*Moderate to heavy spoilers for every Assassin’s Creed game up to ACIII follow.*
2007 was a very different time – George W Bush was still President, Soulja Boy was relevant, and LOST was in the middle of its third, arguably worst, season.
God, remember LOST? More specifically, remember that period when everything needed to be just like LOST? Media was seemingly disallowed to exist in that time without some sort of overarching “mystery”. Even if the answers were poorly thought-out or simply didn’t exist until the last minute, everyone bought-in to this need for obfuscation and conspiracy, spawning dozens of television shows that never lasted beyond a season and giving writers of all media a trope to overuse even more viciously than the protagonist with amnesia.
Still, there was something workable there in the games space. The interaction meant that you alone felt responsible for how long it took those mysteries to unravel, even if it meant propelling yourself towards the credits to the sacrifice of anything else. This pretty accurately describes my experience with the original Assassin’s Creed, a game that I absolutely loathed playing but felt like I needed to see to its conclusion. I never cared for Altaïr or his self-seriousness, especially in a world as droll and uninteresting as the one he inhabited. I simply wanted to see what would happen to Desmond, a bore in his own right but one that appeared to be shambling towards a purpose. Those brief moments he spent with Lucy were an IV drip of a much more engaging story that seemed to be taking place right outside of our view, one I might even see if I stuck with it long enough.
The ending of Assassin’s Creed involves Desmond inheriting the Eagle Vision from his constant Animus exposure and discovering abstract messages along the walls. It then ends on that cliffhanger, guaranteeing that just about every single person to reach that point would be all-in for the eventual sequel.
For most, the real story of Assassin’s Creed II was how it was the saving throw for a franchise with a rough start, and indeed, my time with Ezio was superior in every way to the previous adventure, but I was that one weirdo that still cared more about Desmond. He was slowly becoming more competent, more expressive. Most importantly, it felt like he was preparing for something big. I felt justified in this investment because even my time in the past seemed to care about the bigger picture that existed in the modern day. As Ezio, I would hunt down Glyphs that led to frustrating puzzles that would then hint at “The Truth”. It was just another variation of icons on a map that I needed to cross off, yes, but it was also a breadcrumb trail leading to what I assumed was to either be Assassin’s Creed’s crowning moment of awesome or it’s anticlimactic Architect Moment.
The Architect Moment refers to the scene in The Matrix Reloaded when Neo finds himself in a room with The Architect, a character that exists only to offer him ten straight minutes of bland exposition. The scene is infamous for spitting in the face of “show not tell” and for being an absolute failure of effective storytelling. Though the scene is designed to answer long-standing questions, it’s overly long and often incomprehensible, reaffirming the notion that The Matrix was a great opening chapter to a story that was never really thought out much beyond that. It’s a similar problem that often plagues the horror genre, unable to find satisfying conclusions once the monster can no longer hide in the shadows.
With The Truth, all of that effort resulted in a brief video hinting at The First Civilization where Adam and Eve were techno-assassins of some sort. It was a mind-fuck of the highest order only heightened by ACII’s conclusion wherein Ezio fist-fights the Pope to then receive a message by a mysterious deity that was actually intended for Desmond.
Brotherhood continued in that direction, though the equivalent Rifts were used to reveal less interesting back story and thus felt nowhere near as compulsory. It was also the point where the narrative seemed to meander. The conversations outside of the Animus almost felt as if they were stalling for time as Desmond’s story lay at the mercy of a giant plot door. Beyond that would reveal another fun-size bit of information before the sudden and nonsensical death of Kristen Bell’s Lucy character. Up to that point, Lucy had been Desmond’s would-be love interest and most trusted ally. She was also, apparently, a bad guy the whole time. My assumption was that Kristen Bell had only signed on for three games and needed to be written off somehow, even if it didn’t actually make sense. A decade later… I still feel that way.
But it’s okay because the next game, Assassin’s Creed III, will be the culmination of everything we’ve learned up to this point. Desmond, now a capable warrior, will do battle with the Templars on city rooftops and finish the fight. It will be everything the series has built to. It will explain everything. It will be epic.
Assassin’s Creed III was not the next Assassin’s Creed game.
Revelations, or Assassin’s Creed II Part 3, involves Desmond in a coma, traumatized by the events of the previous game. As you’d expect, the only way to wake him up is to put him in the Animus, yet again. While Brotherhood was a welcome coda to a breakout hit, Revelations felt soulless, trotting out senior citizen versions of Altier and Ezio to put a bow on a gift that didn’t need wrapping in the first place. Their stories were finished, and while attempts were made to change things up on the gameplay front (and even dive into Desmond’s past), the whole production came off like an ashcan copy. Desmond was a cypher and thus didn’t actually need to be explored any further, especially given that his past wasn’t interesting enough to justify exploring. Nevertheless, I beat it, ready for my investment to finally pay off when the next installment came around.
