Ubisoft has (righteously) copped a fair bit of stick in the past for some of its controversial decisions—DRM springs to mind as one such Ubi decision that wasn’t the most inspired of ideas. But now with the dust settled on E3, I’ve been setting the respective excitement levels for upcoming titles and realised that a bunch of them are Ubisoft titles. It’s not just the games themselves, though; it’s the core concept and narrative potential that has me most intrigued.
As a graduate of a creative writing degree, I often lament over the abuse of two core things in games: narrative and characterisation. Now, that’s not to say that a game needs these elements; but if a title tries to have an emphasis on narrative and/or characterisation, or states that these are features that are a core part of the game, I tend to judge these features more harshly than, say, a ‘popcorn’ shooter. The idea of a strong narrative or compelling characters aren’t new concepts in the gaming world, but titles that tick these boxes in the right way seem to be sparsely scattered throughout the gaming year.
Here’s a look at four Ubisoft titles—three of which were shown at E3 (and one that was, sadly, absent)—that have the potential to deliver the goods on a narrative and/or characterisation front.
Assassin’s Creed III Liberation is an odd title to start this list with A) because it’s a PlayStation Vita title and B) because it’s from the Assassin’s Creed series that has, up until the most recent release, gotten a wee bit lost in its storytelling. Before E3, when I heard rumours of a female assassin lead in a yet-to-be-named Assassin’s Creed handheld game, the idea of the protagonist sex change didn’t spark a reaction from me. First of all, it was for a handheld game—and these tend to emphasise gameplay over storytelling—and, second, it registered in much the same way as if the rumours pointed to a male protagonist.
When, however, I found out that said female assassin protagonist was of French and African descent and she would be fighting against slavery in 18th century New Orleans, I took an interest. When, on further research, I discovered that plaçage would be part of the plot, it became clear that Ubisoft was interested in exploring some darker real-life themes in Liberation. Beyond this, from the premise alone, you can draw a connection between the all-important ‘why?’ of the decision process behind choosing a female protagonist of mixed descent.
One of the storytelling lessons that stuck with me from my mostly forgettable university days was that there should be an identifiable logic behind the big decisions of a story. A story shouldn’t have locales, plot points, events or (arguably, most importantly) characters—particularly lead characters—that have been arbitrarily selected: everything should tie back to the story. And it’s clear that Aveline de Grandpré, the main lady of Assassin’s Creed III Liberation, has not been selected as the protagonist for flippant reasons: it makes sense that she’s female and, like Connor Kenway (protagonist of Assassin’s Creed III), of mixed descent.
Kiss my Vaas
When I visited Ubisoft Montreal earlier this year to see Far Cry 3, I left with a lot of hope that the third core game in the Far Cry series will nail the tight-rope act of grounded insanity. The discussions with other journalists at the junket revolved around narrative topics and ending predictions as it relates to characters, more so than discussing anything to do with gameplay (which still looked great, mind you).
The point with Far Cry 3 is that despite the fact it’s got a solid shooter foundation, it’s another example of Ubisoft emphasising narrative and characterisation over gameplay. Sure, the gameplay has been shown off in two successive E3s, but what sticks with me are two instances of Vaas: one from last year’s Far Cry 3 ‘definition of insanity’ reveal, and the multiple instances of Vaas at the end of this year’s gameplay walkthrough. He’s pushing the boundaries of how far a villain is willing to go and, subsequently, how confronting he will be to the player. I have a feeling that Vaas will be shortlisted for one of the best villains of all time once Far Cry 3 is released.
As much as I love shooters and the direction Far Cry 3 is heading, the biggest surprise of E3 was the unveiling of Watch Dogs. How Ubisoft kept this a secret is anyone’s guess, but a game that, at its core, explores the idea of privacy in a digital age and how personal information is explicitly and implicitly used against us is obviously of great social relevance.
It helps that the gameplay looks amazing, but it’s even more impressive that Ubisoft hasn’t shied away from the ugly side of how far Watch Dogs’ protagonist, Aiden Pierce, is willing to go to achieve his goals. Scanning a room of people to reveal deeply personal information is just as second nature for Pierce as changing a rainy intersection’s traffic lights to green for all approaches, putting innocent lives at risk to get to his target. Empowering players with the ability to such tools is a great way of exploring one of the most poignant life questions: does the end ever justify the means?
Last but certainly not least is a game that, heartbreakingly, wasn’t shown at E3 2012. In the form that was most recently touted, Rainbow Six: Patriots is set to be both a relevant and confronting title from premise alone. As long as the premise stays on target with what was pitched, the terrorists are American 99 percenters—that’s everyday people like you and me—who are waging a war against one percenters—the minority with all the money and power in the world.
This is the upcoming title that I’m most excited about. The aforementioned Ubisoft titles are gutsy in their own ways, but this leaves them all for dead in how ballsy the premise is. Considering the size of the American market and the pitch that players will jump in the shoes of Rainbow Six operatives, terrorists and even hostages, Patriots has the biggest potential to get in people’s faces with one of the most confronting questions of the last decade: what’s the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter? I’m hoping that ugly choices and perspective switches get to a point where even the most desensitised bloodthirsty shooter fan pauses, if only for a moment, before making life-or-death choices.
Time will tell if Ubisoft can deliver the narrative/characterisation goods with the staggered release of these aforementioned titles, but they’ve won a fair share of my excitement levels; and that’s no easy feat.
(Check out the E3 Far Cry 3 screenshot gallery attached to this article.)