Assassin’s Creed IV: Narrative as Theme

So I’m banging into my Masters now, and it’s honestly just wonderful. Lots of reading, lots of learning, right up my alley. The Masters is on video games (twist!), and I imagine some of the stuff that I read about will inform the posts here. That’s certainly the case today, anyway. There’s a book called Narrative as Virtual Reality by Marie-Laure Ryan – she’s a big name in the field of digital narrative, and it’s a pretty cool book. One of the things that she talks about is how narrative works in these digital worlds, and that’s what we’re talking about today. 

So when you’re working with literature, the form is different to games. Literature is static – there’s a bunch of words on the page, and they just sit there. Compare to video games, which you actually have to play. There are also issues around how plot works. In books, because they’re static, there’s only one plot. It goes in one direction, and there’s one set pace that all readers experience. It’ll have the same pace for a reader in France three hundred years into the future. If you graphed the different paces of the various scenes in the book, that graph would remain constant for everyone. But video games aren’t like that.

is that a far cry tower? 

Take Assassin’s Creed IV, for example. Quick pause: holy shit Assassin’s Creed IV is fun. Okay – so there are plot missions that’re all over the map, and you can sort of sashay your way around this open world map and do the different plot missions basically whenever you want. Where literature has a singular pace and series of events, video games don’t (or don’t necessarily – some do). Each player does things at their own pace – so if you want to race through all the story missions and ignore all the side quests, you can do that. And if you want to meticulously collect every treasure chest in the game before you do Story Mission 2, well, you can basically do that too. (Technically you can’t but also just recognise the point I’m making okay?)

Let’s associate corporations with an ancient evil fascist-cult.

So if we imagine these two plots, these two experienced versions of the events of the game, they’re very distinct. And that’s a problem for literary scholars, because we don’t know which version to talk about. Really there is no singular version that you can treat as the ‘proper’ one – that’s just how games work. So one of the things that’s happening is that academics who study video games, or even digital narrative more broadly, are building these new models for thinking about narrative, and all of this new vocabulary that will let us talk about the way these stories work.

ooh shit

So Ryan, that lady from before. She’s talking about hyperlink novels, and ways of conceptualising their narrative flow. One of the models she puts forward is the kaleidoscope: there’s a whole bunch of narrative chunks, and they don’t come along in a chronological order, and you sort of end up with this narrative spaghetti that you order into some sort of meaningful story. Here’s the quote that I’m focusing on:

“The kaleidoscope model works better with poetic texts in which the meaning of the sequence is not narrative but lyrical – that is, not logical, causal, and temporal but associative, thematic, and quite tolerant of incongruous juxtapositions.” (p220-1)

Now, I don’t know about you, but ‘associative, thematic, and incongruously juxtaposed’ is how I’d describe the moment to moment gameplay of an Assassin’s Creed game. Rather than trying to conceptualise Assassin’s Creed as an infinite combination of different quests and sidequests and collectible items, and then trying to piece those all together in some logical causal linear narrative – it’s not gonna work for you. Better instead to work by associations and themes.


We’re taking ‘theme’ out of context here – normally we think about it as a recurring idea that’s focused on throughout the book. A theme of 1984 is ‘government’; a theme of To Kill a Mockingbird is ‘race’. They’re recurring ideas. Usually they’re abstract and dealt with indirectly – abstract in the sense that they’re concepts rather than physical objects, and dealt with indirectly in the sense that you’re not reading an essay. To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t explicitly say ‘Racism is bad and it would be nice if people didn’t do it’. Instead, it wraps the idea up in a bunch of narrative: we learn about people’s lives and small-town America and interpersonal relations, and the theme of racism is explored indirectly through the narrative that’s being told. That’s the usual understanding of ‘theme’, but we’re going to change it slightly.

synchronised synchronising

Currently in my game of Assassin’s Creed IV, I can play checkers and go on assassination missions and sail around the ocean and blow up enemy ships and attack forts and discover new islands and send my fleet on trading missions and escort merchants and board enemy frigates and climb trees and hunt and find rum and drink at bars and do all of this stuff that’s not really strictly relevant to the plot. Some of it is, but mostly it’s just pissing around. The constant theme in all of this is the character of Edward Kenway, pirate captain, living in the Carribean. Here, character becomes theme: he is the thread stringing all of these basically unrelated events together. He’s less of a person and more of a concept, a fictional excuse for you to do a bunch of different things. This also means that we can stop trying to talk about the plot of the game, per se – we just have to talk about the themes. We can talk about the specific things that you did in your playthrough, and instead of talking about them as a fixed linear sequence of events, they merely have a thematic association in Kenway. Narrative still exists, in the sense that you still have a series of story missions that you do, and they’re still going to happen in the same order, in the sense that you only do the second story mission after the first. But as critics, as interpreters and researchers, we’re not interested as much in the temporal connection between these things as we are the thematic. Plot becomes goop, time collapses into a series of themes and associations. And we can talk sensibly about goop and associations. That gives us something to work with.

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