by Harold Goldberg
Last week, I had surgery. It was indeed a bit rough; I’m still recovering. But ever since I can remember, I’ve looked to books, music, film and games as an escape from feeling bad, from pain, not the worst pain because the worst pain means the inability to enjoy media at all, interactive or non-interactive, even at its best. As I began to return to a certain normalcy, I felt the abiding need to indulge in a game as a flight of fancy, I wanted desperately to be taken elsewhere.
Nearby was my stack of games, and the latest, Assassins’ Creed IV: Black Flag went first because I felt it would take me on a nice trip to the Caribbean. Which is want I really want. The other day I fantasized about travel around the holidays. I went so far as to try to book something. (So, caveat emptor: Watch out for the hotel/flight offers on the travel sites. Every flight seems prohibitively expensive and every hotel/flight package is just plain prohibitive. It’ll seem affordable, but they’ll have you to stuck in Dallas on a layover for 10 hours. And that is no vacation at all.)
But back to my virtual travels. I hope to experience at least a modicum awe. In my wildest dreams, I even hope to be swept away.
I’ll give it just an hour to do that.
1) The PS3 powers up. The inserted disk spins. And the game loads. Or, well, it’s supposed to. I need a 32 megabyte update. I don’t want to wait, but I’m glad the publisher is doing its best to remove bugs.
2) Really? More waiting. Turns out there’s not enough room for the nearly 1.5 gigabytes I need on the PS3. I delete games going back to 2006. Eventually, I have room.
3) Dang. Really? More waiting? There’s a rotating triangle on the screen, not even any artwork as in GTA V to watch and muse upon as I wait. I wonder how long this data transfer will take. This is like waiting for a delayed plane. It lasts just 15 minutes. But it’s too long for me.
4) Surprised at the quickness of it, I’m immediately thrown into action on the high seas. I’m asked to the grab the ship’s wheel as attack is nigh. But my pirate character seems daunted by the mere fact of walking. His gait is slow as if he’s in a daze (or like me after the operation). Some pirate yells, “Grab the damn wheel.” I’m trying.
5) They want me to shoot some tall ships with cannonballs and oil-filled barrels. It’s not exactly the fog of war. I stop my ship not far from a cove and wait for the enemy to come to me. I don’t feel impending doom. I feel a sense of fun. That’s good; that’s right. Fun.
6) After the ships are sunk, I’m sunk, too, thrown off into the roiling water, perhaps to drown. As I breathe in the killing ocean, there’s a scene within a bedroom, featuring a beauty named Caroline. My character tells her may be gone on the high seas for two years. Two years? Women waited that long back in the day? When something like that happened to me in real life, and the wait was two months, I got a frosty, “You want me to wait?” And that was the end of that. But Caroline says she’ll wait.
7) I’m back to consciousness in the water. I hit the surface and breathe. Night turns to day and my swimming is like a ghost’s swimming. It looks like the water is going through me as a paddle, like I’m oddly translucent.
8) The tropical fish near the shore don’t flee from me, even when I swim over them. These are bold fish. Shouldn’t they rush away? Or was it different back then in the time of pirates? Yet I almost feel the warmth of a beach drenched in sun as I swim in to shore. That’s good. That’s like a vacation. That’s what I need.
9) Rich man, poor man. I’m just a penniless cretin. I meet a well-off, wounded assassin who lies near to me on the sand. We don’t get along as he seems to want me to save him for little reward. We have words. I chase him through the jungle.
10) Oh, the jungle! The beauty. It reminds me of a tropical trail, of walking high up to the water source on the Caribbean island of Nevis a few years back. In the game, there’s a thin, rushing waterfall and cove water so blue, it’s like clear blue sky, heavenly. I feel I can breathe deeply as I stop to admire the world around me. I peer at big blue morphos butterflies which are indigenous to a neo-tropical areas such as this.
11) I’m a ghost again. I seem to walk like a wraith through the giant leaves of tropical plants, never so much as moving them as the slightest breeze might. It’s an open world game. This kind of thing happens in open world games. But still, it took me out of that key moment of fantasy.
12) I fail in catching up to the assassin, a few times. The idea, I gather a few minutes later, is pretty much to run straight without much movement from side to side. Forget finding a quicker way to the human prey. Just follow his steps.
13) When I do meet him, I parry a blow from his sword. He falls and I kill him. I don his clothes (which weirdly fit exactly right, like Paul Smith has made them by hand). And I become him – a lowly pirate turned into a somewhat feared and respected assassin.
14) I search around for loot and secret things. There’s a lot here. But I want to move forward in the adventure. I only take a few dollars from one treasure chest.
15) I perch from an outcropping near another waterfall. Torturing pirates gather below. They try to shake down a merchant they’ve captured. Perhaps it was due to my New York Times reading and the proximity of that to game play. But his cries and the pirates’ torture remind me of yesterday’s story about young gang rapists in India. In any case, I feel empathy for the merchant and make my way to save the person.
16) I use stealth and hide in the grass. None of the pirates seems to be able to find me, and that doesn’t seem real at all. But it’s a game trope, and I’m happy enough that I get them before they get me.
17) The mewling merchant wants me to take him to Havana on a ship he owns. He’s overfed and shifty-eyed, doesn’t like looking me straight on. I can’t trust him, just as I can’t trust anyone else. Havana. There, in Cuba, I might find more beauty. A venturesome trip through the danger-filled neo-tropics will now commence. I might even have it in me to utter a “Yo Ho Ho.” Or two.
Harold Goldberg, a contributor to the New York Times, is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.