The Old Man and the Gamepad
(To hear this essay read by the author, click here.)
I’ve seen every episode of Frasier, all 264 of them. Let’s keep the math easy and assume each episode is 30 minutes long, so a total of 132 hours. But how many of those hours is Kelsey Grammer actually on screen? Let’s be generous and say 75%, which comes to 99 hours.
That’s still far short of the 130 hours I’ve spent in the last couple of months, watching the story of Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Except I’ve done much more than watching — I’ve dashed through cobblestoned streets, climbed towering towers, shadowed shadowy merchants, hid under haystacks, stabbed more people than I can count — all for the glory of a whole mess of assassinations.
This isn’t watching. This is doing. This is living.
Last year, I wrote about how Grand Theft Auto V filled the travel gap that Covid left in its quarantining wake. In that piece, I admitted that I did not play the game as intended, instead happily driving around Los Santos, the stand-in for Los Angeles in GTA’s world.
Now it’s time to admit something else — after my many beautiful long drives, I played a mission. And another. And another! And hours upon hours later, there I was, almost shocked at the credits that were rolling after the final scene.
Not only had I played GTA V, I’d completed it. The whole thing. From start to finish.
And now, after months of immersing myself in 15th century Firenze, Venezia, Roma, and Costantinopoli, there’s an inescapable fact: Thanks to the pandemic, I am an old man who has become a gamer. And a gamer, I’m proud to say, who finishes what he starts. According to a Microsoft report from 2009, only 27% of Grand Theft Auto IV players actually finished the game. I’m personally batting a thousand, as I’ve now also completed the Ezio Trilogy of Assassin’s Creed — II, Brotherhood, and Revelations.
This trilogy’s star is Ezio Auditore, an Italian man out to avenge the death of his family members, and it involves real-life historical people like the Borgias. The plot further includes ancient god-like beings, an apple with superpowers, blah blah blah… Really, it’s all rather nonsensical and doesn’t matter a whit. The reason why I began my journey was once again to scratch that international travel itch. The first game in the series takes place in my two favorite Italian cities, Florence and Venice. To revisit Il Duomo and San Marco Basilica again — and not only revisit, but scale these very buildings! Of course I’d love nothing more than to see these locations in person again, but in our current limited reality, these will have to do, and they do just fine.
In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that I’d fall in love with these games. Since officially becoming an old man last year, turning 50, I’ve become enamored with ancient history, having devoured the History of Rome and The History of English podcasts. At every significant landmark, with a press of a button, the game gives a little historical overview, snippets often rendered with tongue firmly in cheek. Plus I get to interact with the likes of Leonardo da Vinci — he’s basically my best friend in the first two games — which only adds to the cultural flavor. As a Gen Xer who grew up with nascent video games and was told more than once what spectacular wastes of time they were, Assassin’s Creed provides a cover of learning that mitigates my ever-present guilt.
So — if you are also an oldie like me and want to give this a shot, you are in for a pleasant surprise. For the PC, these trio of games came out in 2010 and 2011 — more than a decade ago. What that means is that most likely, whatever computer or laptop you have will be able to run them, so there’s no need to run out and buy a gaming PC. That leaves just two more requirements.
The obvious: the games themselves. Lucky for you, because such a long time has passed since initial release, what once would’ve cost well over a hundred bucks can now be had for about two Starbucks lattes! The current going rate for the Ezio Pack from Ubisoft itself, the game publisher, is $17.40. If you end up spending 120 hours, that comes to an average of $0.14 per hour. That’s so cheap it might as well be free.
The not-as-obvious but absolutely necessary: a gamepad. I bought the cheapest one from Amazon, a wired Xbox 360 controller for around $20. It’s true you can play the game with a keyboard and mouse, but please don’t. It was always meant to be played with a gamepad, so get one. Of course, this means you’ll need to teach your aging brain and clumsy fingers to work together, and it won’t be easy. In my youth, video games were simpler in every way, especially the joystick, with just a single button to mash. The Xbox 360 controller requires dexterity with the thumb, the index, and the middle finger of both hands. It took me a good day to get used to it, and around a week to become acceptably decent. It’s almost akin to touch typing, and you will screw up over and over again, but eventually you’ll get the hang of it. Don’t forget: Learning new things is good for the noggin.
The monetary investment may be minimal, but this endeavor will require your time. And since none of us have oodles of free time, gaming will eat into your other vices. For me, I’ve read less books and have watched far less television, but here’s the thing — playing these games is a worthy upgrade to both of those activities. For me, the purpose of fiction is to take you away to another world, inside the head of another person. The beauty of this trilogy is that you play the same character at different parts of his life — in the first, Ezio is a brash young man of 17 and is approximately 40 by the game’s end. The second one spans his forties, and the last one ends in his mid-fifties, his beard salted and his face creased with lines. Ezio feels every one of his years, and you will, too.
If you’ve ever been to the Grand Canyon and then try to tell someone what it’s like to be at the rim of that vast expanse, words will fail you. It’s a cliché, but you have to be there, and the same can be said of Ezio’s journey. Like most memorable experiences, all the emotions packed into this trilogy can only be felt through play. There are timed chases that will leave you breathless; puzzles that are just tricky enough to make you feel a little smarter; a climb up the Colosseum that’s so satisfying you’ll want to do it all over again. One of the sweetest missions is finding flowers for a lady — that’s all. No fighting, no shivving, just picking some beautiful white tulips. (Minor spoiler: Arguably, it is the most important mission in the entire series, as she will eventually become Ezio’s wife.) As involving as a novel or a movie can be, at this point I’m fully convinced no other medium can rival the emotional intimacy of a well-crafted video game. The bond between you and the character and the story is permanently forged through repeated physical and mental activity. The doing is the magic.
Since this trilogy was created more than a decade ago, the graphics are nowhere near the photorealistic renditions common to more modern games, but the voice-work is uniformly excellent. Huge props to Roger Craig Smith, a voice actor who as of this writing owns 308 performance credits. He imbues Ezio with the perfect blend of mirth and gravitas, engaging me through all those hours just with his vocal cords.
So now that I’m done with Ezio, what next? The next Assassin’s Creed, of course — III. This one takes place during the American Revolution and is generally regarded as one of the weaker efforts in the ongoing series, and I can see why. It is more “on rails,” as they say, a game that feels less open and more connect-the-dots. But the graphics are greatly improved, the fighting mechanics are more refined, and I just took a walk around snowy Boston in 1754, passing by Faneuil Hall. Did you know that a grasshopper weather vane is at the tippy-top of Faneuil Hall? I didn’t know that, but I know now — because yesterday I was standing right next to it.
One last parting note. The third objective in Assassin’s Creed II’s first sequence is to race your brother to a church. You have to get there before him in order for the game to go on. It took me a good half hour, and I almost gave up. The good news: It was one of the hardest parts of that entire game, so if you can get past it, you’re ready. The bad news: You have to get past it!
Good luck, Ezio. I promise it’ll be worth it. Just look at what awaits you.