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Needless Exposition and the Sciencey-Wiencey

I am a monkey.

In the literal sense, yes, in that eosimias were monkeys, so my ancestors were monkeys, and you don't stop being what your ancestors were, but also in the figurative sense in that I like the idea of climbing on things and hopping around. So, yes, I enjoy Assassin's Creed games from time to time. It scratches that itch without the risk of falling very far and losing the integrity of my spine.

The story of Assassin's Creed, on the other hand, has been for me a fairly irritating, unwelcome guest, piggybacking onto the experience. Oh, it's not the infamous blandness of the central character, Mr. Desmond Miles, it's not even the cartoony presentation of the antagonists, which I actually appreciate. My issue begins with Assassin's Creed II and the Big Reveal. Naturally, there are spoilers ahead.

At the end of the second entry in the series, we learn that there's a big cataclysm in the wings that threatens to destroy the entire planet big time like for real. The cataclysm happens to be a coronal mass ejection from the sun that will cause a magnetic pole reversal and destabilize the Earth. Seconds after this explanation, Sean says that it's meant to be "the stuff of pseudoscience". Two tropes to be aware of here: Lampshade Hanging and Critical Research Failure (and YMMV, if you like).

Here we're being asked to accept as a genuine threat something that is most certainly not a threat, but also completely backwards. Assassin's Creed has always had a less than clear relationship with science, making it the softest of soft science fiction, but this was too much for me. It's one thing to ask the audience to accept the genetic memory nonsense, especially as it never really comes up again after the initial technobabble at the beginning of the first game, but this is the dark shadow of doom that's meant to be ominously looming over the whole plot, and it's impossible to take seriously for anyone aware of any of the following:

1. This threat is commonplace.
Coronal mass ejections (CME) happen fairly regularly and are not a big deal. Earth's magnetic field displaces the majority of the radiation to the poles (this leads to the aurora). Even with a weaker field...

Image credit: NASA

2. This threat has no teeth.
The worst that happens when a weakened field allows for more radiation to hit the Earth is an increase in the incidence of cancer due to more exposure to cosmic rays and high energy photons. It wouldn't wipe life from the face of the planet, and then there's the matter of a pole shift...

3. Geomagnetic reversal happens regularly on its own.

Image credit: NASA

A magnetic pole reversal is a regular event on Earth and leads to a temporarily weakened magnetic field with transient poles popping up all over the planet. The planet is just fine with this, and it cannot be caused by solar activity.

In other words, for me and others like me, the immediate reaction to this lazy reveal was "A coronal mass ejection! Goodness! I hope we have a magnetic field or we might see a statistically significant increase in incidences of cancer!" Not what they were going for, I reckon.

Not everyone will be bothered by this utter lack of effort on the part of the writers to understand the scientific concepts they were butchering, taping back together into a grotesque cartoon of their former selves and expecting us to take seriously, but for me, it's made the series even more absurd than it already was, and I no longer bother paying more than the most basic attention to the story as I monkey around. This is an issue largely because they didn't have to poach scientific theories to get end-of-the-world all over themselves, but they did in the laziest way possible, and it makes the whole thing look shoddy.

A perfect example of cataclysm done right is Chrono Trigger. Only the most vague of explanations is ever given for how the main baddie can do what it does, how time travel is even possible and so on, all while explicitly including magic as a get-out clause. And why not? No one really cares how it works, and an explanation more detailed than "well it's all very mysterious and the main character is at the center of it because stop asking questions" would just be distracting from the main point. If The Epic of Gilgamesh spent tens of stanzas explicating theories and systems to explain what it meant to be a demigod or how Enkidu could predict his fate, the story would be buried under unnecessary, and probably stupid, detail. If the writers of AssCreed really wanted a worldwide threat, they should have stuck to the Templars and their magic technology or simply left the cause mysterious.

And he made a time-travelling plane, which works by something something.

For another example of how this tendency to bring in bullshit, pseudoscience explanations for major story elements can undermine the integrity of a story, look at everyone's favorite George Lucas abomination: Star Wars. Remember how most people reacted to midichlorians? Of course the reaction was negative, the force didn't need an explanation, and trying to make it scientific pulled it from a mystical context into a more real context, and mystical things do not look good in that light. Suddenly, the willingness to suspend disbelief is challenged by all of the questions raised by the half-assed explanation. How do microorganisms lead to telekinesis? What do microbes have to do with guiding a space torpedo into a space vent? What are they doing in the blood if they affect mental abilities? And on and on and on.

Pretty much. (Image credit: starwarsreport.com)

Detailed explanations can be beneficial to a story if employed judiciously. The original Ghost in the Shell comics were rife with ridiculously detailed footnotes from supernerd author Masamune Shirow (I'll never forget the little cartoon explanation of why the advanced prosthetics in the story could not be made significantly stronger than the bones and muscles they were attached to), but when he didn't have an explanation, one wasn't offered. This included some of the most significant parts of the story, such as the integration of neurological signals and digital information, but these were themes to be explored, not phenomena to be explained (it's currently impossible, after all), and Shirow knew that. The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov is another good example of this; it's not that Asimov didn't love detailing the ins and outs of his hypothetical psychohistory concept, but he stopped short where no explanation could be had. It was a tool to explore the themes of the story, and any explanation was flavoring for people who like that sort of thing (i.e. me).

When considering the inclusion of detailed, sciencey-wiencey explanations into your story, it's important to ask what that inclusion would accomplish. Is it in service to the metanarrative, helping in the exploration of the story's main themes? Is it the sort of detail that your audience would find stimulating for its own sake? Or, regretfully, does it only distract from the substance of what could otherwise be an engaging plot? In the case of Assassin's Creed, it's entirely the latter.
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About dagiarratone of us since 2:20 PM on 01.10.2013

I am dagiarrat. I work as a tutor and do a lot of other things for money. My hobby is procrastinating on the internet.