Welcome to Story Analysis. This will be my chance to look at one of my greatest passions in the context of another; how stories are told through video games. It’ll be as full an analysis of a game’s story-telling mechanics as I can manage in a reasonable number of pages, looking at what is going on behind the screen and what the story designer might have been trying to achieve with it.
In the first Story Analysis series, we’ll be looking at Ubisoft’s 2007 franchise-spawning action-adventure game, Assassin’s Creed. Because it’s quite a big game, I’ll be breaking it up into more manageable chunks: Today we’ll cover Chapter One and later in the week we’ll cover Chapters Two and Three, then the rest of the game over the next couple of weeks. Let’s get started!
The First Few ‘Pages’
“I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also was a chasing of the wind, for with much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow.”Ecclesiastes 1:17-18, the opening words of Assassin’s Creed
You have to have reached the end of the game to realise why Assassin’s Creed’s opening words are so important, so we’ll come back to analyse this again if we need to then, but I want to point this out now so we know about it. It’s effectively the same as when you open a book and the first page is just a single quote before you jump into Chapter One or the Prologue. It’s the author’s chance to tell you what the story is about without giving too much away.
This is a clever thing to do in a game. Gaming is a unique story-telling experience because the player is the primary agent of the story. Linear games have to tread carefully, leading the player into the story they want to tell while making sure the player still feels in control. From a story-telling perspective, a quote like this does that perfectly. It hooks us into the main thread of the narrative while giving us the room to explore what exactly it means for ourselves. We’re not on our own path, but we’re free to move down that path at our own speed.
More broadly, this entire opening sequence is very creepy and intense, which is also perfect. The pulsing red screen, the flashing images and Lucy’s worried voice disorient us; make us wonder where we are and what’s going on. It puts us in Desmond’s shoes, which is where we want to be because he’s one of our protagonists. When he wakes up, we understand his reaction and are on his side because we’ve seen what he’s seen. That’s Ubisoft’s most important job done – they’ve established a connection between the player and their character; they’ve grounded the player in the game.
When he wakes up, Desmond is quite rightly angry about being kidnapped and strapped into a mind-bending audio-visual hallucination machine, but he doesn’t put up much of a fight. If this were a film, CinemaSins would probably ping this. If you’re faced with an old man in a lab coat and a woman a head and a half smaller than you, you would probably at least try to break free of the room. But this is a game – the player wants to be in control, wants to be playing. It’s important to let them do that before too long, otherwise it isn’t the kind of entertainment the customer paid for. The story-telling mechanic to facilitate that is simple but effective. Dr Vidic quickly lets Desmond know that he can choose to cooperate and live or not and die. These people have already found him and kidnapped him. Why wouldn’t they also be capable of making him disappear?
This brings us to our first big exposition dump. These aren’t very popular nowadays, particularly in games, where the player wants to be active and in control, but Ubisoft just manage to toe the line by using such a unique concept to explain how the in-game system works. Using genetic memory to travel back in time is very original, even today, and the way Dr Vidic and Lucy go about explaining it keeps the player interested for just long enough that they don’t quite itch to use the keyboard yet.
Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a game if Lucy and Vidic could just access the memory they needed straight away, so there has to be a reason for us to experience the entire story. My first thought was to say the story-telling surrounding this is a little flimsy, but Lucy’s point about the way memory works makes sense. It is generally unreliable, and any kind of trauma just makes that worse. It’s not a big stretch to say that genetic memory works the same way, and is in fact worse because we can never consciously access it.
The Temple of Solomon
Then, finally, we’re in the game, back in the 12th Century. Here we meet our second protagonist, Altair, and wow does he make a bad first impression.
It’s immediately obvious that Altair is not meant to be very likeable. He’s arrogant, he cares very little about what others think and he thinks he’s above the rules everyone else has to follow. Games require fast-paced story-telling, so unless you’re setting up a shocking betrayal story-line, clarity in character introduction is key. We get that here. Altair might be a protagonist, but he isn’t a hero… yet. Now the player knows what Altair is like, and they can continue playing uninterrupted.
In the same vein of fast-paced introductions, within a few moments we are also introduced to our primary antagonist, Robert de Sablé, and the crux of the game’s conflict, though we don’t yet learn that it’s called the Apple, a Piece of Eden. Again we are sped past these introductions so that we can keep playing, but not so quickly that we miss the importance of what Ubisoft is showing us. Again it’s about clarity. Now we know who we are, who we’re fighting and what we’re fighting about. We can focus on what’s most important, particularly in an action-adventure game; playing it. A layer lower, there’s some great foreshadowing both for this chapter and the entire story. De Sablé’s entire attitude in this scene makes sense simply as the villain, but when you know how the story ends it takes on an entirely different tone. We’re not going to be able to escape looking at how and why this works so well for very long, but I’ll wait until the thread stitches together later in the chapter.
