Caution: Spoilers for Assassin’s Creed III Ahead!
The Assassin’s Creed franchise is one of the most original and imaginative video game series. Spanning 5 huge games, it mixes science fiction, fantasy, history, philosophy, and literature to tell an incredibly convoluted story of a centuries spanning conspiracy involving two opposing factions, the Templars and the Assassins. Throughout history they have fought over mysterious artifacts called Pieces of Eden, left behind by a more technologically advanced civilization that came before us. While both share the same goal of saving mankind, their differences lie in their approach, with the Templars seeking peace through control and subjugation, and the Assassins through freedom and individualism. This core philosophical difference between the two factions is the intellectual crux of the entire series. At the center of it all is the present day Desmond Miles, a bartender with an incredible and diverse bloodline of Assassins that holds the fate of the entire planet in its hands, and which the only way to access is through the Animus, a device that allows one to experience the life of their ancestors.
From the beginning, the creative team behind the franchise announced that they envisioned this story as a trilogy. Naturally, it was assumed that they had the major beats of the story mapped out, and as the series continued to pile on more and more questions, fans had faith that by the end of the third and final game all these questions would be answered. For myself and doubtless many others, the excitement for Assassins’ Creed III came from the fact that it was going to be the end to everything that was set up prior. With the threat of the end of the world closer than ever, the stakes had never been higher. From the opening moments, players are given a sense of the sheer scale that the stakes had been set at, and it gives the player a feeling of an epic finale. The player gets excited and jazzed, ready to see how Desmond follows his destiny and saves the world.
For the most part, Assassin’s Creed III is a great entry in the series, and worthy of being the final chapter. The setting of Colonial America and the Revolutionary War is an intriguing one, and getting to interact and take part in the famous events we were taught in school is one of the most enjoyable aspects, if a little on the nose. Connor, while not as charming and cool as Ezio, is a sympathetic protagonist who often frustrates you with his arrogance, and the writing, for the most part, is as consistently good as prior games. Gameplay remains largely unchanged with the exception of the naval missions, a welcome addition in part because of how novel and insanely fun they are. Despite these positives, however, Assassin’s Creed III is the most frustrating entry in the series for its inability to deliver on its own set ups in a satisfying way.
This fact is most evident it the final stretch of the game, where instead of feeling emotional and epic, it feels fast and cheap. The final confrontation with Connor’s father is as easy as any other fight, the chase with Charles Lee is actually boring and drawn out, and once it is actually revealed where Connor hid the key, it feels like the fast forward button is put on over drive. Before I knew it, the final scene was presented before me, and like the last hour or so, it flies by in an instant and is over before I knew it. I was actually taken aback when the credits started rolling, and while I knew something would follow after, that turned out to be more cryptic setting up for the inevitable sequel. In an instant, Desmond’s story arc was over; treated like an afterthought. Where was the emotion? Where was the sense of closure? Where was the scale? Where were the tangible effects of Desmond’s decision? Where was the closure to the present day conflict between the Assassins and Templars? The final moments of a story are crucial in giving its audience the proper catharsis through emotional payoff, and Assassin’s Creed III failed spectacularly.
After I recovered from yet another colossal let down from one of my favorite video game series this year, my thoughts turned to wondering exactly why so many video games fail to give satisfying endings. Too often we are given intriguing premises that simply taper off towards the end, and it is incredibly frustrating because often times the material leading up to it is quite good. Obviously the ending of Mass Effect 3 is the best example of this due to the sheer amount of publicity and outcry it generated, and this was in no small part to the genuinely amazing content that preceded it. People that have experienced the ending first hand will tell you that it failed because it suddenly introduced huge plot elements within the last 10 minutes of the game, didn’t give the player any emotional catharsis, and failed to deliver on the promise of choice and consequences that had been so integral to the series. This led to an instant disconnect from the player, and when emotions were riding as high as they were at the end of Mass Effect 3, this disconnection generated very negative emotions. Hence the enormous outcry.
When considering the games that suffer from this problem and really dissecting why their endings fail, it appears that it is almost always because they follow one of three formulas guaranteed to disappoint players. Either they end too abruptly, introduce a twist or plot element that comes from nowhere, or just negate to resolve anything as an obvious means of sequel baiting. Looking at the ending of Assassin’s Creed III, it falls into all three of these categories. Knowing this, is it any wonder why so many consider it to be terrible? Mass Effect 3 also left things too open, which made the seemingly apocalyptic events of the final moments so heart wrenching that it left players depressed. Halo 2 is one of video gaming’s most notoriously abrupt endings, leaving the player hanging just as things were truly heating up. Granted, I feel Halo 2 can be forgiven a bit for this, as second chapters in a trilogy tend to end with cliffhangers. Other endings often regarded as failures include Borderlands, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and the original ending of Fallout 3, all of which suffer from at least one of the three formulas outlined.
