We’re here at last! Welcome to the final Story Analysis for 2007’s original Assassin’s Creed, where we will look at the last act of the story, Chapters Six and Seven.
- Story Analysis: Assassin’s Creed – Chapter One
- Story Analysis: Assassin’s Creed – Chapters Two & Three
- Story Analysis: Assassin’s Creed – Chapter Four
- Story Analysis: Assassin’s Creed – Chapter Five
We’ve taken a wild ride to get to where we are, and while there have been a few bumps here and there, overall Ubisoft have made it a good ride through the first two acts. Now we must ask the question: Can they stick the landing? Let’s find out.
Chapter 6 – Back to the Formula
Once again we start with a conversation with Vidic, falling back on the formula used in earlier chapters to reinforce the two main takeaways from Chapter 5. Firstly, that you can’t trust what’s written down to keep a record of history, and once again to remind us that the consequences of Altair’s story will be seen in Desmond’s time-period. Vidic tells Desmond that their work is almost complete, which implicitly reminds us of what Lucy and the email chains have been telling us. We’re in the endgame now, and it’s vital for everything to have the proper impact that there is clarity in what’s at stake.
It’s important to note though that while clarity is important, it’s also important not to repeat yourself unnecessarily, especially when falling back on an already familiar formula. Back in Masyaf, Ubisoft do risk that a little. Having already seen Altair grasp the idea that the Templars and the Assassins want the same thing in Chapter Five, seeing him taken aback by Al Mualim telling him Robert de Sablè’s intentions are good feels a little repetitive at first, eliciting a reaction from the audience along the lines of, “Yes. We get it.”
However, there is something more to be seen in this discussion. It is the last time Al Mualim will see Altair while de Sablé is still alive, presuming all goes well, so it’s his last chance to hide his own malice behind de Sablé’s. While it might come across as repeated information to the player, the intention might be to banish any doubt from Altair’s mind; that while de Sablé can’t be reasoned with and his execution is flawed, his ideology, that which Al Mualim shares, isn’t problematic. It may be a final attempt to get Altair on side for when he is the only one with the power of the Apple at hand.
A Subtle Touch
There is a nice moment in this scene too, wherein Al Mualim offers Altair a gift to help him in his task. This sword is the last piece of equipment, and game progression, the player will receive, and brings Altair back to the Master Assassin he was at the Temple of Solomon. It is unstated, of course, but we understand that even if he has made his way back up the ladder and reclaimed all of his ranks, he is not the same man he was. What Al Mualim told Altair he hoped for, that Altair become a better man, has actually come true.
The Redemption Arc Completes
As was to be expected, Altair’s redemption is actually completed back in Jerusalem, fittingly where the game began, with the person it began with. Altair returns there to finally and poetically dispatch Robert de Sablé, but not before visiting Malik. This conversation strikes a very different tone to the ones that came before it, with each of them calling the other brother and friend at least once. Malik is no longer at all spiteful, even when telling Altair to be careful; he does this as a worried friend, and Altair even admits to him, of all people, that he knows not to make the same mistake with de Sablé twice. Then, finally, finally, we get our apology. After some characteristic but now friendly sarcasm from Malik, Altair finally apologises for what happened during the very first mission. Just as characteristically, Malik does not accept it.
It’s a nice touch for Altair to understand that Malik would be completely justified in never forgiving him, but that is not what makes Malik’s decision make sense. Malik says he can’t accept Altair’s apology because Altair is not the same man he was on that mission, and even takes some of the blame himself, saying:
“As we share the glory of our victories, so too should we share the pain of our defeats.”Malik to Altair on hearing his apology
If this had come any earlier, it may have come off as corny, but Ubisoft has done the work to show these characters struggling against what happened and against each other throughout the game. More than that, they’ve gone to great lengths to show us what Malik is like. He understands the journey Altair has been on just as much as the player does, and he’s an Assassin through and through, so instead of being corny, this reaction makes sense.
“Wait. Did you say, ‘She’?”
Once again the pace picks up, as does the music, and in a little over an hour we are on de Sablé’s trail. Unfortunately, with all the previous assassinations, he definitely knows Altair is coming and uses the opportunity to set up a trap.
We soon discover de Sablé was never in Jerusalem, and sent an agent to stand in his place. A woman, unnamed in the game, but known to be Maria Thorpe in the lore (which I won’t look into too deeply because I think there are spoilers for Revelations in there somewhere).