For now, we’ll focus on the main point of this scene – proving Altair is not as good as he thinks he is. It happens quickly. He goes in for the kill and de Sablé dispatches him with ease, separating him from his fellow Assassins and sending him back to Masyaf a failure. It closes the bubble the player has already started putting around Altair. If he’d succeeded in killing de Sablé, then his arrogance would be self-assuredness, and well-founded. As it is, it is actually just arrogance, and it’s only served to send Altair on his fall from grace.
Return to Masyaf
The journey through Masyaf continues to give us more information, not just on Altair but how he’s perceived too. The very first thing he does is ask for the location of the Master, Al Mualim. We knew from the conversation in the Temple of Solomon that Altair is a high-ranking Assassin, but that he reports directly to the Master tells us exactly what position he is in within the Order, and makes his failure so much more humiliating. When we reach the citadel, we also meet Abbas, who clearly doesn’t think much of the way Altair has achieved this position. It gives the impression that while Altair thinks it’s earned, others think Al Mualim favours him. Abbas even goes so far as to insinuate that Altair is a sycophant, “licking the Master’s boot” to gain his favour. This is the last piece of Altair’s character introduction puzzle. He might be good at what he does, but he’s disliked by his peers and corrupted by his power. As he steps into the Citadel to face Al Mualim, he’s perfectly set up for his redemption arc to begin.
This starts with yet another cut-scene. Cut-scenes are a contentious topic, even among game developers. They’re great for story-telling, and some people love that, but there’s an inherent risk to using them: Removing the player’s agency, stopping them from playing the game. The general rule is to use them sparingly, and even less so at the beginning when you are trying to draw the player in. The first chapter of Assassin’s Creed is actually more cut-scene than game-play, and that might be too much for some people, but for those who like story-telling, each cut-scene is still very well crafted.
This one, particularly, is brilliant in the way it sets up relationships between key characters, carried mostly by the voice-acting of Philip Shahbaz (Altair), Peter Renaday (Al Mualim) and Haaz Sleimann (Malik). By virtue of it being the only part of a game that isn’t computer generated (mostly… / yet…), voice-acting will always be the most realistic part of game cut-scenes, and these three actors make us believe that Al Mualim is disappointed because he expected Altair to succeed, Altair is ashamed and humiliated because he didn’t, and Malik is furious because Altair’s actions cost his brother his life and Malik the use of his arm. From that, we know Al Mualim depends on Altair somewhat, and Altair basks in that. We know that Malik will never forgive Altair, and that whatever friendship they had, if any, has been irreparably broken. True to character, Altair also tries to pin everything on Robert de Sablé, but Malik is having none of it, noticeable bitterness in his voice as he hands over the Piece of Eden, recovered at too high a cost.
Before Altair can face justice, Robert de Sablé comes for his prize. Between the game-play introducing the player to the basics of fighting and the parkour mechanics that made Assassin’s Creed famous, there’s some more really interesting character interaction here, this time between Al Mualim and Robert de Sablé. Now we can’t avoid talking about the ending of the game anymore, so if somehow you’ve not played Assassin’s Creed by this point and want to, I suggest you save this to your bookmarks, play the game through to completion, then come back and continue. AKA: Spoilers ahead!
On face value, Robert screaming at the gates for Al Mualim to return the Apple is just him being angry about having had the relic stolen from him at the last moment, but when you know the two of them have been working together to secure it up until this point, it takes on an entirely different meaning.
First of all, do you remember when I wrote there was some brilliant foreshadowing in the Temple of Solomon? It started with this line:
“… The sooner we possess it, the sooner we can turn our attention to those jackals at Masyaf.”Robert de Sablé on recovering the Apple in the Temple of Solomon
De Sablé might have expected the Assassins to come for the Apple, but he clearly didn’t know it would be right then and there, as he only realised that was why a soldier was missing when they revealed themselves. In saying the line above then, we know he must have been planning to do what Al Mualim has done to him; cut him out of the loop on the prize. That makes Robert shouting up at the Masyaf citadel gates so much more hurt, not because he’s been betrayed, but because he was the slower of the two to act on his betrayal.
