The Assassin’s Creed franchise leaps forward (from the tallest building, likely) with the release of the twelfth game in the series – Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – and the recent announcement of an upcoming Netflix show.
While the games are hugely popular, we have to hope this new show is an improvement over the 2016 movie. It had great actors playing cute characters, well-suited action scenes but no clear narrative content. Indeed, Assassin’s Creed offers a classic lesson on the difficulties of transforming the vast multi-dimensional gaming world into a story suited to other formats.
Assassin’s Creed games use a tool for framing the current conflict and heavily recreated memories of the ancestors of the characters in historical periods. These memories are the main action and attraction of the game. If anything, the elements of the current plot seem strange and unnecessary by comparison.
For example, in the first game (2007), the player controls a 12th-century Levantine assassin called Al-Tair Bin Lahd during the Third Crusade. His descendant of the 21st century, Desmond Miles, was forced to experiment with the life of Altair so that the present-day Knights Templar could find earlier artifacts of man known as Pieces of Eden. If that doesn’t make any sense, well, it isn’t.
This is not a Shakespeare in-game console with two separate accounts that reflect and comment on each other. Instead, the stories directly affect each other – you must go into the past to uncover the secret locations of current artifacts.
Assassin’s Creed never attempts to make ethically deep decisions and world-rocking decisions, for example, the critically acclaimed Deus Ex video game franchise. Deus Ex’s background on warring plots is subtle enough that the player feels real choices are being made.
The 2016 Assassin’s Creed movie was bad in part because the entire franchise – despite its many really great qualities in gameplay, atmosphere, and graphics – is narratively incoherent. This might be tolerated in a game built around the atmosphere, great weapons and neat moves, but it’s not enough for a viable movie.
There are great examples of storytelling in transmedia across multiple formats, such as Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or actually Deus Ex. In these cases, each new book, movie, or game builds on telling previous stories while maintaining a sense of astonishment and the unknown. But the Assassin’s Creed franchise doesn’t even bother to make the effort, as if its creators Ubisoft believe the occasional media studies experts who suggest that video games should stay on track and not even try to tell stories.
It seems arrogant to assume that video games are not good at narration, but it is almost acceptable to think that they should emulate cinematic storytelling rather than embrace the unique strengths of video games. Interactivity, agency, emotional engagement, and immersion combine to provide players with experiences impossible to achieve in purely linear stories.
The structure of games is different in nature from that of movies, and this is more apparent when it comes to endings. It’s known that writing a narratively satisfying ending to a novel or movie is difficult – even more difficult if you also have to give your audience a choice of how to end the story.
Every time you let the player make an important yes or no decision in gameplay, you multiply the number of possible endings. No storyteller wants to come to hundreds of pathological endings.
Game designers have a variety of tricks available to reduce this number, giving the illusion of choice while gradually directing the player to the main plot. However, most players would be happier if the series of interesting decisions involved more than just choosing tactical options for overcoming challenges. They need moral weighty choices that enable them to playfully explore their value systems.
From the wing to fix it?
The Assassin’s Creed franchise seems to have made her shine by building her world from the start, each story randomly building on its predecessors. I see three ways to proceed.
They can continue to ignore concerns about cohesion, focus on stunts and cool environments, and hope fans will accept the new installments as just taking away each new creative team. But the threads of the combo stretch so much that it will be a tough sell.
If the new series were to be useful, it would be best to bring in a good universe runner. Someone who can figure out how most of the universe has held together and cut the parts that don’t.
Instead, they can start over, with the process of building the world and not just a story idea. Video games can tell amazing stories, despite what their critics might think, but they need a consistent background to put them in. Creating a world that was believable first, will only make the next franchise even stronger.