I personally love this for the moment of surprise it creates for both Altair and Malik. Yes. Women can be that bad-ass, and it’s cool of Ubisoft to show that. On a story-telling front though, this ties very nicely into Vidic’s words at the beginning of the chapter; that we can’t trust everything we read about history. History would have us believe there were no female Templars, or Crusader knights at all for that matter, and here we find one acting as de Sablé’s best agent.
The Third Crusade
Maria tells Altair Robert has gone to Arsuf to unite the Crusaders and Saracens against the Assassins, using Altair’s assassinations as proof that they are the real enemy. Before he can succeed, and bring Maysaf crashing to the ground, Altair races off after him. In Chapters 4 and 5, the player was allowed the option of fast-travelling from location to location, but here we’re forced manually to speed through Jerusalem and the Kingdom to get to Arsuf (a previously hidden location). This small game-design decision has a great story-telling effect, as the player feels the urgency and necessity to get to Arsuf as quickly as possible. Remember in Chapter 4 where I wrote a little about the need for a rush in this kind of story. This contributes to that, even more so than it would in a book. We want to get there to find out what happens next and there is no physical way of skipping ahead.
What follows is a brilliant, almost cinematic sequence of Altair fighting his way through the Saracen and Crusader front lines to reach Richard the Lionheart and Robert before Robert can leave for Saladin’s camp. Here, again, the game’s authenticity shines through. We hear the shouts and screams of combat in the distance, we see soldiers shooting and stabbing at each other. The fog effects used on Altair’s path adds to the littered bodies and blood. Like on our arrival in Acre, you really feel like you are inside the 3rd Crusade, grounded in something very real as you run towards this important historic moment.
The Confrontation, Part II
Things move very quickly from here on out. Altair attempts to convince Richard of Robert’s treachery and of course Robert denies it. In a move that I imagine must frustrate both the Templar and the Assassin, Richard decides to leave it up to God and orders a trial by combat, which Altair eventually wins. The main point of this sequence is not the fighting, and how difficult it is depends not on heightened game difficulty but how well the player has mastered the controls over the course of the game. The entire point of this sequence, indeed this chapter, is to get to the moment in which Altair finally sinks his blade into Robert de Sablé’s neck.
Robert wastes no time at all telling Altair he’s been betrayed by Al Mualim. You could even say he revels in it, and why not? He’s spent the entire game being beaten by the Assassins – it must feel good to be able to turn around and rob Altair of his victory right at the last moment. Once again, you hear all of that in Jean-Philippe Dandenaud’s voice acting.
Of course, Altair doesn’t want to believe any of it, but all de Sablé has to do is drop facts for both Altair and the player to realise he’s not lying. Al Mualim knew who to strike, where to strike, he understood each man’s intentions perfectly. In the moment Robert asks, “Did you never wonder how it is he knew so much?” my mind immediately goes back to when Al Mualim called down to him from Masyaf’s Citadel gates and called him Robert, not de Sablé. The reveal works exactly the way it should, allowing the player to pick up all the pieces Ubisoft have left for them in one moment of realisation; the same moment in which Altair realises what he needs to do as well.
Off The Rails
Things go slightly wrong in the end of Chapter 6. We’re pulled from the animus by Vidic so that he can tell us the Assassin’s have arrived to rescue Desmond. It causes two very strange emotional shifts that don’t work in favour of the story.
Firstly, Vidic seems angry and genuinely concerned about what the Assassins are up to, berating Desmond for getting them involved. Seemingly for no reason, he then stops to be overly-confident, gloating as he listens in on his security forces dispatching the Assassins, then gloating again as Desmond asks if he’s worried about more coming and he can tell him that most of the Assassins have already been killed off over the last year. It’s odd. I imagine it’s there as a tool for us to realise how foolish Vidic is when we find out that an Assassin called Lucy has been standing in front of him the entire time, but if the other Assassins have already been dealt with, why is he worried in the first place? It’s oddly out of character for someone who’s been so confident for the entire game, and I can’t quite wrap my head around what it’s trying to achieve.
Worse than that, we see the repercussions of the trip-up in Chapter 5; allowing the player to find part of Lucy’s true identity in the email chains we can explore on our outings.
Nolan North is a good voice actor. One of the best, across any medium. If he wanted to let us know that Desmond knew it was Lucy who had called the Assassins in without him telling Vidic that, we would hear it in Desmond’s voice, but we don’t. Desmond is completely shocked and very defensive about the Assassins coming, almost as if it hadn’t been discussed at all previously. Then, when Vidic leaves and Lucy signals to Desmond that she’s an Assassin, he’s completely shocked again.
This is clearly the reaction that the player is supposed to have too. As we’ve looked at in previous chapters, we are not supposed to have seen that coming. If we hadn’t done any of the optional story, we wouldn’t have. Unfortunately, if you did that work this reveal is a little tarnished, because the player reaction is different to Desmond’s reaction. This is exactly the wrong point for that gap to appear.
