Story Analysis: Assassin’s Creed – Chapters Two & Three

Introduction

Welcome back to the Story Analysis of 2007’s Assassin’s Creed. Earlier in the week, we looked at the exposition- and cutscene-heavy first chapter of this action-adventure game, where we met our main characters and got to grips with the game’s story and setting. In Chapters Two and Three the game opens up to include a lot more game-play while the story-telling is slotted into shorter segments between missions. Let’s jump in where we left off; Desmond’s second day of captivity.

Chapter Two – “Now that would be telling…”

We start on a conversation with Vidic about why he’s doing what he’s doing. Forgoing all subtlety, he proposes that the Assassins had the right idea, but didn’t take it far enough. More than giving us some more insight into Vidic, a layer lower this is another hint that the Templars and Assassins only really differ in the execution of very similar ideals, reinforcing the main theme of the game; that the world is not black and white. Of course we still have no direct link between Abstergo and the Templars, so as in Chapter One, this acts as a trail of breadcrumbs down the story path.

The conversation ends when Desmond asks Vidic how he would handle the problem of peace, and Vidic’s response is, “Now that would be telling.” This is done to draw out the threads a little more. Ubisoft aren’t ready to tell us what Vidic plans to do, or that he wants the Pieces of Eden to do it. This is very jarring, which you generally want to avoid. It means something feels out of place and takes the audience out of the story. In this case, it doesn’t feel like there is a reason for Vidic to be so cryptic, other than to get the player back into the game. This is important to do, yes, but here it feels like a detriment to the story.

The Masyaf Traitor

Masun preaches about a better world outside the gates of the Masyaf Citadel

This part of the chapter serves as a tutorial for the player on how the assassinations to come will work, but in the story-telling, there are two key components that shine through.

The first is how it plays with irony in the context of the whole game. We rejoin Altair as he awakes from “the sleep of the dead”, and Al Mualim tells us that he has “rebirthed” Altair in order to cleanse him of the arrogance and insolence that he’s grown to harbour. I suspect his true intentions to be to shape Altair into someone more easily controllable; someone who won’t risk Al Mualim’s plans for the Holy Lands by thinking too much for himself. However, in telling Altair that it is time to change his ways, he gives Altair the space he needs to grow as a person. Of course, as Altair comes to understand the truth, and cannot accept it to be just, this ironically becomes Al Mualim’s downfall.

Altair doesn’t respond well to being treated like a child, but he begrudgingly agrees to find a traitor who helped de Sablé assault the city. Altair finds the traitor, Masun, preaching to the people about being on the precipice of a new world where everyone is equal, if it weren’t for men like Al Mualim trying to stay in control. Of course with the information Altair has on completing this mission, Masun seems to be spewing Templar propaganda against the Assassins, but whatever his motives, Al Mualim’s ultimate goal is control, so the irony is that Masun is not technically wrong.

Irony is a subtle story-telling technique that fulfils an important role, though because of its subtlety, it’s often missed. Do you remember Chancellor Palpetine’s expression when he told the story of Darth Plagueis to Anakin Skywalker?

It’s a meme, but… ironically it’s not wrong…

That’s why we enjoy irony. There’s a twisted humour in someone’s actions having the opposite effect that they’re supposed to, particularly, as in this case, when it’s the villain who fails because of it. I almost wish we knew about Al Mualim’s true motives to properly enjoy these ironic moments in this chapter even with fresh eyes, but really it’s probably not worth ruining what is supposed to be one of the biggest plot twists of the story.

The second key component is another one that doesn’t mean all that much on it’s own. The story-telling reason for Altair to find Masun is to show that he is no longer above everyone else. Al Mualim wants him to know categorically that he is paying for his mistakes, and even tells Altair he answers not only Al Mualim now, but the entire Order. It’s an important character moment for Altair, because even though he clearly doesn’t like the situation, coming from the only person whose respect he wants, he knows he has to accept it.

This is realistic character development.  Altair is not jumping from development point to development point but sliding through them fluidly, first begrudgingly taking on his new role in order to regain Al Mualim’s respect and trust, then easing into a more natural state of mind where he truly accepts his place. Additionally we see how he’s affected by Al Mualim’s manipulation of their relationship. It’s another element of Al Mualim’s attempts to control that back-fires horribly later on, but until we know that, it adds a meaningful layer to the interactions between these two characters. There can be no doubting from now on that Al Mualim’s opinion of him means something to Altair.

