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Inside the Studio: Narrative

04/28/2017 09:00 AM

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The Assassin’s Creed franchise is known for immersing players into thrilling adventures that take place at key moments in history. From the Italian Renaissance to Victorian England, players are able to dive into the world of the past, venturing into the timeless conflict between Assassins and Templars.

Many fans have asked us how we go about creating these stories: who are the quills behind Ezio’s epic dialogues, and who is the tender-hearted writer of Arno and Elise’s romance? We had the chance to sit with not one, but two, Assassin’s Creed scriptwriters to satisfy your (and our) curiosity! Susan Patrick and Ceri Young agreed to spend some time with us to answer our burning questions and lift the veil on their fascinating profession.

Susan and Ceri worked as scriptwriters on several of the Assassin’s Creed games, such as Assassin’s Creed III, Assassin’s Creed Rogue, Assassin’s Creed Unity, and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.

One question we get from a lot of fans is how to get started in writing for video games. We decided to start the interview by getting some background about how our writers started their journey at Ubisoft. Susan wasn’t always crafting stories for video games; in fact, she started by doing technical writing.

“I have been writing for myself for a very long time, but in order to write professionally, I was at first a technical writer, and wrote manuals for computers and different devices. Then I had the chance be hired at Ubisoft and was a technical writer for our internal tools.

After a while of making my case as a writer, I was given the opportunity to write for the Initiates website, and later on for Assassin’s Creed Rogue. It was a wonderful experience.”

We all have at least a vague understanding of what a scriptwriter does for cinema or television, but many still wonder what exactly that role entails within the video game industry.

“There are similarities with script writers for the cinema. You are writing dialogues between characters, you are telling a story within the delimitation of a medium. But in a game, you have an additional factor of interactivity. You can never be sure what the player is going to do.”

The scriptwriter’s job is much more complex than we might think. It covers a whole range of writing that might not be obvious even while playing the games – and this is the beauty of it! Many elements are often overlooked, like all the text that we can read on the screen, the menus, the description of an item…every bit of text that we find in a game has to be crafted by a scriptwriter!

For example, Susan had this to say about NPC dialogue: “If your character is running through a field surrounded by enemies, they’re all gonna say something: ‘Hey! I heard somebody! Over there! Oh no, I’m shot!’”

AC3 Bunker Hill

Once we were clear on what the job of a scriptwriter entails, we were able to ask the question about what makes their job so important to the player: how do they write exciting and entertaining fictional stories for games that are anchored in the founding events of our history?

Being a scriptwriter is not exactly a walk in the park, but the challenge is what makes the job so interesting and rewarding. You would be surprised how close it is to being an academic historian!

For Susan, creating a plot intertwined with real historical facts is challenging, and requires all of her creativity and writing skills. Incidentally, this is also why she enjoys her job as a scriptwriter for Assassin’s Creed.

“One of the biggest challenge of working on Assassin’s Creed, but also one of the most rewarding points, is to develop a fictional game within an existing historical context. When I was working on Assassin’s Creed Rogue, not only was it interesting to write from a Templar’s point of view, but we had the chance to dig into parts of the history that not everyone is so familiar with: the Seven Years’ War, and the French and Indian War.

To find out how we could adapt the historical facts we knew, the characters we could find, and how we could translate all that into a game, was a great challenge.”

Over the course of time, Assassin’s Creed lore has become more and more complex, adding to the writers’ challenges of consistency and accuracy. Susan shared with us what it entails to be a scriptwriter for such an expansive franchise.

“It is a big challenge but also a great privilege to work on it! Assassin’s Creed has an enormous foundation of lore that we keep adding to. I found that the best way to handle it is to read all the information I can put my hands on. It is a combination of looking into the historical materials like a historian and looking into the lore for the franchise’s consistency.

I have two editions of Assassin’s Creed Encyclopaedia on my desk right now! Communicating with everyone working on the franchise, including all the spinoffs, is also essential to keep each other informed of our work and maintain the whole lore consistently.

I found working on Assassin’s Creed Rogue was quite a challenge, for that matter. We were presenting the Templar’s side for the first time, and in the lore, there wasn’t as much information about Templars as there is for Assassins: the depth of characters, all the nuances. So it was very interesting to look for historical figures who stood for law and order, but could also be seen as part of the Templars conspiracy.”

All in all, the meticulous work produced by the whole development team gives Assassin’s Creed games an authenticity that makes it possible for players to feel completely immersed in history. However, it is the attention to detail within the story that truly helps players lose themselves in a different time period. According to Susan, this is a lot of work but definitely worthwhile.

