(A SPOILER WARNING is in effect for the entity of Assassin's Creed from the first game to the most recent outing. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!)
A week ago, a friend of mine finished playing Assassin's Creed 3, which sparked a pretty interesting discussion regarding the plot of the franchise and its somewhat controversial ending. While we were talking, I had made the statement that the inclusion of “Those Who Came Before” (which I will be abbreviating to TWCB) and the destruction of the entire world was the beginning of the end for the franchise's main plot. That is a fairly bold statement to make without providing proof, since it became a major element of the story from the second game onward, so this week's article is my defense of that claim. While I have addressed this series several times in the past, this is the first time I have discussed the larger over-arching story of the whole thing. I am going to assume at this point that you have at least a passing familiarity with the franchise. If you do not, please cease to read on if you are afraid of spoilers. This is going to contain a few of them. Anyway, the inclusion of TWCB/Apocalypse plot had a number of after-effects on the main plot that, taken as a whole, really restricted what they could otherwise do with it, which severely damaged the franchise.
The first of these after-effects is that Assassin's Creed began to move away from the Templars vs. Assassins plot and towards this new Mayan Apocalypse plot. It is a very subtle shift that one may not notice unless they look closely. In the first game and second Assassin's Creed games, the war between the Assassins and the Templars was the central guiding element of the plot and everything that happened was in service to that. In Assassin's Creed, the conflict and the morally/intrigue behind it was introduced. In the sequel, the war was further elaborated on both through the main story and Subject 16's recordings. Also, Desmond was being trained (via the Animus) to take part in it as an active participant. As we progress forward from here, we see that there is a subtle shift in how the plot begins to unfold. Instead, the main story begins to unfold around the impending apocalypse, which becomes the new driving force for the plot. For the events of Brotherhood, Desmond needs to find the Apple of Eden in order to learn what he needs to do to stop the apocalypse. During Revelations, our protagonist needs to wake up so that he can do what needs to be done. Lastly, in the most recent outing, the reason Desmond goes back into the Animus is to find the key to the ancient temple that contains the device capable of saving the world. Instead of the Assassins vs. Templar plot being the highest priority, the sub-plot of TWCB and their efforts to stop the world from being burned is at the forefront of the player's mind. Considering that the former and its moral ambiguity is at the center of what is interesting about the franchise, it is a bit of a mistake.
But this was not the only problem with the “end of the world” storyline. Another major issue invited by it is that it an even larger focus was placed on the present-day storyline that is set in 2012, stealing momentum from the story-lines of the ancestors in their periods of history. Again, this is antithetical to the strengths of the franchise. The other big draw of Assassin's Creed is that the Animus, the game's signature plot device, allows the writers to explore any period of history they choose. This has led to quite a few interesting, and relatively unused, settings being highlighted in the franchise from the Third Crusade, to the Italian Renaissance, and even the American Revolution. Many people come to the franchise specifically for this reason. Shifting the focus away from this and over to a grand, world-spanning apocalypse plot is a grave mistake as it takes away from what makes the game shine. In the original game and it's successor, the focus was squarely on the ancestors presented. While Desmond was there and he had an outside motivation for going through his ancestors' memories (and a debatably large amount of screen time), the real star was the ancestor presented, be it Altair or Ezio. Moving on past that point, Desmond and the modern day story surrounding him became much more important. Brotherhood allowed made him more involved, giving him several segments outside the Animus and giving the assassin crew a bit more of a showing, allowing players to interact with them and get to know them better. The entire point of Revelations was to get Desmond back into the real world after the plot twist of Brotherhood literally sent him into a coma. In that game, there is a whole five part side mission dedicated to Mr. Miles and getting to know him better. Lastly, the third main game had entire sections where Desmond used stealth to get around the real world and find artifacts that would prove useful to the main plot. The problem with all of this is that the real world/present day story have always been the weakest part of Assassin's Creed. As a character, Desmond has always been as bland as a leading man can get. Ubisoft tried to make him an “everyman” that people can relate to, but as a result he does not have anything that distinguishes him from any other protagonist. This is a problem that the series is notorious for and has been since the beginning. So to make a plot twist that would throw that element into the limelight seems like a very poor decision. Because someone needs to deal with the apocalypse in the modern day story, they were forced to make it more important instead of just regulating it to the side-lines as a vague justification for going through an ancestor's memory.
Lastly, one of the biggest problems with the inclusion of TWCB is that it codified the legendary “mind fuck” endings that the series would grow to be known for. The first game ended on a fairly surprising note with Desmond discovering that his room was covered in hidden symbols he could only see with Eagle Vision. This led to a number of fans speculating and trying to decipher what those symbols might mean for the lore of the series. It was an odd and surprising “WTF” ending, but it was not entirely out of place for the game as we knew it. When Assassin's Creed 2 introduced its plot twist at the end, that TWCB created humanity, but died in a solar flare that now threatens to come back, it came entirely out of left field and no one saw it coming. This set the trend going forward into Brotherhood with the death of Lucy, who was secretly a triple agent, joining the Templars after being sent to spy on them and then reintegrating herself into the Assassin order. Revelations would try for this with Altair's, Ezio's, and Desmond's stories, with Altair sealing himself and his Apple of Eden into a secret library and Ezio talking to Desmond directly in order for a member of the First Civilization to tell him about the apocalypse, but in general they did not elicit many strong reactions. And in the third main installment in the series, the plot twist was something that players could partly see coming and partly felt like it came from nowhere. As the game foreshadowed, Roman goddess Juno was planning to backstab the human race and Desmond decided triggering her trap was worth keeping the world intact. Every game past the second tried for a “mind screw” ending and for the most part failed. The whole concept of TWCB drove most of these plot twists and gave them fuel. Without this element, it seems less likely, though still entirely possible, that similar twists would have happened.
Ultimately, the inclusion of this one, singular element really derailed what could have an interesting game about a world-spanning, secret war between two shadow organizations with ambiguous stances on morality. Instead, it changed the franchise into an entirely different science-fiction apocalypse plot that seemed wildly divergent from its roots. As someone who is a massive fan of the series, it is perplexing to see how different it turned out from anything that could have possibly been predicted based on the original game. Truly, the game moved so far from what it originally promised that it can sometimes be hard to believe. It seems to have evolved and lost itself as it progressed. I admit that I am curious as to exactly how this happened...