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July 03, 2009

Assassin's Creed's Functional Story¹

I remember, back when it first arrived on shelves, that Assassin's Creed took some knocks for its story. Not the storyline of Altair, the Third Crusade-era assassin, but that of Desmond Miles, the curious young man whose genetic memories get him kidnapped and made to be part of an experiment which taps into those memories, giving us the story of Altair.

Setting aside the believability of this sort of Lamarckian idea, I've found to my surprise that this story works for me in a purely functional way -- it solves specific game-related problems:

  • Make sense of gamer HUD conventions. With Altair's memories being experienced by Desmond Miles through a hardware interface, we're presented with a useful mechanism for introducing HUD elements into the experience. It's essentially as if Desmond Miles is himself a player of games... it makes sense to have the Animus hardware introduce elements that allow Desmond to manage and control his experience.

  • Allow for player failure in a less jolting manner. Though Altair apparently dies, this is explained away in the fiction as something that didn't really happen, much like it was in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

  • Skip the boring bits in a "realistic" manner. Although by realistic, I mean "internally consistent" with the rest of the experience, this is an interesting point as far as maintaining gamer flow. While some games allow you to travel quickly among locations, it brings you out to an interface which is clearly separate from the game. This can be seen many games, such as in Fable 2, where the player clearly steps out into the UI, selects a destination (typically by quest) and has the option to go there. In Assassin's Creed, while the mechanism is almost entirely the same, the player is instead stepping up and down in levels of the experience -- from Altair up to Desmond Miles.

  • Control the experience. While many describe Assassin's Creed as an open world game, in actuality it closely follows the form of Super Mario 64, with Masyaf and the Kingdom more or less serving as the hub (SM64's castle)². Rather than requiring a certain number of stars to open new areas, Assassin's Creed opens its neighborhoods via story goals. The outer story of Desmond Miles allows the inner story of Altair to proceed at a controlled pace, with areas from untapped DNA memories being unexplorable.

  • Establish options for a franchise. As with any new IP, a publisher/developer needs to establish options for sequels and new storylines. Having a story in which a character can recover memories from DNA means being able to visit potentially any time-frame, as proven by the recent E³ showing of Assassin's Creed II.

In the end, my feelings are that there were other story options here, such as a format more like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, where the protagonist's recollections of a series of events became the framework of the narrative and gameplay conventions. However, that may have presented difficulties with controlling the experience, and would have been a stretch at establishing a franchse. I think the "genetic inheritance" storyline presents its problems, and I'm curious where the series will go after Venice, but all in all it did a serviceable job for me.

OK, I'll be back in the next week or so with another look at Assassin's Creed before I turn my sights either on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Fable II.

¹This is the first of two posts about Assassin's Creed; the subsequent post will focus on the game's play systems. (back)
²The topology is a little different in that you're able to seamlessly move back and forth between multiple neighborhoods, which would not have been possible on Mario 64, but if you're running back into a neighborhood you've already completed, you are generally there because a) it's convenient, b) because you're headed to the local Guild office, or c) because you are looking to finish some optional goal in that area. The first case is mostly irrelevant; you are not really "visiting" the hub in the game sense. In the second case, it's more like you're returning to the hub to do unlock more star challenges in the level (i.e. advance the story). Finishing an optional goal is akin to returning to a Super Mario 64 level to pick up a challenge star or something. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at July 3, 2009 07:21 AM

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