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Press Pause: Why 'Assassin's Creed' needs a narrative refresh

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Assassins Creed Unity

While strolling along the rooftops of Paris in Assassin’s Creed Unity, a strange thing happened. My roommate, whose video game life in our apartment began and ended with a two-week Kim Kardashian: Hollywood binge, watched me play the game for a few minutes.

So I hopped along from roof to sign post and up the side of a church, and she began to ask me a few questions about the game. Where was I? French Revolution-era Paris, I responded. Am I an assassin or fighting assassins? I am the one who assassinates, to lift Walter White’s phrasing. What is my character in such a rush to do?

And I had to pause. Do I explain the mythology uniting the franchise about a centuries-long battle, the frame story about a company called Abstergo that uses genetics to explore the past for nefarious purposes, or the tale of protagonist Arno during the French revolution?

I simply told her, “He’s just going to assassinate some guy.”

The story of Assassin’s Creed is anything but that simple, however, and the struggles of holding to such a convoluted mythos are beginning to wear thin.

Spoilers for the Assassin’s Creed franchise and first hour of AC: Unity‘s plot follow.

The general structure of each Creed game has remained the same. A present-day frame story centers around Abstergo, a company run by the Templars, trying to meddle with the past to discover the traces of an ancient species that pre-dates humanity. Then there’s the inner story, which, in each game, centers on a different assassin in a unique period in time (the American Revolution, the Italian Renaissance, etc.) who may help to uncover that species’ secrets while also dealing with his or her own story.

Oh, and these historically set tales are seen through a machine that allows the user to access their ancestors’ memories and experience a history that includes Nostradamus, a fistfight with a pope, and what appears to be the Garden of Eden, firsthand. It’s all convoluted, confusing, and, at this point, unnecessary.

The first five Assassin’s Creed games focused on Desmond Miles, a character who, at the end of Assassin’s Creed III (which is technically the fifth main game in the franchise), dies in the hopes of foiling Abstergo’s plan.

But, he doesn’t. Abstergo continues along its plot for world domination or greed or to exact revenge on the guy who bullied Johnny Abstergo during recess. So in Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag, Abstergo has won, but the player, a new, faceless protagonist, is attempting to ruin their goals from the inside. But the plot lacks the needs momentum or urgency of its predecessors.

In Assassin’s Creed Unity, the player is yet another nameless face inside Abstergo, tasked by rebel outliers to help take down the company from inside its halls. But at least Black Flag added a knowing wink to these proceedingsAbstergo pokes fun at Ubisoft, the company developing and publishing the franchise. Even if the story didn’t quite matter in Black Flag, breaking the fourth wall added a fresh element to the proceedings.

The modern day plot feels shoehorned into Unity, Abstergo’s place in the game or the universe’s previous events seemingly irrelevant to my actions. Even if Desmond’s story had some issues in the earlier games, it provided a connective tissue, and the historical narratives offered intriguing enough character motivations and arcs to retain interest. The game’s latest assassin, Arno, at least initially, does little to compare to his predecessors like Ezio Auditorie and Altaïr ibn-La’Ahad.

Arno joins the Brotherhood of Assassins not out of wanting to learn their ways, but to find help in avenging his father’s death. And that death receives a big spotlight at first, but it disappears as Arno loses himself among the streets of Paris. Death is a powerful motivating factor, but so far, it’s little more than a jumping-off point. There’s hope for Arno’s story as I continue the game, but neither it or the modern-day frame have taken enough advantage of the franchise’s strengths, or even try to capitalize on its peculiarities.

It might simply be time for the series to stop worrying about continuity. I remained invested in the frame story more than most seemed to as the series progressed, but now it feels so ancillary to the experience that I question its inclusion.

Abstergo has, at least for now, won. It’s won in its attempts for power, and it’s won in making me want to skip the framing to explore more of Paris. Unity is an absolutely gorgeous game, one filled with impressively detailed locales and side mission after side mission to complete, along with new concepts like time jumps and multiplayer assassinations.

But the story of Assassin’s Creed now runs through more than 10 games–it’s about as stretched as thin as the ridiculous story of another series I love, Kingdom Hearts. There doesn’t seem to be any end in sight, either, with two full entries in the franchise releasing this year, and even on the same day.

Trying to explain the Creed universe to an outsider isn’t only impractical, but it feels pointless. When some of the game’s most significant elements have been turned from (admittedly amusing) self-parody gags to little more than window dressing, I begin to wonder why I should care. The story’s intricate deviations and ideas blending religious, societal, and political ideals into a fun hodgepodge of human history excited me at first. Now it just feels like a distraction from the Parisian setting that, so far, I can’t stop exploring.

Assassin’s Creed can just focus on historical adventures that will have history teachers simultaneously thrilled and horrified by, and focus on making one memorable story, not two forgettable ones. And then maybe I won’t have to sit my roommate down for 30 minutes to explain things to her.