I’m a dude playing a game, playing a dude, playing a game
If there’s one thing Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag isn’t lacking, it’s change. In a franchise that prides itself on making each installment feel distinct, regularly switching settings, revising mechanics, and introducing new protagonists, Black Flag might well represent the most drastic departure to date. In fully embracing the backdrop of 18th-century Caribbean piracy, the team at Ubisoft Montreal has been forced to rethink some of the series’ longest-standing tenets, swapping land-based maps for a sprawl of ocean dotted with tropical islands and port cities ripe for the plundering.
But one of the most fascinating changes to Assassin’s Creed IV has nothing to do with ships or swashbuckling. Instead, it’s the way the game handles it present-day segments. Like the Vita spin-off Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, Black Flag acknowledges its own status as a game—ostensibly one developed by Abstergo Entertainment, the media arm of Templar-run megacorp Abstergo Industries.
“Desmond’s story ended in ACIII, and we felt that there was this really cool opportunity to do something a little bit different with the present day but also hopefully bring in new players to the brand, even if we have ‘IV‘ in the title,” explains game director Ashraf Ismail. “We took this opportunity to show a different face of Abstergo. At this point, Abstergo Industries was this very cold, almost evil corporation. We didn’t really necessarily want to say that Abstergo was outright evil, so we’re showing a different face of them.”
That different, more lighthearted face shines through brightest in ACIV‘s multiplayer suite, where you’ll be able to watch a series of introductory videos hosted by the in-universe community manager, a cheery CG British man who enthusiastically takes you through the game’s features. These brief cinematics should be an ingenious way to familiarize players with the basic concepts of AC multiplayer and additions like Game Lab’s game-mode creation tools without ever breaking the illusion. It’s also a way to inject a bit of winking humor into what would otherwise be a functional and fairly boring part of the game, riffing on the hype-building trailers and grinning pitchmen gamers are all too familiar with.
“We wanted to poke a bit of fun at ourselves, the game industry, and being game developers,” Ismail says. “You’ll see a lot of nods and making fun of ourselves.”
The game-within-a-game mentality carries over into the single-player experience as well, where you’ll encounter plenty of Abstergo Entertainment branding, including optional challenges that pop up onscreen not unlike Ubisoft’s own Uplay notifications. But Ismail is also quick to point out that, with regards to the campaign, this narrative wrapper goes much deeper than anything the franchise has seen before. “It’s not just a meta-layer like it was in Liberation or the multiplayer,” he elaborates. “In our [single-player] game, it’s an actual environment with NPCs that you talk with and deal with.”
You’ll explore this environment, which Ismail describes as a “mini–open world,” as an employee of Abstergo Entertainment, from a first-person perspective that’s designed to let players immerse themselves in the role. As part of your job, you’re tasked with entering the Animus to explore the life of Edward Kenway—but things won’t stay quite that straightforward for long.
“As the story progresses and you start looking behind the veil, you start realizing that there’s actually nefarious reasons behind [the research]. And you actually start finding out information about Abstergo Industries and why they have this front,” Ismail explains. “On the optional side of things, there’s actually a lot of content that you can find, exploring the mythos of Assassin’s Creed, showing you what happened to Desmond after ACIII.”
That word, “optional,” comes up quite frequently when Ismail talks about Assassin’s Creed IV‘s present-day segments—and for good reason. He says that these sequences have long been divisive among fans of the franchise, with some embracing the ambitious dual narrative and others viewing them as an unwanted detour from the excitement of the past. One of the the team’s biggest challenges has been crafting a present-day experience that will be warmly received by both camps. With Black Flag‘s Abstergo Entertainment twist, Ismail thinks they’ve finally cracked it.
“You go to the present day five times in the main path,” he says. “Each moment is, say, three to four minutes. So, in a game that’s 20 hours long, you go back there for about 20 minutes. It’s pretty tiny. Having said that, you can exit the Animus any time you want to explore this world, and there’s hours of optional content that fleshes out the universe. For the fans that love the present day and love the mythos of AC, you have a lot of it to discover. For those that don’t really like it and only care about the past, we cater to that, too. I think it’s a really good balance.”