It doesn’t take a master storyteller to see why these kinds of endings always suck. Abrupt endings can’t really be considered endings, as they resolve as little as possible with equally little satisfaction. Out of nowhere endings are disconnected from everything that came before it and so have no relevance to what the player cares about, many times flat out contradicting prior plot developments. Cliffhanger endings are always derided regardless of medium because audiences hate being strung along, as it makes us feel like we are being talked down to. They work in small instances, but not as endings. So if it is so easy to see why these kinds of endings are almost universally hated, why do so many developers rely on them to end their games?
Since most gamers aren’t privy to the exhaustive process developers go through while making a video game, we can only speculate why this happens so often. One of the more obvious reasons is probably due to budgetary and time constraints. Video games are getting more expensive to make while publishers still crunch for time with typical two to three year development periods. Now while this seems like a long time to be working on one game, when making on a game as huge as Assassin’s Creed III or Mass Effect 3, two years isn’t that long. Making video games is a complicated process, and the bigger the game, the more complicated and laborious making it is. Anyone who has played Assassin’s Creed III knows that it is full of glitches and bugs, and this is most likely because the game could have used at least a couple more months of polish. However, because Ubisoft needed to meet the fall release date, they weren’t given the necessary time to be properly addressed. Perhaps this is also why the game ended so abruptly. If the game had more time and money, maybe the ending would have been fleshed out more.
If time and budgetary constraints aren’t the reason, then maybe the writing process is. Unlike books or films, which are usually written by one or two people, games are written by large teams of people who are individually assigned to write certain aspects of the game. One person may be in charge of scripting the homestead missions while another is given the Kanien’keha:ka sequences. This splitting of sections among writers works for efficiency purposes, but can lead to conflicts in narrative cohesion. We know that the reason the ending to Mass Effect 3 felt so distant from the material that preceded it is because it was rewritten multiple times all the way until the end of 2011. Just to put things in perspective, the final release was March 6th, 2012. That is certainly cutting it close.
There is also the reality behind video games themselves: they exist to make money. As such, it is to be expected that publishers will attempt to hold on to their big franchises for as long as possible. It is quite probable that, despite originally being conceived as a trilogy with a definitive conclusion, as the Assassin’s Creed games continued to become more popular with each release, Ubisoft pressured the creative team to leave it open for more games. Hence we got an ending with little resolution and an obvious cliffhanger. Video games, especially the big popular franchises, are guilty of doing this on a regular basis. There is simply too much money at stake, and publishers can’t resist a sure thing.
Perhaps it is the nature of video games themselves that allow them to constantly fail to deliver satisfying endings. Unlike other mediums, games have to involve the player throughout the storytelling process, and this includes the end. To this day, many games throw a final boss at the end as a means of both giving the player that one final challenge and reconciling the narrative with the gameplay. However, as the technical abilities of video games continue to evolve, this tactic only continues to grow more archaic. Many times final bosses feel shoehorned in, as was the case with Uncharted 2, a nearly flawlessly paced game that only stumbled once it felt the need to get that last boss in there. Instead of being exhilarating, it ended up being easy and felt forced. Naughty Dog must have been aware of this criticism, as they improved the final conflict substantially in Uncharted 3.
We may not know exactly why so many video games continue to fail us, but the one thing we do know for sure is that the medium is still experiencing growing pains. Video games have only been around as a widely experienced medium for a couple decades, and only in the last 15 years have they really been pushing the envelope with what stories can be told. The methods have to adapt to the constantly changing technologies and business practices, both of which are arguably more complicated than those of other mediums. While the endings of our favorite games can crush us with how unsatisfying they are, we must approach them with constructive criticism and understanding. As someone who chooses to spend much of their time getting invested in these stories, I strongly believe we have the right to let our voices be heard. Great stories deserve great endings, and the Assassin’s Creed trilogy deserved a great ending. Instead it ended up being another blunder in the video game industry’s ongoing attempt to find its footing, and that’s okay, as long as they learn from their mistakes.
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This article was first posted on November 20, 2012