Success in the triple-A video game space is hard to find, but with Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft hit the jackpot. Every fan and gamer knows the story: a promising first title gave way to a polished and refined sequel, and the publisher has kept annual entries and spin-offs coming ever since.
The story has changed, but the series’ lead writer doesn’t see that as cause for concern. Citing the recent critical success of Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, he believes that the future of the franchise has never been brighter; even if traditional storytelling becomes less and less important.
While fan enthusiasm for the modern day portions of the game – which followed modern-day Assassin Desmond Miles – and the historical memories – Miles’ ancestors – may be somewhat uneven, especially in terms of gameplay, it became clear that the series was, for better or worse, Desmond’s story. But with Desmond now gone, and the developers having claimed that there certainly is an ending for the series in mind, where does the franchise go next?
Speaking with Edge, Darby McDevitt – story and script writer for both Assassin’s Creed: Revelations and Black Flag, as well as other series tie-ins – explained that Ubisoft’s plan for the series has been changing for some time. First, it was the shift from an Abstergo satellite to the end of the world as the event driving the plot, and now it includes stepping away from its former hero:
“The end of the Desmond trilogy changed slightly but it was always intended to end that way. And then about two years ago we planned for another story — there’s been a bit of confusion in that [Black Flag game director Ashraf Ismail] once said that Assassin’s Creed has an ending — that’s not exactly true. This storyline has an ending, but because all of history is open to us we see the universe as a Doctor Who type thing. There are so many possibilities we don’t want to definitively end the universe, but we can have storylines that have endings.”
The fans may debate just how much of an ending Assassin’s Creed 3 really offered, other than removing Desmond’s presence in the overall fiction. The developers left themselves with a wide-open modern setting in which to expand on the mythology of the Animus, the Assassins, and the Templars.
That being said, the surprisingly successful response to the pirate theme of Black Flag is already building buzz that Ubisoft might consider launching it as a standalone series, tied to the core AC fiction in a less pronounced fashion. But even if Ubisoft chooses to “end” that particular story – and Black Flag left hero Edward Kenway with more than enough sequel potential – they’re faced with a new problem: make another naval title, or tailor the next story to include it due to its popularity?
It’s grounds for a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ deseign dilemma – or is it? According to McDevitt, the next game won’t need to be a pirate tale to build on the breakthrough:
“There’s often ways to creatively use old technology for new things. One of the things that made ACIII’s naval combat possible — and then of course ACIV — is that we were able to have characters climb and walk around on dynamically moving objects. With ACIII we started working on that technology and it fed into the naval combat because the boats are constantly moving as opposed to being fixed to the ground, so all of this technology, it might appear in future games — it might just not be on boats. It might appear in a completely different way.”
We can’t even begin to imagine what other forms the core gameplay of Black Flag could take, but it’s good to know the developers are up to the task. Especially since the success with which Black Flag‘s open world fed into the story experience, challenging players to live as Edward Kenway would have, not wasting hours as the -always-pressed-for-time Ezio Auditore.
It might sound surprising to hear it coming from a writer, but McDevitt sees the gameplay of Black Flag doing much of the work as a good thing, and something players will likely see more of in the coming years:
“I think that the future of open world storytelling is actually more experimental than people give it credit for… I’ve always looked at something like Joyce’s Ulysses as the model, where you don’t focus on plot so much as world building and character over a driving, focused single person narrative. And you focus on making sure the character matches the theme as closely as possible so that when the player goes off on his or her own, it feels in character.
“I think we hit that pretty well in Black Flag. I was less interested in driving the plot forward and more into making the player feel like a pirate — this theme of constant acquisition that’s so common in games fits the setting so well.”
The development team has already claimed that the perpetual, MMO-like world of Watch_Dogs will be blazing a trail for the rest of Ubisoft’s franchises, so how it will work to help the singleplayer experience, not just multiplayer will be interesting to see.
Of course, one can’t bring up the future of Assassin’s Creed without descending into conspiracy theories or speculation. But anyone pointing to the Abstergo Entertainment emails suggesting future settings may want to relax, as McDevitt owns up to giving the community a taste of its own medicine:
“The email thread that’s in the game, I wrote that very swiftly in an afternoon… the time periods I picked were not necessarily the ones we were considering, it was just me parodying the ones that the fans had asked for back to them. So the fans generated that list, we didn’t generate that list.
“I will say that fans definitely think alike. We have the same goals for the series, let’s say. I’ll leave it at that. We always want to surprise.”
What are your hopes for the next Assassin’s Creed game given how much Black Flag got right? Have any theories on what the studio could be up to next, or is it too soon to even speculate? Apparently we might be in store for not one, but two sequels this year, so who knows what’s possible.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.