Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate – Storytelling Done Right

I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed games since the beginning and always in order. I’ve never skipped a console release title, including those Assassin’s Creed: Chronicles games, which actually weren’t that bad. I’m currently behind so I only just finished Syndicate this week, but I can’t wait to play Origins and Odyssey. I, like most long time AC players, have a weird relationship with the franchise. It constantly teeters between love and hate. There are things that are truly great about the franchise and to have seen how far it has come since the original release more than 10 years ago is both impressive and inspiring. But there are also issues that have plagued the games for years, many of which have only gotten worse over time. In my opinion, the storytelling is the weakest part of the Assassin’s Creed franchise and has been since at least Assassin’s Creed III. But the storytelling issues have existed since even before that game which was already several games into the franchise. This is extra depressing because the story is ultimately why I continue playing the games. I want to see a clear ending to this franchise. That’s not because I don’t like the franchise and want to see it end, but rather that I play games for the stories and I hate stories that don’t have clear endings.

AC has a host of storytelling problems. This is due mostly to the disjointed nature of the games and how they function as parts of an overarching narrative that has itself drastically shifted in direction in non-sensible ways over the course of the franchise. The big problem with the storytelling is that the modern day content has little to do with the Animus content while also acting as the bridge between multiple games that you’re only really playing for the Animus content. But it’s very apparent that the modern day content has always been an afterthought in the creation of these games. Rather than try to clean it up, Ubisoft decided the best way to deal with the modern day storyline was to significantly reduce its presence within the games. You see this a lot in the games that take place after ACIII. The amount of modern day content has been reduced more and more until you finally get to Syndicate where you don’t even play in the modern day. It’s reduced to four or five short cinematics all with the intention of justifying a single end game cut scene that doesn’t feature anyone of significance other than the weird first civilization MCP (yes that’s a Tron reference) that keeps showing up in games since ACIII but never really does anything. Supposedly it saved the world from a solar flare though.

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I see the direction that AC has taken by almost completely diluting away the out of Animus content to non-playable cut scenes and a bare minimum of time on screen as a good thing, but that’s not actually the part about the storytelling in Syndicate that I like the most. The key factor that I think makes the storytelling superior in Syndicate to just about every other AC game to date is the fact that you have multiple never before seen playable characters experiencing directly related stories and spaces. In past games you never had this, save for a short sequence in ACIII as Haythem Kenway. You had two loosely related characters acting independently of each other in the form of an ancestor and an Animus user/viewer. This never worked well for me because the games always slacked on the setting, gameplay, and writing for the Animus user. I genuinely didn’t care about Desmond and his whiny, depressing parent issues. I cared even less when you were some anonymous drone sneaking around the Abstergo offices. Those aspects of the story (and gameplay) have always been trash by comparison to the ancestor. That’s also why you never saw Desmond on the cover of the games. What I cared about has always been the story inside the Animus. Syndicate fleshes this story out more.

In Syndicate, you have two main playable characters and a third one if you play the Jack the Ripper expansion, during Industrial Revolution London. Plus there’s a fourth playable character in the base game that takes place during WWI for a short disconnected sequence. I thought this entire presentation of interconnected stories was brilliant. It added context, emotion, and background to all the characters involved. It strengthened the overall storytelling in a number of ways. It also led to variations in my gameplay style from character to character because I felt compelled to play each character the way I thought they would play rather than how I preferred to play. In many ways it was like playing multiple games in one while still maintaining a focused narrative. And even though the WWI sequence wasn’t directly connected to the main story, it was still excellent because it followed the progeny of one of the main characters. It was like taking a break from the game without taking a break from the game while providing additional information for the overarching narrative. I thought it was brilliantly executed.

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Syndicate doesn’t have the best plot of any AC game. It’s set in a time where capitalism is already ruining people’s lives in a country that’s not that interesting in the grand scheme of the AC universe. But it tells its story better than most of the other AC games I’ve played so far. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it considering the large number of negative comments I heard about it. I genuinely don’t understand where the negativity came from because it’s way better than Unity and is a nice change from Rogue, which is just a smaller scale copy of Black Flag. Many people even told me to skip Syndicate altogether, but I’m glad I didn’t.

