There's this small problem I'm having with Assassin's Creed III. It's nothing to do with the game itself, actually, and everything to do with me. The problem is this:
Assassin's Creed III is turning me into a kind of obnoxious person.
I've developed this running commentary while the game goes on. It has nothing to do with the game's themes, or characters. It's unrelated to the gameplay and more or less completely unconnected to anything meaningful inside the game. It sounds like this:
"I used to work about a block away from there."
"They haven't changed out those cobblestones since 1773 and they're murder on nice shoes."
"That hill is the Back Bay now."
"That river is the Back Bay now. They put the hill in it."
"Lexington Common looks different when it's full of cows."
"A beacon? On Beacon Hill? I didn't see that one coming."
I grew up in and around Boston, making my home well inside of Route 128 from birth until striking out down the coast for New York City shortly before turning 25. While previous Assassin's Creed games have claimed high fidelity in recreating Damascus, Rome, and Istanbul, the basic fact of the matter is that those cities aren't my home. Boston is.
AC3 certainly doesn't represent the Boston or New England of the 21st century, of course. But the late 18th century setting of the game, a scant 230-odd years in the past, retains much more immediacy than the Italian Renaissance or the Crusades. The creatively imagined Boston-that-was is close enough to my Boston-that-is to give me a sense of familiarity both comprehensible and misplaced.
Games occupy this strange place in memory, where we so clearly go places and explore worlds that never actually existed. Experiences like To the Moon explicitly address this dissonance, but it's true of every game. I can remember how to get around a space station as well as I can remember how to get around my local mall, but my body's only been to one of the two. The mall is real; the Citadel is not.
When game spaces represent real-world spaces, the strange sense of memory gets ever-stranger. I moved to Washington, DC the year that Fallout 3 came out. Controversial advertising sprang up through the city's Metro system depicting a post-apocalyptic Capital, but it wasn't until after the game came out that I felt the full weight of investigating my own ruined city.
The general size and scale of the virtual DC is of course a mismatch to the real one—spaces in games were ever thus—but the details are devilishly familiar. In particular, the ruined Metro that provides the Lone Wanderer a route for getting around a city full of toppled buildings, nuclear waste, and super mutants is uncannily, frighteningly similar to the Metro that federal commuters use every day.
At first, while playing Fallout 3, I'd wander through the game comparing its locations to ones I knew from daily life. But after fifty or so hours of Fallout, a funny thing happened. Instead of comparing game-play time to real-world experience, I began to relate the other way around. While waiting to change trains at Metro Center in the mornings, I'd see a bench in the shadows and think, "That's good cover for avoiding the super mutants," or I'd see a door and think, "Didn't I pick that lock yesterday?"
Two Kotaku colleagues not based in New York reflected that the Grand Theft Auto games had inspired similar deja vu in them. They had played the games first, and then visited the city. On visiting, they handily identified and remembered places they hadn't actually been. As someone who lived a block away from Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza the first time she came to the neighborhood around Outlook Park in-game, I could sympathize. On that memorable occasion, I'd blurted aloud, "I can see my house from here!"
I can, of course, visit the real Boston—or New York, or Washington DC—at more or less any time, weather and cost permitting. I don't need to see them in a game in order to explore them to their fullest—and even when I do use a game, it's not the kind I can put in the PS3. Exploring a real space, and digitally navigating an imagined space, are never the same thing.
Sometimes, though... sometimes, when game spaces represent real spaces, the uncanny and the real cross over in a very strange way. Through the games I've played, I remember the cities of my heart as places I've never actually known them to be. The tall ships of Connor's era are long since replaced with ugly motorboats, but the next time I stand on Long Wharf, part of me will remember seeing Haytham sail in on the Providence even so.