Journey to the East: A Review of Assassin’s Creed: The Silk Road
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Major spoilers for Assassin’s Creed: The Silk Road.
Adventure stories have been a staple in my personal life since I was a child. From the early years of school where I explored the pages of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, to the modern releases from TellTale Games’ The Walking Dead, Batman, and Tales of the Borderlands. I can remember hitting the Dead End or 'You Died' in the middle of a book and rushing back to try and fix my mistake, or starting over to take another path. It’s something that becomes a skill with thinking before a decision that as a gamer, I’ve learned to utilize better in my hobbies and day to day. Being able to choose a path and experience something in a way that only a percentage of other people may have done previously is one of the reasons I still play games to this day.
In 2021, Hatchette Heroes announced a new entry in the Assassin’s Creed transmedia line, Le Livre Dont Vous Êtes L’assassin: La Route De La Soie, or in English, The Book Where You are the Assassin: The Silk Road (in short, Assassin’s Creed: The Silk Road). This new interactive novel, written by Mathieu Rivero, puts you in control of the French Assassin, Oisel. His story starts in Chinon, France where Oisel is tasked by his Mentor to travel to Antioch at the start of the historical Silk Road to locate and assist Master Assassin, Basim Ibn Ishaq (protagonist of Assassin’s Creed Mirage) in investigating a new enemy. It is here that he learns of a branch within the Order of the Ancients called 'The Snake Eaters' and of their plans to take control of the Silk Road to control the trade and wealth that travels across the Eastern World. With the assistance of your close friend Matthias, and additional allies through the story, readers must choose the direction the Assassin follows to defeat this enemy and save The Silk Road from The Order of the Ancients.
I waited for a while before I purchased the book as I had hoped that one day, AC: The Silk Road would be released in English. Yet, after a few years I decided to order and take the time to translate the book myself into my native language. Much like Oisel had to adapt to the Arabic and Sogdian languages of the Silk Road, I had to adapt to the French language using the only tool at my disposal, Google Translate. So with my phone and a word document, I spent two months scanning, formatting, and eventually reading AC: The Silk Road. During this time I would “read” the contents of the book and even have to spoil some aspects of the story so that I could better my future self’s experience reading the book. However, with all of the content that I scanned while editing punctuation for English and dividing each paragraph into individual sections for my outline, I didn’t feel that I ruined the overall experience.
The day before I started writing this review, I spent an afternoon reading through my first take of the book and ended with one of five endings in the story, reaching what I believe to be the most positive ending, Future Mentor. What that means, I won’t spoil for you but the overall experience was enjoyable and made me feel like I was playing a solo campaign of Dungeons & Dragons. Navigation, Combat, and Tests made decisions for my overall outcome. Choosing which path to navigate through the various points along The Silk Road, planning my attacks in combat against drunkards and members of The Snake Eaters, and performing Tests using the books built in randomizer of icons printed in the corner of each page made this reading of the book and all future readings, unique.
Assassin’s Creed: The Silk Road provides plenty of direction on how to read through and interact with the book. During the first two chapters, small sections of red text with the image of a Hidden Blade will explain the mechanics of the book from the mechanics that I shared above; Navigation, Combat, Tests, Obtaining skills and items, and the Appendices. These are embedded in the Paragraph that you are currently reading, or will direct you to a different paragraph to read the text if it was the currently read paragraph is printed after the initial notice. With 198 Paragraphs divided over 5 Chapters and 95 Appendices, there is plenty of content and replayability with the combination of five endings and various choices. On my first playthrough, I interacted with an estimated 100 individual sections and appendices, leaving a lot of text untouched.
You are able to track your progress using the included bookmark (which can be reprinted from the publisher’s website). This bookmark provides a “save file” with the front Synchronization section, as well as the boxes for your Stamina, Max Stamina, and Stealth Damage. The back provides space to list the skills and items you have found and a space to lock them in once you have synchronized your progress. Unfortunately for me, I purchased the book second hand and did not receive a bookmark, but the one provided from the website was great, and to be honest I would have printed regardless as I don’t like marking items with my books.