What’s worse still is that before Lucy reveals herself as an Assassin, Desmond shouts in frustration, “I still don’t know what these people are planning!” Again – this is fine if you’ve chosen not to scroll through all the email chains, but if you did then you do know what’s being planned, and you’re jarred by the gap between character and player. That moment of being ripped out of the story automatically makes it less enjoyable – almost like you’re being punished for exploring on your own throughout the game.
Chapter 7 – The Build Up
Our finale, Chapter Seven, is the shortest chapter yet, with just 20 minutes of gameplay, which feels right in line with the tempo and momentum picked up in the rush to find and kill de Sablé. There is one last conversation with Vidic; a chance for him to gloat and for us as an audience to see he clearly thinks he has Desmond beaten, with absolutely no idea what Lucy has planned.
Soon enough, we’re underway in the animus and as with every other chapter, we find ourselves back in Masyaf again. This time though, Masyaf feels like a very different place. We don’t begin in the Citadel, but in the village speaking to a citizen, and Ubisoft do everything they can to make sure we know as quickly as possible that something is very wrong.
Not just the way the villager is talking to us, but highly-saturated lighting, slow and melodic synth music, slower and even more melodic repeated alarm effects in the background. Before we take control of Altair again, the camera is even off-camber, so that when we rotate it, the ground shifts upwards instead of around. All of it ties together, not just to tell us that we are seeing the Piece of Eden in action, but that it is about to go down between our protagonist and antagonist.
Before we reach Al Mualim, we do meet with Malik one more time, who has raced to Masyaf from Jerusalem with his men after finding a journal belonging to Robert de Sablé in the Temple of Solomon, detailing all of his secrets. I bring this up because it’s a little bit of a deus ex machina. A deus ex machina is something that seems to coincidentally occur at the right time and place to rescue the protagonist when they need it most – in this case Malik and his men surprising and frightening off the indoctrinated Fidaa’in that Al Mualim has sent after Altair. Modern audiences aren’t huge fans of the deus ex machina because it feels like cheating – it always makes you ask, “What’s the point?” It’s another one of these small things that I feel Ubisoft just about gets away with in Assassin’s Creed, because this particular fight is not important. For the sake of the story, we don’t need to see or even be Altair cutting his way through more nameless enemies (though, to be fair, if done in the right way it could have been an emotional rollercoaster for Altair). The focus is on getting to Al Mualim, and we want to do that as quickly as possible to keep our preciously gained momentum.
In the fight against Al Mualim, what I would highlight as one of this game’s strongest story-telling mechanics comes back to the forefront. Both Philip Shahbaz (Altair) and Peter Renaday (Al Mualim) knock it out of the park with their voice acting. Throughout the fight, it is difficult to get a good look at either of the character’s faces, and in the absence of facial expression, vocal expression becomes that much more important. We hear Altair’s confusion and pain, we hear Al Mualim’s madness, which together bring the scene that much more to life.
The fight itself is interesting. We see the game toying with irony again as Al Mualim uses the Apple to disguise nine Assassins as the men Altair has killed, clearly enjoying the idea of them killing Altair in ‘What goes around comes around’ fashion. When Altair defeats the phantom Templars, Al Mualim creates 8 more copies of himself that are incredibly difficult to take down, showing us the raw power of the device Al Mualim is using and making sure the player is under no illusions (HA!) about what it can do.
Laying the groundwork for games to come, this scene also contains our second and last hint to the precursor storyline. When he understands how the Apple works, Altair asks why Al Mualim didn’t use it on him. Aside from highlighting an important character trait of Altair, that “what you are and what you do are twined too tight together. To rob you of one would have deprived me of the other…,” he tells Altair that he did try, and that it failed. This is of course a hint that there is a bloodline that can resist the powers of the Pieces of Eden.
Timing is everything with this kind of hint. Stories are a series of questions that the player wants answers to before it ends, and if you don’t give satisfying answers, it won’t be a satisfying story. There is generally nothing wrong with laying the groundwork for future stories, but you have to time it right. If you sow the seeds too early, you risk the question being mixed in with the questions that should be answered by the end of the story, leaving people dissatisfied that it was not complete. If you don’t do it at all, you risk people thinking of the answer you give later as a plot hole. This makes the finale a perfect spot to start dropping hints of what comes next, as the story people are invested in is already being tied up, and having an unrelated unanswered question makes them excited in your next product.
