If there is any gaming franchise that has most impacted my life, then it is without question Assassin’s Creed. On its release, I very quickly fell very deeply in love with it. Even so, I’ve only played its first two instalments, and whenever I think about picking it back up again, something stops me. Today, I’d like to examine my love-hate relationship wit the franchise in more detail.
Ubisoft covered themselves off well with the message that Assassin’s Creed is a game made by people of all races, creeds and religions, but there was still a lot of room for the main story line to rub a lot of people the wrong way. When dealing with something as complex as how to attain peace, positioning one side of the debate as heroes and the other as villains had the potential to offend a lot of people’s sensibilities, but as early as the first Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft make it very clear that things are not that simple. For both the Assassins and the Templars, good and evil are very well defined, and the leader of the Assassins, Al Mualim, spends the game painting the Assassins as good. He is, however, the game’s main antagonist, and through pitting the player against him, Assassin against Assassin, we see the world is far less black and white than either side would have us believe.
Much later, Rogue turned the entire franchise on its head by having the player play a Templar instead of an Assassin, and all of a sudden the Templars had their time as the protagonists. Surprise, surprise, they were shown to have some views equally as just as the Assassins in all the other games.
I love this style of story-telling. It makes me question what side of the line I’d really fall on, and why. I enjoy the challenge of seeing things from a different perspective; putting myself in the shoes of people who think and believe differently to myself. If I can’t do that, I can at least try to understand where those people are coming from, and if any piece of entertainment can make me think and engage like that, I’ll applaud it.
…being a treasure hunter.
I’m a sucker for a good treasure hunt. By the nature of its narrative, you don’t realise it at first, and I don’t know whether later games keep that up, but underneath all of their layers, Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed II are exactly that – treasure-hunting games. It’s a race to find the Pieces of Eden, and particularly with the cool little puzzles in Assassin’s Creed II, I got a lot of enjoyment out of the adventure of searching for ancient and lost relics. It made me feel like Benjamin Gates (National Treasure is an underrated film. Don’t @ me).
Alongside that, with the games’ vastly different settings, Ubisoft really captured the global feeling that is prevalent in most treasure-hunting stories. I love history, and the games gave me the opportunity to learn a lot of it, particularly because they paid so much attention to getting it right.
This leads me into what I love most about Assassin’s Creed. The universe-building. I was raised on Tolkien – he is without a doubt my biggest inspiration when it comes to writing. Universe-building is what I love, and in Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft really, truly nail it.
While I was still in Germany, when I said I love the games for their realism, one particular colleague of mine would reply, “At the end of Assassin’s Creed II, you fist-fight the pope for a stick!” He’s not wrong, and I’ll get back to that later, but I honestly forgive them that particular point, and the fight against Al Mualim in the original Assassin’s Creed, for the incredible amount of gorgeous detail that went into both games.
Perhaps realistic is the wrong word, perhaps the word is authentic. Playing both games, I truly believed I was walking through authentic representations of their settings. Not only were they vibrant and alive but I believed that is what Masyaf, Damascus, Jerusalem and Acre, Florence and Rome might have looked like in the time period I was seeing them in. The research I did on the real-world Order of Assassins showed me that Ubisoft had done some hard work to represent them in Assassin’s Creed as they are thought to have been, down to the very structure of their organisation, with references to the Grand Headmaster and rafiqs.
And on a different layer, we then have the endless conflict between the Assassins and the Templars woven through history. In my limited experience, it’s best shown through the puzzling mini-games found throughout Assassin’s Creed II, but Ubisoft’s choice of setting for each game really nail home for me how beautifully crafted this is. The Third Crusade, Renaissance Italy, Colonial America, Revolutionary France, Victorian London, Ancient(-ish) Egypt and the Golden Age of Heroes are all integral parts of our global history, and by choosing these settings, Ubisoft is better selling how this conflict shaped that history. It puts the player at the heart of some of our most defining moments; makes them a part of how those moments came about. It’s gripping, in that it’s enticing to be a part of something greater than yourself. And I love it.
…that it inspired four of my favourite characters.
That research that I mentioned? Yeah… After playing both Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed II, I sank into hours of research about the real-world Order of Assassins and what they were really like. Not only was I impressed by how accurately Ubisoft had portrayed them, but around the same time I was playing Assassin’s Creed II, I was half-way through writing the first draft of Thicker Than Water, the (now two-part) novel that sits on my computer finished but unpublished.
