- "After all, I've seen the truth. That's the beauty and the horror of the animus. A device that allows us to enter and experience the lives of our ancestors. It holds the power to change everything. To show his history the way really happened. Up until it's creation, to the victor went the spoils. Went the truth."
- ―William Miles
Ah, the Animus. One moment I love you, the next I hate you. The science-fiction bits of the Assassin's Creed series have been a bit of a controversial topic for some people, and one prevalent question arises: would Assassin's Creed be better off without the Animus? Is it an amazing framing device? Or an immersion breaker? Well, I think it's a bit of both.
Tying It All Together
Before I go any further, I should say right away that the Animus, the device that allows people to relive the lives of their ancestors, is not necessary to the plot. It could however, be seen as a good thing, in certain aspects. For one, as a framing device, it does explain a lot of the segregation between gameplay and plot. Of course Altair didn't murder all those beggars; it's just a simulation, right? This is a great way of explaining the player's actions as non-canon, and this goes along with the premise; you're just taking a glimpse at what really happened, and trying your best to relive it as closely as possible to how it really happened.
This does, as many people point out, tie the entire series together nicely. The science-ficion segments of the series haven't always been the high point of the experience, I admit, but the twist ending of Assassin's Creed II still has my mind reeling. The very idea that a precursor race would leave behind a pre-recorded message, only to use Ezio as a conduit, knowing he would find it, and knowing Desmond would see it, is admittedly, kind of awesome. It was one of the cooler "WTF" moments I've had in gaming, and it's kind of cool that Desmond and I both said it in unison after viewing that final scene.
Another thing I liked about the utilisation of the Animus was, shockingly, playing as Desmond. I didn't really care for him as character (save of course, for his dulcet tones), but I did enjoy seeing the Bleeding Effect in action. Specifically, I enjoyed seeing Desmond evolve from a nobody bartender to an OP assassin. Seeing those moves I learned in his ancestor's memories translate to the present assassin was a fun experience, especially in the third game. Seeing Connor's moves in action, but having Desmond perform them, makes the premise come to life, and that's a rare feeling I wish more games could pull off.
Tearing It Apart
- "I even played the DS games for fucks sake, and I don't know what's going on!"
- ―Matt of Two Best Friends Play
Long ago, when I first purchased the original Assassin's Creed, I was a little surprised by the opening segments. I didn't follow much of the coverage, and none of the marketing I'd seen ever betrayed the science-fiction elements of the story. Hell, even the box art doesn't mention the Animus or Desmond. For such a major element, it seemed an awful lot like they were going to great lengths to ignore it. I was a little intrigued by the science-fiction angle at first, and more so when they introduced the First Civilisation, but I think it's worn out it's welcome by now.
As much as I like certain things about the Animus, nothing brings me out of the experience more. The only thing worse than invisible walls are visible invisible walls. One moment I'm exploring Renaissance Florence, and before long, I'm met by a giant white wall telling me I cannot go farther. When people play games, they want to be immersed in and enthralled by the world that has been crafted for them to enjoy. The more we think we're truly part of the experience, and the less we think of the limitations of the game, the more fun we can have. When we are met with giant white walls that scream "This is just a game!", it really takes you out of the experience. As cheeky and lovable as he is, I don't want to hear Shaun go on about age-old conspiracies. For me, the best parts of the series were the bits when I walked amongst a crowd, waiting for the right time to strike. I enjoyed feeling like I was really in that time period, and the knowledge of the 2012 apocalypse (kind of funny in hindsight now) looming overhead made those checkers games kind of awkward.
There are of course, some issues that arise in terms of gameplay when shifting to modern-day. Assassin's Creed isn't a third person shooter, and swords and daggers aren't exactly the weapons of choice when one needs to end a life. Believe it or not, guns are the go-to killing method for modern-day Man. So naturally, when Abstergo came crashing into the Assassin hideout wielding batons instead of, I don't know, guns or tasers, I was a little incredulous to say the least. It was just a small portion of the game though, so I let it slide.
