Mantling the Challenges of Writing Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Lead writer Darby McDevitt shares some insight about bearing the narrative standard for one of gaming's biggest story-driven franchises.

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There are few franchises in the video game world with the narrative ambition of Assassin's Creed. Steeped in history and replete with intriguing characters, these games set a high bar for the role of writing in video games. But what does it take to create a video game story on such a grand scale? After all, writing a great story is tough enough when you're writing for a noninteractive reader or viewer; what changes when you want your audience to be an active participant in your work? We talked to Darby McDevitt, the lead writer on numerous Assassin's Creed games (most recently, Revelations), about how one goes about writing for a game as formidable as Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.

A Very Good Place to Start

As you might imagine, given the historical nature of the AC series, it all starts with research. McDevitt confessed he had no special interest in pirates, mentioning only the 1950 Disney movie adaptation of Treasure Island when describing his personal experience with the oft-romanticized privateers. This left him with few preconceptions to set aside before diving into books on the subject. "The first book on piracy [in history] is called The General History of Pyrates, published in 1724, which was only six years after Blackbeard died, and it's the central source of all these golden age pirates. It was a best-seller at the time, and it's written in a very archaic, early-18th-century style." Though the dry prose made it a bit tough to read, McDevitt admits, it provided a solid historical foundation, as well as an interesting typographic detail: The book followed the German style of capitalizing all nouns, a flourish Ubisoft will be adding to the subtitles of ACIV.

Though Pyrates was useful, the most influential book the team read was The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard. Published just five years ago, this tome provided the solution to one of the critical problems facing McDevitt and his team. How do they justify the fact that protagonist Edward Kenway seems to know every big-name pirate of the era? "We didn't want you to feel like Forrest Gump where you're like, 'Oh, I'm just hopping around, hanging out with all the famous pirates!' How is it that Edward has their phone numbers?"

"We didn't want you to feel like Forrest Gump where you're like, 'Oh, I'm just hopping around, hanging out with all the famous pirates!'"

As it turns out, there was a place where these famous pirates hung out from about 1714 to 1718: Nassau, a city on a small island in the Bahamas, due east of the southern tip of Florida. "They wanted to make it into a kind of quasi-democratic republic, their own little country," McDevitt said. The Nassau that Republic describes was essentially a hub world for pirates like Blackbeard, "Calico Jack" Rackham, and Charles Vane, making it the perfect place for Kenway to meet them all. Just like that, the problem of inserting a fictional character into this particular historical context got a whole lot easier. Republic was such a boon to the writing team that they even contracted Woodard to join them on the development team.

It's Kind of Like a Movie

There are certain elements of writing that are universal, no matter what medium you work in. A compelling character is a compelling character, and the building blocks McDevitt cited apply across the board. "I try to come up with their backgrounds, [and make sure] all characters have something they want at the time. There's good advice I heard a long time ago that all dialogue sequences should be a competition between characters. Everyone always wants something. If you think about dialogue in those terms, then you can always write really interesting situations. If you know your characters well and if you know what they want in life and in that moment, then you can bring them to life pretty well."

This approach to dialogue is echoed across books and films, and in fact, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut advised aspiring writers that "every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water." But while writers may draw on the same basic principles, their audiences come to expect different things in different media. Critical and public reception of video game writing can vary wildly, and McDevitt observed that there often seems to be disagreement about what actually constitutes "good writing."

"Is it a good plot that has lots of cool twists and turns like, say, a movie like The Usual Suspects? Is good writing really beautiful writing, like a James Joyce or Herman Melville novel? Is good writing really snappy dialogue, like an Elmore Leonard or Raymond Chandler book or Quentin Tarantino movie?"

Is it a good plot if it has whales in it?

The term "writing," then, becomes a broad umbrella under which many different elements fall, some of which may not even be fully in the writer's control. It's not unheard of for a development team to lay out the skeleton plot without even consulting a writer and then hire one on to flesh the story out once development is under way. For Assassin's Creed IV, McDevitt has a substantial degree of control from the get-go, so what does he prioritize in his writing?