Syndicate even handles the age old main character gender problem in games well. The game doesn’t center on either a male or female character. It stars both. And adds one of each additional character in the special sequences. It’s a perfectly balanced form of gender neutral storytelling that lets the player decide what/who to play as while making them both plot relevant without being plot neutral. There are also sequences that are character specific because the two play off of each other in a very effective way. And they have a few differing abilities to offer you a reason to swap between them depending on the mission you’re in.

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It’s a perfectly democratic way to make and play a game that in no way lowered the quality of the storytelling. Really it enhanced it. And, in this case they made me want to play as the female character in the right way. They made her interesting. Evie Frye is a better character than Jacob Frye. Or at least a better assassin. She thinks things through. She acknowledges the consequences or her and her brother’s actions. She has better stealth abilities. I wanted to play as her more. I still made myself rotate between the two often, even when I didn’t have to, but she’s the better character, in my opinion. That’s how you get male gamers to play games with female protagonists. You make the characters interesting and the games good. It’s really that simple. Tomb Raider does well because Lara Croft is a good character and the games are well made. There’s no magic formula. It’s not a political issue. Real gamers play good games. You could do The Witcher with a female protagonist. But it has to be at the quality level of The Witcher. Otherwise it’s just a “shitty feminism game that wishes it was The Witcher.” But by giving the player the choice in Syndicate, Ubisoft managed to make a game with a female protagonist without having to market it as such.  This made it way more appealing and accessible for everyone. Which begs the question: Why have we been playing these shitty out of Animus sequences for all these years to begin with?

The only reason the Animus is part of the franchise is that Ubisoft needed a link between all the games. For some reason they felt that it wasn’t good enough just to have the same name and general Assassin Templar war. They wanted to directly link each game via an overarching story, which in my opinion they’ve done, but failed to do well. Even as they’ve changed it over time and tried to salvage it, the modern day stuff is still trash. And with the death of Desmond, a character I absolutely hated, I all but stopped caring about who’s involved or what’s happening. I just want it to end so I can have a real conclusion. But why didn’t they just connect the games the way they connect the WWI and Jack the Ripper stories in Syndicate from the start? They could have just used the ancestry concept but directly linked the games via historical meetings. You have Altair get married and have kids. Then you have one of those kids become an assassin and travel to another country. Then that person meets another assassin named Ezio Auditore. Then the game follows Ezio.

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You get the same effect you have now of following a story through time and changing between multiple characters. You can even keep the piece of Eden thing they have going. But you don’t need all that superfluous modern day crap that no one even cares about anymore. You link the characters directly to each other through history as the war continues. That would also allow you to return to older characters later in different points in their lives. Like Ezio in Revelations. It takes place years after Brotherhood. Rather than doing the whole memory sequence mumbo jump they could have just done a game about another assassin he met along the way and then at the end of that game, years later in the timeline, that assassin reconnects with Ezio. Then in the next game a now older Ezio goes to Constantinople. No weird annoying bullshit needed. And it’s not like people can’t deal with time hops. The current games do them and it’s not an issue. You just do a sequence like Connor went to England and then wipe forward years later and show him returning from England, or whatever. The audience isn’t stupid. We can follow a shifting narrative. How else have we been playing AC games for all these years? You could go back in time as well. Just do an Edward found this old journal of a past assassin and started reading it opening sequence as a transition backwards. It’s not that hard.

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My point is that Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate does a great job with the storytelling because for 99% of the game it doesn’t pull you out of the Animus. And that 1% isn’t gameplay. It’s only cut scenes. This created a much stronger and more coherent narrative experience. As I said at the beginning of this post, I haven’t played Origins or Odyssey yet so maybe they’ve finally cleaned it all up. But I doubt it. There’s no real reason we needed this modern day storyline to make this franchise work. And I think it could still be done away with now. By implementing multiple playable characters in the same directly connected time periods, they can tell a much stronger story and solve their diversity problems at the same time. Adewale didn’t really need his own expansion in Black Flag. He should have just been playable in Black Flag with his own special sequences as well as in the open world. Haytham could have been playable for a much larger part of ACIII. These games are already connected in many ways. They simply needed to go the extra mile and not make up some weird trapped in the machine AI story filled with solar flares and faceless walking simulator sequences.

Syndicate was the best AC since played Black Flag. It has revitalized my interest in the franchise and I’m very much looking forward to both Origins and Odyssey, both of which I’ve heard great things about. Hopefully that includes great storytelling.

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