Later on in the book readers will find a pair of puzzles that present a challenge which provides not only a change in content, but makes the reader think like a member of the Brotherhood. In my playthrough, I put myself in the shoes of Oisel and thought hard about my options, keeping the tenets of the Brotherhood in mind and how my decisions could change the relationships with those that surround the lead character. The immersive storytelling from Mathieu Rivero made this experience meaningful as I felt joy, sadness, and fear as my tale brought me to the brink of desynchronization multiple times and excitement when I overcame an obstacle. It's a story that I loved so much that I began playing it again with my wife, allowing her to make all the decisions. After reading the first chapter, she was just as excited and wanted to see what would happen next. While she hasn’t finished it yet, I was super excited to see all aspects of Assassin’s Creed (even those outside of the Genetic Memory…) present in this story.
Now, as often seen with mass printed media, I hit a few errors in my reading of the book. Two sections from my playthrough directed me to a paragraph that was either an alternative option to a scene I already completed (ie. choosing to train with one person over the other), or to a scene that was not relevant to the text at all. I was able to identify the errors’ correct paragraph (or what I believed it to be) and continue my reading without additional issue. While not game breaking, it was a disruption in my immersion. Yet, I don’t hold this in a negative light as the complex process of publishing such a book can be handled by multiple parties or departments in a company.
I also found myself confused at a few points where I was unsure if I was supposed to recover stamina at the start of a new section, or only if a paragraph informed me that I was healed. Luckily for me, at the end of the story with only 2 HP remaining, I was able to finish the story with no further damage. There were also times where I felt the Test mechanic felt one-sided, or easy to manipulate. Each page has symbols of varying success or failure in the lower left or right corner and are used for the Tests by flipping through the book and stopping at a random page to get your symbol and gather the outcome from the text based on that. My wife said that she felt she could remember by feel, where an Eagle was (the highest success) and could potentially aim for this each time. Yet, I would watch her try, and end up “rolling” a Snake instead (the highest failure). However, this mechanic works for the book and can make the action scenes have an intensity to them when you are trying to roll a combat move multiple times and watch your health, or the opponents fall quickly.
One of the unique aspects of the experience I had with this book was that I learned of the author, Mathieu Rivero’s work as a translator. Reaching out to him on the fact that I was translating his book opened a conversation which gave me the opportunity to ask a few questions about the book and his process. In a short back and forth over a few days, I asked the following and have provided his answers to highlight his experience with AC: The Silk Road.
What were some of the challenges you had with writing an Assassin’s Creed adventure novel?
When you talk about challenges for writing an AC novel, I’m reading “IP complications”. While writing for an IP is undeniably difficult, it also brings its own niceties. What’s difficult, and daunting, is the sheer amount of pre-existing material. I’ve scoured the AC fan wikis in search of many things and, whenever you’re talking about such things as an IP, there are legacies to consider. I wanted to incorporate the social element of AC, and that translates to the Antioch market, whereas the stronghold is all about infiltration. Each sequence is centered about one specific part of the AC experience that I wanted to put in the game. Sadly there’s no crafting and no min-maxing and some of the goofy AC humor isn’t there (while there are a few places where it gets lighthearted). Of course Ubisoft had its own agenda, and told me a few select details that should or should not be there. Overall I would say that while it gives you a humongous set of constraints, it has the benefits of bringing its own universe, its tropes, and constraint breeds creativity, that’s for sure!
Did you use any reference materials for the story, such as books about the Silk Road? If so, would you share what you used for those that want to read more about the time period?
Weirdly, I did not buy any books for this. I’ve always been a history buff, and the first novel I finished writing was about the Arabian Nights (not available in English, sorry, though the title would translate as 'Of Night and Gold'). So let’s say I already had a headstart when I started designing the story. However, I vividly recall spending evenings reading websites about the Silk Road, about power struggles in the area, about the dialects that were used at the time or trying to figure out how to describe Antioch the way it was, geographically. For Antioch, for instance, I had to look at the maps of the ruins, figure out where it would sit on Google Maps, and then make a mental picture of how the arrival would look like – all that for a puny sentence or two that probably no one cares about or would notice. I like research, but I’m in the camp of calling a spade a spade, and fiction can and should stray from reality at times. There are a few gaps in the book, and some historians might pursue me with a pitchfork… one day, when they read the book. Also I did not want historical accuracy [to] make things feel foreign and pull readers out of the experience.
