Both Halo and Assassin’s Creed have stories that extend outside the games, and both Halo 4 and Assassin’s Creed 3 try to bring some of that outside fiction into the games. In doing so, they both run into problems with narrative structure. It’s hard to transition a story from a book/comic to a video game while still making the game a standalone product. The game is forced to serve two masters. It has to be an effective independent story and an effective sequel. Essentially, the writers are writing two stories that have to parallel each other so closely that they feel like one. Neither Halo 4 or Assassin’s Creed 3 succeed all the way at doing this, but one succeeds more than the other.
Assassin’s Creed has usually handled its transmedia transitions pretty well in that there haven’t been any transitions. The games and comics and other miscellaneous mediums all tell separate stories that only crossover in slight ways. This seems to me to be the best use of extended fiction material because my knowledge of the universe grows but at no point is that knowledge required for enjoyment of the original property. The various plots happily exist side-by-side, not intertwined. So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Assassin’s Creed 3 fails to bring these various outside plots together since that act is the antithesis of what worked so well before.
The game acts like a sequel when it assumes we’re familiar with the character of Daniel Cross and his relationship with the Assassins. The game wants to set him up as a thematic counterpoint to Desmond. The two meet multiple times in the real world and each time the conflict escalates before they finally fight to the death in the end. But the game doesn’t go far enough to properly set up the relationship between the two. Daniel never seems like much of a character, he just shows up in order to instigate chase scenes. He suffers from some incapacitating mental problems, but we never get any details about what’s wrong with him. He and Desmond never get a chance to talk, and we never learn how he was shaped to be a killing machine by the Templars, breaking his mind. You have to read the comic to understand his backstory and how it parallels Desmond’s own story of growing into his role as an assassin. The game uses the character building of the comics to skip its own necessary character building. This makes it a fine sequel, a fine continuation of the story in the comics, but it fails as standalone game narrative.
Unfortunately, it also then fails as a sequel or continuation of a plotline because it doesn’t actually do anything with the relationship that it assumes we’re familiar with. It doesn’t treat Daniel with the same importance as the other fiction does. Daniel isn’t a main antagonist, and he’s never even established as much of a threat. He’s a henchman, not a villain. The final battle is so anti-climactic that I wonder why it was even included in the main game.
Assassin’s Creed 3 isn’t just the end of Desmond’s story. It’s also end of Daniel’s story, but it’s clear that the writers didn’t know which one should be the focus. As a result, the game doesn’t do enough heavy plot lifting to effectively stand on its own, but it also doesn’t do enough with the plot it takes for granted to be an effective continuation.
Halo, on the other hand, has never handled its transmedia transitions very well. I still remember being very confused at the start of Halo 2. The first game ended with Master Chief adrift in an unknown area of space, then the sequel opens with him getting a medal in orbit around earth. How did he get back? I didn’t read the book that bridges that time gap (I think he hijacks a Covenant ship, I vaguely remember someone telling me something like that). However, my lack of knowledge didn’t impact my understanding of the game’s story. The same can’t be said for Halo 4.
Shortly after meeting the Didact, the villain of the story, we’re treated to an exposition dump that explains the war-torn history of the Halo universe. This kind of historical data dump is always confusing. It’s too much information to take in at once, so details are inevitably lost when we go back to shooting and fighting for our lives. (If that’s the intention à la Assassin’s Creed 2, in which even the main character thinks “What the fuck?,” then it’s probably okay to dump all the facts you want. Howeverm if you’re trying to relate important story information in a coherent manner, the exposition dump doesn’t work.). It’s unfortunately necessary in this case because in order to understand the Didact’s motivations we have to understand the universe’s history of war. Since I’m left confused at the end of the exposition, I remain confused up until the end of the game;. The only plot thread that pulls me forward is the general knowledge that the bad guy hates humanity, and I have to save humanity.
In this way Halo 4 fails as standalone product, but unlike Assassin’s Creed 3, it still succeeds as a transmedia sequel. The books introduce us to the Didact, we learn about his struggles, his multiple rises and falls from power, his conflicts with humanity, and the reasons for his eventual imprisonment. He becomes a well-established threat to humanity, and Halo 4 treats him as such since we spend the whole game fighting against him. I may not understand this enemy, but at least I understand that he’s powerful, dangerous, and determined. Halo 4 is a mediocre start to a game series starring Master Chief, but it’s an effective conclusion to a book series starring the Didact.
Assassin’s Creed 3 tries to serve both masters, resulting in a highly confused narrative. Halo 4, to its credit, picked one narrative and stuck with it to the end. It may not have been the narrative that best suited me personally, but at least, it worked for someone.
// Notes from the Road
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