Last week I started my Story Analysis series by taking a look at the first act of Assassin’s Creed. You can find those articles here:
- Story Analysis: Assassin’s Creed – Chapter One
- Story Analysis: Assassin’s Creed – Chapters Two & Three
Today, we’ll look at the biggest of the game’s individual chapters, Chapter Four, where Altair takes on Abu’l Nuqoud, William of Montferrat and Majd Addin in Al Mualim’s secret conquest to end the lives of his fellow Templars.
The Precursor Plot Begins…
In our daily morning lecture from Dr Vidic, we get our very first hint of the precursor story line, something I’d completely forgotten about, both when I wrote about that plot in my initial Assassin’s Creed article and when I initially saw the ending of Assassin’s Creed II.
We’re now in the second act of the story, and Ubisoft start stripping layers of subtlety away as things begin to pick up pace. This starts here and now, as Vidic tells Desmond that Abstergo, and its predecessors, is responsible for nearly every major breakthrough made over the last several centuries before utterly confusing Desmond by telling him these breakthroughs aren’t invented, but found.
“ They’re gifts… from those who came before.”Dr Warren Vidic to Desmond Miles – Assassin’s Creed
To be fair to fifteen-year-old me, this isn’t by any means directly stating humans weren’t the first sentient race to occupy Earth. There’s enough room for interpretation that ‘those who came before’ could simply refer to our own ancient civilisations. However, we do have to bear in mind that so far in this game, Ubisoft have not made a habit of wasting any time. Every line of dialogue between our major characters has driven the story forwards in some way, so even if we don’t clock onto exactly what Vidic means, we can’t assume it’s just a throw-away line. It must, therefore, mean something. If nothing else, it certainly elevates the importance of the relic Vidic is searching for – in the context of him working for the people responsible for most of humanity’s breakthroughs, this “Piece of Eden” must also be considered world-changing. Regardless of where you land on the scale, the stakes have definitely been raised.
Some Refreshing Honesty
Chapter Four does nothing to change how we access the story of our game, and that remains as formulaic as in previous chapters, but as with Vidic’s talk before stepping back into the animus, it’s the level of information that we’re exposed to that changes.
We take the same steps we’ve always taken to kill both Nuqoud and Montferrat. Like the others before them, they both believe in what they are doing, but whereas others kept their actual plans veiled and cryptic, these two targets are both surprisingly open about what exactly they wanted to achieve.
Nuqoud might be one of the story’s most interesting characters, and Ubisoft tells us why in one line of dialogue: “How could I finance a war in service to the same god that calls me an abomination?” The language used and the tone of Fred Tatasciore’s voice acting tell us immediately just how disillusioned Nuqoud is with Saladin’s conflict, how strongly he feels he is hated because of how he looks and why that hatred has made him turn his back on the cause. More than that though, Abu’l Nuqoud is the first of our victims to tell us that we perhaps already know the others that he works with. Again, Ubisoft aren’t in the habit of wasting their dialogue, so we are supposed to wonder, “Who or which group do we know about already that might also be involved?”
Nuqoud then goes even further, explicitly calling out that his own actions are no different from Altair’s, even saying, “Their deaths will improve the lives of those left behind.” Throughout this conversation, Ubisoft are cranking up the pace of their story-telling. Whereas in the first act, they subtly led us onto the path but let us explore it for ourselves, they’re now placing sign posts saying, “Go this way.”
This actually creates an interesting new dynamic between Altair and the player. The player should be under no illusions now. Ubisoft have stopped dropping hints and are now explicitly telling us, “The world is not as black and white as you think.” However, Altair isn’t ready to accept that yet, and while Nuqoud plants yet more doubt in his mind, he refuses to believe that he is the same as the people he’s killing. It almost makes Assassin’s Creed a film or television experience rather than a game, at least in its style of story-telling. Instead of being the character experiencing the world around us, we’re now playing the game to observe how the character copes with the world changing around him. I think this works, just about, because of the way Ubisoft have separated the game from the story-telling experience. Were they more intertwined, there might be a strange gap where the player impatiently waits for a ‘slow’ Altair to catch up with the plot, but because we’ve just spent well over an hour playing the game completely unencumbered by any major story points, watching how the character realises there’s something else going on when we already know that becomes the reward.
Indeed, Altair’s doubt has grown when he next speaks to Al Mualim. Once again I really have to commend the voice acting; Philip Shahbaz does a great job of letting you know Altair has shifted from curiosity to actual concern. This is the first time we see cracks in Al Mualim’s control over Altair begin to show as he becomes more frustrated with Al Mualim speaking in circles but, one last time, Al Mualim manages to escape questioning.
Not so the case after William of Montferrat has fallen. William is so stalwart in his belief that he is doing the right thing that Altair’s willingness simply to serve is completely broken, and on returning to Masyaf for the game’s half-way mark, fireworks finally fly.
The Midpoint Confrontation
The midpoint confrontation is a very common tool in long-form story-telling. After some time of the antagonist controlling the situation in the first and into the second act, the midpoint confrontation marks a turning point. It isn’t necessarily when the protagonist wrestles control off the antagonist, but there is certainly a shift in attitude towards the antagonist, and usually a shift in the dynamic between the two follows pretty closely.
