ByJosh Jennings, writer at
Narratologist: all things story, plot, and arc.

So in part one, I talked about how the modern day framing device of Assassin’s Creed was derailing now that central protagonist Desmond Miles had been killed off and replaced with . . . no one (not really). Truthfully though, that wasn’t the only problem. In fact, if you think about it, a lot of what Ubisoft had in mind for him actually made very little sense at all really. The idea was that the Assassins wanted to have him relive the genetic memories of his ancestors not just to find the Pieces of Eden, but also have him incorporate the skills and abilities of those ancestors physiologically though an Animus side-effect called the bleeding effect, so that he can become an Assassin equal to them in a fraction of the time. Presumably this works by activating genetic ‘muscle memory’ via the subject reliving the ancestral memories of acquiring those skills. Regardless, the idea is only very partially sound, as most of those skills will be entirely useless in the 21st century.

It’s even noted by another character in-universe, when Daniel Cross mocks Desmond for still using a knife when all of his opponents have guns. The problem with acquiring combat skills from centuries prior is that most of them will be obsolete as soon as Desmond, or any subject, gets off the Animus again. Wielding swords, knives, axes, maces, polearms, crossbows, and other assorted mediaeval weaponry is pointless to learn now, and good luck getting the hidden blade through airport security. Evading arrows and crossbow bolts is in no way equivalent to evading bullets either. Neither is wielding antiquated smoke bombs and other explosives when the modern variant is so much more efficient and cheaper. Even the hidden gun isn’t anything like modern firearms. Likewise, parkouring/freerunning across Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Revolutionary era buildings and forests will be vastly different to doing it across a 21st century suburbia and/or downtown, let alone across skyscrapers.

Speaking of which, leaps of faith onto convenient haystacks/raked leaf piles/shovelled snow/bodies of water etc. from towering steeples, cliff and treetops, beached ship masts, and other colossal structures requires a considerable suspension of disbelief as it is, but from skyscrapers? I don’t think so somehow. It’s not that the idea of imprinting subjects with the traits of their ancestors can’t work at all, it’s that it needs to be applied realistically, and this is where Desmond’s arc was mismanaged. At the end of Assassin’s Creed I, the bleeding effect was shown to have granted Desmond access to his ancestor Altair ibn La’Ahad’s eagle vision, and that is more the direction they should have kept following with: unlocking the preternatural side of Desmond through his lineage. Inhuman reflexes, speed, agility, dexterity, coordination, even strength, and so on. The fights with the Templar forces that tried to impede Lucy and Desmond should have demonstrated the acquisition of those types of traits and less the fighting skills.

Any volunteers but WITHOUT the parachute?
Any volunteers but WITHOUT the parachute?

During the escape from Abstergo, Desmond fought beside Lucy using Altair’s hand-to-hand abilities, which was appropriate for the situation because they were just facing lightly armed security personnel. But when Warren Vidic showed up at the Assassin hideout with a task force aimed at taking in Desmond alive, there was no excuse for them not to have come with long and close range Tasers, electroshock batons, tranquiliser dart rifles, tear gas, and even sedatives. Certainly any less than Lucy had for not then walking out and mowing them all down with a couple of automatic weapons and grenades of her own. Earlier in the game, Desmond was required to navigate a custom obstacle course using the parkour skills he’d acquired from the next ancestor, Ezio Auditore da Firenze, and with some gameplay adaption this could’ve been turned into a stealth-kill training exercise course as well, one that then would’ve become ‘live-fire’ when the Templars showed up.

Desmond sneaking around and assassinating dummies and then later live Templar men while remaining hidden would then have been a practical demonstration of practical skills to have in the 21st century. Ezio’s disarming ability, use of the hidden blade (additional attachments and all), agility, swiftness, and most importantly his more advanced eagle vision could all have then been used to stealthily eliminate a task force infiltrating the Assassin hideout before a subsequent escape was made. This is a far more realistic scenario than a straight up brawl with ordinary batons and a couple of hidden blades, the realism plummeting further when it turns out that you can’t even attack Vidic despite him standing at the entrance of an open waist-high truck watching the confrontation. This is after you spent the whole game learning Ezio’s ability to almost gymnastically surmount all manner of structural obstacles.

