Progressing in Assassin's Creed: Revelations feels uncomfortably like joining a cult.
Earning “levels” and “unlockables” has become a standard carrot-on-a-stick for multiplayer games, and perhaps that’s why they’re not as enticing as they once were. Not only are they common, but they’re no longer a proper indicator of personal skill. When I enter a match and see that I’m the highest level person in the room, rather than feel powerful, I wonder how many people here have already reached the maximum level and started over. In racing terms, how many of my opponents have already lapped me? Even if we take levels as an indicator of playtime, not skill, they’re still confusing because I don’t know who has reset their stats and who hasn’t. These standard systems of progression have become clichéd and that’s why the multiplayer in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is so refreshing. It presents those same systems of progression in a new light.
In short, multiplayer adds a story to the competitive experience. Brotherhood did too -- to a lesser extent. That previous game gave your actions context, setting the countless multiplayer battles within the greater fiction in a logical way (you’re a Templar using the Animus to learn how to fight like an Assassin). But Revelations goes a step further, adding a clear narrative arc to your level progression.
You begin as recruit, a low-level peon, but as you level up, you become a more trusted employee and get access to secret files that reveal the truth about Abstergo. Mechanically, this isn’t all that different from what other games have done. Revelations is just using narrative elements as unlockable rewards rather than mechanical elements, but the real genius is that the game acknowledges this tactic. It acknowledges that this information is locked away and that you have to jump through arbitrary hoops in order to access it. In fact, that’s the entire point. Only dedicated players get access to the information because according to the fiction only the dedicated employees can be trusted with the information. In this way, progressing in Revelations feels uncomfortably like joining a cult.
This multiplayer story revolves around you as the protagonist. You are the main character; everyone else is secondary. As you level up, you’ll unlock cut scenes that play in-between matches. Warren Vidic, the bad guy from the first Assassin’s Creed, pulls you out of the Animus to tell you how good you’re doing. The scene is shot from a first-person perspective, so when he says that you’re standing out from the crowd and that you’ll go far if you keep this up, he’s talking specifically to You, the player. Once you reach level 20 you become an official Templar, and you get a cut scene showcasing all the luxuries that reward a Templar’s loyalty. From this point on, you’re clearly in the big leagues.
It’s smart that Ubisoft decided to tell this kind of personal story rather than sticking with the vague you’re-a-soldier-in-a-greater-war conceit. That kind of high-level narrative justification is interesting, but getting personal allows the plot to progress with my rank. As I grow as a Templar, my story moves forwards. I’m not just playing to rank up; I’m playing to see what happens next.
What’s truly clever about this narrative construction is that it still makes sense if you look at it from the larger multiplayer perspective. From the individual’s perspective, Vidic singles me out for praise, encouraging me to work harder, implying that I’m special. Of course, every player is going to see this video if they play long enough, so from the multiplayer perspective, I’m not special at all. However, the Templars are known to be master manipulators, so it’s only natural to assume that Vidic would talk to each player, making them feel special so that they’ll work harder. No matter how you look at the story, his actions are consistent with his character.
What’s really interesting -- and frightening == is how effective he is. I know I’m being manipulated, but his words of encouragement are actually encouraging. Whether that encouragement stems from his actual words, or just their status as an unlockable that indicates progress, it doesn’t matter. They make me want to keep playing. And as I play, I get better. And as I get better, I want to play more. And as I play more, I learn more about Abstergo’s dark goals, but by that point, I’m already so enmeshed in the company culture that the awful truth doesn’t turn me away. Instead it makes me more loyal. I’m one of the few to know this truth, one of the few to unlock this unlockable. It doesn’t matter that that’s not actually true (I’ve played against penough level 50 and Prestige players to know there are countless others more loyal than me), but the way that the story unfolds -- or rather, the way that the story is unlocked -- still makes me feel unique.
It’s all a trick, one that multiplayer games have been using since Call of Duty 4 came out, but Revelations makes that purposeful manipulation part of the story. I know that Vidic is lying to me when he says that I’m special, but after a crappy match in which I failed to kill a single target, I want to believe the lie.