Damascus

Damascus as depicted in Assassin’s Creed

In the post that spawned this analysis, I spoke about Assassin’s Creed’s authenticity. Our arrival in Damascus is really where this comes to light for the first time, and it’s just as important as any dialogue, character or action to the storytelling. The game looks dated twelve years on, but it still feels real, and its locations are responsible for that. As a story-teller, your primary goal is to make your audience feel like a part of the story, and that’s even more important in game stories because the player is so much closer to their character. This makes it vital to ground the player in an environment realistic enough they don’t have to think about it, and Ubisoft manages that with every location, not just in how they look but also through environmental sound design.

If there’s one flaw, it’s lack of variety in the voice lines. After some time exploring Damascus, hearing the same three speeches about Saladin and King Richard, the same five thank yous for saving citizens throughout the city became a little monotonous. However, at least for me, it doesn’t take too much away from the streets that get busier as you move towards important parts of each district, the realistically designed structures and the voice acting that is close enough to Arabic-native to make me believe this is what Damascus might have been like in 1191 (with the caveat that the animus is translating everything into modern-day English).

Before we can take the life of our first target, Tamir, we must meet with the rafiq (“companion”) in Damascus. After a stinging reminder of Altair’s reputation, which audibly annoys Altair, we see the first evidence of Al Mualim’s manipulation. Altair is about to exclaim that finding Tamir’s location is best left to lesser men, when he freezes. This is his first conscious moment of understanding the task he now faces; not to kill nine men, but to rebuild his own reputation in his mentor’s eyes. He knows that to do this, he has to take the task seriously, and immediately attempts to change his attitude towards the rafiq with a slightly bashful, “I understand.”

It isn’t until we actually assassinate Tamir that we get our next dose of story-telling. It’s an effective dose. As Tamir lies dying, he asks Altair why it is he must die when so many people do the same things he does, and tells Altair it is because he doesn’t work alone. Altair’s response is nonchalant and proud, stating that he looks forward to ending the lives of the other men involved as well, but I don’t think this is out of arrogance. Instead, I think Altair’s acceptance of his new circumstances hits home as Tamir tries to plant doubt in his mind, and he tries to reinforce to Tamir and himself that it doesn’t matter why Tamir did what he did, only that he did it and he must die for it. Tamir, though, uses Altair’s pride as a warning, telling him it will destroy him.

Tamir falls at the hands of Altair, the first of our nine major victims in Assassin’s Creed

Again, this is a bout of irony in the context of the whole game, perhaps making that the theme of this chapter. This time, the irony is on Altair for trying to assume the ‘correct’ Assassin mind set, which will crush him when he discovers the truth, that Al Mualim, the man asking him to reshape himself, is at the centre of the structure he’s trying to destroy. Tamir knows this, I think, and is genuinely saddened by how Altair is being used.

Another Delay in proceedings

Before Chapter Two ends, Desmond is once again pulled from the machine, Lucy insisting that Desmond rest. I want to flag this particular moment not because of what Ubisoft tell us, but because of what they don’t. Once again, spoiler alert: It would be very easy for them to drop a hint at the end of this chapter that Lucy is really an Assassin, but they don’t.

There are two types of reveal in story-telling, with two different kinds of reaction. The first has a slower build up over more time, with hints dropped about what the reveal is all the way through the story. When the reveal then hits, the audience has a satisfying moment of realisation about what everything has been leading towards. There’s also the type of reveal that you don’t see coming, whose impact is short and sharp and gives the audience a moment of jaw-dropping shock.

Lucy’s reveal is the second of the two, and for that to work, there can be no build-up, no mention of it at all. In this segment of the chapter she’s subtly trying to help Desmond better understand what’s happening, without her Abstergo bosses knowing she’s helping, but that’s as far as it goes. The relationship between Desmond and Lucy is still carried forward, without harming the reveal that Ubisoft later want to shock us with.

The end of Chapter Two reveals a subtle but incredibly worrying aspect of working for Abstergo…

Chapter Three – “The world’s A mess…”

Throughout Chapter Three, Assassin’s Creed’s story-telling formula begins to show itself through all of the different layers. Desmond wakes up, we learn more about Dr Vidic, we hop in the animus, kill our targets and they give us more hints at the truth of the Twelfth Century conflict, we come back out of the animus, we learn more about Lucy and how everything ties together, then Desmond goes back to bed.

