At our hands on day with Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (full preview here
), we prised ourselves away from a console long enough to poke scriptwriter Darby McDevitt with many questions. We talked about making the transition to next gen console writing, his love for Irish literature (including his time at UCD) and just how he managed to reference Joyce in Revelations.
CLICK: My first question is what exactly does a scriptwriter do on a game like this?
DMcD: It’s got a couple of different phases to it. First you get the mandate from above which says we want another Ezio game and we want it to be in Constantinople and to answer these questions and Desmond’s story proceeds from here to here, these kinds of things. And you immediately go to the research so I spend months and months reading and making notes, creating documents for the team to read. I would write little summaries, like a 20 page summary of the Ottoman and Byzantine Empire.
CLICK: So the frame of the story is defined for you?
DMcD: The high level is set for me – go here, and end up here, answer these questions. But the actual plot of the game is not. That comes through research. I do my research and I find some interesting characters. But what happening in the period, what historical events happen at the time can we plausibly draw connecting lines between a few events. We don’t want to get melodramatic or cliché where a character is at every significant event. We want the story to still make sense and feel natural so we use certain elements. Then a write some outlines for a story based on stuff that they've mandated and the creative director also has a huge amount of input. Between the two of us we decide on the direction of the game. There’s a process of change for a month or two after the research. Then we lock ourselves in a room, once the mission design director has crafted two or three hundred scenarios. I remember the first one he said ‘what if there was a tail and halfway through Ezio realises he’s also being tailed’ so we work that in.
CLICK: So he comes up with the mechanics?
DMcD: He’ll come up with the skeleton, we’ll come up with the story simultaneously and we’ll like almost spread these missions out and see which ones might fit well together and tweak things. So we’re really designing it together, trying to fit good gameplay ides. Because when you have a series of mechanics, you can combine them in x amount of ways. And if they’re really good mechanics, they’re very versatile.
CLICK: And how did you come to a job like this?
DMcD: I started wiring for a website. Do you remember Cavedog Entertainment, they did Total Annihilation? Yea so they were a small studio inside Humungous Entertainment and I wrote for their site, their online component and for a lot of their children’s games. I started writing for games and got to know the industry. I worked as a producer and my first job as a writer was at this studio called Griptonite in Seattle and we did The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers for Game Boy Advance. So I wrote the script based on Peter Jackson’s script and designed two thirds of the levels in the game. It was just a trial by fire – because I had done some design work in the past and because I was a decent writer, I think! And that was the best experience I ever had, it was 2001 ish. It was right before I moved to Ireland for a year to get my masters. And then I came back from Ireland and I started writing freelance a little bit and made more handheld games. Then I slowly moved up into console – got the gig to write Assassin’s Creed: Bloodlines for the PSP and the DS game called Discovery. And they liked my writing on those two so here I am!
CLICK: And how did you find the transition to full console game writing?
DMcD: It’s not too much different. I guess in a way its more fulfilling because now you have this time to tell a proper story – the handheld ones were always very short production cycles and smaller games so it was harder to tell a detailed story. I’m a disciplined writer I guess so I just sit down and do it so it’s never too difficult.
CLICK: You’ve come into a story arc that’s already quite advanced, is there a canon you have to adhere to?
DMcD: We keep a lot of documents but Corey May – the writer for the first and second – he’s still the head writer. We’ve got this brand narrative team – they’re the hub that all narrative elements go though, whether its comic book or facebook games or novels… all that content is filtered through Corey and a few other guys. And they make the ultimate judgement calls on everything. They keep a close watch on it. And then they have to trust us at some point too! Because these scripts end up being 430 pages for the main story and side missions, 300 for the AI (all the chatter you hear and the emotes when you hit people).
CLICK: And how do you keep the focus in a story that’s told over such a long span of time?
DMcD: This is a philosophical decision on my part and other people’s parts in a video game because they are 15-20 hours long or in the case of Skyrim 300 hours apparently you really need to have at least one thing that the player always knows that they’re doing. And if that one thing changes over the course of the game you have to be very clear about tit. In ours we always wanted Ezio's motivation to be getting into Altair’s library. And that way if the player puts the game down for two weeks and comes back to it they can get back into the game, they’re never confused about the main goal. Most good games do this – like Fallout 3, what are you doing? You’re looking for your dad, that’s the elevator pitch for that game. For Donkey Kong it’s ‘kill that ape!’
CLICK: The series has evolved so much in just a few short years, was that a plan from the start or has it just happened organically?
