Assassin's Creed: Why a Little Goes a Long Way

Kevin VanOrd shares why he holds this alternative-history series so dear.

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(Editor's note: the following article contains spoilers for the Assassin's Creed series.)

I have a fascination with conspiracy theories.

No, I don't actually believe there is a secret alien base beneath Dulce, New Mexico, or that Denver International Airport is a future internment camp. I don't think that the events of September 11, 2001 are a hoax, or that the 1969 moon landing was faked. But I am intrigued by how such theories reflect recurring themes: fear of technology (fluoridated water fears, vaccination fears), mistrust of government (the Majestic 12, the New World Order), and plain-old racism (Holocaust denial). Most such theories are preposterous, even when they grow from grains of truth, but theorists fervently believe. Every scrap of information is twisted to fit, and soon grows a pseudoscience that develops an air of truth because its proponents are so sincere.

Developer Ubisoft Montreal understands that for a conspiracy theory to work, its believers must take it dead seriously. And that's one of the many reasons why I love Assassin's Creed.

The Assassin vs. Templar story that ties each Assassin's Creed game together is ridiculous--but if a single core character were to stop taking it seriously, the threads would dissolve and the series would become a parody of itself. For us to believe in conspiracies, we must believe the people that create them. We believe Shaun, Rebecca, and Lucy, and by the end of Assassin's Creed II, I was ready to give myself over to anything the series wanted to tell me. As long as its characters trusted, I would too. And they made me believe something wholly preposterous: that a spacey woman from the past was staring directly at me, sending me messages through the eyes of the ancestor whose life I was reliving.

My respect for Assassin's Creed goes beyond its ability to tap into my own fascinations, however. It taps into what I love about games--and what I think games can be and should be. The series takes nothing for granted: each element has an explanation within its lore. The interface, time-trial arenas, the method by which the world opens up--all of this and more have a reason to exist as they do. Of course, some explanations stretch the limits, but where other games throw these elements in because they must, Assassin's Creed also finds a deeper justification. Consider the health system--that is, synchronization. We accept that games have health bars. Assassin's Creed's fiction finds a place for this triviality, explaining that your synchronization bar represents how strictly you adhere to your ancestor's memories. It's a logical stretch, of course, but it's a self-reference few games would make.

A complex plot deserves praise, but without characters like the cosmopolitan Ezio, plot is just a fancy machine without humanity or impact.

This is such a small element--but for me, Assassin's Creed resonates because care is taken with the smallest details along with the broad strokes. During the opening hour of Assassin's Creed III, stage performers recite lines from The Beggar's Opera. The music and text are accurate, and you don't hear just a small bit of the opera, but many minutes worth. In an Assassin's Creed II chase, you weave among fire-eaters during a chase sequence at the Venetian carnival--and the ambience is so celebratory that you wish you could join the revelers. These are little touches, but worthy ones that allow you to leave the cares of the real world behind and focus solely on the digital one you inhabit.

But what of the broad strokes? The series understands narrative in ways many games don't. Of course, with stories stretching across multiple games, and with Ubisoft's gargantuan budget and huge development team, the games have the time to tell broad stories featuring multiple characters. But Ubisoft is less concerned with plot and more focused on character and theme. Assassin's Creed games, Assassin's Creed II in particular, deserve a place with other special games that for me are defined as much be their lead character as any other element--games like Metal Gear Solid, Half-Life 2, Grim Fandango, and Planescape: Torment. A complex plot deserves praise, but without characters like the cosmopolitan Ezio, or the power-hungry Lucrezia Borgia, plot is just a fancy machine without humanity or impact.

But Assassin's Creed digs even deeper, creating important thematic ties between games and characters. In each game, the dying soliloquies of the men you assassinate sound more and more reasonable. Assassin's Creed III's Connor gives more consideration to the Templar point of view than any of his predecessors, which isn't just appropriate given the trajectory of the series' overarching story--it's appropriate given Connor's background. An uneasy partnership between him and his father leads Connor to explore the Templar philosophy more than any Assassin before him--and the entire opening sequence subverts series expectations and forces players to see the world through Templar eyes, which, as it turns out, aren't so different from the eyes of the Assassins.

Meanwhile, events in Assassin's Creed III build on earlier story elements. At one point, Connor is brought to the gallows; you view the entire episode from his point of view, observing through a thick layer of burlap. It's scarily claustrophobic--and it also recalls the events that put Ezio's story in motion. Ezio watched his father and brothers hang. Assassin's Creed III puts those earlier events in perspective by bringing you even closer to your own demise--and in doing so, builds a connection between these characters that a simple scar cannot. With each development, the series builds its characters, its lore, and its world, allowing the game to stay in your consciousness even when you aren't playing it. Assassin's Creed fans love discussing the endings and the singular moments, seeking meaning and explanation. How wonderful that a series can continue to keep its fans so invested in its fiction.

