Assassin’s Creed Unity’s approach to history, women and franchises (Wired UK)

Assassin’s Creed Unity is Ubisoft’s latest entry
in the ongoing battle between the Assassin Brotherhood and the
Templar Order. This time, the series’ familiar blend of stealth,
parkour, and action takes place during the French Revolution at the
tail end of the 18th century, and focusses on the tortured romance
between two lovers from either faction. As the first game in the
series targeted exclusively at the new console generation, it also
uses the power of the PS4 and Xbox One to deliver one of the most
breathtakingly detailed environments seen in games.

Wired.co.uk talks with the game’s Creative Director Alex Amancio
on the challenges of keeping the series fresh, the politics of the
French Revolution, and the playable gender controversy that has
circled Unity’s  co-op mode.

Wired.co.uk: You’re about finished with the game now –
what’s the biggest evolution players can expect in Assassin’s
Creed Unity
?

Alex Amancio
: In previous Assassin’s Creeds, we
had a linear story set in an open world. The problem with that is,
when your main motivation is completing a main quest, whenever you
stray from that quest to go fish for four hours or whatever, it
feels a little ridiculous because you need to save the world but
instead you’re here fishing. So we knew we needed to change the
player motivation if we were going to make a next-gen
Assassin’s Creed. The motivation that we landed with was
player progression, Arno’s progression
from novice to master assassin, which reflects the player’s
progression through the game. You have your main path, this linear
mission, because a story has to be linear, right? But within the
city — and the structure of the city is very different to previous
games — you have 11 different co-op missions, called Brotherhood
missions, playable from 1-4 people. Then if you explore the city,
you have literally hundreds of different quests. These can be
murder mysteries, assassination contracts, defend missions,
anything. Everything you do in that world, contributes to Arno’s
progression. Your money, skill points, actual item rewards or
unique weapons, anything you do contributes. This is why we’re able
to create this next-gen sandbox.

After E3, Unity came under fire for the lack of
female characters in the multiplayer. What’s been the impact of
that controversy in the months since?
To be honest, in our game, we’ve only ever had one
playable character, and it’s Arno. I can tell you why we chose to
only have one character. When we wanted to do co-op, rather than
multplayer, we asked ourselves “what do we do?” If we create more
than one character, then we no longer have this one unifying
element that gels the city together, which is Arno’s progression.
So we decided to go with the concept of “what if everyone, from
their point of view, were playing Arno?” What we do is, for the
other players, we keep the unique suits they’ve acquired, because
we want people to be able to ask where they got this suit or that
sword, and then we just replace their face. We have a database of
Assassin’s faces. From their perspective, they remain Arno. It’s
pretty much the same thing Watch_Dogs did for their
PVP mode, when you invade someone else’s world. When you’re being
invaded, you’re Aiden Pearce, and you’re being invaded by some
hacker. But from the other person’s perspective, they’re Aiden
Pearce and you’re the other random hacker. It’s essentially the
same narrative twist here.

I do think that we as an industry should look at the products we
create, and we should strive for something that is more equal, more
gender equal. I totally agree with that. I just don’t think it’s an
issue with Unity per se. It’s not like we created four
characters, and it’s four guys, and we didn’t create a female. It’s
not that at all. It just so happens that our main character is a
man. It could have been a woman, but this is the story we wanted to
tell. Another thing I could tell you about that, for every
Assassin’s Creed, we really try to create a character that embodies
the time, that metaphorically represents that time. In the case of
Unity, Arno being an Assassin who’s in love with a
Templar, he’s at war with himself. It sort of represents how France
was at war with itself, with two opposing ways of thinking,
extremist ways, and maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle.
This is what the story represents. If we had picked a female
character, in that setting, [her gender] would have been the theme
of the story, because at that time, it’s something that would be
notable enough to become the key point of the story. The vehicle of
the story had always to be the French Revolution, the whole story
presents as a metaphor for that. This is why we went for that
character, it was a purely artistic choice.

It so happens that Unity is set in the French
Revolution, and you have a Frenchman who is the main character, the
main protagonist. However, we do have many strong female characters
in the story. We introduced Elise not too long ago, and that wasn’t
a reaction to E3. Elise has been there as early as Arno, because
our core story is completely, intricately linked to Élise.
The whole concept of the game is about that love story and the
implications of having an Assassin and a Templar involved. It’s not
a Romeo and Juliet story, it’s more of a Cornelian
dilemma
.

Was communication a problem? Players seeing previous
games and expecting the multiplayer to be the same?
Exactly. And before, we could. In all other
Assassin’s Creeds, when we had our PVP multiplayer, half
of the characters were female, like our Corsair.
The reason [there are no playable females] is that we just don’t
have that mode anymore, and the reason for that is simply because
when we were reinventing this franchise for the new generation, we
really looked at what we felt would be the defining element of
what, back then, was the future generation — we started working on
Unity four years ago.

This is my opinion but, two generations ago, it was a world of
single player games. The top sellers were single player games,
multiplayer games were marginal. This past generation, multiplayer
titles were the best selling games. Single player games were still
very strong, but we really saw the birth of the mainstream
multiplayer. I think that this new generation is not defined by
multiplayer as much as it is social experiences. The reason we went
with co-op, rather than the old style of multiplayer, is because it
is a social experience. We wanted people to be able to play
Assassin’s Creed and to share that experience with their
buddies. We really tried to create something that would let players
do that without sacrificing any of the things they’ve come to love
about the franchise. That’s why we stuck with only one character
that’s strongly anchored in story and setting. We feel the fans
really like that. This future generation is really defined, I
think, by social games, and this is what we’re trying to offer
without corrupting the Assassin’s Creed  experience,
without creating something jarring in the world — I think we’ve
integrated that seemlessly.

