Experiencing Animus – is Assassin’s Creed’s frame really necessary?

by James M. Potter

You’re an assassin. Whether it’s historical Constantinople, Florence, Rome, or wherever, you’re parkour-ing from rooftop to rooftop, dispatching guards with gruesome ease and generally having fun immersing yourself in a lavish recreation of a sun-baked Mediterranean city. You have awesome blade-things attached to your wrists. You even have a cool name, like Altair or Ezio Auditore. But just hold on! No, you’re not! You’re actually some schlubby guy from the present day! Your name is Desmond! Forget riding around on a horse killing baddies, we’re going to pull you out for a few minutes to do some platforming and give you some exposition. Sigh.

(note – I’m keeping this discussion to the earlier games. It is just about conceivable that Ubisoft will pull something that proves me wrong when I get around to finishing AC3)

The Animus is a machine built by a sinister corporation which allows the user to experience the memories of their ancestors. Think The Matrix crossed with the chair from your local dentist. The Assassin’s Creed series uses this modern-day framing device to contextualise your experiences playing as one of the aforementioned assassins. You’re meant to achieve ‘synchronisation’ with your ancestors by reliving their memories – this will give you the necessary ability to save the world from the shady corporation. It’s meant to give extra significance to your historical shenanigans. It’s also a way to explain the leaps in time, some of the gamey contrivances of controlling the character, missions (which are ‘memories’), loading screens, and so on.

Desmond, the player’s character, is designed to be relateable. He’s Joe Average, called forth from bartending obscurity to investigate the memories of his behooded, wristblade-wielding ancestors. But the problem with Desmond is that he reminds you that, like him, you’re just pretending to be someone much cooler. He pulls you out of the enjoyable part of the game to remind you of the apocalyptic significance of what you’re doing (and to make you listen to the smarmy British dude who thinks he’s Stephen Merchant). This is meant to impart a sense of urgency to your actions, but the open-world, sandboxy nature of the game means that you can take the missions very much at your own pace. The advancement of the story is left up to you, and the game provides quite a few reasons not to progress with any particular haste – various subplots can have you restoring property, completing nonessential tasks, and just exploring the stunningly detailed environments.

The AC games are great for a huge number of reasons. They’ve taken the slightly anarchic protagonism of the Grand Theft Auto games and also their thrilling sense for period detail, and they’ve given the historical stories and characters genuine charm and emotional substance. The graphical detail is stunning, and tons of effort has gone into making navigating the world satisfying and fun. All of these things have been done to immerse you into the world, which makes the constant reminders of the Animus framing device quite irritating. Sometimes it’ll be the voice of one of your modern-day colleagues informing you of an objective, or the little flutters which are the indicators of the omnipresent Animus. These things are dissonant. In this kind of immersive simulator, I don’t want to be reminded I’m just playing a game – or, for that matter, that the historical part of the story is already finished, really. Thinking about it that way renders my agency somewhat pointless, and whilst that’s true for most games which have a fixed story, most of them don’t constantly remind you of it.

It isn’t that Ubisoft have taken that decision in order to make a post-modern, arty statement, a fourth-wall-breaking cocked eyebrow that says, “we know that you know that you’re controlling someone who’s controlling someone else, isn’t that clever”. (They may be French but most of their market isn’t.) Rather, the Animus is an expediency, to smooth over the gaps and provide consistency between entries in the series. But I think the historical stories have enough internal consistency to stand up without the frame. Take that of Ezio Auditore. He has enough reasons to do what he does without needing Desmond’s additional motivation. He’s got enough on his plate avenging his father and dealing with intrigue of quite literally Machiavellian proportions without having to cope with anachronistic possibly-alien god-things or whatever.

The historical worlds are beautifully crafted and they make me want to experience them totally, not through the prism of the Animus. As useful as it is to have a way to explain the graphical interface and loading screens – an increasingly popular technological trope I’ve mentioned before – there are things it doesn’t help with, like the non-diagetic music (it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine the chair pumps ambient music into your memories). Being reminded of the Animus puts me at a remove from the character; I want less distance, not more. The overarching story that links the games – Assassins versus evil Templars across a broad historical canvas – is fundamentally sound, enjoyable alternate history fiction, and wouldn’t have to be abandoned. The live-action short film that came out in 2009, the lavish Lineage, didn’t use the frame. So why not bury the Animus? I’d prefer to be just one assassin at a time.