During our recent trip to see Assassin's Creed Chronicles, we got the chance to sit down and talk with Ubisoft's Carston Myhill, and Climax Studios' art director Glenn Brace. Here's what the pair had to say about the trio of 2.5D platformers that are set to land this year.
GR: So tell us a bit about the concept, why did you decide to take Assassin's Creed into 2.5D?
Carston Myhill: There were a couple of reasons really. One of them is that we're inundated with requests to visit certain time periods and certain settings.
Two, three years ago, we play games of all sorts of different genres and we were very much inspired by this sort of Metroidvania 2.5D / 2D platforming digital that was exploding then and continues now, and we looked at it and just said "this is a wonderful opportunity to expand the universe, expose new settings to our fans who are asking to go to these different places and do it in a really fresh way that is still very much an Assassin's Creed experience."
It's still action, stealth, and parkour at its core, and this genre was a very good way to put that across and still support the narrative that we'd set up in the Embers movie and the various graphical novels that also feature these characters as well.
So you've picked three different periods of history, what factors go into deciding which places and historical settings you visit with the series?
CM: I think the most important thing is that there's true gameplay innovation. So there's something from that setting, whether it's a technology or whether it's a narrative, whether it's the characters themselves or the culture that those characters are living within, that gives an opportunity for a new gameplay experience... That's across all the Assassin's Creed games that we make. Across these three Chronicles you're definitely going to feel a different style as you play each one; new weapons, a new style of navigation, and of course the story is going to make them feel different as well.
Glenn Brace: The key there as well is once we knew that we were taking bite-sized chunks of the legends and the lore, and we were discussing locations, obviously they work as a standalone, but there's a narrative link throughout all. So when we started gathering our ideas together we could actually plot a journey through time as well, so that had a factor on selecting from China, to India, to Russia.
So there's a narrative link between the three chapters, is there any kind of mechanical evolution between different periods of history as well?
GB: Absolutely. Each Chronicle has a flavour, not just a visual point of view - which obviously is extensive - but from gameplay, so it's mechanics. Each character has their own abilities and mechanics, and how you use those in the world changes. So for example in China we focus on a lot of Parallax action and plain-shifting, but when we go to India we actually open up the 3D space a lot more. When we got to Russia, that fact that it's 20th century opens up lots; we've got electricity, we've got vehicles, automatic weapons... so again that has another part to play in the Chronicles. So yeah, I think there's a lot of evolution.
One of the things you've discussed is the shift in visuals and the graphical style that evolves across the three games. Can you talk us through the three different styles?
GB: So again, very early on from Ubisoft when we were talking about the whole concept of Chronicles, we knew there needed to be multiples of, and they needed to be coherent as a group. At the same point that "standout" goal was key.
So for China, which we focused on first, we were exploring our 2.5D gameplay, and at the time we had a lot of parallax play working, so we started looking at original 16th century artwork, and when we look at that we see a lot of flat sense of perspective; everything's very flat and layered. Which for us was perfect because we're actually implementing in those layers, and then we start building the art on top of those layers as well; it's like a natural fit, it supported the gameplay as much as the setting.
Then we wanted a more contemporary influence, so we started looking at artists like Junsheng who's a influential impressionistic Chinese ink artist. That supported Shao Jun, her movement, she's agile, a freedom of movement. The idea of ink has been very contrasting, monotone. So when we fused that together we ended up with a very impressionistic art style that not only really suited our 2.5D gameplay, but captured the essence of the location. That was a key thing for the Chronicle; it was standout, it was different, it was new, it was stylised.
So the other thing was, when started moving onto India... we wanted to contrast nicely with China. So we started to discuss certain things that are coherent across Chronicles, like for example the helix effect, eagle vision, those sorts of things; they're represented with the helix so that makes them gel. At the same point suddenly we see a difference, we see colour playing a major part. We know that the world's going to open up a little bit more... therefore a more 3D clean approach was needed. So we started looking at the period again, we went back to history; lithographs, British colonial influence, the journalistic nature of illustration and etching played its part. So we ended up with a very neat line drawing finish.
Then we layered in the other aspect, the more contemporary finish, the more Indian flavour. So we took the sort of watercolour painting approach, but cranked the colours right up. And then the fact that we're dealing with a lot of Sikh culture, and things in the architecture and the patterns played their part as well, so that came across in some of the more stylish elements of the game, the dynamic bits and bobs. So they contrasted nicely and evolved. So from impressionistic to something that's quite clean and neat.
Then for Russia we wanted something that stood out again, that was even more extreme. The others were quite illustrative and subtle, Russia was really bold, very stark. Because it's 20th century photography plays a part, there was a lot of montage in the propaganda artwork, we can see constructivism coming into play. So that's when we ended up with a very bold, photography influence with the constructivist skies in the background. So we ended up with a very clear separation of our layers.
On top of that we then have the fact that it's an industrial backdrop, so when we consider line drawings and the black and white nature of those, that gave us our underlying tone for Russia. So as a group they're all very different and they contrast nicely from each other, but you can still see that they are a coherent set.