I loved the idea that Assassin’s Creed II played with; that the descendents of the original Order spread across the world and through the ages, passing on their stories and skills. Moreover, I had read how crusaders, Catholic inquisitors and travellers alike had spread stories of the Assassins’ feats and values, at least the ones they publicly preached, throughout Europe and then the world, and so inspired was I by this idea that I decided to work it into my own writing.
Four of my characters ended up being former Assassins, of one kind or another. The characters are all also vampires (yeah, it’s one of those stories), so I had room to get creative, and three of them came to represent how those values and skills adapted to different cultures and times as they spread. The last was an actual Nizari Fidaa’y (those who carried out assassinations for the Order), though a couple of centuries later than Altair.
Thicker Than Water isn’t about Assassins, and the fact that these four characters were Assassins is not incredibly important. Only one of them gives just a vague reference to them, while another has exactly one line of dialogue in the two volumes of the story that have been written so far. The point is that it is still a key part of each character’s backstory, and that in and of itself has driven their development. I love all four characters dearly, and I just don’t know whether I’d feel the same way had I not done that initial research. Therein, I don’t know whether I would love these four characters so much if it weren’t for Assassin’s Creed.
Yes, you end Assassin’s Creed by having a fight with a self-replicating man for a ball. Yes, you end Assassin’s Creed II by fist-fighting the pope for a stick. I previously wrote that I can forgive Ubisoft that, but when you take it at face value, it is a little ridiculous, particularly considering how grounded in reality both games are up until those points.
I can’t write the same for the actual Assassin’s Creed II ending.
I was gob-smacked when Minerva showed up, and by the video footage of Adam and Eve escaping one of the First Civilisation vaults with the Apple and Staff. And not in a good way. It tore me so much out of the realism of the game that I was completely shell-shocked by it; it was such a complete reversal of what I was used to that the ‘ridiculous’ fight preceding that scene paled in comparison.
In retrospect, I probably should have seen something like that coming when the map showing the locations of the Pieces of Eden appeared at the end of Assassin’s Creed, but for some reason that was an acceptable amount of “other-worldly power”. Learning the truth in Assassin’s Creed II ripped the carpet completely out from under me, and the sudden flip from historical epic with a touch of magic to hard science-fantasy completely ruined my experience. Most stories have to work hard to make me rage-quit, but that managed it.
Then over time, precursor races kept showing up. I let Halo get away with it, as it was more original in 2001 than in 2009, and it wasn’t until Halo 4 that it became a key plot device. Mass Effect took the idea and ran laps around everyone else with it, and even the X-Universe story, which I loved so much I ended up working on the team developing it for four years, leaned just a bit too heavily on an ancient alien race leaving a gift behind for the universe for my liking. It became a tired trope, and as time passed and I recovered from my Assassin’s Creed rage-quit, my nerves grew that Assassin’s Creed would lean too heavily on it too.
…the annual release cycle.
I’ve never liked annual release cycles. Outside of sports game franchises, where it is only expected to be data updates every single year, I always imagine that either the developers or audience will develop burnout or the developers will struggle to keep the gameplay and story innovative and interesting.
Those fears are well-founded for Assassin’s Creed. At least in terms of gameplay, the main criticism of the franchise, and indeed other Ubisoft franchises, was for a long time a lack of innovation, and it wasn’t long before they had to break the cycle, after Syndicate, to make Origins a better game.
In terms of story-telling, I do still believe that good story-telling requires time if it is to be complex, and I don’t believe that you can throw more people at the problem to get the same result in less time. I realise, not having played an Assassin’s Creed game in a decade, that this is more my own personal prejudice, and not necessarily an actual problem with the games, but it is one of those things that make me hesitate every time I think about picking up the franchise again.
… the time investment
It’s too strong to say I hate the time investment, but it does put me off. I’m a busy woman, and I usually struggle to sink hours into games as big as Assassin’s Creed.
There are twelve games in the main franchise alone, and I know in order to get into it I would have to start at the very beginning. That’s a lot to juggle alongside the work I do for Team Aretuza and the job I do to make some kind of living, particularly when I am increasingly aware that I would not just be playing for myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t be a content creator if I didn’t enjoy it, but it does add extra pressure. Regardless of whether I stream my playthrough or record it, I’d certainly write about my experience with the story here, otherwise what’s the point? I have a horrible history of overthinking and putting too much pressure on myself with this stuff, so it has to be a consideration when I think about what projects to take on.
So what draws me back?
