The Assassin Creed games have become something of an avatar in my mind for my relationship with the AAA gaming industry. On the one hand I have now played my way through the bulk of four of the five mainline game titles, and I am pretty satisfied with saying that I’m decent at the games. I actually hold them up – to some extent – as an example of how free-running mechanics can be handled well, and a game with a good, reasonable core set of mechanics. On the other hand, every moment I play them I spend my time daydreaming about, and, in my head, roleplaying out a totally different game, using the same core and starting point. Assassin’s Creed has therefore become a vessel for my concerns about wasted potential.
Fat Pockets, Thin Characterisation
To reiterate an old idea, Actions define character. What a character does is every bit as important as what you tell us about him. A character can ‘kill a guy,’ but whether you kill that character by shooting them with an AK-47, a sniper rifle, a knife to the throat or a strategically sick cough on an unattended kitchen-bench dinner, it tells you something different about that character. Your first character, Altair, had about four different ways to kill, and all four of them conveyed a roughly similar expression of who he was. Altair was minimalist, smug, superior, and didn’t even consider using his punch-dagger for something as gauche as physical combat. It was a tool, a symbol – and Ezio’s behaviour no doubt would have earned a sneer from the Original Altair.
By Assassin’s Creed Revelations, the weapon wheel that Altair begun has filled out to get an extra wheel, with one for melee and one for ranged options; the ranged options even have a submenu to choose just what variety of thrown explosive you favour. That is to say, Ezio is serving up death with:
- A punch dagger for sneaky skirty stabby punchy fun and with which you do all the proper assassinations because that’s the way cool kids play.
- A short handknife, which can be a butcher’s knife which is awesome which exists to let you counter the fuck out of people and randomly kill people while being invulnerable.
- A longsword for rakish devil-may-care errol flynning that seems to just be a shitty heavy version of the short knife.
- Your fisticuffs for some good old fashioned chin music and so you can lamp asshole minstrels about the head and body.
- A special type of hooked blade that allows for faster free-running, acrobatic manipulation of enemy positions in combat, throws and of course, stabbing.
- A clip of throwing daggers that can be flung nice and quick to drop fragile targets like unarmoured archers wandering across the rooftops.
- Bombs, ranging from smoke bombs, poison gas bombs, distraction bombs, decoy bombs that convince opponents they’re bleeding to death in a way that seems somewhat unnecessary when you have bombs that do that anyway, bomby bomb bombs that just blow people’s feet off, bombs that can bounce, bombs that can ricochet, bombs that can have tripwires, and proximity bombs!
- Poisoned dagger blades that don’t kill immediately but leave the opponent unaware of what has happened, only to collapse dead shortly afterwards.
- Poisoned darts so you can do the aforementioned slow kill, but do it later, so that the bad guy dies flailing his arm and clobbering his buddies and civilians in a way that is reasonably funny and of some minimal tactical application.
- An airstrike from above, where every single thing in an area just fucking dies thanks to invisible and well-placed Assassin-lites, which is funny indeed when you take into account the places this trick still works, including the middle of the Roman countryside where your buddy assassins have to be doing their targeting through medieval GPS.
- An individual assassin, directed to materialise as the wrath of god, pursue and stab-to-death the target usually in a delivery method no actual human player possibly can thanks to control inputs that don’t allow you to do a leaping stabbing highjack from a horse running alongside your opponents’.
- A crossbow for when all that slow killing and subtlety is tedious and unnecessary and what you’re really searching for is something that can one-shot armoured targets in the head without putting you in the path of something like an escape.
- A gun, a fucking gun for when the crossbow seems a bit too quaint. Note that the gun gets used in some dispatch moves, moves in which you’ve already shoved your sword into someone else’s collarbones, showing that Ezio Auditore has Sylvester Stallone’s sense of proportional response.
