Where’s my Meta-Narrative?

Come Turkey Day, playing Assassin’s Creed has quickly become a tradition. Whether a yearly release is a good idea or not is probably a good topic for another day. But I think it’s worth talking about how the real sticking-point in the craw of many players this holiday season – the ending of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.

(Yeah, I’m about to get deep into series spoilers, so if you’re not willing to make that jump, maybe now is a good time to bail out. Also, I’m probably about to badly mis-use a word or two.)

In Assassin’s Creed II, the payoff comes in the form of a surprising meta-narrative. In the game’s climactic scenes, a strange deity talks through Ezio (the player’s character) directly to you to impart a quest for future titles to explore. Though the game story takes “you” to mean Desmond Miles (the reluctant sleeper of the series) the deity is clearly talking to “you”, the player, as if clearly cognizant that the fate of the world is really in your hands and not any of the fictional characters. It’s a surreal moment that both makes you wonder if the 4th wall was broken and – more importantly – keeps you involved by pressing the importance of the story right in your direction.

(And it makes sense, right? Without you, Desmond Miles was some loner who got himself locked up. With you, he broke out, became a master Assassin, and cornered Italy’s stock market! I’d want to talk to the player too.)

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood opts for another meta-narrative option – the Snake Eater “inevitable action”. The second of those fancy deities thrusts you (Desmond) into the impossible situation of having to kill a friend, unprovoked, with only a mystery motivation to go on. Any button press at this time is a brilliant – if frustrating – struggle against the game itself, because every press (even the non-aggressive ones, like “left”) only pushes the knife closer to the character you hold dear. The game isn’t calling your name, but the mechanics are making you own up to the on-screen events nonetheless.

This addressing the player – “us” – is what I’m defining as the meta-narrative, a little-used way to draw the player’s attention to a game by keeping the story firmly behind the 4th wall, yet issuing a challenge aimed directly through it and into the hands of the player. I’m not going to argue that every game needs to use such a device, but in Revelations, well…let me get to that right now.

In Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, our hero-within-a-hero (Ezio) is given a task from nearly the beginning of the game. Find the treasure of his predecessor. But in doing so, he opts to do the one thing that leaves the player unsatisfied: he leaves it be and goes home.

“What?!”

Thematically, it makes perfect sense. Revelations is a tale of choices. First, Altair chooses his legacy over the comfort of growing old – he cannot ignore the order he grew up into any longer, even if it costs him everything he held dear. Second, Desmond explores the depths of his unconscious to figure out that becoming an Assassin wasn’t just a desperate decision, it’s his choice, and his choice alone. From those perspectives, Ezio deciding that he had to give his own life a chance and set aside the war seems perfectly reasonable. And in terms of the fictional history of the Assassin’s Creed universe, maybe it’s just plain unavoidable.

But to us, the players – the customers – he’s saying that he’s done with us. And there’s probably a better way to do that than with a cutscene. This is the missed opportunity – that he breaks up with us without a choice, without a salute. He has defeated the bank robbers but opted to leave the vault unlocked on the way out.

“Okay, game designer tough guy, how would you do it better?!”

Making another “unavoidable action” would seem like a tired pony so soon after the last one, I admit. So I suggest something entirely different instead – the dual answer. Simply allow the player to make the overt choice – keep the treasure, or leave it be. Maybe the treasure overwhelms your senses until you drop it, or perhaps Sofia’s words ring in the air like a hammer. Hell, maybe a teaspoon of fate intervenes to ensure your choice ends the same way (if not in the same place.) But let the player feel like they owned their choice, whatever it may be. We’ve played too long to give up now, so please, please

Don’t just hang up the phone and load the credits.