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Assassin’s Creed IV’s Lead Writer Darby McDevitt on Magical Rainbow Unicorns, Racism and Bastards

September 30, 2013 Written by Sebastian Moss

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Earlier in the month, I sat down with Darby McDevitt, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag‘s lead writer, to talk about the game, but ultimately ended up discussing how I’m a bastard and why unicorns are awesome.

Hi Darby, could you tell us a little a bit about yourself?

I’m Darby McDevitt, I’m the lead writer for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

How many writers are involved? It’s usually quite a lot.

This game had myself, Jill Murray, who wrote Liberation, she wrote the Aveline content and a lot of the side content – there’s lots of great side narratives in this game – and then some of the cool present day content that you find in Abstergo Entertainment. Another guy named Mark Hill over in Singapore, he wrote a lot of the Singapore content, naval contracts and a couple of missions that they worked on. And then Nicholas Grimwood, he’s a voice designer/writer, he writes all the AI dialogue for all the pirates aboard the ship, all the people in the cities, all the ambient conversations.

The pirate writing must be fun.

Yeah, he had a good time, there’s a really great book called Two Years Before The Mast, it’s about sailing and it has this massive glossary in the back which was super useful. It was written around 200 years ago, it’s fantastic.

Liberation dealt with themes of racism, and I noticed BF also seems to be doing that. Is that difficult to do in a game?

I don’t know… I wouldn’t say it’s difficult. If you do the research, and you try to approach it as honestly as possible without trying to settle scores. There were a lot of noble people back in the day who were opposed to slavery, every century has had a healthy amount of people opposed to it, so it’s fine to have people opposed to slavery, to have people discuss it, to have people question it, and clearly slaves are against slavery. But the institution persisted.

For me, as long as you don’t use a single character to right wrongs in a kind of unreasonable way, a single person who wipes slavery off the map for 5 years… as long as you don’t go overboard with that, and you are just able to bring these attitudes to life, it’s not difficult as a writer, it’s just difficult to try to convince people that it’s ok to talk about these kinds of things. People get very sensitive, and a lot of times marketing will say ‘can you change that to servant and not slave’, and things like that, and you have to say ‘no, that’s a terrible idea’.

Aside from the slavery aspect, Edward is a bit of a bastard.

Yeah!

Is that a dichotomy of sorts? You can’t kill civilians, but you can go on a boat and kill innocent traders…

Yeah, that’s the thing with these games that we make, we always have that problem where we give you the mechanics to go combat everybody, but then you’re supposedly playing a character with a very strong moral center. So the joke is always ‘Guard #632 is standing on watch one day and he can’t wait to get home to see his wife and Uurghhhghh, he’s pulled off a rooftop and killed by noble Ezio’. That’s always a problem with the storytelling, right?

So at least with a pirate character, you’re embracing a player’s natural tendency towards chaos. That’s why in Grand Theft Auto they always embrace the criminals – they go over-the-top and crazy – but they recognize that they have given you the ability to steal cars, crash cars, kill people, shoot people etc, what kind of story can they tell? Are players going to be noble with all this arsenal of death at their disposal?

So a pirate character is actually closer to the mechanics we give you than, maybe, Ezio, although it doesn’t stop them from being damn fun games and damn fun stories. But at least we close off the ludonarrative dissonance a little bit. I wanted to make Edward a bit of a short fuse, a bit of an asshole. At his core he’s a good man, but he’s way too selfish to think about doing right by others. In our game you’re always killing the navy and soldiers, and he probably has this sense that the King and his emissaries have screwed him over his whole life as a poor Welshman, so he’s giving one back.

How far can you push the character, how evil can you get?

Hmm, I don’t want to spoil anything. What would constitute the most evil thing…?

I locked some people in a hold and then sunk their ship.

He doesn’t deliberately torture people.

Well I managed it. There was a scene where you’re able to lock them up.

Oh yeah! [Laughs] That’s you, Edward didn’t do that, you’re the bastard.

Is that an issue, that you want to write a great story, but the player might not be doing what you want, might not be looking where you want?

That’s always the issue, that’s the holy grail of game design storytelling – how do we tell a story and make sure that a player’s actions don’t contradict the story arc that we’ve crafted. I have my own theories about that, I’m very skeptical that people with ever find a pre-written narrative that can fit nicely with complete and total player freedom. Games are always about restrictions as much as they are about freedoms. It depends on the game you’re making, and the story you’re making.

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What was it like coming into an existing franchise’s plot and trying to still have your own story?

