Evolution of Modern Day storytelling and structure throughout the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
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The Assassin’s Creed series is highly praised for beautifully recreated landscapes that allows players to experience the most convoluted eras of history and its major events, as we know all of this is possible due to a high-tech device called “The Animus”.
The Animus is what makes it possible for the player to experience not just the modern day, but moments from the past. By stepping into the machine you are able to delve into the genetic memories of the modern day character's ancestor's and relive their memories through their eyes.
When the first iteration of this franchise came out in November 2007, it was revolutionary. The concept of having history as our playground whilst playing through a fictional plot based in historical fact was amazing, hence our love and passion for this franchise.
However, it is important to note that not all of Assassin’s Creed is supposed to take place in the past. We have to remember and keep in mind that when the first entry came out, we were playing as a young man who was abducted by a multinational corporate conglomerate which serves as a front for the modern day activities of the Templars. Which means that they are still present in modern times.
The first iterations of the franchise started somewhat bland on the character development of Desmond Miles, only using his persona as a tool for us to understand the modern day situation and what is to come and what to do then. But as the story progressed and hidden information starts to be discovered in the emails from Lucy Stillman’s personal computer, that’s when we could finally get a glimpse of how the modern day storyline was intended to be implemented in the game. It is no surprise that the most part of the modern day plot is revealed via E-mails, notes, messages left over by employees or within the database of the animus itself, due to the limited scope of exploration available to Desmond due to his imprisonment. This method of information discovery is reutilized in future games for the development of the characters knowledge surrounding the brotherhood and Abstergo.
When we take a look back at the first games, Desmond was not very well explored until Assassin’s Creed II, where we could see his personality and skills develop in terms of response to danger, his coping with the bleeding effect and involvement after discovering his Assassin Heritage. The follow-up, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, allowed us to finally get out of that attic in Italy, and for the first time explore a small modern day environment that made us connect even more with Desmond’s ancestry when exploring the crypt of his ancestor’s family villa.
Not to mention that the DLC for Brotherhood “The Da Vinci Disappearance” first implemented the ARG concept of mixing reality with fiction by adding a special set of coordinates that, when googled, would lead us to a random wooded area in upstate New York, which had the fans baffled for many years until Assassin’s Creed III was released shedding light over the mystery behind said coordinates.
Assassin’s Creed Revelations picks up where Brotherhood ended, with the stressful cliffhanger (Desmond kills Lucy) making us wonder what would happen next, but instead of making us play an actual modern day section like in the prior installment, we received optional missions in which you navigate through Desmond’s life through the use of flashbacks while he is in the animus in a comatose state. This was actually refreshing as it was a good insight into how Desmond had to recover his past life’s memories, in order to separate them from those of his ancestors which were overlapping with his and invading his mind, accompanied by those weird and cold yet attractive geometrical shapes and blocks emulating the core systems of the animus.
Assassin's Creed III was the end of a cycle. Sadly the end of Desmond Miles’ story on behalf of what everyone expected. In this particular entry of the franchise, Desmond was now a capable Assassin having inherited all of the abilities his ancestors possessed through the Bleeding Effect. The modern day sections of this game are, to this day, considered by many fans as perfect, and what the balance between past & present sections ought to be in any Assassin’s Creed game. Unfortunately for them at the time, little did they know that it was just going to happen for one time only.
Moving on to the next entry, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, that came out in 2013, was the turning point of it all, officially aligning the timeline of the modern day with the real word allowing players to better follow the chronology of the games, which was actually a smart move, as some years in the expanded universe are pretty tough to correctly organize in terms of dates and months.
As Desmond’s cycle was now over, it was time for Ubisoft to start thinking outside the box and figure out a way to properly set future instalments without the need of Desmond himself.
They had it all at their disposal to write whatever they wanted. That’s where Abstergo Entertainment joins the game. They shifted from the perspective of one character to be the center of a story to multiple points of view, characters and ways of exploring genetic memories. The creation of Abstergo Entertainment was really an incredible idea, the stories could now be “Infinite” because of the introduction of technology which allows you to relieve genetic memories without the direct descendant was genius. It opened up a door to what we would later know as “Helix”.
However, Black Flag also started the lore-telling structure that we know today, which did not please everyone, as we went straight from the perspective of one single character experiencing everything continuously, to a lot of different stories and events happening simultaneously in the same game, poorly explained through Emails, files you’d have to find and recover and lots of notes scattered around the offices of Abstergo, thus, thwarting the quality of the Modern Day storytelling altogether.
From there on, this procedure would last for every installment to come until 2015, switching between voiceless and non-playable characters, with the exception of Assassin’s Creed Unity and Syndicate which incorporated cinematic cutscenes as substitutes for playable sections.
The Impact of Transmedia. (Comics, Novels & Info-Books)
In November 2010, Karl Kerschl & Cameron Stewart in collaboration with Ubisoft, published through Ubiworkshop the graphic novel that would utilize a well known trend in the marketing sector when it came to promote storytelling through different platforms: The Transmedia.
