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A while back I complained about games that overwhelm the player by doing things too “big” and awesome, so this week let’s take a moment to appreciate the little things. Yeah, you can have your environment engine rendering ten square miles of 16th-century Rome, your ten million NPCs on screen at once, your giant dragons bursting forth from an erupting volcano with napalm squirting from each of their seventeen rosy nipples. But it’s the little things that round it all out, that keep our interest in the world alive.

While the historical gameplay environments of Assassin’s Creed are detailed and vibrant, I’ve never been too invested in the connecting segments set in the future with Future Desmond. That may be because a hefty amount of the overarching future story has only been given to us second hand. We’re supposed to accept that there’s some worldwide secret conflict going on between the good noble assassins and the evil oppressive mega-global corporation, but only because the lady with the fish lips (or possibly a partially healed Glasgow smile) said so. All we’ve seen of the future world is the interior of one lab and two safe houses (and, yes, some deserted Roman ruins, fuck you, pedant). For all we know this is all an elaborate hoax, and the moment Desmond reaches the grand finale he’ll kick the door open and find the entire cast throwing him a surprise birthday party.

But I have to admit, AC:Brotherhood marks the point when I actually started getting interested in the future story, and quite attached to its characters (except Future Desmond). Partly this was because buying up the entirety of 16th century Italy was getting a bit repetitive, but mostly it was because of little things. In this case, emails.

It’s not immediately obvious, but when you come out of the Animus and are given the opportunity to explore the safe house (or safe cave, whatever), Future Desmond has a little laptop set up for him, which he can use to read the email correspondence between the other three members of the Assassin Scooby Gang. Though largely mundane, the exchanges between the characters, the businesslike scheduling, the pranks, the snarks, the enquiries after lost yogurts and Ipods, gave them a great deal of humanity. I actually started deliberately leaving the Animus after every Ezio mission to catch up on the news and chat with my new friends.

It was from these emails that I detected hints of a secret romance between Shawn and Rebecca, and confirmed my suspicion that Desmond’s Ichi the Killer love interest was exactly the uptight humourless middle-management shrew she seemed to be, anally putting together the schedule every week and nagging the others to stop joking around and get back to work. The kind of person who hangs around the buffet table at the party, counting the vol-au-vents to make sure there’s enough for everyone. The only character I didn’t start appreciating more was Future Desmond, who never sent any emails at all. He did finally gain at least one character trait: we now know he’s the kind of creepy loser who reads other people’s emails.

What is the thinking with Desmond, Ubisoft? That the main character has to be as bland and flat as possible to let the audience project easier? The moment you, say, give him a fondness for Vegemite you alienate the anti-yeast demographic? I feel an opportunity was missed, here. There are quite a few games specifically with email systems. Deus Ex, for example, let you hack into everyone’s computers at headquarters and find out what they think of each other. And Grand Theft Auto 4 had an entire in-game internet, even allowing you, as Niko Bellic, to respond to emails in either nice or nasty ways. It’s these little humanizing touches that make a character compelling. This is why I don’t like Nathan Drake much; because I can’t imagine him doing anything as human and relatable as, say, going to the shops and picking up some breakfast orange juice. Unless it’s an ancient Incan shop and the breakfast orange juice is inside the vagina of a temple prostitute.

But the little things do more than round out a character, they can round out the world, too. Half-Life 2 for example is full of little background touches, like the newspaper clippings and post-it notes decorating the various laboratories, offering backstory that the actual spoken dialogue doesn’t. Little things like this can be more memorable even than the biggest and most exciting set pieces because there’s a sense of accomplishment in the mere act of noticing them. I think it’s a test of a game’s immersion to be able to zoom all the way into the smallest detail and find care and backstory even there – this is where games like Fallout 3 fall down, looking spectacular at a distance but shallow up close.

The best kind of little touch is an unexpected response to extremely specific behavior. On one level it can be a hilarious surprise, and on another it might give the illusion of the game having enormous depth – why, if the developers allowed for this obscure action, the entire game must be loaded with this kind of detail. That’s probably what the creators of Fear 2 were counting on: if you jump into a fountain at the very beginning of the game, a character calls you out on it, and brings it up later to embarrass you in front of your colleagues. And there’s nothing in the entire rest of the game the least bit as sophisticated.

The undisputed crown prince of the little things is the Metal Gear Solid series. There are so many hidden touches and Codec conversations that one wonders why so much time and resources were spent on things that a lot of players would never find, rather than, say, hiring a fucking editor. In Metal Gear Solid 2 alone you can zoom into pictures of bikini girls (which makes a kissing noise,) take photos of muscular men and mail them to your support character (he starts questioning your sexuality,) knock out the same support character’s sister with a tranquilliser dart, crawl on top of her and call him (he’s not happy,) and point a directional mic at a distant character you’re supposed to be defending with a sniper rifle to hear them mumble to themselves (they also question your sexuality.)

In Metal Gear Solid 4, the terrible game where Hideo Kojima spent way too much time playing to his fanbase, a lot of what would have been classified as little things in previous games were suddenly mandatory, like when Otacon pauses the game to make a little joke about how you don’t have to swap disks like we did on the PS1. And suddenly now we didn’t have to work to hunt down the witty asides they started to come across as lame and desperate. So I suppose the lesson here is that the little things have to stay exactly that, because they lose their charm as they become big things. Sort of like baby tigers.

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.

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