On the matter of strong women, the Women’s
March on Versailles
was one of the key events of the French
Revolution — will that be featured?
Of course, the Women’s March is featured in the game. I’m
not going to name all of them, because I want to keep some
surprises, but most of the famous women of that period are
represented in the game. You actually get to participate in those
events, and they are featured in their true awesomeness. One thing
we didn’t want to do was create a game that was a ‘Forrest Gump’
game, you know, where it just so happens that you are part of every
important event. Arno’s story is about redemption. It’s a
metaphor for the revolution, but it’s not a story about the
revolution. That acts as a backdrop that reinforces the main story.
However, all of the Brotherhood missions, this is the stuff that
the Assassins were doing. Arno’s redemption quest really mixes in
with the Assassins but it’s all about his story. This is what we do
in every Assassin’s Creed; it’s always about the
assassin’s own story, and we never showcase their 9-5, the stuff
they do for the Brotherhood. That’s what these missions are. Each
of these missions is based on a historical character and/or event,
and often it is centred also around a rich landmark.

That’s something that’s in focus on Assassin’s
Creed: Rogue
, where you see the Assassins as an organisation
from the perspective of a Templar. Is that an attempt to build up
the lore across both games?
Exactly. This is also something that we really focus on
in Unity, we really wanted to show the Brotherhood, their
struggle. How they are handling the revolution, what their thoughts
on the revolution are, and how they’re sort of trying to keep away
from it. I mean, the Assassins are all about freedom of choice.
“People need to make their mistakes, this is how we learn.”
Templars are more about controlling the populace, because otherwise
they’re going to kill themselves. You actually get to witness that
debate, and you realise that even the Assassin’s Council is at war
with itself because they don’t necessarily agree on all the events
that are happening and how to deal with them.

Are those shades of grey between Assassins and Templars
still important to series?
I think that Assassin’s Creed really
strives to recreate the past as much as we can without jeopardising
the experience. Reality is all about shades of grey though, right?
There is no black and white. I mean, the Assassins and Templars are
opposites, they have very different philosophies. One is about
freedom and making mistakes, the other is about structuring people
so that they don’t make mistakes, because they need to be
shepherded. What the game tries to show is that any two opposing
political parties, when taken to extremes, just move back on
themselves and become two faces of the exact same coin. This story
is really built on multiple layers. The first is a redemption quest
— most players who just want to play the game will see this. A
little deeper under that is this whole Cornelian dilemma, love or
duty? It’s an impossible choice. Even below that, there’s this
exploration of not only the revolution but also the core values of
it, what triggered the revolution. It’s really a story about ideals
and how, when taken to extreme places, really end up just becoming
very, very similiar to one another. I think it’s really a complex
story that deserves to be told.

Unity is the latest ‘main’ entry in the series
but doesn’t carry a number in the title. Is Ubisoft shifting to
view each branch — Black Flag, Rogue,
Unity  — as mini-franchises?
I can’t talk about the franchise itself but we actually
have a small team, a creative core team, that sort of guide the
wider franchise, to make sure that we have something cohesive and
coherent in the long run. I can’t tell you whether that’s going to
happen [for Unity] but I can tell you there’s really no plan to do
that just now. We really see every year as a season. I know people
talk about annualisation and that sort of thing, but if you think
about it, every year we come up with something new. There’s the
title that’s the same because it’s always about the same theme of
Assassins and Templars. But if you look at the things we explore,
the risks we take, it’s always different, a different story. As
long as history delivers interesting things to tell, as long as
we’re able to do it with quality and push storytelling further, and
explore every year. Assassin’s Creed III took a risk
with adding ship combat, right? And then we ended up having a game
centred on ships. We’re risking going back to an urban centre, and
really revamping pillars that have been stable for seven years and
we’ve destroyed all that and rebuilt it, and we’re trying co-op. It
really is more like a TV season — every year, we’re here, we have
something new. If fans like it, and we deliver quality, we get
another season. We have no intention right now of splitting them up
and creating sub-genres and just pursuing those.

One of the constants through the games has been the Animus used
as a framing sequence. That made sense in the first group of games,
with Desmond
in the present, but now his story is done, why keep it?
This is a subject of great debate, for the fans and for
us internally. I personally believe that it is something that we
need. This is really the context that gels everything together.
This common thread, not only does it link these historical periods
together, it opens up a ton of different cool things that really
tie in, that are relevant. It’s not just something that happened
years ago, they’re somehow relevant to the present day. However, I
do feel that how we did it before has become antiquated. It needs
to be completely re-done if we’re going to be in line with the new
generation of consoles, and this is exactly what we’ve done for
Unity. It’s a whole new concept, it’s not something you’ve
seen before — the player is the protagonist. We’re really trying
to break that fourth wall. It’s not like Black Flag, where
you’re really an Abstergo employee walking around first-person.
It’s not that. We’re really trying to treat you the player as the
main protagonist, and this is how we’re changing that. Keeping that
concept but still making it relevant for future generations.

Where do you see the series itself going
technologically?
Who knows?! We’ll see where the franchise takes us. And
you know what? These things, we have an idea of where we want to
go, but then we really — and this is the key — whenever you keep
a long-term objective, as long as you remain flexible in the short-
and medium-term, you’re able to navigate those treacherous waters
and pitfalls and avoid repeating yourself into a corner. Maybe
we’ll evolve to persistent worlds, maybe that’s something to strive
for, only the future will tell but we’re exploring many different
things.

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28 August 2014 | 1:21 pm – Source: wired.co.uk

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