Welcome to the next chapter of our Story Analysis into 2007’s Assassin’s Creed. Today we’re looking at Chapter 5. If this is your first time here and you want to catch up before you continue, you can find the earlier chapters of the analysis here:
- Story Analysis: Assassin’s Creed – Chapter One
- Story Analysis: Assassin’s Creed – Chapters Two & Three
- Story Analysis: Assassin’s Creed – Chapter Four
Chapter 5 sees Altair take out Sibrand and Jubair Al Hakim to close out the second act of our story. Let’s jump in and see what we find!
Getting Straight to It
Before we get into the details of the chapter, I think there is a lesson to be learned here about pacing – more importantly, why changing pace is important to a good story.
Chapter 5 is the first chapter in which we don’t start on a conversation with Vidic, instead jumping straight into the animus. Whereas Chapter 4 was long and stretched out, in my case nearly 5 hours of game-play, Chapter 5 is brief. We must only go to Acre and Damascus, and in both cities, there is less to do before we hit our story beats.
It’s a problem if a story hits each beat in the same rhythm for its entirety. If each beat is hit too quickly, it might feel rushed or bewildering. If the story is all slow, then it will feel drawn out and boring. Think of it as a rollercoaster, where the speed of the carriage is controlled by that dial ranging from 1 to 11 from Chapter 4. Across many genres, but particularly with action, suspense and erotica, it’s important that the audience notice the rush at the end of a story, as that is as much of the experience as the story itself. You can’t notice that rush if there’s been no change in pace, and you can make the rush more noticeable by slowing everything down first. This is what Assassin’s Creed does. Chapter Four gives us our biggest chunk of game-play with the largest gaps between each story beat, slowing us down, and Chapter Five feels like the beginning of a crescendo for it. There’s more urgency, story points have more of an impact. While we’re not at our final act yet, we feel like we’re speeding towards it.
The Piece of Eden
“This piece of silver cast out Adam and Eve. It turned staves into snakes, parted and closed the Red Sea. Eris used it to start the Trojan War, and with it a poor carpenter turned water into wine… He who holds it commands the hearts and minds of whoever looks upon it.”Al Mualim speaking about the Apple
On Altair’s return to Masyaf from assassinating Majd Addin, we meet with Al Mualim while he is toying with the Piece of Eden, outside of its casing for the first time.
We’ll get into this a bit more later, but one of Ubisoft’s objectives in this chapter seems to be moving the story from the Third Crusade to the modern day. That is, making sure we as the audience understand that the consequences of Altair’s story lie in Desmond’s story. I believe this starts here, by starting to tell us what this treasure, the crux of the game’s conflict, is capable of.
The very fundamental design of the story becomes important here. We know that whatever happens with Altair in the Third Crusade has already happened, but Desmond’s story is still being written – Ubisoft don’t even need to remind us of that; it’s our intrinsic understanding of how memory, and therefore genetic memory, works. We also know from Chapter Four that the war between the Assassins and Templars never ended, and we know from the beginning of the game that Vidic is searching for this treasure. With all of that in mind, instead of how the power of the Piece affects Altair, we start to look at how it affects Desmond, and start to think about what might happen if Vidic succeeds.
A Big Step Forward
In Acre, perhaps one of the key moments of this chapter takes place when Altair meets with the rafiq to discuss how to look for Sibrand.
When he sees how far Altair has come from the beginning of the game, the Acre rafiq begins to apologise to Altair for doubting his commitment to the cause. This in and of itself helps to tell the audience that Altair has made progress, but Altair immediately takes it one step further by saying he is the one that needs to apologise. It’s one thing to admit to a dying Majd Addin that he understands you can’t put yourself above others, as he does in Chapter 4, but to openly admit, to a fellow Assassin no less, that he made a mistake in doing so shows that he has put aside the pride and arrogance that made him so unlikable in Chapter 1. Of course the arc isn’t complete: I think anyone paying attention to the interactions between Altair and Malik knows that that’s likely to come next time Altair is in Jerusalem, but this signals that we’re closing in on the end, adding to that feeling of crescendo that is prevalent throughout the chapter.
It Isn’t Paranoia When They’re Really Out to Get You…
That brings us to the first of our two targets for the chapter, Sibrand.
Sibrand is the first and only real evidence across the story that Altair’s actions are having a profound and negative effect on the Templars. He is utterly, and brilliantly, paranoid; voice acting coming to the forefront once again as Arthur Holden screams his way through every scene, creating a truly emotional reaction as he first takes to the streets, shouting at the sky to ask ‘phantom’ Assassins whether they’re enjoying his panic, then brutally executing a priest for wearing the same coloured clothes as the Levantine Order Assassins.
