Good Storytelling in Video Games: Assassin’s Creed Rogue

This is more of an addendum to the AC summary I posted almost a year ago. About a month ago, knowing I was on the verge of trading in the XBox 360, I hastily purchased and played through Assassin’s Creed Rogue, intrigued as I was for promised spoilers for Unity and to close off the North American storyline.

I won’t review gameplay, that’s not the point of these posts, but I will say that aspect of the game is very similar to Black Flag and it features (pleasingly) several of the same characters. It’s ship based aside from an extended New York area but rather than one map, it has two ocean worlds – the North Atlantic and the River Valley alongside the urban scape.

In this story, we follow Shay Cormac. At the beginning of the game he is a new recruit to the Assassins; he has been part of the North American Brotherhood for around two years and is already growing frustrated with the strictures of the disciplined life and their refusal to negotiate with the Templars. The early main story mission sees Cormac trying to talk to his colleagues about the responsibilities of being an Assassin, the ancient technology and why when the Assassin Brotherhoods preserve freedom for all people, then why they have such a strict existence?

Cormac’s arguments are very reasonable and the most intriguing part of the writing here is how much – in just a few hours of a single game – we understand why anybody would consider switching sides out of frustration in the first place. Far from being the dastardly evil we have perceived them to be thus far, we are presented with a tantalising ideal of chaos vs order with Assassins being the former and Templars preferring the latter.

In the real world at Abstergo Entertainment, a virus (probably sent by the Assassins) hits the servers and you as another voiceless employee, must get the security systems back online and in so doing, unlock the Shay Cormac memory sequences. They had no record of him and his roguish nature is intriguing to the Templar Order.

After being reintroduced to characters from previous games – Achilles Davenport from AC3 and Adewale from Black Flag, we find ourselves in familiar territory at The Davenport Homestead. Two incidents force Shay’s hand in leaving the Assassins and it is not difficult to sympathise with him about either. In the first case, he is ordered to kill Lawrence Washington a man already dying of TB and clearly having no more than a few weeks to live. In the second, he is ordered to Lisbon to retrieve a Piece of Eden from beneath the cathedral. It triggers the Lisbon Earthquake and Cormac barely escapes. Noting that a similar earthquake happened in Haiti following a similar mission, he chooses to confront Achilles at the Davenport Homestead…

In the escape, Shay is shot in the back (he believes by his friend Liam) and wakes up days later in New York in the home of an older couple. He takes it upon himself to attack the local gang, knowing they are affiliated with the Assassins. He soon catches the attention of George Monro who offers him a chance to work together to clean up New York for good. Loyalty builds between the pair and they support the British against the French – this part of the franchise is set during the Seven Years War. In time, he learns that Achilles is supporting the French. By this time, Cormac knows he is cavorting with Templars. After a few close shaves with the Assassins, Monro is killed and Shay swears to take revenge on his former friends for his death. At this point, he is introduced to another familiar face who inducts him fully into the Templar Order. That is none other than Haytham Kenway, son of Black Flag‘s Edward and father to AC3‘s Connor.

Kenway is once again the charismatic leader he came across in AC3 and he wants to know what he learnt from his time in the Assassins. Cormac tells Kenway of Haiti, of his close shave with death in Lisbon and how he felt technology of the ancients should stay in the ground in case it tears the world apart when removed (as it had twice already). One by one, Shay Cormac tracks down his old friends – including rather tragically, the very popular and likeable Adewale. Finally, he and Haytham meet Liam and Achilles at another precursor site in the Arctic Circle. Shay fights Liam and kills him, accusing him just before that of betraying their friendship – Liam points out that he wasn’t the one who shot him in the back. Shay then goes back to see Haytham outside the temple who is about to kill Achilles but tells the Grand Master not to as he can testify to the removal of ancient technology causing the Haitian and Lisbon earthquakes. Instead, Haytham shoots Achilles in the kneecap, giving him the disability we see in AC3.

This is where the spoiler for Unity comes in as 20 years later, Shay Cormac is in Paris and takes a device from Charles Dorian, killing him in the process. Charles is the father of Arno, the protagonist in the next game in the sequence and Arno is a young boy who witnesses his father’s death – this is the opening to Arno’s story in Unity but obviously from the other side.

Back in the real world, the voiceless protagonist has finally got the servers back online and pieced together Cormac’s memories. Then the big reveal we already knew – Abstergo Entertainment is a front for the Templars and you are given the choice to join or die.

Story Analysis

Flaws of the gameplay aside, including repetition and a lack of length, it’s a clever move on the part of Ubisoft to turn that a full 180 degrees and give us reason – for one game at least – to understand and root for the other side. Quite frankly, it’s good storytelling to take everything we thought we knew and turn it around like that. The Assassin Brotherhood under the direction of Adewale and Achilles Davenport – both people we know to be good, cautious and noble men from two previous games – is shown as reckless and endangering the whole world.

Even now we are (at this point) seven games in, there is still more to learn about the ancient technology. We know that the Assassins are collecting it to try to understand it and to stop it falling into Templar hands. But from Rogue, we learn that the Templars only want it to stop its power getting out into the world and bringing chaos to a human race unprepared for what it means.

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