Before we get to Assassin’s Creed III, it’s worth pointing a few things out. ACIII, released in 2012, marked the FIFTH game in the Assassin’s Creed series in as many years. If you count mobile titles, it’s actually the eighth. The commitment to an annualized franchise was already in place, even if assets and engines needed to be reused and storylines had to be rewritten. Before the release of ACII, Ubisoft boasted they “could do 35 of these”, seemingly unaware that was not an inherent positive.
For those counting, Origins marks the 19th. Even with a year hiatus, that averages out to nearly two games per year. Ubisoft knows that the Animus concept is incredible and has allowed the games to exist in wildly different settings whilst still being part of the same through-line. It’s a brilliant narrative tool that ensured a cash cow. It’s also become an anchor, and that was never more clear than in Asssassin’s Creed III.
It would have been silly to expect Assassin’s Creed to end with ACIII, but Desmond’s story was long overdue for a climax, one that would set the stage for everything going forward but still feel like an ending of its own. Even if the game, once again, started with our heroes waiting in front of a plot door. The time for stalling was over. Shit was about to go down.
ACIII is, if my research is correct, a 20 hour game. I completed it in 8. I could not possibly give you any details of Connor’s story without first consulting several wikis because I ran past all of it, never once compelled to stop and soak any of it in. Desmond and I were going to get through that goddamn door and have our Architect Moment. I didn’t care anymore. I needed closure. I needed to believe that there was a reason for everything. It was, again, like my relationship with LOST, a show I’d grown tired of for similar reasons near the end of its own run. I don’t know where the promises of the series ended and my overblown expectations began, but the ending felt like it reached neither.
There’s a point late in ACIII when super assassin Desmond is raging through Templars and actually goes back to that room from the first game. Using your Eagle Vision, you can even see those same markings on the walls that started this journey. It’s easily the best moment in an otherwise forgettable game because it acknowledged how far we had come. Yes, I long since learned what all of those symbols meant and who put them there (thanks to all three iterations of ACII), but it was still a nice bit of fan service to those like me that cared about that kind of stuff. In contrast to the rest of my time with the game, it gave me faith that they’d stick the landing.
We know how this story ends, and it’s one of the many many reasons that Assassin’s Creed III is still a dark horse of the series that Ubisoft themselves will poke fun at. Desmond makes his way through that door and we have our Architect Moment. Two gods exposition in front of him before leaving him with a choice to either let the world end or sacrifice himself and unleash otherworldly techno-god Juno in the process. The entire sequence feels rushed and flat, as if Desmond himself were being shooed off of the stage as quickly as possible so that they’d never have to speak of him again. His death is unceremonious, collapsing to the floor pathetically as Juno breaks free and leaves us with yet another cliffhanger; one that has still not paid off five years and eleven games later.
In a Eurogamer interview in 2013, the director of AC: Black Flag stated that there was an ending to the series in mind, whilst also noting that they had an annualized franchise on their hands. The cynical response would be to go “yeah, it’ll end when it stops making money” and, while that’s a reductive statement, it’s not necessarily an untrue one. The assassin hood and robes can be placed on anyone in any period of time, still making for that familiar silhouette. It’s convenient to their purposes in the same way that the modern day storyline wasn’t.
After Desmond’s story concluded, Ubisoft has de-empathized the out-of-Animus segments of the series. They still exist, to varying degrees, but seem to do so more out of obligation than anything else. Ask most AC fans and they’d tell you that they don’t care about the parts of the games that don’t involve the historical adventuring anyway, unlike me, who naively only stuck around because I bought into a compelling framing device. There have been ups and downs since, but with Origins, they seem to have found a comfortable footing, making the story and characters inside of the Animus so engaging in their own right that you don’t actually care too much for what happens in the present day. It puts Assassin’s Creed on the road to be that anthology series of unrelated tales that they’ve clearly wanted for a while now, no longer beholden to a resolution that we know is probably another decade away. It’s enough to perhaps even bring someone like me back into the fold, someone so scorned by his experience that he hadn’t touched an AC game since.
Still, I can’t help but think about that statement – the idea that the people making these games know what the end is, but quite literally can’t make it a reality because they sell so well. It means that when that time does come, it will likely be with a whimper, long after even the most diehard have stopped caring.
Assassin’s Creed burned me. Badly. After five games and countless hours of my life, I felt cheated by a story that I seemed to care more about than the people writing it. I’d still argue that it deserves better when the time comes to finally put an end to it. I remember those early promises – of an epic modern day conclusion that would likely span some sort of virtual battlefield. With or without Desmond, that’s still possible, but I question if any fans other than me would even care. I wonder if anyone at Ubisoft cares.
That’s why my feelings for the series are so complicated these days. Rarely have I spent so much time trying to love a piece of media that seemed to do everything in its power to push me away. It’s not as if I need Desmond to enjoy an AC game, but, to me, he represented something – little did I know at the time that he would represent the push and pull between the creative and the commercial, the sacrifices that need to be made for continued viability in a hit-driven marketplace.
Obviously, we know who won that battle. Even as a lapsed fan, I’d like to hope there’s a little bit of fight still left.