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Why Present Day was de-prioritized, and ways to move forward with minimal losses on both sides

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DarkAlphabetZoup's picture
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[Convinced by Aurel to post this on THB.]

Disclaimer: My bias is in favor of Present Day. I think it's the bees' knees. For this writing, I'll try to tackle this subject as objectively as possible, setting my biases aside as best I can, to just try to explain the way I understand or intuit all of this.

Firstly, direction of the series shifted after Brotherhood. This is pure fact. Desilets directed AC1, 2, and Brotherhood, and since then, there have been different directors for each subsequent game. Alex Amancio got to do two of them. (Rev, Unity) Patrice Desilets is not the be all and end all of great game designers, but he's pretty damn good at his job, and he knew where he wanted his product and his franchise to go. Of course, things didn't work out that way, because Assassin's Creed is technically Ubisoft's franchise. They own it fair and square (much to many a fan's dismay) so Ubisoft have the rights to decide where it'll go. What consequences did this have on development? Well, having a single person no longer be directing an entire franchise means that the steady feeling of each game "maturing" or evolving the franchise becomes dramatically lessened. In addition, a loss of Focus can be felt by players, whether consciously or unconsciously. Back on topic, how does this relate to Present Day?

Immediately after Brotherhood, Present Day took its first foray into having us play in First Person. This will re-emerge in Black Flag and Rogue, and to a far lesser extent, in Unity and Syndicate. They're still in First Person, but they don't have any true interactive elements. AC3 does not follow this pattern, probably because Ubisoft believed, "Hey, it's the concluding game of the Desmond saga, we sort of have to put in core Present Day gameplay."

Alex Amancio directed AC Revelations, and due to financial strategy, reviews, or any other influences, Ubisoft's management at the time authorized the decision to focus less on Present Day in all upcoming Assassin's Creed titles due to how divisive the narrative and gameplay was for the consumer-base. One of the causes for how divisive it is, is that it's seldom present in any marketing for the games, leading to a kind of shock and dissonance experienced by players who have no idea that they'll encounter this, especially in what's ostensibly a historical action-adventure game.

Present Day can easily (some might say, even effectively) be argued to be the "heart" of Assassin's Creed. The past has already happened, so there can be no real stakes there in the franchise's current narrative format. However, the way the games' structure and their marketing are laid out clearly undermines this in simple, practical ways. Most of the games have historical gameplay dominating a majority of their playtime, and the player is given very little time to genuinely exist in or care about Present Day. Of course, there needs to be a reason why Ubisoft also doesn't begin marketing with Present Day in mind. That alone is something that would have people be less confused in the first place, right? That may be so, but there is an understanding of trends and seeing what works going on in the minds of Ubisoft's marketing experts. Simply including historical gameplay and historical narrative in most of AC's marketing functions well enough that Ubisoft can leave that marketing strategy alone without headaches or incident.

Further, Present Day started being stripped away bit by bit because it is easier to do so. Game development is a lot of hard work, especially when working for giant corporations like Ubisoft. "Crunch," is horrid-hard on game devs, and it happens in a high percent of AAA dev cases. Crunch is what happens when, for whatever reason, the needs of a game's development cause something to require changing or rebuilding from zero, but the devs themselves are not given a time extension to empower this need.

Basically, crunch can be mentally, physically and emotionally devastating, and while it's a "necessary evil" in the eyes of investors and most AAA game devs, they also know that if they can re-prioritize mechanics or features on a game that won't be a "big loss," so as to minimize crunch, that's strictly better than overscoping and torturing devs more than they have to be. It is a valid and viable tactic to minimize time cost, money cost, and the human cost of making a gigantic videogame that has to have a consistent release every year. We'll be able to observe whether this changes or not with AC Empire in 2017, as one extra year can allow for appreciable amounts of polishing and iteration.

It's really quite a sad case of the market determining an inordinately high amount of what will and won't be included in a final product. The market always dictates conditions for products, don't get me wrong, that's part of what "the market's" function is, even on its best days, let alone the days when companies face trouble or are reliant on a single product line keeping them alive and renowned.