On top of that, Al Mualim refers to de Sablé as Robert. How much more personal can you get? More to the point, how much more can Ubisoft do to tell us that these two men know each other intimately enough for Al Mualim to get away with that? With fresh eyes, it’s clearly not where the focus of the scene is supposed to be, but oh, wow, does it ratchet up the tension between the two characters, and when you look at the whole story from Altair’s perspective, it adds an extra layer of depth to how he becomes stuck between the two.
This scene also really shows how much work Ubisoft did to shine a realistic light on the Assassins. The Leap of Faith was a real thing. No real-life Assassin expected to survive it, but there is at least one real-world example of Fidaa’in (“self-sacrificing agents”) being asked to perform it to show their dedication to the cause, and prove they did not fear death. With Al Mualim’s instruction to “Go to God!”, in fact a trap set for the Templars, the public image the Order of Assassins wished to maintain is reinforced, while giving the player a cool ‘super-hero’ moment wherein our character dives off a tower and survives with no injuries.
Of course Altair manages to spring the trap that the Assassins have set and de Sablé’s forces are routed. It leads into Al Mualim’s first point in the cut-scene that follows, portraying the end of Altair’s fall from grace. The point is very clearly made that lives would have been saved if Altair had followed his instructions instead of doing things his own way. Continuing in character, Altair doesn’t want to hear this. He doesn’t want to accept he is wrong, even when his self-proclaimed better way has failed.
But even as we watch and listen to Al Mualim’s speech telling us the tenants of the Assassin’s Creed, something interesting occurs. We see how the Assassins like to operate. They’re not free to act as they please – there is a standard, a set of rules they are expected to follow, drilled into them during their training. In and of itself, this means very little, but in the context of the whole game we begin to understand that things are not as black and white as they seem.
The crux of the conflict between the Assassins and the Templars is the way they go about ensuring peace, one through free will and one through control. Al Mualim preaches continuously that the Templars’ way is wrong, but this scene shows that those words are hypocritical. It might be to a different degree, yes, but the Assassins are still controlled. Here we see Altair being very severely punished for breaking the Creed and accused of treason; usually carrying a death penalty. That is certainly one way to control your population when the crime, fundamentally, is acting of your own free will.
This final scene in Masyaf also serves to start Altair’s redemption arc. I rather suspect that in taking this action, Al Mualim planned to reshape Altair into the perfect weapon, but instead he has planted the seeds for Altair to realise that he is as much a part of the problem as anyone else taking part in the conflict. Altair might not know it yet, but in his death and rebirth, he is given the chance to start again and grow as a person. It is his chance not just to regain his honour and pride, but the respect of his peers. It also gives the player progression, which is important outside of the context of story-telling. The game would be too easy if we played it through as a Master Assassin. This way, using this story element, we have to start at the beginning too.
Back in the Real world…
Outside of the animus, we learn a little more about the other characters as well. We learn that Desmond ran away from the Assassins because of the controls they placed on him, we learn that an accident of unknown design has Dr Vidic on edge, and has made him determined to get what he needs from Desmond as quickly as possible. We learn that Lucy, while not on our side (glares suspiciously), at least cares somewhat for our well-being, making sure Dr Vidic doesn’t push Desmond too much.
In an extended conversation with Lucy, we also start to get the first hints of something greater going on, as we learn how Abstergo, “just a pharmaceutical company” found Desmond, who had been living off the grid away from the Assassins. Lucy tells him that they have eyes and ears everywhere, then shuts down when she remembers that means the room they’re talking in too. It’s not a direct link between Abstergo and the Templars, but again Ubisoft are giving us the threads to start pulling on. In this first chapter, we’ve seen the Assassins and the Templars at war, and we know that this conflict revolves around an unknown relic that Al Mualim has and Robert de Sablé wants. We know Desmond is an Assassin… sort of, and we know that Dr Vidic is looking for something in his genetic memory. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to start putting the pieces (Hah!) together.
In all, this first chapter does what it needs to do from a story-telling perspective, and it does it well. We know our main characters, we have an idea of their motivations and a good feeling for the relationship between them. We are well grounded in the universe the story takes place in and we even end on a subtly unsubtle hint that something far stranger is coming. From a game-play perspective, it might leave a little bit to be desired, but with the heavy-lifting for the story-telling done for a while, the game opens up a lot more in coming chapters.
Later this week we’ll dive into Chapters Two and Three together, as there’s far more game-play and only short, condensed bursts of story-telling. That’ll take us to a few more of the stunning locations this game has to offer and we’ll start to pull on the threads of the game’s story a little harder. Until then, I leave you with Al Mualim’s parting words to Altair in this chapter.
Al’Salam ealaykum. Peace be upon you.