Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – Interview With Lead Writer, Darby McDevitt

After my time with Assassin’s Creed IV, I had the opportunity to speak with Darby McDevitt, Lead Scriptwriter at Ubisoft Montreal, and find out more about the story and characters in the latest installment.

In a departure for the series, Assassin’s Creed IV has taken us back a couple of generations from the third assassin, Connor. Instead of choosing to flesh Connor out more, as we saw happen with Ezio from the Assassin’s Creed 2 series, why did you decide to go back in time to Connor’s grandfather, Edward Kenway?

It was really just a way of shaking things up for ourselves. When we announced AC3 we said, “hey, there’s a new guy, Connor”, but of course we had Haytham in there too, and he was in there from the beginning – it was always part of the plan to do this father-son relationship to mirror Desmond and his dad too. It was a nice way of telling a parallel story both in the present and the past stories. Because we were doing Haytham and Connor, around the time I was finishing Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, we came to the idea of doing the whole family – why don’t we do the grandfather too? The naval system’s looking really amazing, could we work that into it? The golden age of piracy was just thirty years before the start of AC3, could we work [with] that? There were all these questions in our mind, and there was also the urge not to repeat ourselves.

We knew that everyone would expect a second Connor game, but we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to throw a curve ball. It was fun to do that, and of course games are always about gameplay and when we saw this amazing naval combat system coming together, our first reaction was, “oh my god, to do an open world naval game would be amazing!” We did some research on pirates and found that they lived by a certain quasi-democratic code, our assassins lived by this kind of code too, where are the overlaps, where the conflicts, could we tell a story where a pirate comes in contact with assassins? What would his reaction be? Would he befriend them? Would he scoff at them? I ultimately decided that I wanted to tell that story. I don’t tell a story because I know the answer right away. I tell a story because I want to see where it goes, what comes out of the writing.

Was this decision to flesh out the Kenway family made before AC3 was released?

Oh yes, a long time before. We were working on the game a year before AC3 was released. I was already researching the game even before Revelations came out, so yes, it was always the decision. There was a never a plan to do a second Connor game because we had this great duo in Haytham and Connor, we liked that, and very early on we just said, let’s do a family saga.

For me, the strength of the Assassin’s Creed series has always been in the evolution of the characters and their stories as we’ve spent more time with them. With the criticism of Connor’s limited progression as a character in mind, how do you think you can go about furthering the Haytham family going forward?

I think Connor’s story was a very deliberate attempt to create an idealistic young man who gets broken by reality. His father is one of those things that really breaks his confidence in his own ideals. There’s a thematic element to the homestead missions in AC3 where it’s the creation of America in miniature, and I think a number of people have noticed that Connor has a much softer personality in the homestead. He’s got a sense of humour and a gentleness to him. Perhaps it’s a shame that this didn’t all come together in the main path, as it may have created a dynamic that people would get to see if they only played the main path.

The softer Connor in the homestead missions did unfortunately seem to jar with the portrayal of Connor in the main game – it felt like two different characters rather than one well-rounded one. Is this perhaps something that will be rectified with Edward Kenway?

Well, we’re a different team [to the one that worked on Assassin’s Creed 3], so by the time that AC3 was finished I was well on the way with this one. I have a tendency to want to do stories that are a little bit less epic. This is definitely an epic game that spans about a decade – so a lot more than Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Revelations was very tight-knit, almost what I like to call a ‘novella’. It was a very focussed story about an assassin coming to the end of his game and seeing an opportunity for another life. I designed a lot of the things in Revelations to say he’s finding a new family. The character of Yusuf is almost like a surrogate for the brother [Ezio] lost, Sofia is the new love of his life because he lost Cristina in the previous games. That was the idea behind it, but it was over a small scope and had a very intimate feel. I hope that Edward has a full arc in this game, I hope that it feels satisfying. I personally like Connor’s story, I don’t know if his personality doesn’t appeal to everybody, but I do like what happens to him, I do like this idealistic young man that completely gets broken. It’s a downer – the whole story ends as a downer, AC3 doesn’t end well for anybody, really.