Formulaic doesn’t necessarily mean bad, but it’s usually better for a formula to stay hidden. Over the years since Assassin’s Creed’s release, Ubisoft have often been criticised for sticking to a certain formula, and that may well be because it isn’t well hidden. I can see the reasoning. Assassin’s Creed is an action-adventure. Ubisoft want the player to have fun playing the game without story-telling they might not be interested in getting in the way, so the out-of-animus story-telling is held behind optional interactions with Lucy and Vidic. You can choose not to have those interactions, but if you do want to find out more about the story, the way to get it becomes a little stale. This is the opposite of what you want as a story-teller. Repeating the same steps becomes boring and gives us fewer incentives to keep repeating the steps. Chapter Three is our longest chapter yet, and we already have to really want the story in order to go looking for it.

Still, after Vidic’s explanation that all he wants is world order, we’re back in Masyaf, where it seems despite Altair’s best efforts, Tamir’s words have stuck with him. In the following conversation with Al Mualim, we come the closest we have yet to the truth that Al Mualim is not all he seems to be; dodging questions and outright ignoring requests from Altair for more information. It’s another great interaction between these two characters wherein Al Mualim further manipulates Altair wish for his respect, this time to dodge any suspicion that his intentions are to remove the people who would share in his prize.

Acre

Acre as depicted in Assassin’s Creed

Especially having just come from Damascus, the juxtaposition created by seeing Acre for the first time is spell-binding. Where Damascus used bright colours and light to set the tone of a bustling city well away from the war, Acre is grim. Really grim. Buzzards flying, bodies littering the streets, the entrance to the city not just guarded but actually lined with guards: You can tell the city has recently been besieged, and again it grounds you in the reality of the history you’re seeing in-game. For the first time, you are actually in the Third Crusade, and you feel it. This is definitely what impresses me most about the story-telling in this game. It’s a word that’ll keep coming up – its authenticity.

Now that Altair has accepted his place, and even tries to be appreciative to the Acre rafiq for the information he’s given, the story moves quicker. Formulaic once again, we see no major step forward until Garnier de Nablus lies dying.

De Nablus has been experimenting on people, making them sick or killing them. Our research into his activities tells us this is some side-effect of something else he is trying to achieve, and on his death-bed he seems not only to genuinely believe he is helping those he’s using as test subjects, but he also seems to care about them quite deeply. Above all else, this fits nicely into the theme of this chapter: Control. De Nablus goes on to explain that these people had very little free will anyway, and are better off now that it’s gone. He actually echoes Dr Vidic’s thoughts at the beginning of the chapter – people need to be controlled to be happy.

Our second victim, Garnier de Nablus, lies dying

Building on the doubt Tamir placed in Altair’s mind, Altair is conflicted by de Nablus’ genuine belief in his task. Even before he returns to Masyaf, Altair asks the Acre rafiq what Nablus meant to achieve, but the rafiq reminds him that as Assassins, they are not meant to ask questions, only to serve. Altair’s inner conflict is made obvious to us as an audience to show that this is a key moment in his development. He’s beginning to realise that the Templars, like the Assassins, see themselves as the heroes, and just like that black and white just start to trickle into grey.

That effect stays with Altair and the audience as he returns to Masyaf and poses the same question to Al Mualim. This scene shows how confident he is in Altair’s desire to regain his respect, as he openly admits things to Altair that prove the complexity of this world, only for Altair to accept them as Al Mualim’s image of how simple everything is. “Leaders will always find ways to make others obey them, and that is what makes them leaders,” is used as an excuse for why the men Altair is killing get away with what they do, while an open admission that the Assassins must keep a particular public image to cultivate a culture of fear around them is used as a defence mechanism. Altair might be blinded to it by his own determination to be better than he was before, but for us as an audience this is the biggest hint yet of the bigger picture story Ubisoft is trying to tell.

Jerusalem

On our arrival at the Jerusalem Assassins’ Bureau, a familiar face reappears.

An incredibly sarcastic Malik berates Altair

Malik is less than pleased to see Altair still breathing, or at all. Perhaps out of arrogance but probably out of shame, Altair makes no attempt to apologise for what happened in the Temple of Solomon. We already know that Altair is on a path to redemption, and this is why the lack of an apology here is important. We’re still early in the game, and an apology would only have undercut the tension between the two characters, and undercut the development of their relationship. This way, we feel that neither character has moved on yet, and it feels more realistic. It’s also an opportunity for us to get a sense of Malik’s devotion to the cause, as he decides to help Altair regardless of his personal feelings towards him.

Talal’s assassination works a little differently to Tamir’s and de Nablus’. Talal sets a trap for Altair, first to convince him his work is just, then to kill him when Altair can’t be convinced. This breaks up the monotony of the story and mechanics, giving the player something slightly different to do, and showing us that Altair’s actions are not completely unnoticed, proving to us what Tamir said on his death-bed is true. Still, something about the story-telling in this mission bugs me.

