HUD-less Design of Assassin’s Creed 1
Until the release of Black Flag, Assassin’s Creed 1 was my favourite of the series. But even Black Flag doesn’t have what made the first game truly special. Neither did II, Brotherhood, Revelations, III, Unity, Rogue or Syndicate. One can say, ‘Sure Stas, the first Assassin’s Creed has interesting ideas, great atmosphere, story, and provided a base for the franchise, but it got repetitive and boring, surely the rest of the series is a big improvement over it?’ Well… in a way yes. But in a way no. After all, ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted.’ There is one amazing thing in the first Assassin’s Creed that elevates the experience to a different level of immersion and none of its sequels has it. I’m talking about HUD-less design.
The first Assassin’s Creed (at least the console version, I’ll talk about some missions introduced in the PC version later) was designed to be playable fully without any HUD elements. I’m talking no map, markers, icons, controls. The addition of HUD in the game was clearly a late one, possibly based on some playtests, and while I can see why it makes sense to have a HUD, it also undermines the experience the game tried to build. To start illustrating my point, allow me to show a segment from the game, our first target in Acre (and second target in the game), and how we’d complete it without any HUD elements or map.
So we start in Masyaf, which is the first settlement we get to explore, and the village is pretty easy to navigate around in. When you enter, you see the Assassin fortress in the distance as the main landmark, which is where Al Mualim will give you the targets’ names.
And from the top of Masyaf you can see the exit. So, we got our target, it’s Garnier de Naplouse in Acre.
First, of course, we leave Masyaf, take a horse, and ride on the only pathway available until we reach the next zone, the Kingdom, which is a hub between all cities. Don’t open the map, or GPS, how do we get to Acre? Well, it’s quite simple actually.
There’s signs on intersections that show you where to go. Just like, you know, there’d be in real life. There’s not really much to do in the Kingdom other than travel around and look at the view (or collect flags and kill Templars if you’re into this sort of thing), and the act of traveling is much more enjoyable when you actually pay attention to what’s on your path.
Eventually you’ll see some stone arches, which are elements that show the exit from the area you’re in. In this case – from Kingdom to Acre.
So we’ve reached Acre. Our goal is to get to the Assassin Bureau to learn more information about our target. First, of course, we need to get through the guarded gates of the city.
As we approach, we hear cries for help. Audio design is an important part of the experience, later I’ll show one of the biggest reasons why. Right now, however, there’s a monk in trouble, and if we save him, we can get past the gates undetected while blending in a group of his brothers. We can also find an alternate way through via parkour. Regardless, we get into the city.
Now, while our first main goal is to find the Assassin Bureau, as without being there we can’t commence the assassination even if we learn everything about our targets, I would like to note that not far from the gates we see two guards talking. Now, characters talking in the middle of a street, or plaza, is actually not something you really see in Assassin’s Creed on a regular basis.
People gather near market stalls, heralds, just walk around, sometimes you can see a pair talking on the sidewalks and away from the path of others, but when it’s happening in the middle, or in some particular building, means those people have information useful for the mission. Now, this is an important part of HUD-less design – to recognize visual patterns. You don’t have mission icons, but you do have a view of the area, so you must notice things that feel off, outside of the pattern, not right, and this is one of the tools the developers use to do so. Those two soldiers in particular, they talk about a lowly guarded route inside the fortress where Garnier is located.
Anyway, with that information learned, we still need to find the Bureau. The city is pretty big, and even though, as it’s our first time here, only one district is available for exploration, there’s still a lot of area to just blindly stumble around in. Well, this is one of the reasons we have viewpoints. We can recognize them by two factors – a) they’re, well, tall, and b) they have eagles flying above them.
We climb one viewpoint, get a lay of the land. We see the other viewpoints and points of interest, and what we’re looking for is a roof that has an Assassin insignia on it (it’s something that we learn in Damascus where the Assassins’ Bureau is easier to find). There’s not one nearby. Let’s go to another viewpoint not far.
Hm, nothing here as well. There’s a fairly distinct broken tower in the distance, perhaps that’s the next place where I should go. Now, what happens as a side effect of this searching, is that you get to subconsciously recognize and memorize noticeable places, landmarks. On the way to that tower I notice a church, I run past a souk (pretty much most of which have similar looking roofs in the game), I see that not far from city gates I’ve passed there’s a fortress, as well as locations that are blocked for me for the moment like the huge Cathedral. You don’t just walk around the city, run around rooftops. You memorize it, maybe not in great detail. but enough.
