Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Parli Italiano?

At last, my marginal ability to speak and understand Italian comes into use. I have been gallivanting around renaissance Italy in Assassin’s Creed 2, the calls of merchants ringing in my ears – sempre fresca, sempre fresca! That’s always fresh for you rubes.

When Ubisoft released the game last November, Penny Arcade scribbler Tycho advised gamers to turn the subtitles on, as the game’s inhabitants speak the native tongue without bothering to translate for anglophones. Obviously, the mission-critical talking is done in English, but many nooks-and-crannies moments – produce sellers hocking their wares, street chatter, greetings and insults – spill out in mellifluous Italiano.

I studied Italian for a a semester in preparation for living abroad in Rome (ahem, Roma) and Florence (Firenze). While over the pond, I became a competent speaker of Italian, fully able to hail cabs, order drinks and embarrass myself in front of women (this is harder than you might think. Excessive fumbling with the language gets you adoring pity; it takes a careful balance of incompetence, crassness and intoxication to really humiliate yourself). So when a street vendor tries to sell me his fagoli, I know he wants me to buy his beans. They are sempre fresca.

Assassin’s Creed 2 has the most clipping errors I’ve seen in this generation; however, Ubisoft has polished the cultural ambiance to a fine, honeyed glow. Mio Dio, does it pay of. In something so simple as calling cities by their Italian name – Firenze, not Florence – shows a cultural fidelity to 16th century Italy. When I look down on the Repubblica Fiorentina, everything looks dead-on – the domes of the Duomo and San Lorenzo rise from the right places, with Santa Croce lords over the southern end.

I mean, I can almost make my way around the city without the mini-map, navigating from my memory of Firenze. Perhaps that’s the greatest compliment I can pay Assassin’s Creed 2, a gem of a title and a veritable handbook on atmosphere in gaming.