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Collectible classics: How Assassin’s Creed II accidentally questions art’s value

When priceless paintings became another set of video game baubles

Special Topics In Gameology explores a specific corner of the gaming world in a miniseries of articles. The current theme is commerce, in which we examine games’ representation and use of business and trade.

“Okay first off why do I want to waste money on paintings? Do I get something for them?”

Assassin_X_Geth asked this question on the GameFAQs message boards in response to one of the many quests players can undertake in Assassin’s Creed II. Early in the game’s story, the hero, Ezio Auditore, takes refuge in his family’s estate, the Villa Auditore. He becomes its steward and works to rebuild the decrepit place back to respectability. This includes any number of civic projects: improving the banks, building guard barracks, opening a brothel, and yes, buying paintings for display at your manor house. Each of these improvements in turn increases the income your Villa generates, and this includes investing in art. Your monetary reward for this is stated clearly in multiple menus, but the question, specifically about the value of art, appears on several gaming boards. It’s the rare instance of a question about a confusing video game feature mirroring a real-world conundrum: What is art worth?

At the most reductive, art is either beyond value or has none. The romanticized notion that art transcends value is a stubborn one. It lingers because no one has yet to figure out exactly what the stuff is for. Obviously, it’s important somehow, since we continue to make it by the buckets, but only the rarest pieces have withstood history and popular consensus to emerge with even a rough agreed-upon value. On the other extreme of the spectrum, art is viewed as superfluous; an impractical by-product of a comfortable society.

Historically, art was utilitarian. The Bohemian movement of the 18th century worked to elevate the status of the artist above trade-worker status, reframing the creator as genius. This produced such philosophies as “art for art’s sake,” a deliberate removal of art from function that created a split between cloistered academic fine art and base commercial art. Fine art became more experimental, removing it from common standards of beauty.

Now more than ever, art as a commodity is highly subjective. Choosing gold as the metal of currency might be an abstraction as well, but it’s a consistent one. Gold is gold is gold. But show the same person both a sunlight-infused Cézanne landscape and then a Tom Of Finland “No Swimming” tableau and your mileage will vary considerably.

That subjectivity is reflected in our culture of collecting. Fine art, rare 78s, figurines of video game characters—the thing itself is ultimately unimportant. As long as it doesn’t get out of hand, collecting is generally viewed as a perfectly fine hobby pursued for enjoyment, not financial gain. Collecting hundreds of random doodads is an established element of many video games as well. There are two fundamental tenets of collectibles in games that differ from how we collect in the real world. Firstly, if a video game presents an item to collect, the player is conditioned to instinctively and reflexively gather it. Secondly, if completing the collection doesn’t produce a reward, the player will be furious. Video games may continue to develop as a storytelling medium, but few present stories as a reward. Most behave like a Skinner box, dispensing power-up treats to the players as a reward for performing tasks. When buying paintings for the manor, it’s an interesting thought that you would do so for no greater reason than knowing you are preserving and curating culture. But perhaps that’s giving the arts too much credit.

“The Ideal City” is one of the many paintings Ezio can buy in Ubisoft’s ideal city

After all, the game tasks you with collecting 100 feathers—filthy little feathers tucked into every random corner of Italy—as a means of assuaging your mother’s 20-year mourning period over her murdered son. Shouldn’t the idea of completing that quest and seeing your mother at peace after all those years be reward enough? Of course not; you also get a nifty cloak for your troubles. If civic duty and family hospice aren’t honorable enough tasks to perform without some sort of return on your time, there’s no reason to think cultural preservation is.

But what if the gallery didn’t in turn produce money for your villa? Why waste money on paintings? For the player, the art reinforces the game’s 16th-century setting. All of the art you purchase is current to the time period in which Assassin’s Creed II takes place, the ascension of the Italian Renaissance. Ezio collects pieces that are contemporary to his time at the Villa, demonstrating he is as skilled a judge of emerging art trends as he is a murderer of scheming Borgias.

Creating a strong sense of place has always been one of Assassin’s Creed’s greatest strengths. Its dedication to not just recreating historical environments, but then providing some of the history and culture surrounding them, goes a long way to legitimize the games’ otherwise sub-Highlander 2 space-caveman meta-storyline. For Assassin’s Creed II, presenting a broad cross-section of paintings created by Italian artists immerses the player in the era, and makes the game world feel alive.

Quite a few the available pieces come from Leonardo Da Vinci, who also helps the heroes decipher codes and creates assassin-worthy equipment. It’s nice to see Ezio support the inventor’s gentler, non-bullet-making pursuits. The most expensive painting you can purchase in the game is Botticelli’s “Birth Of Venus,” the famous depiction of the goddess emerging from a half-shell. The piece was commissioned by Florence’s Lorenzo De’ Medici, a great patron of emerging Renaissance artists who was also folded into the game’s cast as an ally to Ezio. Assassin’s Creed II doesn’t explicitly lay out these connections between Ezio’s posse and his burgeoning art collection. It requires some out-of-game knowledge to thread all these elements together. But even without that knowledge, perusing a gallery of images dedicated to angels and martyrs and cities mapped out according to the laws of God and Reason reinforces the series’ motif of grand, eon-old conflict.

It would have been a bold design choice to provide no reward for completing the art gallery—to contradict the established tenets of video games and offer no return on your investment beyond knowing you are a curator of beauty and culture. On the other hand, it is pure romanticism to pretend fine art somehow transcends economics. None of the painters producing the works that fill Ezio’s gallery thought so. Artists were skilled laborers, producing works to push the reputations of their patrons. The concepts of the virtuous starving artist and “art for art’s sake” would be antithetical to an era when paintings were a means to communicate a political or ethical belief or how successful a family was. Games are making strides toward being a more rewarding narrative-driven medium where a quiet character moment or story detail is told well enough that it doesn’t need to be reinforced with a reward. But much in the same way art was a more unified expression of the transcendent and the base, a unique quality of games is the promise of an engaging narrative as well as the dispensation of wonderful cash and prizes.

After all, as Assassin_X_Geth ultimately concludes in the GameFAQs thread they began:

“I don’t mind art. But knowing buying them means I get more money later from the villa is awesome!”

Yeah, it is kind of awesome.


Previously in the Commerce series