Some might point out at this juncture that they are in Italy at the time, which has considerably stricter gun laws than the US and thus more sophisticated weaponry might not be so available to either faction. Two problems with this: a) both sides have very little respect for the law in pursuing their goals and certainly aren’t above weapons smuggling and possibly even manufacture, and b) during a rescue attempt made by the Assassins to liberate Desmond from Abstergo in Assassin’s Creed I, the distinctive sounds of gunfire in the ensuing conflict can actually be heard. Not to mention all the expanded universe material that clearly shows both the Assassins and Templars wielding a range of firearms with impunity worldwide, relevant gun regulations be damned. Others might argue that Vidic intended for the Assassins to escape so that Lucy could continue spying on them for the Templars, to which I would say then why attack the hideout at all and waste the time and resources. Lucy’s cover is not going to be blown if she doesn’t fulfil a certain dead Abstergo goon quota per week.

A goon per day keeps the suspicion away.
A goon per day keeps the suspicion away.

Another notable problem would be with gameplay, namely in the spirit of keeping the maximum immersion by removing any possibility of the actual player character dying and initiating a game over sequence. Dying in the Animi simply results in desynchronising from the memories being relived, with Desmond being given unlimited health in instances where damage is possible but fatalness isn’t. The closest Desmond ever comes to death is during the modern day Assassin’s Creed III sequences when he can fall off the skyscrapers that he’s freerunning across, during which the ‘UAV signal’ is lost. The idea evidently being that the Assassins are monitoring Desmond using a somehow invisible unmanned aerial vehicle with a camera attached, which occasionally loses its signal and has to be re-uplinked to whenever Desmond does something apparently fatal. Bullets would also be presumably fatal to his health in those sequences but Ubisoft appears to just overlook this.

However, coming back to the point, engaging in a stealth-kill mission against the Templar task force in Assassin’s Creed II instead of the brawl creates a problem with that mechanic. Because while the Templars are still looking to recapture Desmond alive, thus ruling out the possibility of a fatal game over occurring, the player screwing up and getting Desmond Tasered/shocked/tranquillised/sedated nevertheless still derails the story in much the same way. The solution then is to simply not have the ‘Desmond-can’t-die-because-it’s-not-immersive-for-the-player’ gimmick in the first place. It didn’t make a great deal of sense when they had the equivalent in their Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time series to begin with, where the whole trilogy was apparently (spoiler warning) the titular Prince relating a story to Princess Farah and anytime the player kills the Prince is shown to be a peculiar type of Alzheimer’s of his kicking in instead.

Really, how does one misremember cocking this up?
Really, how does one misremember cocking this up?

Seriously, “no no, sorry, that’s not how it happened, can I start again?” was not an uncommon thing to hear over the ‘restart or quit to main menu’ screen. God only knows what it sounded like to Farah in-universe. “And then I misjudged my leap onto a wall and fell three hundred feet where I shattered my legs so badly that both femurs shot up and practically came out my nose. No, no, sorry, that’s not how it happened, can I start again?” If Farah hadn’t dropkicked him off the walls of Babylon where this story is supposedly being relayed by the third time he’d done that, then I’d say we could’ve safely kissed all pretence at ‘immersion’ goodbye. Back to Assassin’s Creed, the idea is even less viable, since the framing device actually has gameplay attached to it, which requires stakes, which tend to be life-or-death. On top of that, there are sections during the Desmond sequences where loading screens are necessary as the next section of the game processes and renders. Sections that can’t be passed off as Animus loading segments.

So the idea of the whole modern day part being ‘not actually a game but a rendering of real life’ collapses at the first loading screen. The gimmick was cute (if confusing) in Prince of Persia, but Ubisoft downright shoot themselves in the foot with it in Assassin’s Creed. That is, until you reach Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and onward, where Mr Everyman S. Protagonist takes over and the worst injury you could possibly get at your new cushy Abstergo Entertainment job is stepping on a thumbtack. Leaving the gimmick’s utter wet dream aside however, following on from Assassin’s Creed II to Brotherhood, ideally then with these new stealth-based murdering skills that Desmond’s acquiring, the modern segments would be split more evenly between reliving Ezio’s memories and Desmond using the skills for either further training or to thwart Templar plans or even maybe to assist other Assassin cells, who knows.

The point would be that Desmond would start to become a proper Assassin and show the audience what the point of it all is. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations then shows, and is further elaborated on in Assassin’s Creed III, Clay Kaczmarek’s (Desmond’s predecessor as Abstergo kidnap victim for the Animus) uploaded consciousness being absorbed by Desmond himself, along with all of Clay’s knowledge including his own genetic ancestry and all the First Civilisation information he acquired. None of this is then ever addressed, since after a few modern day missions, Desmond is forced to sacrifice himself in order to save the world from an apocalyptic solar flare. Even if just Desmond’s genetic material had been used to imprint a new protagonist to carry on the struggle then the whole thing wouldn’t feel like such a shaggy dog story. Still, the historical storyline is still interesting, in watching the rise and fall of the Assassin Brotherhood, something I’ll expand on in a new article at some point.


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