What the fucking shit? You could take any two of those items and use that as the basis for a whole assassin character. Hell, I proposed to a few friends of mine that they pick three, and I got no two similar combinations, with the funniest being ‘Bombs, gun, another gun.’ An assassin who wields a hookblade, throwing knife and fists is going to project a different assassin to one who wields punch dagger, longsword, crossbow. Poisoned dagger, poisoned arrows, and a butcher’s knife shows a different person, and each one could have totally different gameplay challenges tailored to them.
No! screams the sandbox design mentality. When we give players a huge pile of area to run around in, we have to give them an equally huge and utterly redundant pile of things to use in it, otherwise we’re telling players how they have to play. Except you’re already doing that, all the time, with challenges that require me to make kills with bombs, or gating story content behind bullshit tower defense minigames or having Machiavelli escort me around Roma and supervising my shopping expedition to make sure I buy exactly the right thing. You are making sure that every new element is thrust in my face and that I interact with it at least once, whether it’s levelling up baby Assassins while I get other shit done, or blowing up Borgia towers, or that bomb-making tutorial.
The hipocrisy of it isn’t really all that bothersome as much as it’s a fantastic opportunity, wasted. Using this skillset, here are three different assassins I can imagine being sculpted:
- Using the assassin-targeting, counter dagger and airstrikes, a novice scout of the Order of Assassins, whose story unfolds in investigation and exploration, getting perfect spots to pick out the appropriate targets. Perhaps set during the Napoleonic wars, where finding ‘the right’ templar amongst a sea of uniforms is the challenge?
- Big sword! Big Gun! Punch Dagger! A drunken lout of an Assassin, a warrior of proud tradition whose story fixates around the frontal assault, hiding a guilt-ridden backstory.
- Bomb. Gun. Hook dagger. Think like Tiny Tina from Constantinople.
All of these characters could tell different stories while still interacting with the greater tale of the world, enabling conspiracies as well or maybe even better than Ezio The Whirlwind Of Death And Middle-Aged Lechery.
The malleability of memory
The Animus storytelling device, while using science of exceptional softness, brings with it a fantastic storytelling tool, which is indicating that every single point of history effectively has a narrator, a narrator who, like Haulden Caulfield, can show us two characters at once. You get the character the story is focused on, and the character telling you. What memories are important show up – I actually thought at first the failure of Altair’s story to feature any kind of romance was very telling about what Altair noticed and remembered. You didn’t see the major traumatic moment of Malik’s arm being torn off, but you did see conspicuously him with an arm, then without an arm.
This storytelling device also makes some of the videogame limitations shine through as reminisce of human memory. Most of the people in the cities you go are moving from point A to point B, doing something generic, then wandering back. There are maybe ten, fifteen voices of the people outside of Altair’s circle of friends. This is totally appropriate, because it’s how most people handle a city’s worth of people! You get impressions, feel, and tone, but you don’t remember even a twentieth of the people around you in any given situation. There’s a lot of detail in the places’ walls and buildings, details that a traceur would learn, because they’re necessary for his job. What mattered to Altair was important and came to his notice; what wasn’t, didn’t.
Ezio did similar things – whole years vanish in the memory hole (for somewhat poor reasons, but whatever), and the sequence of Ezio learning swordfighting from Mario was magnificently handled with single lines of advice interspersed with the shifting of the day and night cycle, back and forth. It conveyed well the way that long tasks can seem to blur together. The memory’s behaviour was potentially part of the storytelling, and I was hoping that as the storytellers became comfortable with it, they’d use it for more.
Brotherhood even sort-of-tried this; it suggested that psychological damage had impeded their ability to just jump to the key memory, which I thought was going to introduce the notion of some traumatic event influencing the memory. The story had echoes of setting it up – I thought perhaps we would get a Greek Tragedy ending, where Ezio concluded by killing Caterina Sforza after she’s given birth. The psychological damage issue, however, just was there – it was the arbitary gating effect that stopped you from jumping into the memory, which seems strange because it didn’t seem necessary to refer to it that way. They already said you can’t just jump to these moments without losing sync.
