Whether you’re talking about video games, films, books, music, or burgers, large franchises are perhaps best described by their resistance to change. Hit on something the public really enjoys, then repeat. And repeat. Innovation and originality are risky, new ideas might fail, so it’s good business sense to avoid fixing things that just ain’t broke. Big sellers lead to smart capitalism, which leads to more big sellers; a triple-A dynasty is born. In the last ten years there have been nine games released in the core Assassin’s Creed series — as well as eleven spin-off titles — and it’s often the subject of some ire from folks who resent the games industry being quite so corporate and commercial.
That said, unlike your average Uncharted, Pokemon or Call of Duty — which, from title to title, are still mostly about acrobatic set-pieces, cockfighting and gun porn, respectively — what Assassin’s Creed used to be does not describe what it is. The series has been infected with what was once a collection of disparate ideas that coalesced into something more directed. Like a cordyceps fungus, this mass of unfinished half-thoughts, brought on by blockbuster-level feature creep and more than a little hubris, snuck into the essential DNA and hollowed out everything not vital to its own survival.
Right from the beginning, these games had a story to tell. They were going to push their chosen narrative down your throat, no matter the cost, regardless of how heavy-handed it needed to be, with however many science-fiction fudges and nested framing devices it took to get the job done. Telling the grand tale of Templars vs Assassins always felt more important than letting people actually play the game, which heavily contributed to the series’ ongoing dissonance between the mechanics of acting as a deadly, shadow-clad assassin and the hamfisted realities of dying targets dumping pages of exposition and those mandatory cinematic escape scenes. Guiding the player through the plot got in the way of the mechanical goals, to the point where even a sprawling open world felt like a railroaded experience. The second game increased the scale, but doubled down on complicated — and entirely linear — story elements that actively worked against the idea of a game about assassins. Assassin’s Creed 2 also added a whole list of new bells and whistles, most of which were simply designed to distract the player.
By the time Brotherhood rolls around, something interesting begins to happen. Superfluous though it may have been, the idea of rebuilding Rome (evolved from the base reconstruction sideline in game two) was a compelling one, even if there was nothing thematically linking it to anything in the narrative itself. You grow to care about the city through all those historical tidbits fed from the future, then players cement their stake in that time and space by taking an active role in how it develops.
In Revelations, a couple of new tricks emerged from the primordial idea soup: tower defense, and character-driven moments. The former was a dead-end evolution, of course; the defence sections in Revelations weren’t bad, they just didn’t add anything particularly compelling, and the inexorable march of somewhat-natural selection let them die. In the case of the latter, Revelations spends quite a lot of time shaping and molding the finer details of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a process as delightful as it is unnecessary. Ezio’s light-hearted and genuine interactions with bookshop owner Sofia Sartor in Constantinople in 1511 are some of the most memorable isolated moments in the series, despite having no bearing on any Future War or Alien Artifact Hunt beyond the fact that Sofia is Desmond Miles’ great grandsomething. Previous games treated their characters as mere plot donkeys, lugging important information and events from scene to scene until they collapsed and quietly died in the corner. Now there was a new meme replicating inside the body of Assassin’s Creed.
This iterative mutation — happening independently of, but parallel to, the directed process of game development — comes to a head in Black Flag, when the beast within finally begins to exert real control over Assassin’s Creed. Aside from an intriguing (but ultimately pointless) conceit about an evil games development company, Black Flag is the story of a pirate named Edward Kenway and his very pirate-themed adventures with other pirates in a rather pirate-focused time period and location. The game telegraphs this shift away from focusing on the series’ own plot very early, when Kenway actually steals the uniform from a real assassin after (quite easily) killing the man. Assassin’s Creed dies along with him, but just the brain.
There are Assassins, and Templars; the future is still strip mining the memories of the past; you still wander around historical locations, meet famous people and stab them with a tricksy hidden blade. But it’s all hollowed out inside, replaced with piratical antics, stories of loss and greed, and naval combat. Even so, the parasite is crafty and cautious, it knows that if you mess with the formula that made the money in the first place it could kill the flow of investment that allows it to live. Talk to someone who was skeptical of the series before Black Flag and they might tell you it’s a welcome change from what’s usually offered; speak to a big fan and they might say it’s a worthy addition and evolution of the series.
Every second generation or so there are regressive attempts by the host organism to reassert control. Assassin’s Creed III and Unity rolled more like classic Creed, and the result is a by-the-numbers rehashing of old ideas in new clothes. Feeding frozen vegetables to players after giving them a taste of freshly-picked.
Syndicate represents a symbiotic victory for the series. With its dual protagonists (each with their own disparate motives and goals), focused narrative, territorial gang warfare and streamlined traversal system, it’s hard to shake the feeling you’re not playing the same set of games anymore. In fact, if I described a game in which squabbling twins take back Victorian London from a tyrannical, tea-drinking madman by running their own gang, befriending Charles Darwin and grapple-hooking over the top of Buckingham Palace, you’d be forgiven for guessing it was something else entirely.
Even though that concept, divorced from the quagmire of Assassin’s Creed, would get more than a few brains buzzing, it would never have been made if it wasn’t part of the series. What was once a loose bundle of mechanics and concepts may now have morphed into an game all on its own, but it carries the shell of the host on its back. Short sequences — now relegated to simple, infrequent cutscenes — remind you that this is still a story about the fate of the world and a race to beat evil. Even though it isn’t. Missions still revolve around killing important targets, except when they don’t, which is often. Characters discuss important series lore like Templars and Pieces of Eden, but there’s nothing vital to the narrative or characters that requires these nods. They’re vestigial.
Assassin’s Creed is often viewed as some sort of lumbering beast, wading through the gaming landscape, unperturbed by criticism, shortcomings or zeitgeist. However, it’s more accurate to see it as a series of parents and children sharing genetic traits through the ages. And all the while, this blockbuster bloodline has been incubating something else — a fragile thought bubble hidden behind the impenetrable armour of hardcore capitalism. It’s enough to make even the most cynical person consider the potential value of something as hideously commercial as a game franchise. And make them wonder where this superficially unchanging series might go in the future. Assassin’s Creed is dead, long live Assassin’s Creed.