Video Game Novel Review: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood

Back in January, I wrote a post about ‘videogame novels’, and mentioned that I planned to read AC: Brotherhood as a way to avoid playing the game. (After playing AC2, Revelations, and soon AC3 in a span of 18 months, I feel tired of the franchise’s gameplay.) Well, I finally finished it. 500 utterly disappointing, mediocre pages.

AC - Brotherhood book

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is a novelization of the 2010 game of the same name. Unlike Ico, where the author stated explicitly that the book would differ from the game in certain respects, Brotherhood is a 100% carbon copy of the game, but in word-form. It was released shortly after the game’s debut, and at the back of the book is an ad: “you’ve read the book, now play the game”. (Not that I will)

The first question to consider is how to review a novelization like this. The author, Anton Gill (writing under the pseudonym Oliver Bowden), had no influence over the plot. Dialogue had to be copied verbatim from the game, and games are known to have cheesy, trite voice acting. Similarly, the sequence of events was determined by the game. Mr. Gill had little control over that.

So how do we judge a novelization? In several ways: diction, presentation, and editorial control. Diction is a person’s word choice and stylistic decisions. Presentation will refer to the Bowden’s ability to engage readers – to glue your eyes to the page, so to speak. Editorial control will refer to his invention of new content and decisions of what content from the game to cut out.

As a longtime writer and respected Renaissance historian, there isn’t a much better choice for the AC series than Mr. Gill. He has extensive knowledge of the time period in which the Ezio trilogy takes place, and he’s written his own novels on the time period. Yet AC:Brotherhood is exceptionally poorly-written. Most of the prose is dry and uninteresting, with a few interspersed “purple passages” that manage to hold my interest. His character development is sadly lacking (though that’s a mixture of his fault and Ubisoft’s). Each character has its own distinctive personality, but that is entirely because of dialogue, which Mr. Gill had no say in.

I find myself extraordinarily disappointed by this book. I could never give his writing a greater compliment than it being “decent enough”, and each time I began to get my hopes up, the writing would take a dramatic downturn, throwing me into a whirlpool of frustration.

Mr. Gill deserves credit for a few things. His knowledge as a historian does allow for a few insights and references that aren’t possible to an ignorant reader. The recurring mention of the “new disease”, which I recognized as syphilis, takes on a surprisingly important role in the story. It’s both historically accurate and absent from the game, and it’s intriguing to watch the syphilis outbreak carve a niche into the novel. In addition, Cesare Borgia places his life in Fate’s hands. “As for me, I cannot die. Fortuna will not fail me!” He declares. The allusion to Fortuna, the Roman deity symbolizing luck/fortune, harkens back to the epic poet Lucan. In Lucan’s Civil War, Caesar similarly placed all his chips into Fortuna’s hands when fighting Pompey, and he came out victorious. The reference is subtle but appreciated.

I’ll mention just two more (relatively) obscure references that will amuse the learned reader. Cesare Borgia’s doctor mentions using mercury as a temporary treatment for syphilis, and, almost at the same time, he describes the increasing mental instability of syphilis patients. What’s ironic here is that mercury poisoning itself, when ingested (even through skin contact), can result in the same symptoms as Gill describes for syphilis: skin discoloration, swelling, and even brain damage.

Finally, Gill recognizes the political ramifications of each event. Italy at this time was a geographical area ruled by a host of warring factions, and the author does a splendid job of recognizing each consequence and ramification of characters’ ideology, connections, and national origin. It matters that the Borgia family is Catalan and not merely Spanish. It matters what the Pope’s country of origin is. The book does a great job of fleshing these intrigues out when it would make a difference.

Having said that, the diction in this novel is typically mediocre in the worst way – boring and forgettable. It encourages your eyes to skim over it without taking any information in. Below, I’ll transcribe a small paragraph midway through the book:

“Ezio took up a position by a cedar tree and waited. He didn’t have to wait long. Minutes after Egidio’s arrival, a tall man dressed in a livery he did not recognize came up to him. A badge on his shoulder showed, on one half of the crest, a red bull in a golden field, and on the other, broad black and gold horizontal stripes. Ezio was none the wiser for this.” (Bowden 258).