I got to the top of that broken tower, and from there I see it. The Assassin insignia on a building with a roof entrance (not sure how noticeable it is on the screenshot). That’s where I need to go. I also, of course, have in my memory now that the Assassin’s Bureau is near that broken tower.
Inside, the Rafiq tells me where I can find more information about the target. He mentions public gardens to the north, the church to the west which I have already seen, and the souk to the northwest which I have already passed by. Conversations with Rafiqs tend to be on a longer side due to them telling some of the locations where you can find information, but when you don’t have icons to show you where to go, they’re important. That said, you don’t really NEED rafiqs, as if you go to places that look landmarky enough chances are you’re going to find something, still it’s useful and helpful information, especially when you just start to getting your way around the city.
Since the church is to the west, I know where west and north are (I guess you could also use the sun as your indicator, but I personally suck at getting around based on the sun, I’m more of a landmark kind of person). So I decided to go check out north first, the public gardens. But I want to make a special note of heralds, one of which I’ve passed on the way. There’s lots of them, and you hear them from quite some distance, and they talk about pretty much the same thing concerning the war effort and the Crusades. Now, this ‘same thing over and over again’ may seem uninspired, but it’s actually fairly important. I’ll get to in a bit why.
I found my way to what looks like the public gardens. How do I find information, though? Well, that’s where your Eagle Vision kicks in, which shows you enemies, targets, allies, and whoever has information regarding your main target.
That white glowing blob in the distance? (the glow might not be really noticeable in static screenshot, but it’s there). That’s our informant. Ironically enough, the quest the informant gives is actually to collect flags in a certain time limit, which is possibly the worst of the original console game side missions. It’s completable HUD-less, of course, as all flags are in a certain path that starts near the informant, but it’s tricky and easy to miss something. Not the best example for the purposes of my story, but it’s how I’ve completed this sequence the last time I replayed it and, well, I didn’t say that everything was perfect.
The informant says where the Hospitaller fortress is located and that Garnier is there. I think now it’s time to visit the abandoned market, which I already know where is located based on my improving knowledge of the city. I find a way in through the roof.
In the market, I find see two people talking right in the middle of it. Visual patterns, remember. They must know something. And as it turns out, they do.
One of them has a letter that I steal, it connects several of our targets together. Not really important for assassination of Garnier itself, but it’s part of the unraveling story.
Now it’s time to go the church and see what we can find there. Here’s where the knowledge about auditive patterns get in. As I approach, I hear not only somebody talking about the Crusades, but there’s also a voice speaking in favour of Garnier specifically, our target. So, theoretically, you can just walk around the city and hear somebody speak about your target and that’s it, you know you need to go there.
We can interrogate this person to learn more about an opportune moment to strike Garnier. Now, there are still investigation missions left, but this is enough for Rafiq to give us a green light on the assassination mission. There’s one more original mission type not mentioned here, that being stealth assassinating somebody for informants to give information. Targets are always in the locations that are near the informants, and you can use Eagle Vision to differentiate them.
Anyway, we now know well our way to the Bureau, so it doesn’t take much trouble to get to it. In the conversation with the Rafiq, Altair recaps all the necessary information, like that the Hospitaller fortress is to the far north for example, in case we as a player forgot something.
We go north until we see a building with a Hospitaller insignia on it. So we know that this is the place. During investigations, we also get things like letters and maps with guard locations, and they are useful even without HUD.
Because even if we don’t look at the main city map, we still can get a feel of the building’s shape and structure to know where we need to go to find a way in.
When we get inside the fortress, we witness Garnier order to break legs of an asylum inmate who tried to escape. After that scene, we can commence our assassination.
We find Garnier inside the hospital, overlooking the patients, and kill him.
In his dying confession, Garnier, like all other targets in the game, tells his side of the story making Altair question if he really is an evil person.
Now that the target is dead, guards start chasing us. We quickly search for a way out, find a ladder up to some scaffoldings and from there jumping over chandeliers parkour our way to a broken window that leads us out of the building.
Okay, there’s a bunch of people chasing us, aaaaah, where are we, where do we need to go? Oh, right! Broken tower’s right there! Landmark! Onwards! We need to break the line of sight and find a hiding spot on the way, though.