There has been a large amount of pushback against Present Day due to its shoddy implementation, and with each successive year, they try a little less hard on it. It may be sad, but it makes sense.

===

TL;DR:
Present Day was Patrice Desilet's second great love in the series, with the first being the historical narratives. He holds both at the same level of importance, and he has gone on record to admit that, "It is what Assassin's Creed is about." With his departure and removal from Ubisoft, the grand direction of the Assassin's Creed franchise shifted, and the people who direct and manage the franchise right now do not prioritize Present Day, because Ubisoft doesn't view it as something that's vital to the rest of the game.

===

If I Had To Solve It:
First, background and standard defining my viewpoint shenanigans. First things first, really simple.

Present Day is an important topic of discussion because it affects people's enjoyment of the game.
This applies to everyone, whether they love it or hate it.

People who dislike Present Day do so because it ruins their game-flow. This is completely understandable. If someone gets really invested in a particular story, anything that cuts it off or demands their attention be placed elsewhere will feel like a nuisance or distraction, no matter how vital this content is claimed to be. Additionally, Present Day mechanics and gameplay loops have become so different from those of the historical gameplay, that the player is effectively (and suddenly!) expected to care about a whole different game!

People who enjoy Present Day do so because it gives them more bang for their buck. A player can experience one narrative, mostly disconnected from the grand scheme of things, or they can experience two, with the second being concerned with the question of, "Okay, these events occurred, but what meaning or purpose do they have in the story of Assassin's Creed on a macro scale?" Many of these players also feel that while a good historical narrative can make some individual games very strong, it's the Present Day/cyberpunk narrative that successfully links one game to another, making them all feel like important parts placed firmly in a cohesive world. For them, it makes it feel like each game, and therefore their actions within them, has purpose, and that the experience isn't simply created, "Just because." If they're lucky, the blanketing narrative develops meaningfully and has the same core mechanics as the historical gameplay.

This is why AC2's and AC3's Present Day are probably remembered most fondly.

For a while, these two goals or requirements, meaningful development and sharing of mechanics, haven't been achieved. This leaves both groups of players embittered and despondent. Present Day appreciators feel let down that they're being given scraps, while those who dislike Present Day feel it's still unnecessary to force artificial breaks in the narrative that they do enjoy, especially when those breaks feel even less meaningful than before.

This is made worse by the timing with which Present Day segments are initiated. They're almost always after a grand event happens in the historical part of the game, and they almost always happen automatically, without the player's input or choice. Firstly, this creates a cliffhanger that does more harm than good. Players are so excited to get back to the historical narrative, and so angry at the interruption that they'd be hard-pressed to care for the Present Day narrative. It's just a literal obstacle to their enjoyment. And can you blame them? I don't think so. They're right to feel that way, considering the way things are handled.

Likewise, people that do care about the Present Day gameplay and narrative would be happier if this timing and pacing issue was addressed as well.

Before I move on, I need to bring up this point that's in the back of a huge number of people's minds.

The simplest way to move forward is to just axe Present Day entirely, correct? This is, in a few ways, perfectly logical. However, it's also conditional. Ubisoft can't do this at any time they wish, because to cut away the Present Day narrative without it being wrapped up beforehand is leaving a story thread blatantly unfinished. There are many story threads in Assassin's Creed that haven't been addressed by the franchise yet, but some of these have been forgotten by some players. The sudden removal of an entire extra side of the game is not so subtle. The consequence to doing so is just looking terribly unprofessional and leaving a bitter taste in people's mouths. No one wants that. So, even if Present Day were eventually removed, first, it would need to be concluded. And now we move on to that pacing issue, and how to solve it.

What if when a Present Day segment was approaching, the player's Main Memory was locked away, but their Side Missions remained in the open world, and they could run around as they wished in the Animus until they decided to select "Log Out of Animus" out of their own free will? Perhaps they're prompted to do so after a vocal notification from an NPC monitoring the player in the Present Day, be it Shaun or Bishop, or Rebecca or whomever. Proceeding to the Main Memory's normal or greyed-out location would replay the prompt that the player must come back to Present Day, or remind them in a different way.