There's a lot of different systems working together. How are you combining these systems so players can have choice in the way that they play?
GB: It's what we were talking about [during the presentation] with the multi-path system. So when there's a certain pattern, there's multiple ways to approach it. Whether that's your traversal mechanics, or whether you use the abilities of Shao Jun, or ghost your way through; there's lots of possibilities for each route. So as a player you can determine those, and obviously we're rewarding different styles of play. So the key thing there is player choice. Stealth, there's a lot of bias towards stealth, so if you choose the stealth route then obviously you'll get rewarded and you'll find the pace will pick up. If you do want to go and brawl, you absolutely can, but as with all Assassin's Creed titles, if you start doing that you've got to be prepared to take on the odds, and that's where the difficulty cranks in, that's when the pace will be affected.
Are there any little things in there that you're proud of that feed into the wider Assassin's universe?
GB: The key thing is legend and lore. Everything that is Assassin's Creed is massive and trans-media. And we've got lots of things, really for me it's the little trinkets that I love, that as a fan you'll certainly pick up on a lot of these. For example Shao Jun, she has a slight little cameo role where she actually brought in the rope dart to Assassin's Creed legend and lore, and obviously that played its part in North America as well. If you know these details from the previous titles then you're going to pick up on that from Shao Jun and get to play with that rope dart in more ways than you have before. Obviously Ezio has his part to play; as the narrative develops you understand a lot more about Ezio's role later in life... There's lots of little trinkets in there for fans for sure, and lots of little tie-ins that for us as developers are cool for us to put in there.
At the same point, we are actually innovating, bringing new things to characters, we're building on those characters as well. I think people who know the legend and lore and play this, it will expand it for them and they'll know more about the characters than they did previously.
CM: At the same time I don't think these are things that newcomers to Assassin's Creed - we always hope that whatever game we're making that we can bring and excite more and more potential new fans with these titles - it's not a case where you need to know. You don't need to have read the graphic novels or have seen the short movies to have a full experience. But yeah, there's that layer there definitely for the fans which we do in all our Assassin's Creed games.
You mentioned Metroidvania games in the presentation, what titles would you say have had a particular influence on your design?
GB: Obviously Assassin's Creed, massively so. There's a lot of 2.5 genres that we've been looking at across the board.
CM: It's hard to answer because we've taken influence from so many, and there's quite a lot. It's really just trying to take the best bits, or the bits from these games that suit the core elements of Assassin's Creed, which is combat, action, stealth and parkour navigation. We're trying to take the best of what's out there and put them together in a unique package. I think stealth is probably the thing that you notice the best, and we bring in crowd-blending and things like that that are really quite unique to Assassin's Creed, and trying to bring that into the Chronicles experience as well.
So you've got three games in development, at what stage are they all at, and when can we expect to see them? What's the roadmap ahead looking like?
CM: Specific dates... We can say that all three of them will be available by autumn, we're not sure of the exact dates. It's April 21st for the first one, with the other two by autumn. We want them to be polished and as good as they can be.
If it's a success do you think this is something you'd like to continue with? If people take to the style is there a drawing board somewhere with ideas on it about where you could take this further?
CM: The answer is potentially yes. Let's hope that our fans and newcomers find these Chronicles exciting. We don't close any creative doors, so let's wait and see, but it's a possibility for sure.
Last question. What is the thing about these games that you are most proud of?
GB: You first or me?
CM: I don't know, because I think you're going to say the same thing as me.
GB: Ok for me, obviously I'm being biased as art director, but for me the thing I'm most proud of is the simple fact that when we first started to talking to Ubisoft here we pushed the boundaries of the stylisation.
When we first put our response to China in, even our own director was like: "Are we sure? This is really far away from Assassin's Creed, this is really stylised," and that played in our favour. The more we pushed in terms of stylisation and taking the AC legend and lore into a stylised approach, the better feedback we were getting.
So for me I am probably super-proud of the fact that as an artist that we're taking the core concepts of illustration, 2D traditional art, even on the dev team we have traditional artists who illustrate because that plays more of a role in the world generation than just 3D modelling, and that's a dream come true.
Traditional art skills being translated into gameplay. And being 2.5D you've got composition after composition; it's an artist's dream come true. So for me it's a very rewarding development experience, and the results for me are fantastic. And, it's the best bit for me, that art supports the gameplay. So we've got a very strong product on our hands, something that we're really proud of.
CM: Yeah, I was right. That is a similar answer, but I'll give you another one... Right from the very first prototype that these guys sent over we were blown away, throughout the company we were all very, very excited. And it's the art style that's probably the thing that triggered that the most.
But from someone who works across the board on all the Assassin's Creed projects I'm excited about exposing the story of Shao Jun, of Arbaaz Mir, of Nikolai Orelov to a wider audience, and expanding that universe and those individual stories. I think that these are going to be much loved new characters for many people in the Assassin's Creed lore.
For our impressions of Assassin's Creed Chronicles after playing missions in both China and India, head this way.
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