Assassin’s Creed ‘Controversy’ Shows Pitfalls of Graphics Over Gameplay


Ubisoft finally decided to finally split the baby in its decision over how to handle the never-ending debate about graphics on the Xbox One and PS4 as it pertains to “Assassin’s Creed: Unity.” And as with the namesake of “splitting the baby,” their decision appears to have satisfied precisely no one, as just a cursory look at the comments section of any story on this topic will show.

To quickly recap, in a bid to avoid any sort of debate over the merits of the graphics on different console versions of “Unity,” Ubisoft has frozen the resolution and framerate on both the Xbox One and the PS4 at 900 pixels and 30 frames per second. And unlike the previous entry in the series, “Black Flag,” this time Ubisoft has vowed that there will be no patch updating the game’s resolution to conform to the superior graphical capabilities of the PS4. And one can’t really blame them, given the proliferation of jealousy-inspiring videos that “Black Flag” spawned on the basis of differences between the PC, PS4 and Xbox One versions. In fact, Ubisoft’s explicit statement that they want to “avoid all the debates and stuff” is a clear sign that they see such graphical pissing contests as damaging to their brand.

Naturally, the fact that such videos won’t be able to exist has provoked outrage both from PS4 loyalists claiming the game’s visual design is being artificially truncated to placate buyers of the inferior Xbox, and rejoinders from Xbox fans that it is actually the AI that is being truncated due to processor speed. As Daniel already noted, there are a number of unsavory explanations that one could imagine for Ubisoft’s decision, though it may be that none of these is correct.

I have no intention of opining on which I think is correct, not because I believe that none of them is, but because frankly, I take the fact that we’re having this debate at all to be a sign of decline within the gaming industry. Let me illustrate why with a thought experiment.

Suppose that you were locked in a room with a console and only two games, both of which the console was configured to play. Of those two games, one would be an entirely unremastered version of the original NES Super Mario Bros.

The other, meanwhile, would be a game with graphics so photorealistic that they would be literally indistinguishable from reality. That game? None other than the infamous “Ride to Hell: Retribution.”

Imagine this, now ask yourself — which of these games would you actually spend more time playing if those were the only choices? Unless you’re the sort of person who finds staring at utter failure rendered in glorious photorealism to be stimulating entertainment, the odds are you’d stick with the original Mario, despite its 8-bit graphics.

Now, naturally, it’s possible to have good gameplay and good graphics, and the two can go hand-in-hand (see also: The Elder Scrolls series). But what does it say about our vision of gaming that our only concern about a game is whether we’ll be able to see a few hundred more pixels onscreen, rather than whether we’ll want to actually play the game for long enough to enjoy its environments and graphical beauty in the first place?

I’m not being coy here. The fact is that for too long, console warring has been devoted entirely to which console has either a) The better lineup of games, or b) The better hardware for displaying these games down to the last pixel. Call me a hopeless retro snob, but question b strikes me as not only fundamentally irrelevant, but also rather sad. Gaming culture has evolved past the point where, say, roleplaying games couldn’t fit their own stories on floppy discs, or when first person shooters couldn’t even program in jumping functions because of existing only in 2D space. The amount of processing power a PS4 or an Xbox One has has would’ve made the makers of some of gaming’s classics dizzy.

This much is cause for celebration, insofar as that power can allow for more flexibility and creativity when it comes to the choices that game manufacturers make when designing their games. But the fundamental mistake which those outraged at Ubisoft’s decision on both sides of the debate are making is conflating a console’s technical pyrotechnics with that console’s worthiness, and any attempt by game manufacturers to enable a game to sell equally well on two technically different consoles as an implicit attack on the advancement of gaming. Gaming as an art form has been advanced more by games like Amnesia or Braid or even Slender: The Arrival than it has by all the graphical tweaks in the world, because at its heart, gaming is not a medium one enjoys primarily for its visual splendor (though that doesn’t hurt), but rather for its interactivity, which games like the aforementioned have experimented with in far more daring ways than your average A-list title.

Instead of asking what resolution we’re going to see the levels of “Unity” in, why not ask how linear those levels are, or how much choice the player will have, or whether the story will be compelling? In other words, why not ask any question about its artistic content? This is almost like art critics visiting the Louvre Museum in Paris and sniffing that Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is overrated because he painted it on too small a canvas, or like partisans of Michelangelo insisting that their favorite painter is superior to all comers because he painted the entire ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and never mind whether he painted anything worth seeing, because the size of the picture is all that counts!

I am not going to condemn Ubisoft for a move that was probably undertaken to increase its market share in the increasingly converging console market for its top selling title. Nor am I going to celebrate it. What I am going to do is mourn the fact that the details of poor Arno Dorian’s adventure is already being overshadowed by the fact that so many gamers apparently can’t see past the nose rendered on Monsieur Dorian’s face.

Or, more accurately, how many pixels that nose fills on their screens.

The views expressed in this article explicitly belong to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of, nor should be attributed to, GameSided as an organization.