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Ode to Assassin’s Creed

Image credit: www.ubisoft.com
Image credit: www.ubisoft.com
Image credit: www.ubisoft.com

The original Assassin’s Creed was one of the first games I ever played on my new PlayStation 3, taking up much of one Christmas Day and plenty more evenings after coming home from school. I appreciated the blend of history and action, of the Crusades and conspiracy theories, weaved through a story in which a hapless barman is abducted and forced to live through the memories of an Arabic ancestor for the benefit of a mysterious organisation.

Among many aspects of the game, the story was, to me, the highlight. We take the role of Desmond Miles, the kidnapped bartender, whose ancestral past is dominated by an ancient order of Assassins. In 1189, Desmond’s ancestor Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad is an arrogrant, disgraced high-ranking Assassin tasked with carrying out several key assassinations in order to win back his reputation and equipment. Along the way, he uncovers a conspiracy to search for religious artefacts; this information is what Desmond Miles’s kidnappers are after.

The modern-day man, Desmond Miles, is unable to leave the chamber in which he is examined, leaving the player only with the information they can gain from the scientists who oversee his testing. The premise of the plot, experiencing memories of ancestors, incorporates biology, psychology and sometimes philosophy into the experience. We see through Desmond’s eyes as he is put through the experiment, looking up at the menacing Dr. Vidic and more caring Miss Stillman. In the past, as the Assassin removes each target, they deliver a defiant monologue to justify their actions, making the player question whether they have assassinated a deserving villain or a misunderstood hero. The streets are frequented not just by the average citizens you might expect but religious preachers who address crowds and lunatics and drunkards who will violently disrupt your activities if disturbed.

Assassin’s Creed was not perfect. Though the worlds of Damascus, Acre and Jerusalem, as well as the oft-forgotten Kingdom, were beautiful and well-constructed, the colours were dull and depressing. The game was serious but this made things feel bleak and brutal. But overall, it was a compelling experience that left us with both a twist and a cliffhanger. Desmond Miles gains an ability to see things invisible to other people, finding that his chamber and bedroom are decorated in scribbles and diagrams predicting the end of the world in 2012.

The original game was followed by several sequels, many of which have been well-received by reviewers. Gameplay elements have been improved and adapted as the historical settings of each game have changed, from the late 1100s Crusades and Renaissance Italy to Revolutionary America and, most recently, Victorian London. Assassin’s Creed II is considered by most to be the greatest, having solved a lot of its predecessor’s mechanical problems and advanced the story to feature someone with personal motivation for being an Assassin rather than someone carrying out tasks for an elderly master.

I don’t play the Assassin’s Creed games anymore. If the games were as exciting as the original, I would commit some money toward a new console and keep up with the franchise, but I’m not interested anymore. The more its developers concentrated on entertainment, the further Assassin’s Creed went from a good story.

For other people, a narrative isn’t the most important feature. Sure, sometimes the story would bog things down sometimes. The story is just one of several elements that make a game good and fun: gameplay, multiplayer, aesthetic quality, puzzle solving, entertainment and humour are all other important organs that make up the body of a game.

I’m not asking for every game I play to have a cracking story. Not every game is really meant to have a thrilling story; some games, such as Counter Strike: Source, have no story at all. But Assassin’s Creed revolves around a good story. It is based on genuine historical events such as the Crusades, the history of the Ottoman Empire and the American Revolution; it features genuine historical groups such as the Knights Hospitalier and the American Continental Army.

In the original game, they played parts, big and small, in the setting and plot; in the sequel, historical figures of all backgrounds and times were drawn together in a giant historical conspiracy linking them all to mystical artefacts that granted them their success. But in the most recent games, the protagonist hangs out with historical figures as if they were celebrities making cameo appearances on a television programme. They appear for no good reason and all of them have some links to either the Assassins or their adversaries, the Templars.

The conspiracy was unravelled through the cryptic messages of a previous abductee who leaves puzzles for the player to solve in order to proceed. But the conspiracy in the narrative moved from real-world figures to mythological gods of a civilisation that existed before humanity. Desmond Miles is killed off trying to stop the destruction of the world from one of these gods – or, according to some unhappy fans, Desmond Miles is killed off to stop the developers’ growing embarrassment of a plot that had descended into absurdity.

Uncovering a historical conspiracy through riddles and hidden messages in artwork was fascinating; with the number of historical portraits and paintings, books and accounts that the game designers used, sometimes it felt as though the game conspiracy could be true in real-life. As the games have become bigger, they have become more open-world in a bid to entertain players with new features and activities. Hunting and trading are nifty and fun but they detract from the purpose of the game. When you can capture forts, hunt deer, wolves and bears, make commodities for selling and play board games (Assassin’s Creed III) or fight pirates, hunt whales and explore Caribbean islands for treasure (Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag), being an Assassin becomes more of a hobby.

In future I hope that the developers replay Assassin’s Creed, II and Brotherhood and return the series to what it used to be so that when I play Assassin’s Creed, I am playing as an Assassin fighting a Templar conspiracy, not a wanderer who bashes Templars in his spare time.