“I always try to get as many sources as possible on history, because we often take for granted that we know what happened. It is important to look into various sources and be open to the fact that it is possible that what we see as the most popular interpretation of history is not necessarily the most correct one.”

Susan and Ceri had so many great answers for us that we didn’t have room to include every detail, but we also wanted to give you more insight into their world. You can check out the rest of our conversation with them below!

What is your favorite time period in the games?

Ceri: Even though as scriptwriters we don’t have a choice in what will be the settings of the next game, we sometimes have the chance to work on periods we’ve always been interested in. This is what happened to me with Assassin’s Creed Unity.

At university, I studied the French Revolution, so having the opportunity to work on a game set in that specific time frame was amazing. I already had a pretty good idea of what happened and what we could use for the game.

ACU Marianne

Susan: This is a tricky question! I love the Italian Renaissance, I love Victorian England, but I’ve got to preach for my own team here! Looking into Quebec’s history while researching the Seven Years’ War was extremely interesting. Particularly because I was born in Montréal, so my family has been here a while.

It fascinated me to have the perspective of the Seven Years’ War as a world war, in what is called a proxy war. The idea that you have a few very powerful European countries like France, England, and Spain, that were fighting through the colonies, at horrible costs for the colonies, but also for the natives. So many factors weighed in that war, and finally, this is what created the modern North America we know today.

How do you collaborate with the developers in order to have the best game at the end?

Susan: This is an interesting question because I consider myself a developer! I believe we are all developers, building a game together. As scriptwriters, we have a close relationship with the technical teams, this is how we come up with the best narrative experience at the end. All together we make an excellent team!

How do you create stories around real historical settings?

Ceri: One of the first things we do for Assassin's Creed when creating missions, is to find the right targets for assassinations! We research who died in that time period, and then try to work the assassination missions around them.

When I try to come up with a story for Assassin’s Creed, I do a lot of historical research to find elements that are cool and facts players would be interested to know about. What was going on at the time, what were the political currents, the main news items, how we can incorporate all that in our games, and how can we involve the Assassins, are basically how we create the missions.

Susan: Sometimes the idea can come from anyone in the team. We had a quest designer on Rogue who once said, “you know what would be great?! A grenade launcher!” The game being set in the 1700s, the writers looked at each other, not convinced.

They did start to look into it though, and not only had they discovered there was a contemporary grenade launcher, but it has been invented by Benjamin Franklin! It goes without saying, we included that grenade launcher in the game!

ACR Grenade Launcher

Are the historical characters in the games really true to history? Do you add fictional facts in order to fit better with the Assassin’s Creed story?

Susan: One interesting fact with history, is that we know more about some characters than others. But we also have some blank spaces. For some characters, we know they existed, we know their birth and death date, but in between, we don’t have much information. And this is where, I believe, the creativity kicks in. We can play around with it.

One of the mysterious cases we had is the Chevalier de la Vérendrye in Assassin’s Creed Rogue. As much as we tried to research about him, the sources are confused. No one seems to agree on which one of the brothers or the father, who were all explorers, did what. So we decided to have fun with it. We said that it was someone very proud of his accomplishments, but never got the recognition he deserved for it. And this is the base of his character for the game.

Ceri: As long as we can find one historian who said this character did something, has been to this historical place, had this type of personality, even if it’s not the most popular opinion, we can use it for the game. In Assassin’s Creed Unity, when we did the Women’s March co-op mission, we have de Méricourt leading a women’s march, when in reality, she wasn’t there at all.

She was in Versailles at the time. But because she was such a well-known character, many people actually said she was there, leading the march! So we decided we had enough records of her participating in the March to make it to the game.

Susan: Exactly, this is a perfect example of what we were discussing earlier about gathering many different historical sources for one event, and sometimes discovering that the most popular view is not always the true one!

ACU Mericourt

How do you reconcile the facts and the fiction in order to make the historical characters interact with the Assassins?

Susan: I did it for Ben Franklin at some point. In Assassin’s Creed Rogue, there is a mission where you walk into a speech made by Benjamin Franklin. In order to write it, there was the very important research step, reading his speeches, what he was talking about.

And then, the second, but as important step, was to sit together with the mission designer, going over the whole speech with him, and at the end have him tell you, “It is very nice, but could you make it a 30-second speech instead?”

How do you choose which historical character will be a Templar or an Assassin?

Ceri: We actually don’t get to pick that, but over the course of our research we can find people. This is how Susan found out about George Washington’s unknown brother, Lawrence Washington, who became a Templar!

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