I played two video games this week that made me think about history. Not History with a capital H, although, certainly, one of them did that. Instead, they all made me think about their own histories as video games: the lineage they came from and the traditions they were bound up with. No wonder then, that by the end of the week, I was recalling a conversation I once had with a video game developer who was working on the narrative for a Star Wars game. This was way back, very much pre-J.J. Abrams and The Force Awakens. I asked the developer what it was like navigating that much accrued lore from the point of view of someone who was trying to make something new and characterful and coherent. He didn't reply. Not in words anyway. Instead he sighed and he closed his eyes and he pinched the bridge of his nose as if he was trying to dispel a migraine. I doubt this man was too upset when Abrams and company announced the death of the Extended Universe.
I imagine a lot of that kind of sighing goes on at Ubisoft when the teams are trying to hash out a new Assassin's. Man oh man, the early days of a game must be so exciting for developers. I can easily imagine the rush of pleasure picturing all the things you'd like to do and all the things you're going to really nail this time. But with a series like Assassin's, I can imagine the tension headache that descends too. This is a headache of history, I imagine. Ambitions are hemmed in by the lore and what it allows for, but also by the accrued weight of systems - systems that players expect, and systems that are so deeply bedded in that they cannot be shifted at this point.
It's amazing, then, that Origins managed to dig out something so fundamental as combat and give it a bit of a reworking. So much of the feel of Assassin's is bound up in those tightly-gathered fights, where enemies pace on your perimeter waiting for an opening, and where you sit back and counter rather than lash out with a straightforward attack. This approach to combat was forged back in the first Assassin's game, where I suspect that if you were in combat at all it was meant to feel like something had already gone a bit wrong. Openly engaging in swordplay in the original Assassin's Creed wasn't your reward, it was a chance to salvage a messy victory in the face of imminent defeat.
You could talk for hours about what Origin's refreshed combat means for the future of the series, and I suspect people will, but as big a change as that is, elsewhere the latest game is still bound by decisions made in the past. There are things you expect from an Assassin's game and they must be delivered. The map must be vast - it must be bigger than the map of the game that came before it - and it must be filled with icons and activities. There must be towers to climb and swan-dive from, there must be a bit of techno-mystical mumbo-jumbo in the modern world to tease away at. There must be this and that, and so a game that plays amongst history is firmly locked in its own history: successful changes tend to be incremental here, and the character of the series steadily chugs into focus as, with every game, weaker ideas from the past are slowly excised.
This is fascinating to watch, of course. In its own way, Assassin's seems to operate with a variation of the rule of thirds that governs Civilization - by which I mean the game series, sadly. Every Civ game, so it goes, has a third that remains unchanged, a third that was present last time but has been improved, and a third that is really all new. I think Origins has spent its final 'third' really beautifully: there is stuff in the latest Assassin's that I will simply never forget. But it makes me wonder - and it must make the developers wonder - what life would be like if they could really start from scratch.
It might be a bit like Mario? Mario Odyssey doesn't start from scratch, of course - the cast remains, such as it is, and Mario's core moves are all present and correct. But when it comes to what's in and what's out, Mario games tend to treat their own history as a kind of roomy old wardrobe waiting in an attic somewhere. Who knows what's inside that tempting mass of dressing up clothes and other clutter? What do you want to emerge with this time? What do you want to leave behind for the next time around, or the time after that?
This wardrobe behaves like the wardrobe from the Narnia books too. You don't have to push very far into the darkness before you emerge somewhere entirely new. I've been playing Odyssey on and off for a week, and what's thrilling to me is that I'm constantly trying to get my head around this bizarre, shifting amalgamation of the old and the new. Here are piranha plants, right, but they behave in a way they never have before, at least for the whims of this particular level. Who knows how they'll be behaving five minutes from now? Here's a boss fight that has echoes of Mario 3's mini-bosses, but here's another that invokes Zelda, and here's another that is simply unlike anything I've ever seen. Here are Bullet Bills, which I've known forever, but in this game I can take control of them, so they've changed from a baddie and into a form of transport. How weird.
This is the Nintendo approach to history, then: you can build on it, but you never need to be entirely bound by it. This is true even of Zelda, which has often seemed as much a collection of rituals as it has a video game series. Breath of the Wild changed all that, but it also revealed that maybe the truism about Zelda was never really as true as it seemed. All Zeldas have their distinct flavours, their distinct clockwork, to an extent that something like Assassin's can only dream of. And when Hyrule Historia attempted to put them all into a fixed chronology, it was hard not to feel that the whole exercise was almost a parody of the fan-base's desire for that chronology in the first place.
Maybe this is part of Nintendo's magic, then, part of what angel investors might term its unfair advantage. Nintendo started off as a playing card manufacturer after all. Before video games came long it ran taxis and owned love hotels. It's got almost 130 years on the clock, and that's enough time for some very counterintuitive messages to drift down from the rafters: what's past is prologue, and the future can look like anything you want it to.