This paragraph is representative of most prose in the novel – boring, uninformative, and typically lacking a raison d’être – a reason for existing. The sentences aren’t complex, and the sentence beginnings aren’t varied. Almost every sentence in this paragraph is a “subject + verb”. Where are the prepositional phrases, the infinitive phrases, and the introductory adverbial clauses? Why aren’t some of these fused into compound sentences? I haven’t read Mr. Gill’s other work, but I doubt he would be a successful writer (coming on 30 years now) if the rest of his work was this paltry.

And for a respected historian, I do expect a higher quality of historical references than what he provides. Chapter 44 ends with Ezio “passing young Michelangelo’s brilliant new sculpture of the Pietà on his left…” (370). While I appreciate that Mr. Gill tries to (blatantly) remind the reader that all these historical figures (da Vinci, Michelangelo, etc.) are still young and in the prime of their careers in this setting, he doesn’t do anything with these notes. Are we supposed to be impressed because a famous artist is mentioned? Name-dropping is neither interesting nor engaging. To earn a reader’s respect, Mr. Gill needs to do something with these characters.

In a nearly identical instance, Pope Julius II, in a conversation with Ezio, mentions Leonardo da Vinci: “I rather liked that portrait he did of Francesco del Giocondo’s wife…” (412), an explicit yet veiled reference to the Mona Lisa. But what is the purpose of this mention?

If a reader recognizes that the wife refers to the Mona Lisa, then okay, (s)he has that revelation, and wonders what the point was. An ignorant reader, not understanding this reference, would shake his/her head and still ask what the point is. It’s a lose-lose scenario, and while it’s understandable that Mr. Gill may have wanted to insert that line, it ultimately serves no purpose.

This could partially be ignored if the actions being depicted were interesting, but they typically aren’t. Although I prize character development and interaction, I found Bowden so poor at it that the action scenes were comparatively great – and even then, not consistently so. It’s a crap shoot as to whether any given conflict, battle, or chase will be engaging, and while the odds are decent (~30%), they are nonetheless stacked against you.

There were few genuinely interesting passages. The presence of Leonardo da Vinci is one guarantor that the book will temporarily be worth reading. da Vinci’s portrayal in the games has been that of genius inventor/comic relief, and it carries over well into the novelization. A personal favorite is also the presence of Niccolo Machiavelli, since his dialogue almost always has a definite point to it.

It’s not that I oppose non-essential goings-on, so long as it’s interesting. But Mr. Gill can’t even get the essentials well-written. Near the beginning of the novel, Ezio does a number of errands in Monteriggioni. The purpose is mainly to introduce us to a bunch of characters and facets of the town (notably the cannons and city walls), so that when the town is destroyed and pillaged in 20-30 pages, the reader will feel anguish. But I didn’t feel anything but boredom.

When an author isn’t good at prose, it’s best to curtail one’s writing. Yet the novel runs in excess of 500 pages. And the most frequent notes I wrote in the margins were the following: “meh”, “mediocre”, and “decent (enough)”. I’m confident that this book could’ve been shortened by 100 pages without losing too much.

And at this point, I’m highly disappointed that Mr. Gill, who has already written several AC novelizations, hasn’t recognized what translates well from the game into writing, and what doesn’t. He has mixed success with combat. He has success with certain character personalities (da Vinci, Machiavelli, and a few minor characters). But he doesn’t succeed at describing the parkour platforming that makes up the AC gameplay. So why does he continue to write it in? In a similar fashion, Mr. Gill is not adept at writing realistic emotions, yet he insists on trying to foist them onto Ezio. I’m willing to live with a stoic protagonist; I’m typically stuck with one anyway. There’s no need to break that mold in a bad way.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is readable, but it is not desirable. While it ranks fairly high in my hierarchy of videogame novels, it does so because I rarely read them, not because of high quality. Ico: Castle in the Mist by Miyuki Miyabe and Bioshock: Rapture remain the only novels of this subgenre that I can whole-heartedly recommend. Read AC: Brotherhood if you need something trashy, or you’re really dying for more Assassin’s Creed. Just be sure to have low expectations, and you won’t be (too) disappointed.

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2 responses to “Video Game Novel Review: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood

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