Video games are getting better and better at showing us convincing-looking cities. Cities are usually full of crowds, however, and video games aren't nearly as good at handling those.
As I explored a London train station in Assassin's Creed Syndicate, I detected some faint piano notes floating above the din. Curious, I made my way across the tracks (no third rail to worry about!) toward the source of the sound.
I found a pianist sitting at a grand piano right there on the platform. I had my character — Evie, naturally — stand still to enjoy the performance.
Of course, the crowd did everything it could to ruin the moment:
These people! These stupid, fucking people. Yelling the same dumb lines over and over, frantically gesticulating, violently crashing into each other, and taking vocal offence at just about everything. I'm sure the actual crowds of Victorian-era London could be rough-and-tumble, but I doubt they acted like this.
Syndicate's unruly mob illustrates a longstanding problem with video game crowds. In most video games, crowds are meant to be passed through. They're intended to be seen from afar and only experienced fleetingly. Common folk in Assassin's Creed are really good at bumping into one another, because that's their primary function: They exist to be bumped into as you run toward something else. "Look where you're going!" they cry, their voices already fading behind you.
For all the innovations games have managed in other areas, it remains unusual to feel a part of a video game crowd. Watch Dogs' passersby had names and identities, but still behaved as oddly as the crowds in any other open world game. Hitman Absolution featured some unusually convincing overheard cell phone conversations, but the crowds themselves behaved strangely. Grand Theft Auto V has some of the most convincing crowds in games, but the illusion still frays if you stand still for too long.
The limitation sticks out all the more in Assassin's Creed, a game largely built on the notion of letting players vanish into a bustling crowd. We can hide in between these people but we can never truly be among them, because they aren't people at all. However lovely a street musician's performance may be, these shouting, stumbling philistines will never appreciate it.