Assassin’s Creed is largely a mystery game. It puts you in the shoes of two men who are defined by their ignorance and who spend the game in search of answers: Desmond is a bartender who has been abducted by a giant company for reasons unknown, and Altaïr is a once master assassin, now demoted and forced to relearn what it truly means to be a part of this brotherhood. There is no dramatic irony here, in which the player knows more than the characters. When we begin the game we too are ignorant of everything. We can play the game and let it lead us through its story, and by the end, we’ll have a general understanding of the events that take place. But if we divert from the path that the game sets for us, there’s a wealth of details that help flesh out this fictional world and the complex conspiracy that connects these two men.
Desmond is introduced to us a bartender, recently kidnapped by the giant company Abstergo, and forced to relive the genetic memories of his ancestor, Altaïr. He interacts with only two other characters: Warren Vidic, the scientist in charge of this genetic memory experiment and his assistant Lucy. Desmond is only told that Vidic is looking for something and that Desmond’s ancestor’s memories may provide a clue as to where this “thing” can be found. With so little explained, the player is nonetheless thrust into the past, taking control of Altaïr and Desmond’s story is put on hold.
When Desmond comes out of the Animas, the machine that lets him relive Altaïr’s life, Lucy drags Vidic into a nearby conference room to talk. This is the first moment in the game when it puts control of the mystery into the player’s hands. You can either wait for them to finish their conversation, or you can go into a bathroom and listen to them through the vents. What’s interesting is that the game gives no indication at all that you can do this. The information that you learn from eavesdropping isn’t relevant on its own, and if you miss this opportunity to spy, you won’t be at a disadvantage later on. Our reward is the feeling that we’re learning something secret. The game wants us to get into the habit of exploring our environment as Desmond even when we’re not directly encouraged to do so because such exploration will reveal story details later on. Whereas other games constantly direct the player towards its secrets, Assassin’s Creed does not.
But in case players missed their chance to eavesdrop, the game gives us a more obvious push towards such exploration later. If we look around our room at this point in the game our closet door is closed, but after being locked in our room, the closet is now open. If we get near it, Desmond finds a keycard that allows him to sneak out and hack into computers throughout the lab. Since the closet door was initially closed, leaving it open draws the player’s attention towards it. This is the only time that the game directs us so blatantly towards a secret, and that’s because the rest of our sleuthing involves those computers outside. Everything else is contingent on that keycard, so the game hands it to us.
At first, we only have access to Lucy’s computer. The most intriguing thing here is an email exchange about a woman named Leila who apparently killed herself. The emails show Lucy’s attempt to find out more, and how her search is blocked by the higher-ups in Abstergo. This exchange has little to do with why Desmond was kidnapped, but by introducing this very minor sub-plot it adds to the air of mystery surrounding the company. Since Assassin’s Creed is all about mystery, it’s important for the game to keep us in such an atmosphere.
Another email exchange refers to Vidic’s “access-key pen,” and certain words are capitalized: ACCESS-KEY, and LETTING IT HANG. These are subtle hints meant to make us focus on his pen because later we can pickpocket Vidic, which in turn gives us access to his computer. But these few words are the only clue we’re given that it’s even possible to pickpocket him. When the actual opportunity arrives, Desmond is told to get into the Animas and Vidic turns to stare out a window. If the player does as he is told, the opportunity is lost. The onus to disobey is on us, and we’re rewarded for doing so. In this way we’re encouraged not to listen to Vidic, and whenever he tells Desmond to do something, our first instinct is to do the opposite. This is important when he starts spouting philosophy: “The human race calls out for direction. They want to know why they’re here, what they’re meant to do. Well, we’re going to tell them.” His words are ominous by themselves, but our now immediate distrust of him makes them sound sinister as well.
Once we’ve gotten into Vidic’s computer, we get vague answers to some of our questions, but these answers come in pieces. We find off-hand comments about a delayed satellite launch, and the sender tells Vidic “just make sure you get what you need in time to meet the new launch window.” There are more emails, but this information about the satellite is the most pertinent and provides the player with the most immediate answers once all the pieces are connected.
Throughout the game, Vidic and Lucy talk about how Templars want to control people, but we’re never told how. The closest we come to getting an answer is when she says it involves the “Templar treasure,” the artifact that’s supposed to be buried in Desmond’s memories. At the end of the game we finally find the artifact and see its power. We see that it creates illusions and can controls minds, and the pieces finally start to come together. We learn that Abstergo once had that artifact, but it was destroyed in an accident. Hidden in Altaïr’s memories is a map that will lead them to similar artifacts. Since the discovery of this map (i.e. the discovery of more mind control devices) is supposed to coincide with the satellite launch, it’s not a leap to imagine that the artifact is meant to go up with the satellite and will then be used on a global scale. So finally we have a picture of Abstergo’s grand plans. We know why Desmond was kidnapped, why he was forced to relive these particular memoirs, what the artifact does, but not what it is. As with any good mystery, there’s always more.
One of most interesting things about Assassin’s Creed is Ubisoft’s commitment to the mystery. The game ends on a dramatic cliffhanger, leaving us with only more questions. In most cases this kind of ending is frustrating, but Assassin’s Creed pulls it off because of the way it handles its slow reveal up to this point. By putting much of that reveal on the player’s shoulders, solving the mystery ourselves becomes a part of the gameplay: we control how much of the story we see. So when the answers aren’t handed to us in the end, we’re fine with that because they haven’t been handed to us before. We don’t actually want direct answers because we’ve had such satisfaction piecing everything together ourselves. By ending on a cliffhanger Assassin’s Creed leaves the mystery open, it gives us more time to think about it and more time to enjoy it. Because the best part of any mystery is not the solution, but the process of solving it.