"Because I have a real deep interest in a lot of modernist literature and Irish literature, I want some beautiful writing. I want really rich, robust characters with amazing voices. That's what I try to bring to it. I also want to try to bring other things. But I might try to steer away from the easy, snappy one-liners if I can get in much deeper characters."

And as anyone who has played Assassin's Creed: Revelations can attest, McDevitt has had some success in this endeavor. Returning characters Ezio, Desmond, and Altair, as well as newcomer Sophia, were intriguing, likable, and engrossing presences that propelled Revelations' story to its startling conclusion, and the cutscenes featuring these characters lived up to the series' standard of delivering high-quality cinematic experiences.

It's Not Like a Movie at All

Yet for all the similarities between films and games, there are some serious differences to contend with as part of the creative process. Even the most cinematic of gaming moments must remain firmly rooted in the medium. "We treat a lot of [our writing] like cinema, no different, except that our philosophy, especially my philosophy for this game, is that I have to end a lot of these scenes with a clear gameplay objective. It has to be like, 'let's steal that ship' or 'let's do this physical thing that the player can now say I know how to accomplish that through the gameplay mechanics.'"

"What's easy in cinema is sometimes the complete opposite of what's easy in a video game."

From the player's perspective, this seems like a no-brainer. If the cutscene offers some new discovery or otherwise furthers the plot, the player expects that new information to translate into a new mission objective. This means the scene must contain a plot point, and any character development must be structured around this node in the story web, leaving little chance for the kind of idle, yet revealing, scene that books and movies often use to flesh out interpersonal relationships and character motives. This kind of consideration requires that the writer be ever mindful of his or her medium, something McDevitt reinforced later in the conversation.

"What's easy in cinema is sometimes the complete opposite of what's easy in a video game. So, for instance, if I said I wanted a shot of 15 people sitting around being drunk, that seems so easy to shoot in the cinema: you just get 15 guys; they all act drunk; done. In a video game, if all those were unique characters, it would be impossible because you'd run out of memory. You couldn't display 15 unique characters all on the screen at once."

Jungle ambushes are easier to create when you don't need to track down the most sure-footed stuntman on the planet.

And if you could, the effort that goes into animating them all to be convincing drunks far outstrips the effort required to get a bunch of people to act inebriated. Even a seasoned scriptwriter like McDevitt still runs up against unexpected limitations.

"I'm always bewildered when I'm writing a script and I show it to the cinematics team and I go, 'It's just a guy. He starts crying, and a single tear rolls down his cheek.' And they're like, 'Darby, that's gonna take eight weeks to make! We can't make single tears!' You always have to be careful what you ask for. That's why we have this process of script reviews. They go over it with a fine-tooth comb."

This kind of collaboration is absolutely crucial to the progress of development, and it's something McDevitt and his writing team go through every day, since they are "constantly balancing gameplay needs and story needs." This imperative goes far beyond simply making cutscenes end with a clear objective; it governs every gameplay section as the writers and mission designers ("the second-in-command of story") work together to determine how the game will play out.

"It's like Jackie Chan writing a movie with his fight choreographers, you know?"

"I'll say, 'This mission starts here and has to end up with this guy dead.' Then I work really closely with them to find out what gameplay happens in the middle so that the player feels like he's playing through a story. We wrangle all those gameplay mechanics, and we say, 'What can we do? We can sail, we can shoot, we can climb, we can jump, we can tail, we can chase…' You come up with all those verbs, and you string them together into cool combinations so hopefully you're telling the story at the same time as you're doing cool gameplay."

Of course, even the best working relationships have miscommunications from time to time, and even after 13 years in the industry, McDevitt still encounters disconnects. He gave an example of a gameplay scenario in which the designer might take a building that was going to be underwater and set it on fire instead. "In their minds, they're like, 'It's better gameplay,' and they're probably right, but a lot of times, you're like, 'How does that actually change the narrative?'"

