The Last of Assassin’s Creed (for now)

Well, hello again! Missed me? The long hiatus is hopefully coming to an end soon, and if you want to know what’s been occupying me so much, or if you aren’t tired yet of reading about my research into Assassin’s Creed… then read on!

The months of sitting in empty computer rooms, revising and researching has finally come to an end and I have handed in, and passed, my Research Master’s thesis! So let me just take a few minutes here to give you a final update, to gain some closure!

What was it all about, really?

In the thesis, I analysed various aspects of the Assassin’s Creed Kenway Saga in order to answer the question that ultimately drove the project: How does Haytham Kenway function as the pivotal character in the Kenway Saga? To investigate this, the research was divided into several different layers as I took a bottom-up approach to analysing the saga. Here is what I did and what I found out.

Haytham in Assassin’s Creed III

Assassin’s Creed III is an important transition game in the overall series because of its different functions and the changes it brings about. Not only does it finish the Desmond Saga and ties up its loose ends, it also serves as an introduction to the Kenway Saga, and with it the many changes Ubisoft decided to make here. Haytham is a particularly important character here. How, then, does Haytham’s presentation (start to) bring about the saga’s transitions? His character combines a variety of gameplay and narrative functions, all presenting a slightly different version of Haytham. In terms of gameplay, he is first introduced as player-character, where he is able to form a connection with the player without the player’s awareness that he belongs to the Templar Order. He then progresses to allied non-player character with some rough sides, but overall he occupies an ambiguous ‘in-between’ state, where he is neither completely friend nor foe. He finishes in a role as antagonistic non-player character, his ambiguity gone. These gameplay functions underline his narrative development, too, where he is mainly characterised in his role as father and lover, and as the Templar Grand Master of the Colonial Rite. Such a variety of roles makes it difficult to simply see Haytham as ‘the villain.’ He is more than that, and he proves it in the years to come.

Haytham and the Templar-Assassin struggle

Haytham is important in a bigger context, too, namely the way the ancient fight between Assassins and Templars is understood. The Desmond Saga has a very clear stance on it: Assassins are good and noble, Templars are bad and morally bankrupt, and barely anyone occupies a middle ground. The Kenway Saga changes this, first tentatively with Haytham’s ambiguous portrayal in Assassin’s Creed III, and more forcefully with the other media of the saga. The novel Assassin’s Creed: Forsaken, for example, was released just shortly after Assassin’s Creed III, and it consists of excerpts from Haytham’s diary from the age of ten onwards. Through Haytham’s eyes, the reader experiences the ambiguity of the Templar-Assassin struggle based on Haytham’s dual heritage – born an Assassin, raised a Templar, but ultimately having both ideologies. This also has repercussions in Assassin’s Creed: Unity. The last game of the Kenway Saga, Assassin’s Creed Rogue, takes the whole issue a bit further and openly criticises the morality of the organisations. It reinforces the relativism of it all in having a player-character who actually abandons the Assassins and joins the Templars. Generally, the saga makes very clear that Assassins and Templars can work together, and that it is questionable whether there is any one organisation that truly has the moral high ground. And this is where things get really interesting. Because the game doesn’t tell you what to believe, it is up to the players to make up their own minds.

Haytham and Transmedia Storytelling

This last part is where it all comes together; it’s the Kenway Saga in truly its biggest picture. Taking into consideration all the media that I analysed – Assassin’s Creed III, Assassin’s Creed Rogue, and the novels Assassin’s Creed: Forsaken and Assassin’s Creed: Unity –, I looked at how they actually relate to one another transmedially. Basically, transmedia storytelling means that a story and different parts of a storyworld are distributed across different media platforms – think The Matrix, for instance, or more recently The Walking Dead. By having a variety of media to choose from, consumers are in a way empowered to choose how exactly they are going to experience the series, and in which order.

Now, what does this have to do with Assassin’s Creed? The Kenway Saga demonstrates some complex dynamics in this regard, and it is Haytham who mainly catalyses the different media in the saga, partly by being present in all of them directly or indirectly. The Kenway Saga is incredibly complicated in the way the stories are told. Forsaken encompasses almost the entire time span of the saga, and the different games are not really related in a causal way because they are not quite linear. The saga starts with its end, and it slowly unravels the events preceding it in the other games and novels – and the other media do add something to the experience as well.

This is the part of the research where the online survey that I’ve talked about earlier comes in, which has been a bigger success than I could have imagined when I set out. Thanks to everyone’s participation and enthusiasm, I received 550 responses, and of those, 489 respondents qualified to take the full survey (that is, knew at least one of the games or novels of the Kenway Saga). I focused particularly on the way that the order in which the media were played and read had an influence on character and story interpretation, as well as the way that the media relate with one another. The survey does not suggest that media chronology has a strong influence on character interpretation, but the general media interaction did seem to have a stronger effect, in particular whether or not the people had read Forsaken. Overall, Haytham’s character was received more positively than expected, and some respondents had quite insightful comments about his character and background. As for Rogue, it was fascinating to see that a lot of people started taking a specific side, saying for instance that the whole struggle is rather ambiguous, that they preferred the Templars over the Assassins, or the other way around. Overall, nonlinearity and transmedia storytelling complicate the reception of the characters and storylines, but they also offer a deeper sense of immersion into the series.

What now?

For now, this research is finished, but no research seems ever really finished. Assassin’s creed appears to be one of the more successful and more intricate transmedia storytelling projects at this point, but there is definitely room for improvement in the way the different media actually relate to each other. Studies like these enable a better understanding of the things we love so much.

If you’d like to know even more about it, the full thesis is available here. If you ever find the time to peruse, I’d love to hear what you all think.

So long, I am returning now to my much-needed holiday consisting mainly of gaming. Up at the moment? All the weirdness that Broken Age has to offer.

Which is a lot.

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