Assassin’s Creed trailers are awesome. In terms of storytelling, they always seem to do a good job of grounding you in the game’s setting, introducing you to the characters or giving you a hint of what the higher-level story will be about, without giving too much away. Every time I think I’m out of the franchise for good, it’s always a trailer that draws me back in. Two in particular have stuck with me.
Unity’s announcement trailer does a great job of grounding you in the French Revolution. After this trailer, I’m excited to be part of one of history’s most defining moments, which is entirely down to the atmosphere and vibrance painted by the first few seconds of the trailer. It builds on this by reintroducing the epic feats Assassins are capable of in this universe, and by the end of the trailer I’m sold. Not necessarily on the game, but definitely on the experience.
Though Evie’s introduction trailer is a technically better trailer, showing her to be every bit as deadly as her brother, Jacob, it is actually her launch trailer that has stuck with me. This is largely down to the choice of music, and Laura Welsh’s Break the Fall is still among my regular go-to songs, particularly when I’m working on Thicker Than Water (as is Lorde’s cover of Everybody Wants To Rule the World from the trailer above, for that matter).
To give credit where credit is due, this trailer also does well in showing the relationship between Evie and Jacob, and introducing Evie’s personal values and motivations. It made me curious to learn more about her, and to experience the larger story from her perspective. In terms of character introduction, there is not a lot more you can ask for.
For me, Altair and Ezio both start their respective games as unlikable characters. Altair is arrogant and Ezio is childish. This is deliberate, and entirely fitting to their situations up until the start of their games. It also allows for some very meaningful character development as the games go on, as Altair comes to realise he is part of the problem and Ezio grows up into his role as an Assassin. Character development is always important, but it is especially important for player characters in games where their morality and decision-making isn’t governed by their controllers (such as in linear plots). It’s important that controlling players aren’t irked by the character’s choices and behaviour in such situations, but in my memory, Altair and Ezio have no such problems. That sets a standard of excitement for me. I want to experience other characters developing in different ways in the same universe – I trust Ubisoft to get that right.
Also, I was really happy to see Evie and Kassandra included as playable characters for the main franchise. I could go on for some length about female representation in games, but putting all of that aside, I know from my pen and paper roleplaying experience that I prefer playing female characters over male characters. In allowing me to play their games through a female perspective, Ubisoft have immediately put me more at ease, which means if I do eventually play Syndicate and Odyssey, I get to engage with those games and stories at a deeper level. Also, while I can’t speak for Kassandra because the marketing for Odyssey went completely over my head, Evie looks like a complete badass, and that’s cool.
I Want to Know How It All Ties Together
In two games, I’m sure I’ve seen very little of the overarching Assassin’s Creed story for myself. Even then, when I think about it right now on balance, the things I love about it very easily outweigh what I don’t. The precursor plot aside, I do want to know how all the different threads from all the different games come together, even in the modern-day snippets that have never really been anyone’s favourite part of the Assassin’s Creed experience. Like I wrote before, I love universe-building, and I want to explore theirs further. As an avid writer, it’s not even just a narrative experience for me. It’s a chance to better my own craft too.
In the gap between the last line written and the word ‘Conclusion’, I looked at the price of the Assassin’s Creed games. Less than twenty minutes later, Assassin’s Creed, Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood, Revelations, Assassin’s Creed III, Liberation and Black Flag were all sitting in my Steam library, waiting to be played. It’s a purchase that I’ve been threatening to make for a long time now, and in writing this piece I did finally convince myself to buy them.
Taking a good look at what I dislike about the franchise, it’s easy to see that more than anything else, all I’ve been doing for all this time is letting my worries get in the way of what could potentially be a really good gaming experience for me. After so much time, I can look at it objectively and know that it’s at least worth trying to go through the entire franchise again. After what it has given me, it deserves a chance, and it’s only fair of me to give it that chance.
Of course that means more content for you too. Honestly it’s a little daunting, but I am really looking forward to it. I enjoy story analysis, and I think there’s definitely more room for it, so I think a story analysis for each game I play is probably the least I could manage. It might not be one after the other, or soon, but I’ll at least try.
Before I go, there’s one final thing I should write. Thank you, Patrice Désilets, Jade Raymond and Cory May. Really, thank you! It’s hard for me to put into words how I feel about all of my characters, but those four I mentioned earlier hold a very special place in my heart, and that really is down to Assassin’s Creed. If that’s not impact, I really don’t know what is…