Knots in the Narrative

2 05 2011

First exam tomorrow; no post today.

Fine, have it your way. What’s all this kerfuffle about a new Assassin’s Creed game?

Last week, someone at Ubisoft pressed the wrong button and something about Assassin’s Creed: Revelations materialised on the series’ Facebook page. All I could think of first was whether Ubisoft’s collective imagination when it comes to naming things had slipped into torpor, but then came the more interesting stuff, courtesy of those watchmen of the gaming community who make it their business to scavenge and dissect every last detail of anything to do with their hobby. On the swiftly-removed teaser site, an Arabic message mentioned the name of Altair, the protagonist of the first game.

Immediately this reeks of a spin-off, not only because of the lack of a big number three in the title, but because it doesn’t make much sense to go back to Altair. Perhaps if we looked at the character himself, in absolute isolation, then it does, given that he was woefully under-written and could really do with being fleshed out in a second visit. Nor is the problem with the setting, as the environments and design of 12th-century Damascus, Acre and Jerusalem are easily as distinctive as Renaissance Florence, Venice and Rome, and could be just as much to run through again if they featured more content along the lines of AC2 and AC:Brotherhood.

The issue is with the narrative of the whole Assassin’s Creed series, which has something of a convoluted form, what with modern-day action coinciding with historical adventures witnessed in the form of genetically-imprinted flashbacks and the conspiracy theory of mind-control devices that have been used throughout human history, etc., etc.. Suffice to say, that if you haven’t played it, you’ll probably find it a bit ridiculous. For those of us who have, however, the problems are fairly easily understandable: the present-day story of Desmond Miles (fantastic naming abilities again on show from the devs) needs to keep moving forward for the series to progress satisfactorily, but a return to the previous era of Altair, rather than that of the infinitely more charismatic Ezio from AC2, serves only to introduce a sense of delay and stagnation.

The writers could work around this without too much hassle, but for me at least the problem with going backwards isn’t to do with the opening of plot holes and gaps between the histories of Altair and Ezio, but instead with the less tangible idea of the way the series’ feels. I want Altair’s life to remain as mysterious as it was in AC2, when his further thoughts were revealed through the codex, so that we can move forward either with Ezio or, preferably, a new character and era altogether (Napoleonic Wars, please).

I’m going to get very smarmy here, but lets look at some good old classical theories on how to do narrative: to be specific, on the unity of time and place. It was considered good practice in classical drama to keep your action constricted into a small, unified time-frame, preferably one day, and within a single location, perhaps a city. These ideas have stuck and are still in use in criticism today, not just in the realm of theatre. This is not to say that flashbacks and so on can’t work – plenty of art has shown us that – but given how labyrinthine Assassin’s Creed already is, leaping backwards and forwards in time at will, I really don’t think that throwing up another temporal strand to keep track of is a good idea. Soon enough, we’ll find out what Ubisoft has planned: the official reveal is now on track and your Facebook likes are demanded to unlock it. I’m waiting with trepidation.

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