For me, this would have been the character with which to associate the trap we saw sprung by Talal in Chapter Three. Since then we have been told repeatedly that our actions are not going unnoticed by the Templars, and we’ve felt that in each city as patrols have got bigger and more alert. Additionally, Sibrand is believably worried enough to actually divert resources away from the Templars’ goals to put an end to the Assassins’ meddling.
We are yet to hear any definite statement that the Piece of Eden creates illusions, though Al Mualim has stated, “He who holds it commands the hearts and minds of whoever looks upon it.” On his death-bed, Sibrand tells us that for him, it is proof that faith is an illusion, from which he wants to free the Holy Land. The two scenes together represent our first hint of not just what the Apple does but also how, and Sibrand’s death gives us our best insight yet into what both the Templars and Assassins are trying to achieve. More than that though, it clearly lays out the theme of this chapter: Dispelling the illusion, not just on the wider scale of our story, but also on a more personal level.
If nothing else, this chapter really makes me wish that the Acre rafiq had a name, as he suddenly becomes a very important part of Altair’s personal story. After Sibrand’s death, Altair confides in the man about his feelings of regret, uncertainty and sympathy at each of his victims’ deaths. The rafiq quite rightly tells him not to fear these feelings but embrace them, as it keeps him human.
On listening to this conversation the first couple of times, my gut instinct was to say it feels out of place; it feels like it belongs before Altair makes his admission that he has learned from his past mistakes. However, the more I think about it, the more I think this is more about the relationship between Altair and Al Mualim than Altair’s redemption. Al Mualim has been attempting to reshape Altair into this unquestioning weapon of Al Mualim’s authority, and here, for the first time, we hear someone else telling Altair that as important as their work is, it’s important not to become lost in it.
This comes at a key time. As we’ve seen in Chapter 4, while Altair was frustrated with Al Mualim’s lack of answers, when those answers are given he falls back on wanting to serve his master, as any good Assassin would. However, this interaction with the unnamed Acre rafiq allows Altair to open up his mind even more (Remember when Talal told us the thing an Assassin knows how to best is wall of their mind?), not just to understand the true context in which he performs his work – to remove the hurdles that stand between Al Mualim and sole ownership of the Piece of Eden – but to question whether or not he is doing the right thing. That’s the space he needs to finally break Al Mualim’s illusion over him in the finale.
Altair Catches Up
I wrote in the last analysis that a gap began to exist between Altair and the player in Chapter Four, wherein the player had been told the game’s message, that good and evil are relative, and Altair had not quite come to that conclusion yet.
In our next debrief with Al Mualim, we see that gap closed again as Altair shows a true understanding, not just of his own creed, which he misinterpreted in his past life, but that the war between the Assassins and Templars is a war of principles, rather than ideology.
“We place faith in ourselves. We see the world the way it really is, and hope that one day mankind will see the same. The world is an illusion, one which we can either submit to, as most do, or transcend. Transcendence is to recognise that nothing is true and everything is permitted, that laws arise not from divinity but from reason. I understand now that our creed does not command us to be free. It commands us to be wise.”Altair speaking about the Assassins’ Creed
It’s always going to be hard for me to say for a fact that Ubisoft deliberately created this gap. By this point in the game, enough hints have been dropped from enough characters that the world is not black and white that it really should be obvious to the player that that’s the story’s takeaway, but Altair’s lack of acknowledgement could be deliberate or could be an oversight. Either way, this is a good time to make sure the gap is closed back up, as the reveals coming in the final act only have full effect when both player and character experience them at the same time. Now, every component of the story is up to speed, and we can transition into the finale more smoothly and with more focus.
A Surprise, To Be Sure
Jubair al Hakim’s death-bed scene was the first to really surprise me. It again reinforces the idea that the Assassins and Templars are more similar than Altair would like to believe, which may be unnecessary or even annoying to the player now that we categorically know Altair understands this. Unfortunately, unlike the other templars before him, Jubair gives us nothing else new to work with on top of that, which leads to a short and rather bland final scene for what could have been an interesting character.