"Hey, you're needed out here. Desynchronize when you're ready."

That's not elegant, but it's simple, it's to the point, and it is enough. It's certainly more respect and forewarning than players get at the moment. Not that it particularly matters because all interactivity from Present Day has been removed for Unity and Syndicate, but this is still important.

Okay, so what does this do? Why am I even suggesting this?
It makes it clear when a Present Day segment is coming up, therefore making it something the player is not only ready for, but also something whose arrival and timing they themselves decide. Some players may want time to wind down from the historical narrative by doing some side quests if they wish. Others might like to return to reality immediately and see what's happening next if they're looking forward to it. It is remarkable how much this can help a player's mood and attitude toward Present Day if it's a necessity.

The need to Log Out yourself without the game forcing you out grants player control over the two "macro" game-states (in Animus, out of Animus), something that we've never had to do manually over the course of the story. The anticipation of hovering over that "Log Out" button makes it something the player has both preparation for, and control over.

Many people buy Assassin's Creed not to play either Present Day or historical gameplay, but to play Assassin's Creed. Having us play two different game styles -- third-person parkour stealth combat vs first-person detective work -- hurts Present Day's chances of inclusion for two huge reasons.

1. It's a game style that diverges from the kind of headspace the player has been in for their entire playtime thus far. Players haven't been doing first-person detective work, they've been playing Assassin's Creed, and they have probably been enjoying Assassin's Creed. Don't make them play not-Assassin's Creed.

2. It's more costly than simply grabbing the combat, parkour and stealth from the historical sections and repurposing them for slightly futuristic character models in slightly futuristic city-scapes. Those things are already built. Use them, cut down on all costs (time, money, human).

In a perfect world, Present Day would be a completely optional experience with the same core gameplay as the historical segments. However, since this is not a perfect world, they will either keep Present Day forced as it is now, and probably shallow, or they will remove it entirely after a slow and torturous set of events leading to some half-hearted conclusion.

I feel free in making the suggestion that allowing the player to decide when to exit the Animus and simply locking away their next Main Memory until they finish the next Present Day section is already a HUGE step forward, for all players. No, it's still not optional, but it's a hell of a lot better and more charitable than what happens currently.

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I just finished watching Twin Peaks and I really liked how initially all the supernatural elements were mainly just implied or when they became overt, seemed to be separate and often literally took place in dreams, calling into question their actual bearing on reality.

I'm not literally suggesting that the main historical character should dream of the future, but more that the animus and present day elements should be inserted into the game the way David Lynch inserted supernatural elements into a murder mystery: through subtle hints and mood, not long explanations. Twin Peaks in the later episodes fell into much the same kind of pattern as AC, with one episode literally being about characters descending into a cave filled with hidden carvings and clues. But earlier, it mostly did things as simple as cutting between a shot of a woman screaming and a hand picking up an object, implying that the woman was seeing a vision.

The animus loses its power to draw you in if it's completely and totally explained and made clear. What if instead the only direct hints that you're in an animus came from subtle choices in visual effects and npc behaviors? What if glitch artifacting was a rare thing you might see hints of as you're panning the camera around, then it's gone before you can entirely register it? or a tiny visual effect on damaging an enemy, not big or flashy, and easy to miss among the blood. or to more literally crib from twin peaks, cutscene direction that conveys a sense of artificiality or general mystery through movement and focus on specific things.

Then the moments when you come out of the animus aren't just a simple representation of modern times, but rather partially skewed by the bleeding effect. Abstract and austere sections of gameplay, rather than straightforward tactical missions, setpieces, or whatnot. historical imagery blending with modern day as you learn in subtle ways why you're reliving these particular memories, and what you're doing.

I suspect people don't mind having their flow broken as much as they think they do: they just want a confident and purposeful direction to those flow-breaks, one that is well-considered as a part of the overall story. In most AC games, the modern day elements are plainly obvious as set-dressing and not much else most of the time, and then when it gets more overt the sections usually feel very self-contained. I think what turns people off is the sense that they're meant to be thinking about both layers of fiction at the same time, all the time, rather than each layer being used to contrast the other.

