Assassin’s Creed: Unity makes a lot of changes to the franchise’s traditional approach to storytelling – and that’s a good thing. Spoilers ahead.
Credit where credit’s due
The story of Assassin’s Creed: Unity was penned by creative director Alexandre Amancio, main writer Travis Stout and narrative and cinematic director Sylvain Bernard, while scriptwriting was handled by Stout, Russell Lees, Darby McDevvitt and Ceri Young. Jeffrey Yohalem wrote the story of the Dead Kings DLC.
Watch for their future projects, and check out their credits on GiantBomb’s wiki by clicking their names above.
Assassin’s Creed: Unity doesn’t involve Desmond Miles or even an unnamed Abstergo employee. There’s no faffing about in the real world, something I personally quite regret, as I enjoyed it a great deal. But maybe, after all, it’s a good thing for the series as a whole.
When I included the omission of meta-narrative sequences in my list of things I love to hate about Assassin’s Creed: Unity, I hadn’t yet completed the main story line or begun investigating side content, so I reserved final judgment. I’ve now come to the end of Arno’s tale, and had a go at some of the rift quests, and I’m ready to say: I think the change has been an overall positive one, even though I miss the modern-day sections.
SPOILER ALERT – The plot of Assassin’s Creed: Unity
Assassin’s Creed: Unity is set after Abstergo commercialises the Animus technology as Helix, a video game system which allows users to relive history for entertainment and education. When you fire the game up for the first time, it presents a series of screens and a menu which contextualise this, putting you, the player, in the role of a Helix user.
You kick off with a tutorial prologue set during King Phillip’s purge of the Templars, but soon after that an agent of the Assassins breaks in, and informs you that Abstergo is using the Helix to highjack your brain’s processing power for its own ends as well as present a false account of history. Rather than continue on, she suggests you work for the Assassins.
If you’re not familiar with the Assassin’s Creed meta-narrative, the Templars eventually became giant evil mega-corporation Abstergo, with plans to rule the world and destroy personal liberty, among other unpleasant goals. One of the ways it tries to do this is by recovering relics of the Precursors, a powerful race that inhabited Earth before human history. The Assassins work to defy Abstergo.
In terms of the ongoing plot of the Assassin’s Creed series, this entry is pretty missable. On the one hand, I find this a bit unsatisfying, because I’m interested and invested in the Assassin’s Creed universe. On the other hand, there are a lot of advantages to this approach, and I think Ubisoft would be right to employ it more often than not.
In Unity, your job as an Assassins initiate is to help track down the body of a sage, an individual with a lot of precursor DNA which could help Abstergo achieve its end by granting them access to more memories about Precursor technology. The Assassins have no idea where the body is, but one Assassin ancestor, Arno Dorian, might have killed him. You play through Arno’s life, exploring snippets of memory harvested from traces of his DNA, hoping to find the bit where Arno disposes of the body.
In the end, it turns out it’s super well hidden, and there’s tea, crumpets and medals all round. Even if Abstergo harvests the same memories, they won’t get to the body. It’s a no-score win for the Assassins.
In terms of the ongoing plot of the Assassin’s Creed series, this entry is pretty missable. Nothing in particular was achieved. Yes, a Templar threat was disarmed – or rather, discovered to be non-existent – but no points were scored on either side in the ongoing battle between the two factions.
On the one hand, I find this a bit unsatisfying, because I’m interested and invested in the Assassin’s Creed universe. On the other hand, there are a lot of advantages to this approach, and I think Ubisoft would be right to employ it more often than not (but not every time!) when moving forward. Let’s break it down.
1. Unity works really well as a stand-alone story.
You don’t need to know anything about previous Assassin’s Creed games in order to play and understand what’s going on in Unity. The basic concepts (you can explore memories; there are people called Sages whose corpses are valuable; Templars are bad) are explained in the opening moments, and are all you need to know.
This has advantages for new players joining the franchise for the first time, of course, but it also means that returning players don’t have to have remembered every single detail of the twisting plot of the previous games in order to follow what’s going on. The whole thing is self-contained and straightforward, and as a lot of players complained about Assassin’s Creed’s science fiction plot in the past, that’s probably a good thing – even if it’s not as mentally satisfying as those of us who enjoyed that aspect would like.
2. The canon is protected.
Unity doesn’t add anything to the ongoing meta-narrative, but it also doesn’t take anything away. It doesn’t make any additions to the universe that would cause problems for later stories. It doesn’t introduce a new world-ending threat which Ubisoft would have to one-up next time, eventually leading the franchise into a farce.
If every Assassin’s Creed game has to contribute to a story spanning several entries and still deliver its own climactic pay-off at the end, you’re going to end up with a lot of bad writing.
If every Assassin’s Creed game has to contribute to a story spanning several entries and still deliver its own climactic pay-off at the end, you’re going to end up with a lot of bad writing, and of events happening for the sake of moving along the meta-narrative in a very particular direction, rather than a gradual unfolding of a story – if that’s something Ubisoft decided to pursue again. It’s sort of like how every few Doctor Who episodes the end of the world is a possibility. You stop caring; you don’t feel tension. I love Doctor Who, and I won’t hear any lip about that, but I’m perfectly comfortable saying the writing and especially plotting is occasionally dire, and I don’t want that to happen to Assassin’s Creed.
We know Ubisoft doesn’t want that either; it protects the franchise canon very carefully, and launching games that don’t piss about with the lore very much is a good way to avoid a horrible tangle of bullshit. To be sustainable, the franchise needs these periods of rest, so that when the meta-narrative ramps up again it feels meaningful.
Next: two more arguments in favour of Ubisoft’s new approach to storytelling in Assassin’s Creed.