From 2010 to 2014 a total of 5 comic books plus reprints were made, besides the already existing novels based on the games written by Oliver Bowden. In which he added more background and lore to characters such as Altaïr and Ezio enriching the universe, but forcing others to buy books and comics in order to obtain knowledge that was supposed to be in the games in the first place. Of course this is not an uncommon tactic, there’s nothing wrong in expanding a universe of fiction which is meant to entertain.
But the real problem begins when the very company responsible for annual releases of a franchise (which is supposed to continue expanding the stories set by previous entries, or at least finish what others started in the next one) starts wrapping up important story arcs and plot lines such as Juno’s revenge over the world (Charlotte de La Cruz Saga) - (2015-2018) in a specifically-made line of comics for their conclusion, introducing new characters which makes the Modern Day story even more difficult to get a hold on, as you don’t just have to discover new faces, but you also have to remember all that happened in the previous entries to understand the connections that tie the main games to all these new chapters within the expanded universe.
Therefore, totally bypassing these interesting story arcs in the games to come, just as an excuse to apply new settings and expand the IP without any “Artistic freedom restriction tied to the already established lore”, which as we have been witnesses for the past five years, happened with the releases of the new RPG trilogy that according to a now divided fanbase, caused some lore retcon.
See Assassin’s Creed Unity for instance. It’s one of the clearest examples of an Assassin’s Creed game being directly affected by the Transmedia in terms of Modern Day storytelling.
The game is supposed to take place in November 2014, right when an Abstergo analyst finishes exploring a set of pre-loaded genetic memories belonging to a bodyguard of the Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay, said to be a sage and thus, person of interest to Abstergo. That’s when the Assassin Technician Bishop comes in and convinces our voiceless, genderless character to work for her and explore a specific genetic memory set that she provides to them, which are those of Arno Dorian, protagonist of Unity.
Right, let’s backtrack 7 months prior. According to the Abstergo Entertainment Employee Handbook, way more interesting things happened in the time frame of Assassin’s Creed Unity’s modern day. Starting from May, all the way to November, there was another person relieving Arno’s memories, a character named Robert Fraser, who the real-life book is supposed to have belonged to, who has his own story which is worthy of a thriller story on its own. Detailing aspects of the bleeding effect, never seen before in any other games, seeing an interesting character development as he goes mad by falling in love with Élise while he was relieving the memories of Arno, to the point that he was having hallucinations in which he believed himself to be Arno, struggling to maintain his identity separated from his.
Why not just wait a little longer and make all of that playable as well? Or why not just make cutscenes in first person for that matter, during modern day, in which you see that character progression and the bleeding effect slowly affecting the character. I’m sure that would give a more in-depth look at how users are really affected by the secondary effects of the animus.
So, for now, I’d say that the only way to improve modern day and make it more engaging for the public, would be to stop making comics and books with modern day sections in them.
And maybe focus on making a full on game instead. Time changes, civilizations evolve, wars evolve, technology… Yes of course! Assassin’s Creed has always been a game of blades and steel. But let’s be honest, Ubisoft has the potential, gameplay references and tools in order to make a capable and polished modern day only game, with maybe a couple of interactions with the past to complete something in the present if need be. But that would more likely be a secondary thing as I’m talking about a modern day game and not a game focused only in the past.
Splinter Cell Conviction and Blacklist have the perfect playability for that hypothetical game as does the recent Watch Dogs Legion (Which recently had an Assassin’s Creed Crossover) But that is something for another day.
What about weapons?
Well, according to the lore, Galina Voronina, Gavin Bank’s Cell, Jasdip Dhami and so on, use firearms in combat. And it’s not that awful, it’s actually realistic as we have seen in many films and shows where the character would ensue a fight with guns but when out of ammo use his/her fists to neutralize threats. We are too focused on the old fashioned Assassin weaponry which hinders the possibility of having a modern day game as we cannot ask fans make a united decision. I really think that is what we need in order to heal the storytelling or at least make it more appealing to people.
Maybe implementing old plots that are yet unfinished or old characters that have disappeared for a while now, such as Harlan and Arend, Gavin, Galina, Kiyoshi, etc.
This is all an idea of mine that comes from the analysis of the Modern Day’s lore of course. But I think we should consider pressing Ubisoft for this kind of game in the future.
Though, I’ve noticed that all recent transmedia books are only focusing on the past.. Could that mean something?
I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
About the Author
UbiCypher (Joe) is an Assassin's Creed Transmedia expert who works as the Lead Admin for the Isu_Network social media team!
He provides consistent social media content in the form of Assassin's Creed lore trivia, puzzles and news coverage, spending countless hours researching the series and real history.
He has also been working on an AC events timeline to help fans of the franchise looking to learn more about the lore.