DMcD: It’s happened organically. It think back when Patrice [Désilets – designer of the first game] was on it he introduced that idea of variety. Our creative director Alex Amancio wanted to take variety but he also wanted to make sure all the system are integrated in some way – so the hook blade you can use in combat and exploration. I don’t know if you messed around with any of the Mediterranean Defence game but we’ve integrated a lot into that – when they get to level 10 you assign them to a den to defend it and that lower the percentage of the den being attacked. And you also open up a master assassin mission where you can go off with them and chase some bad guys. You can even level them up more for more missions. If you play it long enough another thing will pop up over here. So the integration of things was very important to Alex. And the variety of play styles – like using lots of different bomb which help players that aren’t very good. Hardcore fans sometimes say the combat’s too easy so we put in Janissaries and if you got to fight one of them you can see they are tougher. We didn’t change the combat system because we think it’s very fluid for those who want to feel like a super master assassin but every so often you run into these guys and they’re actually pretty difficult. So we’re saying there's something here for everyone and as long as the narrative and variety stay strong the hardcore fans will come back
The Janissaries. They're mean.
CLICK: The games get more complex each time, can you sustain that? The map is just littered with icons here.
DMcD: It’s the same with Brotherhood though, you can always turn that on and off. But it’s true; we do take things away as well. We don’t have the horse this time – well there's an exotic gameplay system with a horse – but it’s not free roam anymore. So we do remove something but we put something back in its place.
CLICK: Was there anything in particular you wanted to include that you had to leave out?
DMcD: I have little story details here and there that I wanted. I had read a really great idea a long time ago in the early days of research about the cisterns under the first hill in Istanbul – I was just there and they are beautiful, filled with water and with pillars stretching for hundreds of feet, awe-inspiring stuff. They were built by the Romans or the Byzantines as we call them – an anachronism but we want to differentiate from Brotherhood so we stuck with it! But by the time the Ottomans came people had forgotten about the cisterns. So we have the Byzantines using them as little passages in the game. But one historical detail that I want able to get in was I read that even though people didn’t know there were cisterns there anymore, people would have holes in their basements and they’d fish through them. And they’d just be pulling out fish and they weren’t curious in the slightest where they were coming from! So for a long time I had this lovely idea that I wanted Ezio to meet a contact and goes into a basement and you think he’s going to ambushed and you see that the guy in there is just fishing! That was one of the earliest scenes I had in my mind, though I had no idea what the story was going to be. So there were lots of cool details that I couldn’t use!
CLICK: You mentioned you studied in UCD in Ireland. What did you study and did you manage to put in any references in the game?
DMcD: I studied Anglo Irish literature and… I’ll tell you this exclusively. I'm a huge Joyce fan, a huge Becket fan as well. Actually I’m just a huge fan of them all – Synge, Gregory, Maria Edgeworth… But yes there was this weird opportunity. We have this strange Desmond stuff, it’s a very surreal kind of gameplay that we haven’t revealed yet. And the way it’s constructed, I asked my creative director, can I write this in Joycean stream of consciousness. And he’s like – go for it! So that’s the model – Desmond is Joycean stream of consciousness! [laughs]
CLICK: Do you use any actual references?
DMcD: Well no I don’t make references to Joyce, because that would be crass! I tried to sneak in a ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ reference from Yeats but no. I used the style because the type of gameplay lent itself to being kind of reminiscent. Like Bloom [the main character in Ulysses] wandering around Dublin it’s like – I smell that and see this and remember that and shit. Desmond is remembering his past from age 15 to age 26 when he gets captured by the Templar’s so Joyce was my guide in that. And I know just saying that is setting the bar very high but it’s not so obtuse as that, it’s just using it as inspiration. You don’t often get a chance to really bring some modernist techniques into a game – its mostly just dialogue where everyone is trying to one up the other person with funny dialogue. A phrase I came up with a long time ago is that video games are filled with epic banalities – banal things said very broadly and loudly. Where characters always want to just talk in riposte, its witty repartee. When I review other people’s dialogue I hate when characters just answer each other’s questions. People don’t talk like that, so I wanted a more natural flow. With video games we are so shackled to the objective, it’s very hard to create a natural scene and then at the very end say – go do this. I’ve tried to be a little more subtle in this game and I don’t know if it works or not but we’ll see!
CLICK: We’ll look out for some Joyce in the game! Finally, is your work all finished on the game now? And are you working on secret Ubisoft things!?
DMcD: We’re like weeks away from submitting the master. I'm taking a bit of a break and thinking up some new ideas on stuff I can’t talk about!
Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is out on Xbox 360 and PS3 on the 14th of November 2011.