The interface, the health system, the method by which the game opens up--all of this and more have a reason to exist as they do.

In contrast to the seriousness of Assassin's Creed is the joy of existing in its world. I treasure games that make the simple act of moving about a pleasure, and leaping across rooftops and scaling towers hasn't lost its freshness since the first time I did it in the original Assassin's Creed. Synchronizing the map from the tallest of viewpoints is, for me, the singular Assassin's Creed moment. After the exertion of a long climb, you press that synchronization button and the entire world spins around you as that wonderful musical cue enhances the emotional uplift. (How sad I was that Assassin's Creed III minimized the importance of the synchronizations--and that none of the musical cues were as memorable as in previous games.) Then you make that miraculous, ridiculous leap into a bale of hay or pile of leaves hundreds of feet below. Other games let you fly, but somehow, Assassin's Creed feels even more fantastical: it makes me feel like a man who thinks he can fly.

Ultimately, there's just nothing quite like Assassin's Creed. It's a series that speaks to me, with its straight-faced conspiratorial narrative, and its willingness to pursue aspects of storytelling beyond pure plot points: character development, thematic musings, and stylistic flourishes. (Ezio's smirk, for instance, may seem unimportant, but it's a vital visual aspect of his own story's tonal consistency.) Like my favorite novels and films, the Assassin's Creed series depicts worlds I want to be in, and populates them with people I want to spend time with.

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Written By

GameSpot senior editor Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play Rock Band because he always gets stuck pla

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76 comments
lindallison
lindallison

I like AC too Kev, for the reasons stated in your concluding paragraphs.  I am a sucker for running and jumping, and even though the process is pretty automated in the AC series, the fluidity of using every nook and bump in the environment to make an ascent feels so damn good.  I have fun watching the animation tech in action as much as I enjoy playing the damn game. 

 

But can't feel you on the story there, - AC is so ridiculous and overwritten it's laughable.  The first game crossed the line into self-parody from the start what with its troupe of assassins wearing ridiculous assassin 'uniforms' stabbing folks who then proceed to dump minutes of narrative exposition before dying from a hole in the neck.  Gawd.

 

Not to mention Ubi taking fascinating historical time periods and turning them into mystical Macguffin hunts.  Have the pieces of Eden been revealed as artifacts from outer space yet?  Maybe Atlantis?  I never finished ACII. 

 

Love that running and jumping though.

SandboxAddict
SandboxAddict

Totally agree with the Kev-man. Wonderfull series, which, next to the thief series, i cherrish deep down within. Strange that Dishounered didn't really stick to me. Can't really say why though.

NickPunt636
NickPunt636

I will echo all that previous posters have said.

 

I loved this article. I also feel that Assassin's Creed does something more for me than any other game. I LOVE details. I love playing a game and feeling there wasn't really any way I could've improved it. The story line is so strong, so varied. And the way they build it that you never feel like you're repeating yourself. Or if you are, you don't mind.

 

I can see ways for them to continue this series into the present and who knows, the future? I can't wait to get AC3. 

TheAlmightyCow
TheAlmightyCow

Awesome article! I kind of agree with most of what it says.But AC3 for me was a bit of a disappointment. The story was simplified and they made Desmond this "Normal guy who has no idea what he's doing". In the other games it felt more like Desmond was growing wiser and wiser, and that he understood his purpose. In AC3 they added much more swearing which made Desmond feel like someone I really couldn't relate to at all. (It's not like I hate swearing in video games, it's just that it changed Desmond a hole lot for me) They were trying to hard to make him a "badass". So the Desmond story was a major disappointment for me and I hated the ending.

 

Connor's story however was actually very good. After 3 games with Ezio they still manage to make a new hero and I didn't really miss Ezio that much afterwards.

blackfire
blackfire

Great article. For me the ac series was not in my top tier of games hated ac1 but thought it had potential. Ac2 a huge improvement but didn't care about the story so much. Ac brotherhood awesome. Ac rev. sucked. Ac3 even though it started slow was awesome my favorite in the series. I couldn't stomach another ezio story Conner on the other hand I feel is an excellent character and I hope we get another sub sequel with more Conner and less Desmond its funny even though I liked brotherhood after ac2 I had enough of ezio but I can't wait for more Conner.

adam1808
adam1808

I love Assassin's Creed because history. Putting me in a historical setting is the be all and end all for the series for me. I put up with the sci-fi conceit and the conspiracy theories to get to exist in what is the essential meat of the game, a historical world that you won't find more evocatively rendered in any other medium.