"It's almost as if you were writing a movie, but you were writing it with the fight choreographers. It's like Jackie Chan writing a movie with his fight choreographers, you know? That would be a super-fun movie."

Discussion

355 comments
shakydvs010
shakydvs010

Just hurry up and make an off shoot series based in China/Japan/Asian!!! 

G4mBi7
G4mBi7

Yea, not buying AC4, the quality with each iteration is on  a serious decline, even if this game gets a 10, there is only so much i can deal with when paying 69.99 for an incomplete game then being asked to pay 14.99-19.99 for each DLC which gives a little piece of what should have come with the main purchase. I liked AC3 but it was soo damn short and there was no replay value, now i know why. They took out half the game and blatantly called it AC4. No wonder the Desmond parts were fillers with a terrible ending.

footbasller
footbasller

no mater how good they are in sword fighting , ubisoft can never beat God Of War 


rIVAL_sWORD84
rIVAL_sWORD84

Assassin's Creed had a very good sword fighting mechanics .. Ubisoft is always the best in it, like they did in prince of persia...  i hope they make a game on zorro my alltime classic favourate...  a big fan of Assassin's Creed series...  i will buy anyday any new sequel 

curtisjunior101
curtisjunior101

Im not interested in intellectual masturbation. this kind of conversation can continue like this forever "this swords is better that sword is better" etc the fact of the matter is no one will ever know everyone will have some kind of study special study which quite frankly im not interested in, maybe they are not the best kind of sword but the way they were wielded in my personal opinion is of genius, even if the way they were wielded is exaggerate.. back to topic, I agree that London would be good, especially as that's were i live, however i do think it would be slightly stale and maybe have slightly the same feel as the Americas? what do you think?

TheDamisos
TheDamisos

This is the kind of project I want to be in, where the story is the most important thing.

That´s why is my favourite games and a inspiration for my work.

Thanks for the article.

dstv
dstv

So wait its ok to hate on Cod because they flood the market with the same game.... year after year but...when assassin's creed does it oh they're awesome 

-gamer mentality

gurkagunner
gurkagunner

Still trying to catch up on these titles!

I have always loved pirates so looking forward to this title but I still don't think it will match the experience of assassins creed 2

nanquan72
nanquan72

Wow. Free Willy.

I just can't get excited about this game after so many years of licking my lips over AC releases. I will be glad when Ubisoft leaves the Americas and takes this game somewhere new. Am I the only AC fan left that thinks the first was the best because it was set in the Medieval period...the correct setting for the 'assassins'? ACII was very good as well. Plenty of scope left with the Moguls in India or any Islamic nation against the west. Plenty of room to give the Muslims the upper hand too, as they did in taking European slaves for hundreds of years in the Mediterranean and English/Irish coastline.

Now there's a setting. North Africa!

Sardinar
Sardinar

I can't get myself to hate this franchise too much, even with the excessive amount of sequels. The amount of work put into each game for accuracy and atmosphere is quite tremendous. 

Nevertheless, this game lacks any novelty it had before all the constant releases, so it's not for me. It's a sure thing for anyone who plays games just to pass the time, though.

prodigest
prodigest

so this isn't an expansion game, this is the actual sequel to AC3?

SythisTaru
SythisTaru

Regardless of what people say about the AC game's, they are pretty much the only games which cause me to open up google and search for different historical building/events on a regular basis, and that is pretty amazing for a video game to do.

JamesThePrince
JamesThePrince

There's always that person that wants to cut down the apple tree because it drops bad apples.I'm always gonna love the apple tree no matter what kind of apples it drops. :) hence the Apple tree being AC series :) 

Bayonetta2013
Bayonetta2013

*money-driven* 

I won't be picking this one up, at least until I see a walkthrough. ACIII was a huge disappointment to me, and the fact that this game is almost done alarms me.

eminent2star
eminent2star

I am an AC fanboy so i'll love anything they come up with although i have to say i was a real let down by AC3 that said i'm still getting my hopes up for October.