When Altair returns to Masyaf from Acre having killed William of Montferrat, we have ours. We don’t know that this is the midpoint confrontation because we don’t know that Al Mualim is the game’s real antagonist yet, but the hallmarks are there. Al Mualim has been controlling Altair throughout the game, but after Altair is left shaken by William’s observation that his work wasn’t actually evil, he knows he can’t simply follow Al Mualim’s instruction anymore. This isn’t a return to the arrogant Altair we saw at the beginning of the game, but an Altair who wants to understand the context in which his work is being performed – the growth that Al Mualim himself told Altair he wanted to see. Altair reminds him of this when Al Mualim threatens to kill him for making such demands, and the argument simmers down. Still, their relationship and the dynamic between them has changed. Altair has broken part of Al Mualim’s control over him, and Al Mualim knows he must be more careful moving forwards.
The outcome of this spat is a bigger part of the bigger picture coming together. Al Mualim finally admits that the men Altair has been assassinating are all Templars, and points out that particularly Nuqoud, Montferrat and our next target, Majd Addin, are leaders all answering to Robert de Sablé. He still effectively hides his own connection to the Templars, still focusing Altair on their crimes instead, but this opens the audience up to the true scope of this conflict. Everything we’re doing is shaping the future of the Holy Land, but it’s not about faith. The truth, as Al Mualim paints it, is that freedom is at stake; whether the Templars will have their conquest, or the Assassins will stop them.
A Small Piece of Paradise
This is a very quick side-note, and not necessarily set in this chapter as much as just something I noticed as I was playing this chapter. In Chapter Three, which we noted has a theme of control, Al Mualim speaks to Altair about the rumours surrounding the Order of the Assassins. He tells Altair that their enemies believe he feeds his disciples visions of paradise to make them more committed to the cause, specifically visions of a garden full of women and pleasure. He also says it’s important that their enemies believe it to be true, to help the Assassins maintain their fear.
After confronting Al Mualim, I happened to venture out into the Citadel’s garden to collect a Masyaf flag, because I inherited my mum’s completionist gene, and noticed something I found a little telling…
I don’t know whether I am reading too much into it, or whether this garden is placed to deliberately contradict Al Mualim’s statements about these stories being lies, at least to some capacity, but I like entertaining that possibility as a story-telling mechanic. Might it be another hint to the player that what Al Mualim tells Altair can’t be trusted?
Relationship Status: Complicated
The relationship between Altair and Malik also takes another step forward in this chapter. It starts when Altair arrives back in Jerusalem to take care of Majd Addin and, much to Malik’s surprise, asks for the rafiq’s help instead of demanding it. Malik responds sarcastically at first, but when Altair’s investigation into Addin is complete, there’s a notable change in tone.
After Majd Addin’s assassination, Malik still makes it clear that he sees problems in Altair, but it’s clear that this change may even be long-lasting. True to his words, it is like he’s trying to provoke genuine thought, rather than stir guilt or just be bitter. It would be uncharacteristically unrealistic for Malik to ever forgive Altair for what happened to his brother, but at the very least it seems Malik, like Altair has been trying to do, is starting to try to put it in the past.
A Changed Man
Majd Addin is another interesting character, unique and refreshing in the fact that he is not completely sold on the Templar perspective. Instead he took the opportunity to serve himself by serving them, based on the one common ideology they share. This particular death-bed conversation is quite short, but it still shows important character development in Altair.
Addin revels in people’s reaction to his power, claiming it makes him feel like a god to control someone else’s fate. He even goes as far as to say that Altair would have done the same in his position. Unlike with Abu’l Nuqoud, where Altair refuses any similarity between him and his victim, Altair here makes a startling admission; that once upon a time he may well have revelled in that kind of control, but he’s since learned he can’t put himself above others without consequences.
This is a big deal. In Chapter Two we spoke about Altair naturally sliding into a state of mind where he has accepted his role. This is showing us he’s experienced that moment. It’s no longer begrudging, it’s no longer forced. He knows he made mistakes and accepts that, and he knows he wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
Turning It Up To 11
It’s a cliche, I know, but story-telling is a dial from 1 to 11. Different story-tellers will give you different best ways to use that dial, and there are many different factors that influence it on top of personal preference, but the dial itself remains the same.
Whether or not Ubisoft use the dial effectively is something I’ve gone backwards and forwards on a lot throughout the course of examining this chapter, and I’m still not sold either way, but we come now to the point where on my initial play-through of this chapter, alarm bells started ringing.
This time, when we’re pulled from the animus, it’s not because of Lucy but because of Vidic, who after a phone call tells Desmond he’s in a lot of trouble and storms off. Lucy tells Desmond it’s because Assassins are mounting a rescue attempt for him and while Desmond is confused as to why that would be, Lucy unleashes the first of the games three big reveals: Abstergo is a Templar-run company, and the war between the Templars and Assassins never ended.