It’s very difficult. The story of ACIV is very different from the games before, especially because we made the decision to make Edward a pirate and not an Assassin. He has Assassin friends, he mixes with them, he actually has Templar acquaintances as well. I like to think of him as a pirate who steals people’s gold, but he also steals people’s techniques. He takes from the Assassins what he likes, and he leaves behind what he doesn’t like. I thought it was important to do that, simply for the sake of refreshing what we’ve seen before.

We’ve had two characters now, Ezio and Connor, who, while they had very different stories, the plots that begin their journeys are somewhat similar: There’s a personal tragedy that propels them into the bosom of the Assassins, and then they very quickly decide that the Assassin mentality is useful for them to see their goal through, and it works for them. I wanted to write a story where a guy was introduced to the Assassin-Templar conflict and thought it was ridiculous and just wanted to use it to get what he could for his own personal goals. Some people may find it abhorrent to stray that much, but I think it’s refreshing. I think when people play it, it will feel like a very clear addition to the Assassin’s Creed arc, but it’s definitely a sideways glance at the Creed itself.

Fans like to point out that the phrase ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted’ was never uttered in AC3. It is uttered, and discussed at some length in this game, so fans can at least rest assured at that. There is an Assassins’ Order, there are Assassin bureaus, so it’s got a very classic AC feel.

I think with the earlier ACs, the Templars felt quite clear cut as baddies, but now they’re beginning to become a bit more nuanced. They have their own motives, they’re more fleshed out.

Yeah, I hope that there’s a sense that the Templars have somewhat honorable goals. The Templars in our game find pirates like Edward as absolute parasites, and they’re not wrong, pirates are parasites, they feed off the industry of civilization. The Templars’ goal in this game is a kinda complete and total justice, by any means necessary. They believe they have their eye on a tool of some sorts that will usher in a new era of justice. But this tool is a bit wicked, it could lead to some bad things. You don’t know if it’s a good idea or a bad one… it’s… I’m trying to talk around the spoilers…

I’ll just put it’s a giant unicorn.

It’s a giant flying unicorn that has rainbows shooting out of its horn.

GOTY.

It placates all anger and aggression, but you lose all your limbs when you’re hit by the rainbow beam. So is it peace and justice, but nobody has any arms and legs? I don’t know.

I have no idea what I’m saying.

Uh, but uh, so people coming to the franchise now will probably be just as confused as we seem to be. There’s a lot of history, a lot of games, and a lot of story to catch up on. Will they be ok?

We designed the story specifically so that you could come into the series afresh. Like I said, the Assassin-Templar conflict is discussed at length, Assassins talk about what they’re for, Templars talk about what they’re for. Templars don’t have a creed, but rather a goal, the goal is to create a one world government where peace and justice and harmony exist, but if they have to subdue vile people because of that, they will. So, for the first time, I write in this game a saying that the Templars say. The Assassins have a creed, and the Templars have a method, so maybe there could be a game called Templars’ Method.

With unicorns.

Yeah! [Laughs]

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I think a lot of people were expecting AC to eventually come to the modern era, but now we’ve got Watch Dogs

I hope for people that Watch Dogs scratches that itch. It’s not an Assassin’s Creed game, it’s not explicitly set in the Assassin’s Creed universe (although we have some fun, and we do some cross pollination for fun, not in a serious combination of Watch Assassins or Assassin Dogs). We do cross pollinate ideas and gameplay mechanics, and I think for people looking for an Assassin’s Creed in the modern day I hope that Watch Dogs satisfies that urge.

One of the difficulties of an Assassin’s Creed in the modern day is that if we did it, we’d have to deal with the prevalence of cars, vehicles. But we’re a game where parkour is essential element, and modern cities are very difficult for parkouring. Modern day New York would be almost impossible. Maybe Mirror’s Edge could do it, but the streets are too wide…

You could start to do it, but imagine a modern day Assassin’s Creed, you would have to immediately say ‘do we create an entire car system? Do we create an entire traffic system? Can you get into cars and drive them? Where does it end?’ People are already saying ‘argh, naval pirate boarding system, is that too far?’ Maybe it’s too far for some people, but it’d be a tremendous job to bring all that into the Assassin’s Creed universe.

And the question is: Is it worth the effort? Aren’t there games like Watch Dogs that do that really well already? And for me the appeal of Assassin’s Creed has always been historical tourism, so there’s not a plan to do Assassin’s Creed modern day any time soon, we have so many other places we’d like to visit.