It’s a little too soon in the story. Breaking up the monotony is important, it keeps the game fresh, but from a story-telling perspective, it doesn’t quite work. For Talal’s trap to be successful, he has to know exactly when, where and how Altair will strike, something that Altair has only decided recently, and only told Malik. The story has so far painted Malik in such a way that we can never believe he’s a traitor. Word of the other assassinations spreading across the Holy Land makes sense, but it would have taken Talal a lot of time and resources to set this specific trap. We haven’t seen or heard any hint of urgency enough to justify that, so we as the audience are left with an unnecessary unanswered question – how did Talal know someone was coming for him? If there had been a couple more ‘normal’ assassinations before a mission like this, or any hint of the Holy Land stepping up its defence against the Assassins, it would have been a lot less jarring.

Talal falls to Altair after a chase across the rooftops and through the streets of Jerusalem

When Altair does finally kill Talal, he reinforces the points made by our previous two targets. He tells us Al Mualim is not the only one with plans for the Holy Land, reinforcing Tamir’s point about a bigger picture, and like Garnier de Nablus, he genuinely believes he is helping his captives. Uniquely though, he adds another doubt to Altair’s mind, telling him that what an Assassin does best is wall off their mind. This plays into what we’ve already learned from the Acre rafiq and our last conversation with Al Mualim; it is not an Assassin’s place to question; which shows us something important about Altair’s character. We begin to see his nature play off against what is expected of him, which creates an interesting change of pace as we come towards the story’s second act where he can no longer just blindly accept what Al Mualim tells him as the objective truth.

Our return to the Jerusalem bureau brings us to one of my favourite moments in this game – Malik’s reaction to Altair having to chase Talal through the streets before killing him. He’s incredibly sarcastic, and then, with a subtle change in Haaz Sleimann’s voice acting, so believably furious with Altair that the tension in their relationship is that much more palpable. He becomes even more frustrated when Altair attempts to respond with a level head, and while there’s still no apology from Altair for anything he’s done, there’s at least an attempt to remind Malik that the two are actually on the same side. The entire dynamic between these two characters is unique in the story, working to break up that monotony we might feel every time we have to visit the other two cities’ rafiqs. It might not work for everyone, but it also gives me something to look forward to every time I’m in Jerusalem; how the relationship develops as Altair continues to grow as a character in the second half of the story.

A break in proceedings

“I’m… pretty sure it’s not supposed to be that color…”

This time as we’re pulled out of the animus, it’s because of a break-down. Vidic is upset about this and, if anything, Lucy is a little coy on what exactly happened. Again, it’s a perfect opportunity for Ubisoft to lean into her true identity as an Assassin that they step away from. There’s no hint at all that she deliberately overheated the machine to slow down Vidic’s progress, and in fact Ubisoft make a complete u-turn away from the reveal, making sure it carries as much impact as it should be when it comes.

They do this using some of her backstory, telling us how she works for Vidic because he saved her life, and that is why she lets him be a little more pushy with her than he should be. Knowing that she’s an Assassin, it’s hard to gauge how much of this is real, but with fresh eyes there’s no reason to doubt it, which only makes the eventual revelation carry that much more weight.

Until then, this story endears us a little more towards Lucy. So far, she’s been more considerate towards Desmond than Vidic, but she hasn’t been on our side, merely decent. With this story though, we’re more inclined to see her as a good person working for the villains, and we see her character being used to play into this theme of a complex not-so-black-and-white world.

There is a break in the formula at the end of the chapter, perfectly timed to keep the story fresh. On returning to his room, Desmond finds that someone has rooted around the cupboard, placing what looks like an access code there. This unlocks his bedroom door so that he can freely explore once he’s been sent to bed, but more importantly it’s a change of pace as the story starts to ramp out of the introduction and into the second act.

Conclusion

Chapters Two and Three are spent developing our characters, developing their relationships and slowly drawing us towards the next act of the story, where we expect more of the puzzle, the ‘adventure’ part of the action-adventure, to come to the forefront.

We did see a couple of gaps in the story-telling where its formula started to shine through, but Ubisoft pulled it back towards the end of Chapter Three and left us satisfied that things are beginning to pick up speed, both for Altair and for Desmond.

Next time, we’ll look at Chapter Four on it’s own, as again it’s quite big. That’ll take us to new parts of our three cities as we take on more of the Templars, but honestly my memory of the second act of this game is quite fuzzy, so beyond that, I’m not sure what’s in store for us. I’m looking forward to us finding out together!

Until next time!

3 thoughts on “Story Analysis: Assassin’s Creed – Chapters Two & Three

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