The most effective modern day moment in Assassin's Creed 2 was the part where Desmond transitions into a memory inside the real world. This was much more confident and conceptually interesting than Ezio finding the vault, because in that case it feels like a halfway step in the same direction: trying to do the melding of past and present, only it's actually ancient technology, and there is where the connections in people's brains start to break down and it feels silly. (Revelations' scene with Ezio talking to Desmond was the far better version of this.)

Not everything in present day has to be a crazy dream sequence, but there need to be clear connections to the history the character is experiencing, and the plot and theme has to revolve around being immersed in this history and making connections between then and now.

It's a hard thing to do, but I think a lot of the trouble comes from second-guessing too hard, and taking people's reactions too literally. Case in point: AC2 is not actually an especially good execution of this concept, no matter how much folks say they love that game. "the part at the end where they go to a space temple" is not a novel trope, and the plot is just plain weird in terms of how poorly each (individually well-written) event connects to each other. Looking elsewhere (in and outside the series) continues to be a good strategy.

the posts a bit guy

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I think all of what you suggested is an excellent way to go, especially since next year's game is considered a soft reboot. I experienced a wonderful far-off, half-nauseated feeling just reading the Bleeding Effect suggestion, and that's exactly the kind of disorienting sensation a character in the games themselves would feel when transitioning between time periods.

What's mentioned about flow-breaking, and that players may feel a need to hold both timelines in mind at the same time makes sense, and I'm shocked I haven't thought of it until you brought it up. I never once approached Assassin's Creed this way. When it was time for Present Day, I was never thinking about the Past. When it was time for In-Animus gameplay, Present Day was never once in my mind. Maybe this is why I was able to enjoy it so much and see the merit in it. I focus on what genuinely matters at any given time.

Alternative wording: I focus on what the Protagonist is currently experiencing in their consciousness. If that's tracking Jubair al-Hakim among his many duplicates, then that's what it is. If that's traversing the Colosseum at night, then that's what it is. Both of these things are experienced by the same character. That one was experienced by his ancestor is important, but it's also besides the point: it's already happened. It's in the past. It's been over and done with for centuries. This is why it's so important and key to have an actual Present Day protagonist, because what they experience informs the entire player experience in a way that holds things together and keeps them consistent. The interruptions that Unity and Syndicate's Present Day cutscenes deliver feel MUCH more like interruptions than AC1-AC3's Present Day segments did, simply because I'm given no ownership of what happens in them. Not the way I was given ownership -- albeit small ownership -- over which Abstergo Guard I will take down first, or whether I'll do it with a Counter or a Strike, or whether I'll speak to Shaun and Lucy and Rebecca at all, and if I do, in what order. The fact that the player is a mere observer, if anything, makes Present Day more of an irritant than it ever was before. And on that note, isn't one of the cardinal Sins a videogame can commit to take away control from the player in favor of non-interactive cutscenes? Isn't that something that tends to be crucified quite rigorously?

All that said, a higher focus on interactivity combined with subtle hints rather than over-the-head-beating, and stronger mood/atmosphere would really do it for me, and for a lot of other players too, I'm sure.

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I think you've hit on something there: cutscenes are not necessarily bad as tools to focus attention, but when present day focused sections are already themselves interruptions in flow, further interrupting the flow a second time through significant non-interactive moments sours it all a bit.

A good way to think of this is limiting the game to one form of interruption at a time, never stacking them on top of each other. Using interactivity to dull the shock of an abrupt switch in tone and setting.

that's similar to the way the series could use the bleeding effect: to gradually ease into present day through the lens of familliar elements from the larger part of the game. I envision this as being a sort of gradual discovery that plays out over the course of the game, perhaps first appearing disguised as an ordinary mission with something only slightly off about it.

There is a lot of potential to use the bleeding effect as sort of a two-way street: where the memories you relive map onto your own personal narrative and vice versa, showing you elements or sides of the story that feed into an understanding of what learnings the subject is taking from their sessions, and subtly explain why these memories are arranged in such a way that certain themes seem to be evident.