Baelath
Baelath

"This approach to dialogue is echoed across books and films, and in fact, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut advised aspiring writers that 'every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.'"

I was surprised when I saw this familiar phrase in the article! It's so true, and so note-worthy. I'm impressed this was talked about, and now I'm eager to see if McDevitt adheres to Vonnegut.

Benzo396
Benzo396

@petez34 thank you, for a minute I thought I was the only one who felt that way. It was terrible!

Benzo396
Benzo396

@hydrobeast that's very true and to be honest God of War had some level of button combos to accomplish a certain move set and it is fun; however, the last game "Ascension" went completely simplistic on me and turned into a button masher which usually isn't my preference. Batman is a helluva of a game bro and it's by far one of my favorites. I'm trying to unlock stuff in both Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. In fact, when I need a break from COD it's my got to game Playing Batman on harder difficult levels means precision combos to unlock challenges. I understand they're trying open the game to newcomers to the series, but I expected the same combo mechanics maybe a few tweaks, but a complete overhaul of the mechanics where I do the exact same thing every time I get into a fight. You have to admit the redundancy was annoying.

Benzo396
Benzo396

AC III was a complete let down for me. It's the first AC game that I had no desire to go back and replay. I hated the fact they made the combat system so simplistic because it insulted my ability as a gamer. The story was ok, but I hated they failed to make a connection between the installments. At least we saw how the connection was made between Altair and Ezio. This was a disappointment because they continued to use the memories of Desmond who had a connection to the other characters. McDevitt please fix the inconsistencies and save one of the games that I love and look forward to every year. I'll be your best friend!! Very Respectfully, Benzo396

Benzo396
Benzo396

AC III was a complete let down for me. It's the first AC game that I had no desire to go back and replay. I hated the fact they made the combat system so simplistic because it insulted my ability as a gamer. The story was ok, but I hated they failed to make a connection between the installment. At least we saw how the connection between Altair and Ezio which is something they missed in AC III. McDevitt please save one of the games that I love and look forward to every year. I'll be your best friend!!

Samal Ac
Samal Ac

I love Assassins creed IV black flak

TohouAsura
TohouAsura

I don't know if this guy worked on AC3 or not, as it doesn't say, but whoever wrote AC3 was a dinglebell moron and I question any skill he has in writing.

AC3 has one of the shallowest, weakest and uninteresting stories i've ever seen. Connor was boring to tears, absolutely no character development whatsoever, just a naive and stupid child that gets angry and fooled by everything and anything.

The setting itself was completely wasted and didn't involve me in it in the slightest bit. Washington was promised to be interesting yet whatever screentime you had of him was pretty wasteful and gave nothing about his character.

As for the Modern setting, oh wow. Desmond's character has gotten even worse, getting random teenage tandems out of nowhere, always clueless about what he's doing and that retarded ending, ME3 without the choices. Brilliant.

I hope whoever wrote AC3 has absolutely no involvement whatsoever in the new iteration.

petez34
petez34

I just farted. I'll let you know how things turn out.

ValHazzard
ValHazzard

one of the best series ever, even though III was unpolished and a bit of a letdown I still enjoyed it and I hope this one gets the polish it deserves because it's a great setting ... I can't wait.

noigel
noigel

It is ironic that the writer of the bunch of plot holes that simulate the story of ACRevelations and the guy who gave a 6.5 to the action game with the best story of the gaming industry (Spec Ops: The Line) discuss about the importance of good and engaging writing... 

G4mBi7
G4mBi7

@rIVAL_sWORD84 key word is HAD. . GOW and POP had the best mechanics, AC 1 and 2 were truly amazing, but a monkey could play AC now. 0 skill.

BAMM17
BAMM17

@dstv But Assassin's Creed doesn't flood the market with the same game, they do it would good games so yes that is fine by me

prodigest
prodigest

@SythisTaru 

agreed, AC actually helped me with my Art History class because a lot of the buildings that are covered in the text, I already knew good bit about them form the game. And my mom always said video games couldn't teach me anything.

