Narratives in video games face an intractable problem: the story can find itself in conflict with the gameplay, and will always take a back seat to the profit margin.
The framing device of the Assassins Creed series is this: The Assassin Brotherhood and the Knights Templar have been fighting a secret war across history for thousands of years — basically forever. The Assassins are anarcho-libertines, their creed is literally “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” and they promote individual freedom and self determination above all else, consequences be damned. The Templar are pro-authoritarianism, claiming humanity is too weak and self destructive to continue to survive without a guiding hand. Marco Polo was an assassin. The Medicis were templars.
In the present day, a shady pharmaceutical company has designed a machine that allows you to plug in and live the memories of your ancestors. Thus, we can stick NYC bartender Desmond Miles into the machine and he can re-live all the lives of his assassin ancestors. I forget exactly why we’re doing this, but something about the information recovered in the past will allow the aforementioned shady pharmaceutical company to do something Really Bad.
The very first game has Desmond reliving the life of Altair Ibn La’Ahad, a Syrian assassin living in the time of the First Crusade. When it was released, the critics griped about the gameplay being repetitive (it was), the brooding main character dull (he was), and that the story was weak (it was). Yet, I found it profoundly COOL. Running around the Holy Land — Damascus, Jerusalem, and Acre — in the middle of the crusades (on the Arab side no less), hunting down armored, clanking templars and leaping off buildings to gasps from the crowd below. It was great! I realized what would be the enduring appeal of the entire franchise: historical tourism. Can’t get enough of it. Show me all the cities.
In the follow-up, time shifted to Renaissance Italy and the ancestor Desmond now locked into was the highly charismatic Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Ezio was about ten thousand times more compelling than Altair; the game time skips through his life, from teenage years to fortyish. To make up for the repetitive complaints of the first game, the gameplay and missions structure was greatly varied and enhanced, though I did find it adhered a little too closely to the modern gameplay trend of leading the player from one map beacon to the next and then exhibiting set pieces via cutscenes. But, whatever, I got to run around the rooftops of Florence and Venice! Ride a horse around the hills of Tuscany! Own a fancy Villa!
The supernatural elements supremely ramped up in this installment and it ends with Ezio busting into a secret room in Vatican (right after he engaged the pope in fisticuffs; seriously) and coming face to face with none other than the Roman goddess, Minerva. Minerva then speaks directly to Desmond (remember, that’s the guy in the high tech machine in modern day) to Ezio’s total confusion. It was actually a pretty cool narrative device. The threat is SO BIG that it crisscrosses centuries and this entire dude’s life/video game culminated in just getting a brief message across time to Desmond in 2011 or whenever it is.
But, then, OK, here’s where the video game narrative issue comes in. Ezio’s story was clearly supposed to end here. He goes on to live his life, no longer important to the plot and never knowing what the hell happened. But because this is a video game, and because, well capitalism, Ubisoft released another game the following year.
Entitled Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, we returned to Ezio, who gallivanted off to Rome for dubious narrative goals. The controls were tightened and honed, new features were added, you got to train up a whole cadre of assassins — the gameplay was just all around better. And yes, Ezio’s character arc was already complete, but they recast him as a teacher of others, and more importantly, embroiled him right into the plot of The Borgias.
Yeah. So incase you didn’t pick this up in history class, the Borgias were secret templar and Cesare himself was actually killed by one Ezio Auditore. Anyway, it worked. Cesare was a great villain and I actually bought a Borgia history book due to this game. It is still on my shelf and I swear I’ll read it some day. The framing story took a nosedive, sort of treading water since this game was unplanned, and inexplicably killing off a major character who totally wasn’t supposed to die yet*.
But, as I am sure you can tell by the title of this post, it didn’t end there. Ubisoft released yet another Ezio game. This time he’s old and running around Constantinople… for, uh… reasons. The gameplay really couldn’t go much further at this point — there’s ill-conceived add-ons like tower defense and bomb crafting. Nothing left to squeeze out of Ezio’s character either. There’s flashbacks to Altair that let you re-live scenes the game has already summarized for you in previous games. Faced with yet another unplanned episode, the writers had completely stalled on Desmond’s story and the framing device barely even exists in Revelations. Yet, yet, yet the game is still fun. And Constantinople! Climbing the Hagia Sophia! Visiting the volcanic region of Cappadocia! People calling me Effendi like when I read My Name is Red!
You might wonder wonder why I’m spending all this time summarizing a story that wasn’t even good in the first place. And honestly, 1000 words in, I’m wondering too. But it illustrates a fine point. The story was stalled and hacked apart and I just can’t see it recovering in the next game, but this led to the creation of one great game and one pretty good game. I got to swing around the coliseum in Renaissance Rome and chase fools through the Great Bazaar in Constantinople a few years later. And of course, a giant corporation made millions of dollars. How can you argue that?
And yeah, yeah, I know I’m like several AC games behind but I plan to catch up.
*So here’s what happened. The character in question, Lucy, was voiced and had the likeness of Kristen Bell. Bell decided she didn’t want to do it anymore, so like the TV shows where a main character suddenly dies when it clearly wasn’t time yet — see Battlestar Galactica, Sliders, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers… — they just bizarrely and disorientingly killed her off!
Responding to fan complaints, Ubisoft released paid extra content where her death is explained (she was a TRAITOR!!), but since they still didn’t have Bell on staff, she only communicates through email. Haha.