After all, if you edited the memories of any person, you could shape them in any way you wanted, drawing out whatever narratives you desire just based on where you start, end, and what you skip. Therefore the animus is not objective in terms of how it builds emotional journeys, though it is basically objective in terms of most hard facts.

So, maybe the present day story is more about the animus user constructing a narrative and acting on it than being a directly parallel separate story. The role of a framing device allows for important events and revelations to occur, but usually a more emotional and abstract sort of closure.

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That would work well. Especially so, because of what was revealed in the Abstergo Employee Handbook released alongside Unity. I'm not a big supporter of story elements being released in side materials that also cost money, but this is one tidbit that's really important to keep in mind, I think: What the Animus shows objectively can only go so far because the user is Synchronized entirely with their ancestor's conscious state. What this includes is all of their emotions, all of their senses, and everything that they would've experienced. This might seem like a "no duh" thing, but Ubisoft have been suggesting the Animus is a hyper-objective, super unbiased thing, when in fact what the Subject experiences is completely in sync with the subjective emotional viewpoint of their ancestor at the time those memories were written-to-DNA.

It can all be read here:
http://www.accesstheanimus.com/Present_day_Chronicles_The_Abstergo_Emplo...

Some of the creepy parts include the subject falling in love with Elise De La Serre because of the intense Synchronization with Arno, going so far as to break up with his real life girlfriend in pursuit of a woman who's been dead for centuries.

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oh god, being forced to feel arno's boring thoughts and emotions sounds horrible!

anyways, as a concept that's getting somewhere, but I'd like to think it could be portrayed as somewhat of a two way street as far as what parts of the ancestor's emotions and memories are latched onto must strongly.

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Hahaha. Yeah, they definitely need to work on it and develop it further, because it does have some neat potential. Another thing we learn from that same Abstergo Handbook is that, as of around Unity, Abstergo has discovered a new kind of Bleeding Effect that functions differently from the previous one. They do not know much about it at that point, but hopefully by some of the upcoming ACs it crops up in gameplay.

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that sounds interesting, though I hope they don't explain the new effects very explicitly and mostly just imply it through what we as players experience.

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I'd prefer that, yeah. The previous Bleeding Effect was explained in totality pretty much when Clay talked about the Sync Nexus in Revelations. It was still explained a huge amount beforehand though, maybe around the time of AC2/Brotherhood. With these next AC games starting next year, they've got various possible Present Day protagonists ready and available, who are not Desmond and who are not (shouldn't be, anyway) attempting to be Desmond, but who are their own people with their own stories. Telling the story in a different way with them would be a welcome change, as a kind of, "Things have progressed. Here's a different character in the same universe, five years later." To my knowledge this is exactly what the AC movie is doing.

It's all canon, it's taking place in the world and universe the games take place in, so there may be subtle references to the games, but nothing beyond that. It's its own story taking place away from the narrative of the games, sharing some similarities, factions and events, but not preoccupied with overlapping more than it needs to. Callum Lynch is doing his own thing in one part of the world, while Shaun and Rebecca are doing theirs somewhere else, and they don't get in each other's way.

I think this is the best possible way to approach it.

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That's something I really liked about brotherhood and revelations. It was obvious that they were followups in a continuing story, but the way they continued things wasn't quite the way you might expect: there was in both cases a shift in the way the story was being told. The thing that opened Brotherhood, the partially inaccessible/glitchy memory telling itself in backwards sequence, and then the abstract isolation feeling and animus-only premise of Revelations.

And beyond that, they were just very different kinds of stories, written without as much sense that they're beholden to how things were written and conveyed in previous games.

AC3 was another shift in terms of story and writing, but the fact that it so directly connects to the end of revelations made it feel more familiar and firmly connected to things we already knew. Black Flag was a pretty good step back towards keeping us off-balance with a new perspective and framing device, but Unity, Rogue, and Syndicate all felt pretty predictable again.

I feel like both new and returning players should feel like they've stepped into something that they don't fully understand, when they start an AC game.

That way for old players it feels fresh, and for new players there's no expectation that they've been following everything that came before, because this stuff is new to everyone.

the posts a bit guy