Were there any mechanics or content that you wanted to write about that didn’t get published?
The way we worked with Ubisoft (and Hachette, the publisher of the book) was very helpful in not having cut content. First I did a test – which became the Chinon prologue, with some editing, and a grand plan, a structure and a game design document for the entire novel, so that Ubisoft would approve me writing stuff. Then I proceeded to work on the book and then submitted everything back to Ubisoft. They had a few nitpicks with some scenes, thought one of the endings needed some more love, so I touched up whatever needed to be touched up. With my publisher at Hachette, we had defined a certain scope that we did not want to go past, and I did go a little bit overboard. Not too much, though. I had not foreseen the endings would take as much work as they did! So no, no cut content per se. I scrapped a bunch of things to streamline a few moments, but rarely did our plan fail!
Was the Silk Road story your decision, or was it pitched to you by Ubisoft?
Ubisoft approached one of their former employees, who knew a publisher with whom I had spoken about adventure books, a few years back. My name was submitted unbeknownst to me, and I was contacted by Hachette. As mentioned above, Ubisoft had their own agenda and they wanted the story to happen around the Silk Road, they wanted a Basim cameo (why, of COURSE!) and they also wanted to have a male Hidden One named Oisel (old French for Bird). They wanted him to be of a mixed ethnicity, and the year 850 mark is perfect for that – the Moors had invaded, so a deserter could have had a child. That also helped come up with the excuse for Oisel speaking – kinda – French, Arabic, the dialects of Central Asia, and Chinese. They had an idea about an open world but clearly that was not possible (unless we did a choose your own adventure encyclopedia) in book form so we settled for a few select vignettes. I brought them the entire arc, what I wanted to do with Oisel (and Matthias), and they were on board with that. Having a somewhat canon ending meant the end could not go too far. We had to have a specific direction and a fixed end point.
If you were to write another adventure book, would you write a sequel to this story, or would you visit another period and location?
I’m not opposed to writing another adventure book. I’m handling a few different projects and writing books as your day job is a tough one, so I’ve dialed this back a bit. I’ve pitched something else to Hachette but they weren’t too much into it (it was a rogue like dating sim adventure book. Do what you want of this weird piece of information). I have other ideas, like an adventure book on a diviner with abilities to foresee pieces of the future. What I like most about this type of game is the involvement a player can have in the story, how emotionally invested you can be. I want to try experimental stuff. I have other things cooking but I can’t talk about them at the moment as they haven’t been announced, but it’s more on the side of board games than books.
My time reviewing books for Assassin’s Creed has provided me with great insight to the authors that are building the future of the series. While we wait through the development process of each video game, the transmedia for the series is where I believe we will find the most world building and viewpoints of the global Assassins that lived in the timeline of Assassin’s Creed. Mathieu has opened a door for a new format that I would love to see continue with the transmedia, more adventure books with different characters and time periods that while the outcome could not be considered canon, the overall story could be. When I explain the lore of AC: The Silk Road, I would inform of the challenges the Assassin’s Brotherhood had with the Snake Eaters along the Silk Road in the 9th Century, but that the character lore should be considered “unverified” (when speaking in a historical sense) as everyone would be able to tell their own story, or what they believe happened. It's an opening for fun conversation and similar “this is what I did” moments that I love seeing from the games. If I was to suggest a new story for this, I would love to see either a sequel to this book with references to The Silk Road, or maybe a story that is based in a time of war such as WWII due to the amount of history and stories that have come from those periods that could be adapted for an adventure story.
Assassin’s Creed: The Silk Road is available in physical format online for anyone to purchase. I made my purchase via Amazon, and we will share an affiliate link at the bottom of this article if you would like to purchase a copy for yourself.
While the book is in French only, I would still suggest this book to anyone that wants a new avenue for the AC series and maybe one day we will see an English option from Hatchette Heroes.
We would like to say a big thank you to Mathieu for joining us for this interview!
About the Author
Mike Smith is a collector of all things Assassin's Creed and a major supporter for the transmedia platform for the series. With nearly a full library of Assassin's Creed media, he is exploring the universe in order of Genetic Memory and waiting eagerly for the next story to be released.
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