Hardcore History and Modern Conspiracy: Behind the Scenes With the Writer of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

This week, Ubisoft released Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, the latest title in the critically acclaimed series full of historical mysteries, stealthy action, and futuristic technology. Writer Jeffrey Yohalem talks to Fast Company about the games' narrative, its influences, and how he meshed Renaissance Italy with the modern world.

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FAST COMPANY: Many narratives end with the protagonist hitting a pinnacle as a messiah, leader, or ultimate bad ass. Assassin's Creed II ended this way, but Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood actually continues with Ezio on top--shaping the brotherhood's strategies and recruiting new assassins. Was it difficult to continue that path?

JEFFREY YOHALEM: The story solution was easy: Ezio needed to face a new challenge, the difficulty came in convincing the rest of the team that he couldn't be on top just yet. Many saw him as the leader of the Assassins at the end of Assassin's Creed II, which is not actually the case, Mario and Machiavelli are the leaders. So, I ended up attempting to achieve a balancing act. Ezio is the powerful Assassin we know from the end of ACII, but he must also engage in a power struggle with Machiavelli to become the Assassin leader. Ultimately, Ezio spends the game proving to Machiavelli that he is fit to lead. So in Brotherhood he must reach a new, higher, pinnacle.

What is it like writing for an established franchise? Did you have some crazy ideas that got nixed because it does not fit with the series?

Most of my ideas ended up in the script as written, actually. The team and Ubisoft gave me a lot of freedom to play. You have to remember, I also was on the ACII writing team and involved with design, so I'm a part of the franchise and the team, not an outsider. We create the overview of the story collectively, and I work with the mission designers all the way through. With Brotherhood, we were all very in synch, which was important, since we had very little time to waste debating.

Were there any other challenges in writing a sequel?

It was fun and challenging to up the ante dramatically. ACII introduced a lot of characters, whereas Brotherhood is like the second season of a TV show, all the characters begin to interact and collide with each other in interesting ways. It was exciting to play with audience expectation. Insurmountable challenges only come when you are not inhabiting the world of the game. You have to know your world and your characters, if you've got that, you're going to have a good time writing.

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What do you prefer writing: the historical background material, the story in Renaissance Italy, the modern day characters, or the sci-fi stuff?

I actually loved writing all of it! You get in the flow, then you look up and it's 6 a.m. and every part of you is alive, that happens regardless of time period/genre for me. I live for that magic moment in writing when all the different pieces come together to make a unified whole. So I guess you could say I love writing the plot.

One of my favorite parts was the office banter between the characters in modern day. And the emails that have this banality of workplace life--scheduling, lunch runs, missing food--what was the thinking behind having that in the game?

The idea was exactly that, to show the real lives of these people. In movies, we see this glammed up version of reality. In a game, I think we can get much closer to those awkward, in-between moments. The player, as Desmond, gets to spy on the real lives of the other characters, it's about vulnerability and immersion.

ACII had the Glyphs which provided background material on how the Templars have manipulated history. Brotherhood has the Clusters, which took the conspiracy to modern day: the Bush administration, deepwater horizon oil spill, and the Supreme Court ruling on corporate donations for elections are all featured.

I wanted to speak about now. I'd never really seen a game do that, really bring the real world into the game. Photos from the Internet taken this year in reality. As creators, I feel it is our duty to say something to players, to engage in a conversation about our world. I believe that today's world is being hijacked by selfish agendas and many politicians/corporations believe that people can be convinced to do anything through propaganda and advertising. One of the major themes of Assassin's Creed has always been to encourage players to think, to see the truth rather than sit back passively and allow others to control them. I wanted to bring that discussion into people's living rooms.

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The clusters infer that corporations have too much power in the America. And the story with the Borgias infer that religion can be destructive. Would you consider the game activist?

It really has to do with the Assassin philosophy: to allow people to look at the world around them in a new way and question it, to give them the freedom to choose. A lot of times in life, others want us to just do something for their own reasons, without questioning it. We try to encourage people to ask "Why?"

One line from the computer in a cluster sequence is "What purpose, all this?" Asking why a corporation would accumulate all of this power--reminds me of the book 1984. And the clusters also used these Hal 9000-esque red lights. What else has influenced the series?

Fahrenheit 451 has been an influence, a book called The Eleventh Hour for the glyph puzzles and clusters, the author Paolo Coelho. Machiavelli's book, The Prince, was a major influence for Brotherhood. David Lynch's films. Federico Fellini's as well. Paradise Lost. On a less literary note, the people who I work with have also influenced characters.

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