Coming Full CircLe
The Assassin’s Creed story, the one described by this group of memories we’ve just lifted off of Desmond’s DNA, ends with Al Mualim’s death. He’s surprised when Altair bests him. He even says, “The student does not defeat the master.”
Fittingly, Altair’s response is the take away of the entire game; an Arabic rendition of “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” – a gentle reminder to us all that there is always room for misinterpretation. As Al Mualim dies, we hear a cleaned up version of Ecclesiastes 1:17-18, with which the game began, as we spoke about in Chapter One. By now, those words really should make a lot more sense in the context of the game. Altair has come a long way, has learned a lot and has lost a lot in the process. He is wiser, and has suffered grief for it. In letting us listen to these words again, Ubisoft are literally bringing their story full circle, giving the player a moment of satisfaction as they think back over the entire story experience.
What Comes Next
What follows is basically all set-up. Altair struggles to destroy the Apple, but discovers a map hidden inside it that shows the location of other Pieces of Eden. Outside of the animus, Lucy manages to stop Vidic and a group of suited men observing the final animus session from killing Desmond on the spot, and everyone except Desmond disappears, leaving him uncertain about his own future. With the bleeding effect, which Lucy goes onto explain in Assassin’s Creed II, Desmond has also learned how to use eagle vision, and immediately wishes he hadn’t when he discovered the laboratory is covered in blood spelling out the end of the world.
It may seem like I’ve rushed through this, but the truth is that’s all there is to the very end of this story. That’s how it’s supposed to be. I think this is very clearly a cliff-hanger ending with a new group of unanswered questions that make us want to find out what happens next. Ubisoft almost certainly knew going in that a second title was on the way. Altair’s story might be complete (glares suspiciously at Revelations) but Desmond’s is obviously just getting started, which makes it okay that we don’t have any idea how he’s going to get out of his situation, or how the Assassin Templar war will end, or why Desmond suddenly has eagle vision, or exactly what any of the symbols painted in blood mean. We’re not supposed to be able to answer these questions straight away.
Like any good Part One story, we’re supposed to be left anticipating but excited for what comes next.
From an analytical perspective, it’s difficult for me to say that Ubisoft nailed this ending. Like Chapters Four and Five before it, Chapter Six is quite bumpy, even though Chapter Seven probably could not have been any better. On balance then, the landing was at least stuck, even if the plane’s left wheels hit the ground before the right ones.
To be fair and honest, we got where we needed to be. All of the important questions for this story have been answered, and they were satisfying answers, even if they were given in a way that felt a little off. On top of that, it does leave you excited for what happens next for Desmond. I’ve been itching to get started with Assassin’s Creed II for days now, and actually started playing it before I wrote this conclusion because I couldn’t wait anymore.
To give a conclusion on the overall story, I think the takeaway is that Ubisoft might have bitten off a little more than they could chew. I remember when Watch Dogs came out that the critical reviews were mostly about how it was more of a technical demonstration than a fully fledged game. Assassin’s Creed has significantly less scope as a game than even Watch Dogs, but it’s story is so big, and I think at times it showed that they struggled to fit everything in perfectly.
The story’s greatest assets were far and away its voice acting and its environmental design. While other story-telling mechanics stumbled at points (and I include the direction of the voice acting in this), both of these things were consistently flawless, giving the audience exactly the right understanding of a given situation, sometimes on their own, when looking at that situation in a vacuum.
And much like the finale, the overall story is generally well executed too. Ubisoft effectively got their message across with the emotional impact necessary for a story to be truly fulfilling, and there are far greater sins to commit in story-telling than small trip-ups in how that story is fed to us.
I’m really looking forward to playing through the rest of this series, and I’m looking forward to looking at different parts of the story with all of you too. This has been a lot of fun for me, and after five years in the competitive gaming scene has really reminded me of my roots and why I love them so much. That said, it might be a little while before we pick up with the Assassin’s Creed games. I don’t want any of us to burn out with it, and based off the work that went into this series, I think multiple multi-week story analysis series in a row is probably a bad idea. With that in mind, over the next few weeks I have some other things planned:
A little while ago, Angie nominated me for the Real Neat Blog Award, so this time next week we are finally going to take care of that, and the week after that will be something completely different as I kick off another project called “Where To Start?”, where I will give you the basic rundown and some resources for getting into the lore of some different gaming universes. I am not 100% sure which universe will come first yet, but I think it’s between Magic: The Gathering or The Witcher, both universes used for two of my favourite competitive games. After that will be another Story Analysis for a much smaller game, hinted at below. You get extra points for guessing what it is without cheating 😛
I hope this has been as fun for you as it has for me. Take care, everyone!