Assassin’s Creed IV Gets Closer to the Heart

When dealing with a franchise like Assassin’s Creed the developers have a tough row to hoe. They must stay loyal to the brand and make the game an intrinsically Assassin’s Creed experience. On the other hand, they have to add enough new elements – or remove bad elements – to make it seem slightly less like they’re releasing the same game year after year. With the release of Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag so close to the one year anniversary of the release of Assassin’s Creed 3, many fans are worrying that their beloved series will become cheapened, game-a-year, budget-constrained dreck that will inevitably crash and burn.

So, of course, Ubisoft is trying to take one of the favorite elements of Assassin’s Creed 3 and make it a focus in Black Flag. What better for an Assassin to do on the high seas than a bit of piracy? And certainly a swashbuckling adventure is what we’ll get: Rife with drink, damsels, dueling and general debauchery. However, creating an immersive pillaging, plundering universe is in Ubisoft’s wheelhouse and certainly far from dangerous waters for them.

Where our pals in Quebec are really tap dancing on the line of success and failure is in the present day storyline, which will be significantly different than the previous five Assassin’s Creed titles. From here on out this joint is going to turn into spoiler city, so if you haven’t played the other games and still want to be surprised, get out while the getting’s good!

At the end of Assassin’s Creed 3 many of us found ourselves clicking our heels at the death of quite possibly the least endearing main character in gaming history, Desmond Miles. The Assassin’s Creed writers worked so hard at making him into an aloof twenty-something that he ended up giving off the vibe that being captured and exploited by Abstergo Industries was no more troublesome than forgetting his car keys. After nearly driving people to break out their torches and pitchforks, Ubisoft tried furiously to backtrack and make Desmond likable again. They tried making him romantically involved with Lucy before being forced to kill her. They tried making his teammates quirky and fun in the hopes that it might rub off. They even brought in Desmond’s estranged father in a last ditch effort to pluck at our heartstrings. Still, after that first game, they could have had Desmond rescue an orphanage of children from Al Qaeda while single-handedly bringing panda bears out of endangerment and ending global warming. I doubt they could have won us back. You never get a second chance at a first impression, Ubisoft. Lesson learned.

So at the end of ACIII, when we finally bid adieu to our cardboard cutout protagonist, there was certainly a period of dancing in the streets and shouting from the rooftops…but a question slowly dawned on us. Where do we go from here?

The developers at Ubisoft say they have the answer to our collective prayers. Hoping to avoid another Desmond Miles train-wreck, they have decided not to replace him with a Desmond 2.0 of any kind. Instead, they made the main character of present day Black Flag be none other than you.

You have been hired by Abstergo Entertainment, located in the Assassin’s Creed team’s hometown of Montreal, Quebec (those cheeky devils) to research the ancestry of some dead guy named Desmond. Particularly a certain shining star in his bloodline named Edward Kenway. This research is for entertainment purposes so that Abstergo, Quebec can publish what we assume will be a videogame or movie about our dear new friend, Edward. Of course, you soon realize that Abstergo’s real motives are far more sinister than they had originally revealed, and your involvement has been too imperative for them to just let you walk away.

Rather than another game where you are the chosen one, only hope, patient zero, et cetera, you are indeed playing the normal and average by playing yourself. Ubisoft apparently intends to completely demolish the fourth wall and take the action of your game right into your living room, and indeed your real life. It all sounds well and good, but we have to remember in our childlike enthusiasm for shiny quirky things that there are two distinct directions this could go.

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The first possibility is that it goes exactly the way Ubisoft expects it to go. The more they tried to jam Desmond in our faces, the more we seemed to despise him. So rather than just giving us another Desmond, they have done an about-face and given us… well, us. They have promised us an immersive experience in which the ultimate combination of realism and fiction is achieved. You are just another employee on the job working alongside hundreds of people just like you doing menial research day in, day out. As far as monotonous job simulators go, it doesn’t get much more real than that. You will also be able to keep a modest collection of Assassin’s Creed action figures in your cubicle which will further remove you from the fact that this is part of the game. That and the decision to place Abstergo Entertainment in Montreal, Quebec is a creative flourish that will certainly draw die-hard fans to the trough asking “just how real is this going to be?”

