Black Flag’s creative director on why killing Desmond helped Assassin’s Creed to live on

Assassin's Creed IV - Searching For Map

There’s more on the future of Ubisoft’s flagship franchise here.

Ubisoft Montreal’s Jean Guesdon worked as a designer on Assassin’s Creed II and as part of the team overseeing the larger franchise before joining Black Flag as its creative director. Here, we discuss the ways in which this pirate epic charts new ground in the post-Desmond era.

Black Flag’s world opens up for exploration much earlier than ACIII’s did. What inspired that?
We knew we wanted to get directly into the action. ACIII ended the Desmond cycle, so he’s gone, and we thought it would be a good thing to start Black Flag directly in the past without delaying the moment at which the player will play what he wants to play – what he’s been sold for months on the marketing side. So there’s roughly a 20-minute prologue, and there’s a technical reason behind that in terms of the link to PS4, allowing it to install that first package at the start of the game and be able to download the rest while playing.

Sailing across the open ocean and exploring islands recalled some of our favourite moments from The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker. How did that game inform Black Flag’s design?
We had several games like that as references. So, yes, Wind Waker was one of them. Sid Meier’s Pirates! was another. They were really interesting, because they were successful naval games, which is pretty hard to achieve, and we quickly came to understand why. It’s hard to do. How do you keep sailing interesting and not boring? Especially in our case, because we wanted to keep the AC style of being realistic, so we had a lot of challenges. Wind Waker is probably closer to our game than Pirates!, but the opportunity to use fantasy elements that pop up in front of the player was something we couldn’t use. Those games were inspirational in terms of knowing a good pirate game was feasible and [they] helped us identify the areas where we needed to focus.

Inspiration from The Wind Waker and Sid Meier’s Pirates! helped keep Black Flag’s seafaring interesting.

Because the Desmond story wrapped up in ACIII, it feels like you took the liberty to experiment with new ideas, especially in the present-day sequences.
The decision to [kill] Desmond in ACIII was made a long time ago, and it was driven by the question of how we make the franchise evolve from what was in AC, a well-designed offline solo experience, to a more open franchise. We’re in 2013 and a lot of things have changed with mobile, Facebook, everybody having a smartphone or tablet… We needed to figure out how we’d adapt the franchise to that.

One of the key blockers was Desmond. He was a great strength at the beginning, because he was the thing tying all the instalments into a coherent meta-story, but now we really want you to be the present-day hero. Because by putting you directly in the middle of our universe, we’re not telling the story of somebody else; we’re allowing you to express yourself in our universe. The idea of Abstergo Entertainment and you playing a researcher there is that we’re telling you that you’re not alone in searching for Edward Kenway’s memories. The more colleagues you have, the more we as designers can benefit from those connections. This is just preparing the franchise to develop some new gameplay and new narratives in the future.

In the Abstergo Entertainment portions, it feels like you’re experiencing a doppelganger of Ubisoft Montreal. Why adopt such a meta approach?
This is something we find interesting as a way of making us closer to our audience. Having Abstergo Entertainment, and saying it’s developing entertainment products through entertainment devices, allows us to create something like a Russian nesting doll – a dream within a dream. It’s a reflection on us as developers, so some of the content is reflecting on life and the realities of the game industry in big studios in general.

Desmond had to die to allow the series to open out and explore new avenues, says Guesdon.

Songwriters can write songs about life on the road, but game developers aren’t usually free to reflect on their craft in such an explicit fashion.
We think it’s one of the beauties of the franchise and specifically this modern-day layer. It’s been a smaller facet of the game, but it’s one players really care about. It allows us to develop some stuff that we couldn’t develop within the main experience in the past. For me, it was a pleasure to give Darby [McDevitt, narrative lead] the opportunity to write an audio drama about interviewing one of the first subjects of the Animus programme about what it felt like to relive a woman’s memories.

Black Flag is more humorous than previous games, especially scenarios involving Stede Bonnet, a wealthy landowner playing at the pirate life. Were you trying to adopt a more light-hearted tone?
One of the things I said to the team was, “Look, we’re the sixth instalment [and] there were five other games before. And they did great things, so we need to learn from them, [but] at the same time, let’s not take this too seriously. We’re just developers creating entertainment for people. We’re working for somebody else, who will pay a significant amount of money, and they deserve to have fun. That’s the first promise we need to respect: bring them some fun and don’t be shy about bringing some humour back. But just because we’re bringing back some lightness and humour, that doesn’t mean we’re not taking our work seriously.”