What are the challenges you’ve faced with AC4 in trying to tell a story in such an open world? How do you approach the challenge of keeping players focussed on the story that you’re trying to tell?

The story that I want to tell is only part of the fun. I just want to make sure that the story that I want to tell is a simple one. It’s of a man, named Edward Kenway, who from the opening scenes of the game clearly just wants to better himself. He just wants to gain wealth and influence as many very poor and destitute people might under a monarchy. He’s the first really ‘working class’ character we’ve had.

We establish very early that he rose up from having nothing and he has these dreams. He’s married, but when the game opens we establish that he’s estranged from his wife – they haven’t seen each other in years. He’s in the West Indies ostensibly because he thinks he can make a lot of money and come back to England the cock of the walk. In the course of his journey he comes in to this assassin/Templar conflict and through them he believes he can see a way that he can achieve this dream, through skilful manipulation of all these people. Of course, this turns out to be terribly wrong, and he embroils himself in this big conflict that he then has to get himself out of. So that’s our story – the plot can have lots of twists and turns and things like that, but the basic story is of a man that wants to better himself and thinks he can do it through piracy and ends up terribly wrong!

So the way I see this story then, is that through the simple theme of empowerment and embitterment, the nature of gameplay progression links in to this even if the main story missions aren’t always being followed?

Yeah, you’re always building up your boat, you’re always building up yourself, you’re gaining riches. Ultimately is that the way to be a better a man? It’s sort of the question that’s posed by the game. One thing that I liked about the game is that open world games that have combat at their core, that have assassinations at their core, that have free-running… they encourage a kind of lawlessness in the gameplay, and for the first time in the Assassin’s Creed series I think the attitude of the character matches the player’s natural tendency to go do damage. This game has a story that’s much closer to the player’s natural tendency towards chaos and violence. We’ve created systems that fit the character and fit the player’s desire to go mess around. I know that whenever I play a GTA game, I play for a while and I play through the story, I test the boundaries, and then I just go, ah I’ve got ten minutes before I need to go to bed, and I cause havoc! I get my wanted level up and then die and then turn off the console. Well, this game actually rewards you for that kind of madness because that’s what a pirate does. Pirates are criminals, after all!

To finish off then…what are you most proud of with AC4? What’s the one thing that stands out for you?

I am a big fan of ensemble casts. I am a big fan of stories, not plots. I like shows that are not plot-driven but story-driven. The stories come from the intersection of the characters and their needs and wants and desires and conflicting desires, as opposed to a plot-driven show. My hope is that I have been able to create a universe full of amazing, compelling characters, each of whom has a little thing they want. Every character should have something they want, even if it’s a glass of water. I try to get that with this story. I want this to be an unfamiliar cast of characters, each of whom has their own little drive, and it creates a rich tapestry of people in a universe that feels really compelling.

I’ve always been trying to push the idea that games don’t need to be drastically plot-driven. A lot of my colleagues on this project disagree, they want that ‘save the princess’, ‘kill the bad guy’, ‘find the lost city’. These things are important, and we do have that in this game, there is a thing that Edward is looking for, but around that I want to hang a lot of little side-threads.  For instance, sequences three and six here [at the preview event] deal with the pirates, and that’s a little bit different from the assassin/Templar conflict that is also at the core of the game, so there are multiple threads going on in the story, and I hope that people enjoy that kind of complication. Some people may hate me for it. Some people may love it.

Last five articles by Ian


One Comment

  1. Ben says:

    Quite possibly the only Assassins Creed game I’ve been interested in a while. Quite enjoyed the first but any attempt to play the games that followed all left me with a hollow experience, I just didn’t click with it.

    #3 came very close to being picked up, and with it being £7 on Steam atm (sale) could be worth it before Black Flag. There’s just something about Pirates that seems to do tick all the right boxes, fingers crossed.

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