It’s not that we didn’t see it coming. We should see it coming. As we’ve seen in this analysis, there have been plenty of hints that this was the case. It’s the kind of reveal I spoke about last time with a slow build-up and breadcrumbs littered throughout the story; the kind that makes us gasp as we look back and realise the clues were there all along. That in and of itself is fine. I think what makes it feel a little jarring is the speed and intensity with which Ubisoft go from one extreme to another. Looking at this single reveal as a dial from 1 to 11, the biggest hint we’ve had so far is that “Abstergo or its predecessors” have been responsible for so many of humanity’s breakthroughs, but that was at the beginning of the chapter, and we’ve played at least a few hours of the game since then. That hint might be 4 on the scale, if not lower, and all of a sudden now, it feels like the stakes have shot up to 7 or 8, not just because of the reveal, but the fact that it’s in the context of the Assassins on their way to break Desmond out of the Templars’ clutches. That’s a big distance to jump at once, and despite all the hints leading up to the reveal, it feels like the reveal itself is designed as a jaw-dropping moment that we shouldn’t see coming.
Thinking that we should see it coming and being told we shouldn’t see it coming are mutually exclusive – they don’t work together. The rest of this chapter is full of very smooth one-position clicks of that dial, four to five, five to six, from the questioning and curiosity of the first act through to the revelations we’ll see as we get into the final act, but this bomb is dropped on us very quickly, and it feels out of place.
I don’t want to use the word rushed. That implies Ubisoft realised they didn’t have enough time to make it work properly, but that’s not how this feels. More than anything else, it feels cramped, as if Ubisoft maybe realised that the scope of their story was bigger than the scope of the game and they had to squeeze something in earlier than they would have liked to make sure all of the plot points made it in. The other option, of course, was cutting the storyline completely, but this is the major plot point of the wider franchise story, so that was never going to happen.
Desmond Takes the Initiative… He Thinks…
One thing that Ubisoft certainly do continue to hold back is any hint of Lucy’s true identity, though at the end of Chapter Four she does once again help us without letting her bosses know she’s doing so.
Midway through her explanation that good and bad are relative, Vidic phones her to say he needs to speak with her. She proceeds to tell Desmond to rest, saying “The answers to all of your questions are right in front of you. You just have to know where to look.”
She doesn’t actually leave the room straight away. If you choose to stick around, she says that she can’t leave without Desmond being back in his room otherwise she’ll get into trouble, and that one voice line might be the most manipulative voice line of the entire game.
Let’s take a quick look back. In Chapter Two, Lucy tells us to look at the computer to get some more information on Abstergo, stating that “the telecommunications section is particularly interesting.” In reality she left her emails open, and one of them is a correspondence with Vidic in which she reminds him not to let his key card pen hang from his pocket like he does and risk losing it. In Chapter Three, Desmond returns to his room to find the access code to his door. At the start of Chapter Four, instead of sitting at his desk as usual, Vidic stands by the window and we catch his key card pen still hanging off his pocket. If you interact with him in that moment, Desmond lifts the pen and hides it up his jumper. Now Lucy tells us to go back into our room so that she can leave and everything clicks together.
Suddenly we have the impression that once our bedroom door locks behind us and Lucy is gone, we can use the access code to get back into the animus chamber and use Vidic’s pen to unlock his computer and get more information. More than that, we feel like it’s our idea. I know this, because it was my exact reaction when Lucy told Desmond to get back in his room so that she could leave. Remember what I’ve written about leading the player down the right path while giving them room to explore it for themselves? This goes one better. It leads the player down the path Ubisoft want them to walk down and tells them exactly what steps to take to get to Ubisoft’s conclusion while still giving the player their crucial moment where they think, “Oh! I’m going to do this!” It’s utterly brilliant game story-telling, and one hell of a way to end the chapter.
Unfortunately, because of the way Assassin’s Creed and my recording software interact with each other, I somehow lost Vidic’s key and will have to go back to get it at the beginning of Chapter Five instead. I’ve checked, and it’s definitely possible, so hopefully we’ll see exactly what secrets lie in wait in the next article. As it is, I double-checked Lucy’s system with the key she “accidentally” forgets to take with her when she goes. This does give us more information on her continuing search for what happened to Leila, a reference to Chapter One when Vidic and Lucy were discussing the mysterious accident that has everyone so on edge to begin with. It’s pretty clear that Abstergo are hiding something to do with Leila’s death, but there was no further big-picture information to be found than that.
Chapter Four is… weird. It’s quite clear that Ubisoft wanted to use the chapter to drive the story much further forward towards its conclusion, putting pieces into place for both Desmond and Altair, as well as for the bigger Assassin’s Creed universe. However, the way in which that is handled ranges from positively stunning to really awkward, at least for me.
I’m not sure whether the chapter is meant to represent the entire second act or whether that’ll bleed into Chapters Five and Six, but on that story-telling dial I mentioned earlier I very much feel like we’re heading towards 7 or 8 now. The pace has picked up and intrigue is turning into suspense.
What will happen next? I’m not sure, but we’ll find out next time, on Story Analysis: Assassin’s Creed.