Without busting out a psychologist friend or the Diagnostic manual, here’s a short list of things I know the human memory does that could be parleyed into a core game storytelling component that fucking won’t be because Ubisoft Montreal would rather help a mixed bag of writers try to grapple their way through their midlife crisese.
- Your memory is malleable, and rather bad. You don’t remember your worst moments as bad as they were at the time, or your best moments as small as they were. Being genuinely honest with oneself is hard because our memories aren’t even honest with us. Imagine a story that focuses on a massively overblown sense of accomplishment, with huge battles full of squalling enemies that the Assassin cuts down, impossibly big jumps, badassness beyond Ezio’s greatest dreams, and then slowly unpicking and finding out what really happened with more and more precise forms of measurement, to come to a conclusion where the Assassin’s greatest accomplishment is revealed to be true – despite the way the rest of the story has set it up to be nonsense.
- At any given point in time in which an ancestor is alive, chances are very good that at least one other ancestor is alive, usually two. This could have led to a story revolving around three simultaneous things being unlocked, in diffierent locations around the city, with three Assassins of very different character – an old mentor figure roaming the city doing recruitment, his brash and arrogant sword-fighty son and the cool new recruit woman who thinks they’re both idiots. The same areas could have different things visible because of different sets of memories, with the stealthy-sneaky parkour-style specialist noticing more handholds, and the swordfighty bastard noticing enemy pathing. It’s The Lost Vikings with history and stabbing.
- Your memory tracks really effectively if it can make a whole group of things associate. This is why getting you to remember a sixteen digit number is tricky, but you can remember two phone numbers relatively easily. Imagine a game that begins with the protaganist remembering one large piece of information, like a string of numbers, then trying to unpick what it means, seeing signs and hints of that number all around them.
- Repression! You do something so horrible or the idea is so contravenous to your self-image that you refuse to accept that it ever happened. Repression is pretty hard to come by, and could lead to an interesting game where full sync with the assassin makes some experiences easier, but makes eventually connecting to that memory harder! Consider if the memory was of a homosexual tryst, or for a complete bastard of an assassin, showing a moment of mercy to a child.
- Some things you remember didn’t happen – hell, couldn’t happen! This is really common for children who grew up with TVs, but there are some memories you have that are actually just television ads you didn’t realise you’d internalisd. There’s a reason a lot of American adults pine for ‘the good old days’ then describe a country that simply didn’t exist. What if you had a set of memories of things that the Assassin learned of from books, and you have to identify as being impossible based on historical information cross-referenced from Shaun?
- Mental Illness in general provides rich fodder, and I’m reluctant to say that after having mentioned repression and false memories, like those are hallmarks of a disorder. I mean that some mental illnesses include auditory hallucinations or worse, and you could make an interesting Assassin Creed style game based around following an Assassin in a particularly wartorn part of the world, like, say, the plaguestricken streets of London in the 1600s, being stalked regularly by monsters and sounds above and beyond normal Templar problems, writing down mentions of the ‘Templar’s monster,’ only to find at the end of the story that while he was on the trail of something real, the ‘monster’ was entirely in his head, because he was completely bugfucking nuts.
- Psychopathy! Altair and Ezio didn’t kill civilians, and killing them can be a short ticket to the desync sandwich. What if you played an Assassin who had a different mental mode, and the sync bonuses actually involved solving problems in a direct, cruel way because the Assassin, himself, was a bit of a bastard? Syncing too fully with him could cause emotional problems and damage – with a bonus if it was a recent relative who was still alive, and who Desmond could confront with this new knowledge.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a condition where you can’t just bring to mind part of a memory, but triggers and things that normally associate the memory cause the victim to re-experience the traumatic event again. Imagine trying to untangle a series of memories which keeps pulling you back to one terrible day in the character’s past, trying to find ways to overcome this by getting more and more sync’d with the story. The traumatic memory jolts Desmond out of the Animus repeatedly, and he has to live the post-trauma life, with periodic triggers dragging him back to the moment, until he can finally relive the whole memory and survive the experience, showing that PTSD does not just ‘go away’ – it’s something that its victims have to live with, and simply grow strong enough to bear.