BAMM17
BAMM17

@Bayonetta2013 As always there's someone who didn't do their research. Huh...this game has been in development for around 2 years now, still has like 5 months to go, blah blah blah. When a game is made by a company as big as Ubisoft, they don't have to wait till the end of one game to start development on a new one. I just feel really bad for Ubisoft's AC teams right now cause awesome games like ACIII get trashed by "fans" and they have throw all that hard work away. I just hope they bring Connor back sometime.

SythisTaru
SythisTaru

@Benzo396 I was disappointed with it too...but I can't exactly figure out why. I think in the end, it actually came down to Jesper Kyd's music not being in the game to help immerse me, and I'm serious about that. Everything else was (almost) exactly what I had expected/wanted.

JJB03
JJB03

@Benzo396 I too was rather disappointed with AC3, the quality of the game was inferior to two and its spin offs and the level of character depth was disappointing too. I don't even know how the characters lacked interest in 3 to be honest, it seemed that Conners supporting characters just didn't get enough screen time and I found myself being more fond of the antagonists than Conner, whom I found to be a rather boring and lifeless character in most instances (not all but most) compared to his farther who seemed to be much less of a chore to engage with.

hydrobeast
hydrobeast

@Benzo396 what is wrong with a simple combat system. Batman arkham series and God of War have simple combat sytems but fighting is still as fun as hell

Shanks_D_Chop
Shanks_D_Chop

@TohouAsura I did a quick check on AC3's Wiki page, can't see this dude's name on there.

Another quick check, Corey May is the dude you want. Responsible for the main three and oversaw the rest. Other things he's worked on? Starts to make a lot of sense. It ain't a very good list.

petez34
petez34

@TohouAsura Nicely put, but you forgot to touch on the simplified gameplay and combat. I really hope they drastically improve it. 

Kickable
Kickable

@noigel Spec Ops The Line didn't have much else going for it other than the story.  Even that was overrated imo

Bayonetta2013
Bayonetta2013

@BAMM17 @Bayonetta2013 I don't consider myself a huge "fan" of Assassin's Creed. I've enjoyed a few of the games here and there, but after the hype of ACIII and how it was supposed to be a "revolution" in and of itself, I think I have a lot of reasons to be disappointed. 

Also, you assume I meant that the game's near-completion was a result of the project being started after ACIII. Actually, you're assuming a lot of things from my comment. 

Who needs to do their research again?

TohouAsura
TohouAsura

@Shanks_D_Chop I saw it too. LOL, worked on PoP, which was OK at best, and that POS The Plague. Literally nothing else, guy came out of nowhere.

TohouAsura
TohouAsura

@petez34 I thought this article was on story writing, hench why adressed that solely. AC3 has many problems other than that, to be sure.

SythisTaru
SythisTaru

@Kickable @noigel Maybe it was because I got spec ops for 3.99 on Steam, but it completely blew me away when I played it. The story worked well for me because I'm someone who would have **spoilers** used the white phosphorous mortars if I was in the same situation ** ** so I didn't have any problem with the lack of choice that many people complained about.

BAMM17
BAMM17

@Bayonetta2013 @BAMM17 Well the way you stated your comment, it "alarms" you that it's almost complete, comes off as you thinking the team spent too little time on it and too many gamers think that these games are rushed out so Ubisoft can make quick money, when in fact the AC team spends a lot of time and effort developing these games. I was just letting you know they in fact spent plenty of time on it, just incase you didn't know.


petez34
petez34

@TohouAsura haha. sry, wasn't writing to you, misdirected comment.

Kickable
Kickable

@SythisTaru @Kickable @noigel maybe the hype killed it for me, I guess I only have myself to blame for that.  it definately had a few spectacular parts like that and near the end but even a great story isn't enough to carry a shooter that is just average in the most important part, gameplay.  I would give it a 7.5, but I'm not surprised someone gave it a 6.5