It must be said that the scenes in which we follow Jubair up until his death do again reinforce this theme of dispelling the illusion, but it rather feels like in terms of the bigger picture, Ubisoft could have ordered their assassination targets a little differently in order to avoid a slight dip in tempo before the finale. This is a very small, odd effect: Even killing Jubair before Sibrand would make it feel a little less like a trip up, and technically speaking the player can choose to take them out in that order, but the game UI lists Sibrand before Jubair, which subtly pushes the player towards killing Sibrand first. It’s too strong to say that it ruined the story-telling experience, but it’s one of those rare cases where something really small can potentially make a big difference.
Another Clash of Ideals
The end of Chapter 5, outside of the animus, is where we really see the evidence of the focus shifting to the modern day story, but not before Ubisoft potentially shoot themselves in the foot by trying to use two types of reveal at once. Again.
Up to this point, the game has done a really good job of hiding Lucy’s identity as an assassin from us, which I have written a couple of times is a good thing, as it makes the reveal more impactful and differentiates it from the slow burn of Al Mualim’s betrayal storyline. Continuing the trend of previous chapters, at the end of Chapter 5 she is more on Desmond’s side than Vidic’s, seeming to have come to the conclusion that Abstergo must be stopped before they can find the Piece of Eden, otherwise they threaten to change everything, in a very bad way. This in and of itself is fine. It’s inline with the pace that has been ramping up as that story has developed and while it shows she’s not on Vidic’s side anymore, it doesn’t necessarily define her as an Assassin – just a decent person caught on the wrong side who wants to put that right.
However, continuing to hunt for the optional story once Desmond has been sent to his room and, naturally, unlocked the door to explore once both Vidic and Lucy have left, as good as confirms Lucy’s true identity before the reveal comes. On her computer system, there’s a string of emails between her and an unknown person discussing Abstergo’s plans, ended on a coded message to say that help is on the way. If you put this together with the news from Chapter Four that the Assassins are mounting a rescue attempt, it just does enough for Lucy’s admission in Chapter 6 not to come as a complete surprise.
Once again, the story Ubisoft is giving us tells us to feel one way, and the story the want us to find for ourselves tells us to feel another way. Like with the reveal that Abstergo is run by Templars and the war is still ongoing in chapter four, the two are mutually exclusive and don’t quite work together, particularly when Desmond is completely taken aback by it the next day and the player’s left thinking, “But… you know they’re at least working together. You read it on her emails yesterday…” It’s that word again: Jarring. It stalls you for just long enough to take you out of the story and trip you up. Again, this isn’t a review or a critique, so I want to be careful. That said, this feels like the one concrete unforced error Ubisoft made in the production of this story, and it’s a bit of a shame, because this reveal could have been the game’s one really enjoyable, properly jaw-dropping moment.
Lucy’s words alone already shift the focus from the Third Crusade to the modern day, but the optional story in this chapter guarantees the player understands what exactly is at stake. As Lucy alluded to in Chapter 4, the answers lie on Vidic’s machine, and this time I had his pen available to take a look.
There we find a number of emails referring to Abstergo’s work, including launching a satellite containing the Piece of Eden on the 21st of December, 2012, also known as Doomsday. Now Al Mualim’s words from the beginning of the chapter take on a whole new meaning:
“He who holds it commands the hearts and minds of all who look upon it.”Al Mualim speaking about the Apple
Now it doesn’t really matter how exactly the artifact works, or how exactly putting it in a satellite would work. The idea has been planted in our minds that the Piece of Eden allows the user to control others, and even a vague understanding of how satellites work is enough to realise Abstergo mean to use it to control the entire world population, something backed up by Vidic’s general attitude throughout the entire game. Suddenly we understand why Lucy is so worried. What happened to Altair and his allies is a memory. Desmond and the modern day world are very much still in trouble.
Chapter 5 works well to close out the second act and bring us into our finale. The pace has really picked up, the stakes are at their highest, the big picture is fully clear and it looks pretty bleak for our protagonists. This is exactly where you want things to be before a good finale, so on that front all is well.
Playing through and watching through Chapters 4 and 5, 5 feels like the less clunky of the two, but it is hard to get past the fact that of their three reveals in this story, Ubisoft have tripped or even stumbled on two of them. It might be because characters are so important to me as a story-telling device, but Lucy’s reveal being slightly tarnished so unnecessarily is particularly frustrating to me. Still, that shouldn’t take away from what has been a solid story-telling experience overall.
Next time, probably later in the week than usual, in our last Story Analysis for the first Assassin’s Creed title, we will look at the finale, the third act, Chapters 6 and 7. I’m excited for it, because I love the ending of this game!
See you then!