These are games that couldn’t take yes for an answer. Altair’s story was a redemption arc in one nice, clean, smooth transition through despair, failure, betrayal and eventual exultation in an interesting way that sidestepped the moral question most games have to grapple with as part of their redemption story arc by putting it front-and-centre as a resolved story point. The sin Altair committed was to be excessively proud and hubristic, and from that position fell into shame and had to prove himself anew. That his proving himself took on the form of serial murder was seen as a good thing, and while we didn’t learn a lot about Altair’s story beyond that, we didn’t have to. A smug teacher’s pet taught a sharp lesson in respect before he had to take on the role of the teacher, Altair’s tale was told, and it was concluded with surprisingly few loose ends. What loose ends it had were all in Desmond’s story, and his story could serve as the continuation into the next game.
Then you have Ezio’s story, which was a story about becoming the Assassin. It showed Ezio working his way up from a goofy adolescent wasting his time, losing everything he had, refusing the call (well, kinda), and transitioning into the role where he becomes the Assassin. It begins unaware of the conspiracy and the true rulers of the world, and it concludes as a blade-wielding badass with the blood of the pope on his knuckles. At the last, he makes a strange decision, a decision that works out poorly for him in the long term what with the reign of blood of the Borgia family helped in no small part by the authorisation and protection from the Vatican, but anyway.
Those were two good, complete stories. Not world-beaters, with a lot of compressed storytelling and pacing problems somewhat emblematic of the sandbox genre, but they were still good. Okay, adequate.
What ensued through Brotherhood and Revelations, then, is taking these two nicely-woven stories with their robust resolutions and their implied possibilities, and unraveled them with all the energy and grace of an explosive sneeze, along with the same effect on storytelling. In Brotherhood, they introduce a new antagonist, a new unnecessary sex scene to create romantic tension, and drag in some historical figures who they don’t use to their best.
At the last minute in Brotherhood, fighting the big bad of the game (rather than letting you have a proper rematch with Rodrigo Borgia), he utters some lines that seemed interesting. No mortal man can kill him – well, why did he think that? Why was he tougher than everyone else? What made him so different? Maybe that’d get explained in Revelations – oh, well, no, that’s not what Revelations is all about, hah!
Revelations also draws out Altair’s story. That is to say, it bolts an unnecessary chunk on the end of Altair’s story. It’s some of the worst storytelling, as well – it’s super compressed, it requires a seventy year old Syrian man in a pre-vaccination world to not only exist despite the rigors of his life, but to also demonstrate physical ability only slightly impaired from his equally ridiculous fifty year old self. I don’t know, game, when you sell yourself on historical information and using the trappings of history, would it have killed you to double check the life expectancy during the Crusades? Fuck, when you show us both of Altair’s hands at once, would it be unreasonable for you to get his fingers right?
None of these games had the same writer, and it shows. There isn’t a good cohesive core to the stories, and it shows most keenly in how Ezio’s story gets dragged out well past any point of necessity, Altair’s character shifts wildly, the culture of Masyaf is suddenly changed for no reason but to generate drama. The religiosity of Ezio is projected back onto Altair in a way that feels unnecessary to me, and all of these opened plot threads generate an extra plot maguffin without any real reason to do so. The games represent an unpleasant plot cul-de-sac, but rather than just drive around in a circle, they make you hate who you’re driving with.
Yeah, But What About You?
There is no position within the videogame industry for a dedicated ideas man. Something that many amateur designers get confused is the notion that the designer‘s job is to sit around coming up with awesome ideas for games, that they then hand on to level designers, artists and programmers, who come back and check for approval. If videogames could happen like that and it was just the end result of someone’s brilliant idea being realised as truly as possible, then we’d be all golden, and while we’re at it, I’d have a fucking job creating these games, because as every heavily opinionated person knows, it’s only some sort of widespread mental illness that keeps people from recognising my personal brand of genius. Nonetheless, writing and storytelling in videogames happens at a different level to many other aspects of the game, and I think that with only a small amount of tweaking the existing AC engine and games could have been put to reasonably similar games, with the experience of the play experience mostly unchanged.
Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is the place where the wheels came off the story, which is exceptionally irritating because it had a perfect opportunity. Keep the central storytelling device that Ezio’s memories are still damaged, possibly by a traumatic experience, and then write the story from the perspective alongside Ezio, but not in his shoes. There’s the possibility of memory entanglement as mentioned by Lucy – why not make it so the tangling happens because Desmond starts to experience the memories of the woman that mothered his ancestor. You can tell an awesome story that fouses on what it’s like to come from the underclass of the setting, and contrast a scrappy, ambitious woman assassin with Ezio, joining the order and fighting back against Roma. She could have conversations with Ezio which force discussion of the Apple of Eden, our plot maguffin, maybe even come back to Monterrigioni with him to learn about its fall, and maybe explore Ezio’s habit of not killing people who deserve it, a trend that makes precious little sense otherwise, falling under Deus Est Historia. The framing device doesn’t need much shifting – it’s still pursuing the apple of eden, but you can open up some questions about sexism in history and maybe have Desmond reveal some aspect of his character that makes him interesting. I know, that’s hard. At the conclusion, the revelation of the psychological damage could be that due to a confluence of errors, Cesare successfully manipulates Ezio against the protaganist, leading to a conclusion against Ezio, who you know is an unutterable badass, beating him, demonstrating equality, kissing him then going on to do what he can’t – off Cesare.
Assassin’s Creed Revelations wanted to go back to Masyaf to leap around Constantninople and talk about the fancy royals there, which honestly feels like it should have been done with Ezio’s son. Hell, that could have been the whole point – rather than reliving the memories of Altair through maguffiny First-People devices that don’t get explained, why not have the story be about an attempt to get to the root of the Templar’s interest in the Apple itself? Templars in the first game talk about fascistic ideas, notions where societal control allowing for the elimination of disease and war, but only ever with the notion of enough control. By the time you get to Revelations, the Sultan speak in all seriousness about absolute thought control, and the destruction of all culture and civilisation in the name of uniformity, which is obviously dribblingly loony. This story could have focused on delving back into the Templar history that also remains at Masyaf, using Ezio’s oldest child, who can write at length about being overshadowed by his father, trying to earn the respect of someone who is not just good, but great, and along the way he seduces a Templar, the pair coming to learn about one another’s greater philosophies, the structure and fractures within them. This could be where something like the Auditore Heresy begins within the Templar conspiracy, an argument that has come to its full bloom today, and armed with that knowledge of its origin, Desmond could start in-fighting amongst the Templars.
This is just trying to keep as much of the original framework as possible. Other ideas I’d want to see done are stories which split between the male and female part of the couple, with the tangling of memories being used as an excuse to show the story from two different sides. I’d like to see one set in India, in China, in Korea, in Mongolia, in Russia, and well, every world culture except America. Interestingly, as an Australian, I can’t see any interesting point in our history to use outside of World War 2, but there’s something to be said for the idea of an Assassin’s Creed parkour-sniper game. I’d like to see a story where you find a templar in your own bloodline, and get to experience some of the other side of that conflict and get to see a few story arcs that are about Assassin’s being anarchic drug-taking lunatics who would be willing to destroy some great and ancient knowledge in the name of ‘freedom.’ I’d like to see stories about a PTSD-suffering Assassin, where every time you hit a certain trigger in the memory, you jump backwards into the same memory loop (as mentioned above).
Right now we’re almost at four thousand words – I hope that this has at least been an interesting consideration of what those games could have done – the stories and ideas they could have told us, instead of Middle Aged Dudes Are Totally Cool And This Beard Doesn’t Make Me Look Stupid.