N-bellic
N-bellic

Absolutely fantastic article. Whenever I see Kevin VanOrd's name next to an article/review im always inclined to read it as he always presents his opinion in a logical and cohesive format. It's really great to see a guy who loves his job and it clearly shows up in his work. Keep up the good work Kev!

mwahith
mwahith

bldy well said kevin!!

 

DanteDemon92
DanteDemon92

Couldn't agree more on this Kevin. Definitely the best game series of this console generation in my opinion and possibly yours as well

chechak7
chechak7

Great article by Kevin wonderful words to choose thumb up if you like Kevin opinion 

_Bear
_Bear

Hey Kevin, I too love the game can't wait to enjoy but I opted for the Wii U version. Do you have insight into any differences between the Wii U version and the others? Anything notable? Or is it really just the same.

Your buddy Glenn

jthotty
jthotty

Its like Gamespot has a hard on for Assassins creed.  Like there is no other game being placed.

Greyfeld
Greyfeld

Each game in the series has had its flaws, and each installment has had its defenders and haters.  But at the end of the day, the Assassin's Creed series (as a whole) has one thing that so many video games lack: miles and miles of heart.

 

I may not necessarily like the choices that Ubisoft makes within the industry, but the team that's worked on this series of games have put their heart and soul into it, and it shows from every angle.

SaudiFury
SaudiFury

I couldn't agree more Kevin :)

metal_core
metal_core

yeah.. the AC series has something very special, fresh, intellectual, it's do it by very capable people and you can feel that they put all their effort and heart on it. Nowdays that isn't the way that everything moves around the videogame industry, so its very valuable to me, very few others developers can compare with the work that ubisoft has done with de AC series, Valve comes to my mind, Rockstar too, they aren't the biggest companies, but they have the resources, the talent and the passion, to do the best game experiences.

apolloooo
apolloooo

for me, i really appreciate the effort oh how accurate and plausible the depiction of the story is. they just didn't scramble history and tacked it into the game, they put the game into history. characters, city design, music, etc. AC world is like a runaway for me. for me who doesn't have have time and money to travel, exploring venice, rome, constantinople, boston in AC is really satisfying, because you get to see accurate depiction of landmark, even you live and interact with characters that we'd only be told about in real tourism.

 

of course i still want to go to the real places, and one day if i ever go to these place i'l yell to my friends " Hey look! i climbed this before!! "

 

the series isn't perfect, but as a whole Ac is one of the most memorable series this game.

seanmcloughlin
seanmcloughlin moderator

Really nice article Kevin, but do you realise the sh!t storm you could bring to the comments now about these theories? The way I always see Assassin's Creed is a franchise that has so, so much potential but usually squanders it in areas letting the whole game down just a bit. Still don't think they've made their best AC game or hit upon the magic formula for it. AC II came damn close though.

Scorpid77
Scorpid77

Totally agree with Kevin. AC may have very well my favorite franchise over the years, despite not really liking Altair but understanding his MO, to really loving Ezio's story, to trying to like Connor as the unique hero he is. Above all, I love the historical settings and the enormous care Ubisoft's people have poured over it: you can see that THEY love their games too. I hope the franchise can grow over the years, I'd love to see other ancestors (not necessarily Desmond's, maybe the chinese Yuen seen in AC: Embers). Above all, I hope Ubisoft keep doing a great job, they have my respect.

 

And Kevin nailed it with his statement:  "it makes me feel like a man who thinks he can fly".

bizzySGS
bizzySGS

Mr. VanOrd I just lost a little respect for you because of SOME of the things you said in the beginning of the article.But it's your opinion and no one should try to change it...Also you can't possibly think that AC3 was a good game..At least it's not nearly as good as the AC games that came before it .I felt disappointment combined with a little excitement the whole time I was playing AC3.The worst game in the entire series,period !

omNOMinator
omNOMinator

Really nice one. It was a good read although I have a lot of issues with the development process taken with Assassins Creed games and the outcome which is really just an overweight game full of ridiculously pointless gameplay mechanics. But this article has brought me back to what I loved about this series. I'm gonna forget about the other crap (tower defence, assassin management, bomb making, page collection, area regeneration) and just focus on the great story :)

mikezer0
mikezer0

9/11 was a hoax, though.

eliebaz
eliebaz

not all conspiracy theories are simply theories, and if we were to believe all the rubbish media presents us with then we'd be brainwashed by a sense of misconception that is reality. Although I'm not saying the events of Assassins creed are true but neither is everything we're told. Non the less an enjoyable article

NickPunt636
NickPunt636

 @adam1808 Down to a T.... I love the history, I love doing something and feeling, "This could ACTUALLY have happened!!!"