One other thing that happens in HUD-less mode is that since there’s no social status indicator, you can’t use it to know if you’re being seen or not in a chase (and you can use hide spots only if you are not being seen). Well, the game uses 2 things: the first one is an Animus glitch effect when states switch between being in sight during a chase, and being out of sight. The second one is the music – it changes depending on the state. Also, since you don’t have any blue markers showing any hiding spots, you must be much more mindful of your surroundings when running. Chases in Assassin’s Creed 1 don’t end until you hide, or are very far away from the enemies.
After we escaped the guards, we get back to the Bureau and show Rafiq proof that the deed is done. Garnier’s dead, and we need to return to Al Mualim in Masyaf.
The reason why I’ve told all this in such a detailed manner is so that everyone would get the feel of going through this game with absolutely no HUD. You get to learn the city, where everything’s located. You get to listen, to look, to find discrepancies in patterns. You search, investigate, notice details. There’s a market near the entrance to the Jewish quarter in the southern part of the city where you need to find information. Where’s the Jewish quarter? You look around and see a synagogue in the distance with Star of David on it, so you go in that direction and then see a gateway – so that’s the entrance to the district. The market should be nearby.
This is why Assassin’s Creed 1 is built in a very clear cyclic manner, so you could get to learn and notice patterns and use them to your advantage. You’re an assassin. You listen. You watch. You use your intuition. Introduce even just a mini-map with icons, and all of that is gone. The cyclic pattern loses all its veils, which is why people get to consider the game boring after a while, they instantly know the destination of the journey but don’t go through all the process of finding it, which is what makes Assassin’s Creed 1 so interesting.
Is it perfect? No, there are many ways it could be improved. Sometimes people name locations as if you know what they must look like (the game doesn’t have encyclopedia unlike its successors), sometimes missions are placed very weirdly near landmarks which makes it tricky to find them.
The most important flaw, though, is that it’s not inclusive. If you have problems with spacial recognition, navigation in urban environments, hearing even (Assassin’s Creed 1 in particular doesn’t have subtitles), then you can’t really play the game. Not to mention that surely there would be people who seek a more casual assassin simulator. All these things can be fixed with a HUD-less approach, but it would require a lot of new systems and assets, so it’s understandable why a HUD was brought in. That said, the design is really influenced in a different way when you know there’s going to be a HUD.
PC port of the game has several additional mission types. A couple of them work well without HUD: Archer Assassinations (go to rooftop, use Eagle Vision and you know where your targets are) and Escort Missions (you follow the person you need to escort). But another couple clearly don’t take into account that HUD might be off: Market Stall Destructions (they’re near the mission start but it’s very hard to define which need to be destroyed), and Rooftop Races where you need to go from one informant to another before time runs out. That second one is absolutely impossible without regularly looking at the city map with markers, because the target informant is located in an arbitrary spot in a different part of the city and you have no idea which one.
And it’s incredibly evident in Assassin’s Creed II, where as soon as you go on your own and don’t follow your brother, you have no idea where to go without HUD or map. You need to go to Cristina? Great, uhm… where is she? You need to go home! Uhm… yeah, where’s that? A certain level of immersion is gone.
That said, Assassin’s Creed II and further titles did bring variety in what and how we do in the gameplay itself. I still miss the ability to comfortably play fully without the HUD. I mean, even little things like amount of throwing knives – they were displayed on Altair himself, but in later games you can’t look at the character and know how many throwing knives you’ve got.
The perfect solution for me would be fusion between styles of the first game, and later games. The first game focused too much on designing a game in a way that you don’t need to open any auxiliary instruments at all, which gets broken when you introduce those auxiliary instruments. The other games don’t take into account that auxiliary instruments can be turned off, so you can’t really have a full game experience without them. A mix, however, would be good. Let’s say for a quick example we see the location where we need to go in Eagle Vision when we’re on rooftops. Done. I go into Eagle Vision, look where Cristina’s house is, and go there.
But then I’d actually want to keep Eagle Vision like it’s in Assassin’s Creed 1 (active only when standing still) and not like it became in II where it was persisting while moving. Because these things, thinking about HUD-less gameplay, they influence numerous design decisions in mechanics, world, missions, story and writing even. But I think the result, in the end, would be something much more immersive.
If you’ve played Assassin’s Creed 1 before but with HUD, I suggest you to try and doing so with the HUD off. It’s a totally different experience and I think it’s very interesting.
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