, like I said, I'll keep playing.