A Stranger in a Familiar Land

In the Assassin’s Creed games, your character, Desmond, spends his time hooked up to a “genetic memory reading” machine, where he relives the memories of his ancestors. You remember Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the way Jim Carrey is forced to travel through his memories to find a safe place to hide Kate Winslet? Well, it’s sort of like that. Except you’re looking for something, not hiding it. And the ‘memories’ all took place at least 500 years ago. At the beginning of the latest game, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Desmond emerges from a memory of being at his ancestor’s villa in the year 1500, to find himself at the same villa in 2012, trying to get in. It’s his first time to actually visit the place in real life, and he makes a remark about ‘remembering’ a secret passage. The joke being that he’s ‘remembering’ visiting a place he’s never actually visited.

I know exactly how he feels.

Herself indoors was working in New York for the past couple of months. I decided it might be nice to head across for a week once she’d finished up, so we could take a couple of days over thanksgiving to visit Washington while we were at it. I had never been to either place before (West Coast is the Best Coast). In fact, I’ve always said that there are two places in the world I was terrified to visit. The first is Las Vegas, mainly because I’m afraid what horrible qualities would emerge in me (am I a secret compulsive gambler? a huge fan of Cirque du Soleil? Who knows!). The other is New York. I was just afraid of being one of those dopey-faced tourists that look like walking “Mug Me” signs because they’re walking around gawping at the scale of it all,. I mean, it’s completely alien to someone who grew up in a country where the tallest building is only 233 feet tall.

It’s amazing what two months away from your wife will do to your irrational fears.

Something that made it easy for me to get over my fear was the fact that, despite having never been there before, the whole place was so familiar to me. Between all my years playing the various Grand Theft Auto games (Liberty City being the game’s equivalent of New York City), and the general immersion that comes from watching movies and TV shows set in NYC, I never really felt that disorientated. I never got that overwhelming sense of strangeness that usually comes from visiting a new city. I knew how this city worked. I spent most of my time pointing out the various bits and pieces. Hey, there’s the Library from Ghostbusters! Hey, there’s the Getalife Metlife Building. New York City being the default setting for games and movies meant that I had learned the geography of that place by osmosis.

Washington wasn’t much different. Shortly after arriving, I demanded that our very generous hosts drive us 15 minutes in the wrong direction just so I could see the Exorcist steps in Georgetown. This grounded me, gave me a central location to base my understanding of the geography fromAlthough, did you know there’s an Exxon at the bottom? This wigged me out no end. I would have expected a statue to the mighty Lee J. Cobb or something.

The White House was the weirdest of all. We came at the building from the east side, hitting the press area first. Again, having never been there before, I was able to point out certain areas to my wife - there’s the press area, there’s the rose garden. How did I know this? Splinter Cell: Conviction, where your character sneaks through this area to get into the White House and, eventually, the West Wing.

And speaking of the West Wing, I’ve been watching a lot of that show recently, and that’s given me a weirdly intimate understanding of the way the place worksEven if it’s deliberately not a completely faithful reproduction of the layout of the office area. But it had another, stranger effect on my experience of the White House in general. Rather than seeing it as the centre of power for arguably the most powerful nation in the world, for me the White House actually felt more like a movie set, like the Psycho house at Universal Studios - a really elaborate facadeInsert your own political commentary here, you fucking wag.