 

It's why I prefer Forza to NFS, why I prefer Red Dead to GTA. Worlds that feel real... THAT is where I wish more games should go.

Kevin-V
Kevin-V moderator staff

 @jthotty Oh no--we're writing a lot about a major game that just came out!

Slade968
Slade968

 @Greyfeld damn right! 13 more days and i'll finally be able to enjoy this game. I both love and hate you gamespot for dedicating so many articles to it. It's making it hard to wait.

seanmcloughlin
seanmcloughlin moderator

 @bizzySGS MGS4 is the worst MGS game for me but I still think it's a great game. Learn to differentiate the two. Gamers have this habit of "if it lets me down a bit it's downright awful". A game can disappoint and still be a great game. 

bizzySGS
bizzySGS

 @folquet well, If you have low standards good for you.I wish I had low standards too..Maybe I would have enjoyed the game more...I guess I have no right to criticize the developers.It's my own damn fault for getting emotionally invested in a stupid game.I've learned my lesson though.No good ever comes from supporting a franchise you like.Disappointment is inevitable.

bizzySGS
bizzySGS

 @seanmcloughlin I don't think it's a great game at all.I think it's a mediocre game.The majority of the missions were just mediocre and boring and the story had potential and some good moments but it was structured so bad that it made the overall experience seem horrible, despite the few good moments it had.They put all this time and effort into the big environment like the forests,etc, but what good is it if there is absolutely nothing interesting to do in that environment ? I'm sorry but I just don't find hunting rabbits in a video game that enjoyable.... They also didn't did a good job to make me care about the characters...And to be honest,they could have done much better with Desmond's story.. I'm not one of those whiny people who demand their money back when a game doesn't meet their expectations...But I can't stop being sad about my favorite game franchise ending like this..If it's not the last game at least it's the end of Desmond's story.AC turned into LOST the tv series in my opinion.Started out amazing and messed up in the ending.

bizzySGS
bizzySGS

 @folquet  I'm not the one replying to people's comments without being asked.So you reply to MY comment and then you tell ME to get a life because I was polite and replied back ? F*** you

bizzySGS
bizzySGS

 @folquet Maybe...but if you didn't care you should have ignored my comment and minded your own business.

lindallison
lindallison

 @seanmcloughlin  @bizzySGS 

 

Agree wholeheartedly, the animus idea is staggeringly stupid.  I don't prize immersion in games so that didn't bother me, but narratively the animus is awkward and the fictional technology is so out there it grasps empty space and strikes me as a failure of imagination.

 

And its not like the overall narrative was something awesome and just needed to hand-wave some magical tech in order to get off the ground, the whole story arc just flails around and for what? 

 

Some magical Macguffins that are responsible for like, every human accomplishment and religion, ok guys. 

 

The nest was soiled from the start.

 

But dat running and jumping!  So much fun. 

bizzySGS
bizzySGS

 @seanmcloughlin  I see that we liked AC for different reasons.I enjoyed the assassin's and historical references very much but it was the present day storyline that really got me hooked.

seanmcloughlin
seanmcloughlin moderator

 @bizzySGS  @seanmcloughlin The AC story (Desmond's) is bat sh!t crazy anyway, period. There was never going to be a way to tie it all up nicely, sure they could have done better but they also could have done a lot worse. That being said, the end doesn't dictate the journey unless it retcons the entire thing, which it didn't. ME3 had a terrible ending but I still enjoyed the heck out of the journey to that ending. If you didn't enjoy the characters, locations and environments of the frontier then that's fine, that's your opinion. Still doesn't necessarily mean the game is bad, it just doesn't meet your tastes. I still think Assassin's creed should have never had that Animus side of the games at all anyway, Desmond should never have been in it and I would have much preferred a more focused game just as the assassin's. Pulling me from past to present over and over and having the glitches in the matrix type things happen in the main quest always ruined the immersion for me. 

bizzySGS
bizzySGS

 @seanmcloughlin Sorry if I might have some grammar mistakes in my previous comment.It's late and english is my second language.