When it comes to video games as a form of escapism, open-world games—that is, games that allow players to explore a vast region at their leisure, rather than progressing in order from one level through the next—are the best at delivering a truly immersive fantasy. Anything is possible, from finding the nicest haircut for your character, to fishing and collecting various artifacts, to just petting sweet, computer-generated dogs. There’s no need to immediately go and fight the next boss—no need to do anything but enjoy the seemingly endless landscape. One major game franchise, however, dares to ask the question: What if you could explore an open-world setting but also had to stop every now and then to check your email?
The Assassin’s Creed games, which thrust the player into the conflict between the Assassins and the Knights Templar, have always had a somewhat convoluted structure. Since the first Assassin’s Creed came out in 2007, the games have put the players in the shoes of a modern-day character who, through the use of a machine called the “Animus,” is put in the shoes of someone who was alive in the past. As the series has grown, that outer narrative ring has become more and more of a dead weight. Each new installment—of which there are now 12, not counting the spinoffs—spends less and less time in the “real” world, which makes the insistence on retaining that part of the game all the more baffling, and the interludes all the more annoying to play through.
By virtue of the fact that so little time is spent in the present-day portion of the game, the protagonist and his or her compatriots are hardly engaging, especially after spending hours upon hours getting to know the in-Animus protagonist. It doesn’t help that the modern sections of the game feel slow and limited in comparison to the rest of the game, as they often take place in a single house or room, and usually prevent the player from running, leaving them to walk slowly around a relatively confined space. And to make matters even worse, one of the few things that the player can usually do in said space is check their inbox, sapping the momentum and joy out of a franchise that, in some of its most breathtaking moments, allows you to explore mythical places like Valhalla and Atlantis.
The main lore of the series, which primarily involves foiling the Templars’ attempts at taking over the world, wouldn’t suffer from cutting these jumps in time. The first five main games made a case for the back-and-forth in time as they all involved the same primary character, Desmond Miles. The most recent three games do the same thing, focusing on the character of Layla Hassan in the present day, but in addition to spending less time in a contemporary setting, the newer games also each feature a new historical lead, whereas Desmond shared in the story of an Assassin named Ezio Auditore da Firenze over three games. There’s no such tie between Layla and any of the last three “genetic memories” (don’t ask) that she’s explored, and as such, she’s faded into the background of the story she’s supposedly telling, despite the fact that the modern day segments deal with an impending apocalypse.
It’s a mixed blessing that the more recent games cut down on exposition. On the one hand, there’s less present-day content, which is good, but that also means there’s less context to explain just why we should care about those sections at all. The historical adventures, being new every time, are set up and executed with care; the same doesn’t go for the overarching mythos of the franchise, which, in how marginalized it’s become, suggests a delaying of the inevitable. There’s just no need for the story-within-a-story structure anymore, and even the creators don’t seem to have their heart in it. And if there’s anything this franchise should know, it’s when it’s time to press R1 to assassinate.