Combat, stealth, seafaring, assassination and acquisition are the heart of Black Flag – a pirate’s life spread across a vast, vivid tropical world. Threading a coherent narrative through each of Ubisoft’s time-hopping adventures must surely get trickier the more open-ended they become; it’s Darby McDevitt’s job to do exactly that.
McDevitt is a 14 year veteran of the game industry who joined Ubisoft just after the first Assassin’s Creed game was released, going onto work on the Revelations, Embers, Bloodlines and Discovery games. His task on Black Flag was to strike a careful balance: for fans who love the series’ complex lore, he must keep the alternative history narrative going without alienating players new to the series, or those just interested in the game’s swashbuckling action.
His first job was to connect Desmond’s narrative with this new one. ”If you hack all of the computers in Abstergo you really get a nice farewell to Desmond,” he tells us. “I wrote a lot of memos for people to read and you can even find his Instagram feed and things like that on his phone. We used all of that as an epilogue for Desmond and a prologue for the next storyline. So Black Flag is definitely a crossfade between the old series and a new one.”
McDevitt says that the framework for Desmond’s story was set out right from the first game, though details changed throughout development. “We stayed on course maybe 75 or 80 per cent of the time,” he says. “The end of the Desmond trilogy changed slightly but it was always intended to end that way. And then about two years ago we planned for another story – there’s been a bit of confusion in that [Black Flag game director Ashraf Ismail] once said that Assassin’s Creed has an ending – that’s not exactly true. This storyline has an ending, but because all of history is open to us we see the universe as a Doctor Who type thing. There are so many possibilities we don’t want to definitively end the universe, but we can have storylines that have endings.”
If Black Flag represents the beginning on a new plotline, then, is it the start of a new trilogy? McDevitt prefers not to think in threes, or even talk of wrapping up this particular narrative. Ubisoft already made that mistake with the original trilogy. “We’ve moved on from specifically defining when a story will end,” he tells us. “The problem with the Desmond trilogy was that back in 2007 they set a date with Abstergo launching a satellite that was going to control people’s minds. That unfortunately took a back seat in ACII when they swapped the plot point for the end of the world, which was conveniently going to happen in the same month in 2012. This was a hard date we were going to hit – we realised very quickly that Assassin’s Creed is a popular franchise and we’d like to keep it going.”
That has meant scaling back the series’ focus on plot in favour of building out worlds, says McDevitt. “The backbone of this series is visiting different time periods and bringing them to life. A lot of hardcore fans really like the present day stuff, and while that’s the bookend and narrative wrapper of this series, that’s not the point.”
Creating those worlds requires a team of between 50 and 100 at the concept stage alone. The vast majority of that initial work goes into researching which time period Ubisoft will visit next, and once that’s settled, the series’ writers work out where that era might fit into the present day storyline. “With each game the selling point is the historical setting and characters,” says McDevitt. “You’ll notice we’ve never ever marketed the present day.”
And yet there’s plenty here to mull over should you be interested in Abstergo’s antics in the modern day portions of the game. One email thread apparently written by Abstergo executives has been the focus of plenty of speculation online, a back-and-forth between staffers which talks around the pressures of delivering ‘one complete experience per year’ as well as side projects. Alongside some playful real-world references, most provocatively it discusses potential destinations for Abstergo’s next ‘simulation’ – Shogun-era Japan, Victorian London, the French Revolution, Wild West, Ghengis Khan-era Asia, and, rather less plausibly, a ‘Summer of love’ simulation set in sixties LA.
“Oh yes, we have great fun with that,” says McDevitt. “The email thread that’s in the game, I wrote that very swiftly in an afternoon but I didn’t realise that Kotaku would write like two huge articles about it. What a lot of people don’t realise is that the time periods I picked were not necessarily the ones we were considering, it was just me parodying the ones that the fans had asked for back to them. So the fans generated that list, we didn’t generate that list.”
We ask whether some of the speculation around where and when the next Assassin’s Creed game might play out is correct. McDevitt words his reply carefully. “I will say that fans definitely think alike. We have the same goals for the series, let’s say. I’ll leave it at that. We always want to surprise.”
There are less obvious references to where the next romp will be set hidden in Black Flag, described by McDevitt as a “reward for completionists”. In the game’s collectibles there are also extra details that fill out the game’s world a little more, adding to the series’ already weighty fiction. There’s even a sound file hidden in Black Flag that’s not even accessible in the game itself, discovered by one fan after they ripped the audio from the disc and scoured it for clues. Appropriately, it pokes fun at those who seek out these extra little details, adding to the cute strand of fourth wall-breaking gags in the game.
While it’s inevitable we’ll see another Assassin’s game by the end of the year, that game, whether it’s set in Victorian London or Shogun-era Japan, presents Ubisoft with a problem. The seafaring sequences in ACIII developed into the open oceans of Black Flag, so does an entirely new time period and location mean the end for Assassins at sea? Again, McDevitt chooses his words carefully.
“We always build on technology, nothing ever gets set aside,” he says. “There’s often ways to creatively use old technology for new things. One of the things that made ACIII’s naval combat possible – and then of course ACIV – is that we were able to have characters climb and walk around on dynamically moving objects. With ACIII we started working on that technology and it fed into the naval combat because the boats are constantly moving as opposed to being fixed to the ground, so all of this technology, it might appear in future games – it might just not be on boats. It might appear in a completely different way.”
McDevitt couldn’t say anything more about future editions of the series, but he did suggest that there were several more hints within Black Flag, some of which have still yet to be discovered. The same is true of the game’s ending. “We’re slowly hinting at what Abstergo’s big plans are next and that will come down the line very soon,“ says McDevitt.
Future Assassin’s games will surely only make McDevitt’s job more difficult. How do you pull together disprate ages and locations and layer them over the top of ever more enormous open worlds? The solution is not to think in terms of linear, ‘traditonal’ videogame storytelling, says McDevitt. “I think that the future of open world storytelling is actually more experimental than people give it credit for,” he tells us. “I’ve always looked at something like Joyce’s Ulysses as the model, where you don’t focus on plot so much as world building and character over a driving, focused single person narrative. And you focus on making sure the character matches the theme as closely as possible so that when the player goes off on his or her own, it feels in character. I think we hit that pretty well in Black Flag. I was less interested in driving the plot forward and more into making the player feel like a pirate – this theme of constant acquisition that’s so common in games fits the setting so well.”
McDevitt likens the future of open world storytelling to TV series like The Wire or Deadwood – a theme, a group of characters and a setting that feels like a window onto a world, rather than a narrative with the intricate plotlines of something like Breaking Bad. “That’s very hard to do in videogames, especially in open worlds, as the player is the one deciding which course to follow,” says McDevitt. “Edward does have a plot – he’s trying to get rich by trying to find the observatory – but it’s very loose thing to hang a plot on.”
Black Flag’s ending does suggest that its hero Edward Kenway will head back to London once he’s conquered the Caribbean, a setting which has been suggested plenty of times by fans and referenced within the Abstergo emails in the game. Whether that’s a red herring or not, what’s certain is that future Assassin’s games will take a looser approach to plot, allowing players to define their own story.
“For instance, if you could create your own character at some point, then we could say you were one instance in the historical flow,” adds McDevitt. “I hope that we keep it fresh, that’s our main goal – keep it fun and interesting every step of the way so that if we have to set off in different directions, we can do that.”