Then we went to their headquarters. Still, they have batons. But wait! They also have guns! Well, that'd be fine, if Vidic's men actually knew how to use them. When I first saw an Abstergo security guard unholstering his pistol in the same way a British Regular would a Flintlock, I lost it. I kept thinking to myself "That's not how guns work!" You see, in the real world, shooting and killing someone isn't all that difficult to accomplish, especially when said assailant is running at you with a small blade. In that situation, you know what you should do? Point your gun. Just, pull your gun and say "Stop!" Simple as that. You don't slowly pull it out and take aim in a fist fight, you just pull it out, and then the fight is over. They either stop, or you shoot them. If three of those guards just stood still and pointed their guns at Desmond instead of charging at him with batons, they could have easily stopped him. Because that is how guns work.
Piecing It Together
It may be a common misconception that the modern day elements of the story are needed to tie the plot together. Not true. Many stories have time leaps, and Assassin's Creed could simply be the story of many Men fighting the same fight. It is an endless struggle, and one that can spawn many sequels. Look at the acclaimed Grand Theft Auto franchise. It's many stories about many different people told over different decades and in different places. All you need to know is that you are an Assassin, and you are now in a different period of time. We don't need the Animus to witness the different time periods during which the Assassin's fought the Templars. Instead of making a convoluted science-fiction story you aren't even going to bother divulging, just stick to what makes the game great. Let's be honest. The best part of Assassin's Creed is simply being an assassin. The sci-fi gimmick was neat at first, but removing it would arguably make for a more refined and approachable experience.
A lot of people don't know what they're getting into with Assassin's Creed. There are probably plenty of people who bought Assassin's Creed III thinking it was a cool game about a historical assassin fighting for freedom in Colonial America. It has that, sure, but that's not all it is. For those who simply want to be an assassin, they are given the run-around. First, they start out as some bloke in a white hoodie (which isn't as cool in modern day). Then they play as a (badass) British guy for a huge chunk of the game, followed by his half-Native son. Finally, after several hours of exposition, you might be able to actually play as an Assassin. Now, I really liked the Haytham lot twist, and truly enjoyed the atmospheric slow burn we were given in the beginning, but that's just me. It's not hard to see how that could be very jarring for a newcomer to the franchise, or someone who just wants to play as an Assassin and have some fun. For a game with a dual storyline, only one is ever focused on in terms of marketing.
Take It or Leave It
And then we are left with that monstrosity of an ending. Honestly, I laughed. It was so bad and ridiculously confusing that I laughed at the third game as it fell flat on it's overly ambitious storytelling. By introducing this larger-than-life story arc, you severely limit how long your series can continue before it gets ridiculous, and Assassin's Creed III passed that point and kept on running. It's clear this franchise is going to Milked for every last dollar (and then some), so why have this overarching plot, if it's just going to keep perpetuating itself? The ending to Assassin's Creed III was just plain ridiculous at best, and downright insulting at worst. To add insult to injury, we get the tacked-on pivot feature. So there we are, reeling from the ending, trying to re-immerse ourselves in Colonial America, when the pause menu suddenly takes control of itself. Out of nowhere, without any real context, we hear people ramble on nonsensically about techno-babble we don't understand. We're already confused by the constantly ambiguous First-Civ conversations; why add on to the perplexity? Pivots weren't given any real explanation in the game, and only served to further insult the player after a rushed and underwhelming ending.
By forgoing the convoluted science-fiction storyline, we could have instead enjoyed simpler self-contained storylines across the highest peaks of history (MoS reference anyone?). Hearing about the trials of Altair as Ezio would be far more engaging, like unearthing ancient history, if we didn't already explore their story through the animus. It may be a bit subjective for me, but simply pretending to be someone in an artificial simulation of history isn't as fun as simply being that person. Well, I suppose that's true no matter what, since this is a game, but I could do without all the meta. Seeing time go on and bearing witness to the adventures of these assassins could be heightened by uncovering it naturally. In addition, not being part of a simulation and not being tied to a sci-fi storyline could give a better sense of dramatic irony than simply using a machine designed to read history as it happened. As it is, I could do without the Animus, and I feel it's overstayed it's welcome. The more I see zeroes and ones surrounding my sword in Assassin's Creed II, and giant white walls in the Frontier, the more I wish for a more refined experience. The more I listen to Juno and Minerva drone out about ambiguous nonsense, the more I long for intense checkers games and wandering amongst a historically accurate crowd.