For a game to feel real, it has to touch a part of us that feels personal. It has to strike those chords in us and make us feel as though we are the ones on this journey where there is a chance at success beyond our wildest dreams and also a danger of being profoundly hurt. We all have gambles in our daily lives, but they and their repercussions are rarely so grand as in the world of gaming and film. Since the storyline is trying to sell the fact that it is happening to us rather than around us, there’s an opportunity here for a very personal experience. Rather than feeling removed from the action as in the previous games, we are now living it. When we first saw Desmond strap into the Animus, not one among us was immune to the twinge of curiosity. What would my ancestry have in store for me? Rebecca Crane even fuels this in AC: Brotherhood when she describes her experience in the animus, reminding us that even normal people have an ancestry worth exploring…no matter how “lame” it may be. I, for one, would be willing to be kidnapped, prodded and studied all day long by Abstergo if it meant getting a glimpse into my Assassin roots. Even if I found out I wasn’t an Assassin or Templar, it would certainly be interesting to wake up on a ship bound for the Americas or on a battlefield behind a Nordic ballista. In ACIV we will be getting that chance…more or less.

The storyline will likely highlight one of the most basic of human fears: betrayal. At some point in the game Abstergo will throw us under the bus and either forcibly extend our employment or cut it decidedly short. If Ubisoft knows what they are doing, they can make this inevitable betrayal hurt us in a deep place. If they give us a friendly co-worker, a love interest, or even a kindly old custodial woman to befriend, who would then have a hand in betraying us, it could wound us more than any hidden blade or pirate cutlass ever could. Time and time again, we have seen the dramatic and theatrical Hamlet-esque betrayal in both videogames and film, but seldom have we seen betrayal which begins in a humdrum place like an office space or research facility. Something like that would really eat at our core and would cement Ubisoft as a true contender among developers and mark a definite turning point for the Assassin’s Creed franchise.

But that’s only if all goes according to Ubisoft’s plan. Let’s remove the rose-tinted glasses and remember that there’s another possibility.

In making the player into the main character, it will likely mean that there will be no voice acting to represent the player. Since the experience will be first-person, we will rarely, if ever, actually see ourselves. Ubisoft is undoubtedly going to try to create a blank slate out of our main character so that we can project ourselves onto it. In doing so, however, they may create a slate that’s too blank. Even though the intent is that we are the main character, without a voice, face or any other distinguishing characteristics, there’s a very real risk of making the player feel completely disconnected from the character they play. Imagine if the already-voiceless Gordon Freeman’s appearance had never been revealed. We probably wouldn’t connect with him so much and care so much about him if we couldn’t picture him in our minds. It doesn’t take much. Just a glimpse, in fact, but a glimpse can be quite necessary.

In making a storyline like this, Ubisoft is playing Russian roulette with our escapist desires. Humans have a certain hunger for escapism. From time to time, all of us want to be someone else. See “The Stranger” by Billy Joel. We thirst to be someone exciting and charismatic and adventurous. I sincerely doubt that a cubicle drone is the image that most of us would connect with these ideals. Without a sense that we are being someone else, this storyline will be lackluster…and that’s speaking conservatively. Coming home from your job to go to your other job at Abstergo may feel slightly less adventuresome than gamers would have wished. Kenway could fill the void, but if he’s anything like Connor or Altair, we could be in for a long, emotionally flat haul.

Finally, I raise an eyebrow to Ubisoft’s decision to make the player go back and forth from third to first person when the Kenway storyline will have so many new features of its own. Just when the player gets used to those features, in comes the right hook of present-day, first-person paranoia and corporate espionage that will turn the entire game on its head. The game could go from painfully mundane and confusing to exciting yet repetitive very quickly if this switch is made too often. Certainly there have been other games that offer both first and third person, but the key word there is “offered.” When we are yanked from the world of pirate assassins back into the world of our tiny yet futuristic cubicle, it could make the player feel as though their boss has just caught them playing a game and forced them to get back to work. Never in a game have I experienced such a drastic and involuntary perspective shift and I know that I and other players like me could be feeling the whiplash from it.

At the end of the day, all this debate comes down to the role of a protagonist and just how hard it is to create one that stands out. People like seeing a bit of themselves in the characters they play. Whether it’s the devil-may-care attitude of Nathan Drake, the irreparable past of John Marston, the tragic flaws of Cole Phelps, or the dogged self-reliance of a little girl like Ellie, we can see a tiny glimmer of ourselves shine through. This small connection gives us an anchor to the gaming world, while simultaneously giving us a workable realm in which to play. Without a goal, there is no game, and without a protagonist there is no goal. Ubisoft has a wonderful opportunity here. If they do this right, they can create something that will stay with the player long after the game is shut off. They can create something that will make us examine ourselves, our relationships, and the way we go about our daily lives. They have a chance to create not only a game, but a gaming experience.

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