Something is amiss in the original Assassin’s Creed trailer from 2006. First revealed at that year’s E3 trade show, the game presents itself as a stealth action title that revolves around stabbing people in the neck with a hidden wrist blade. But that’s not really what’s going on. Throughout the video, the screen occasionally flickers as if it’s suffering from an electronic glitch. This comes off a bizarre design decision that is totally incongruous with the first game’s 1191 setting, but that’s the point. The Assassin’s Creed games are actually one long con—fictional simulations within actual simulations—so they’re never really about what they appear to be about. The first game doesn’t take place in 1191, that’s just a virtual reality that your character is supposedly experiencing in the present day.
Every subsequent entry in the series has also operated under this conceit, and they’ve all had a weird relationship with their actual settings in the “real world.” You probably won’t see any references on the back of an Assassin’s Creed game box to names like Desmond or Abstergo, and maybe not even the Animus—the Matrix-reminiscent computer system that makes the in-game simulation possible. Yet all of these elements are highly important to the series, and they’re as deeply woven into its mythology as the actual assassinations that make up most of the action. Each game’s real-world scenes drive the overarching plot forward, but it’s a plot that, as the games tacitly acknowledge, most people don’t care about. Driving home this point, much of the action that occurs in the present day is optional. Assassin’s Creed doesn’t try very hard to sell the real story behind the action.
Perhaps inspired by the devil-may-care attitude of its pirate hero, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag handles the duty of its real-world plot stuff differently than its predecessors. Rather than advance the story in any meaningful way, Black Flag uses its present-day scenes to offer up a slew of winking references to the series’ overarching storyline—both rewarding the people who have bothered to follow this thread and playfully laughing at them for doing so. In essence, this game turns the series’ overgrown framing device into a joke.
Early in Black Flag, you get pulled away from Edward Kenway—the main character—and his quest for redemption on the high seas. You’re dropped into the first-person point of view of an unnamed employee who is starting his first day at Abstergo Entertainment. Though the office’s flashy aesthetic makes everything seem cool, Abstergo is actually a front for the evil Templar organization that has plagued the heroic Assassins for centuries.
Anyone hoping to delve into the machinations of the series’ villains for a shot at taking them down from the inside, however, will be disappointed. You’re a nobody in Black Flag’s real world: You’re just there to virtually live through Kenway’s exciting adventures and record footage for a movie about pirates. One of your first tasks—and this is in a game with box art that features a guy carrying a sword and four guns—is to visit the reception desk and meet your supervisor. The mundanity of this act might as well be a parody of video game bombast on its own, but Black Flag takes the joke further than that.
The action in the present day picks up speed when you receive an email from a co-worker, known only as “John from I.T.,” who says that he has boosted your security clearance so you can access previously locked areas of the building. He then blackmails you into hacking some office computers for him (which entails solving a quick puzzle or playing a low-fi version of Frogger). The rewards for your expert “hacks” range from audio clips that flesh out Abstergo’s backstory to vague allusions that half-explain what happened to Desmond Miles—the real world protagonist from earlier in the series.
The most clever and fun rewards, however, add another meta layer with bits of backstory for the Abstergo game studio itself. Even though it’s unrelated to the story, you can find concept art for projects the company has worked on—all of which looks suspiciously like actual Assassin’s Creed concept art—and even pitch videos that lay out the pros and cons of the series’ main characters. When the dry narrator in these videos explains why Assassin’s Creed III’s Connor would be a hard sell to the public due to his Native American background, the crass studio-executive thinking rings a little too true to be completely made up, as if it were an actual concern that someone expressed during that game’s development. Black Flag is airing its own dirty laundry and letting the player in on the developers’ creative process by presenting a thinly fictionalized version of it. And again, all of it has practically nothing to do with the overarching series story that usually takes precedence in the present-day segments.
This narrative disconnect is made especially clear by one “hacked” email thread in which Abstergo Entertainment employees discuss ideas for their next project. (Kotaku posted screenshots of the whole thing.) It’s practically a debate over the setting of the next Assassin’s Creed game, right down to one person pointing out that they should avoid time periods in which cars are common, as those would be hard to add into the existing code—a realistic concern given the series’ fondness for pre-industrial time periods. The thread even lists a handful of possible settings, including the French Revolution, which has since been revealed as the actual setting for Assassin’s Creed Unity.
Some of the material mocks broader industry trends. One person suggests adding zombies, and another thinks that the series would be well-suited to non-violent historical settings like Einstein at the patent office. The latter notion is shot down by a rude co-worker saying they should “stick to shit that sells.”
Black Flag puts a fine point on all of this when the “John from I.T.” storyline wraps up at the end of the game. In return for your hard work, your boss gives you a chance to watch a trailer for the movie for which you’ve been recording historical footage on your pirate adventures this whole time. Titled Devils Of The Caribbean, it scraps the game’s pathos and drama in favor of big exciting explosions. In terms of the overarching story of the Assassin’s Creed games, you didn’t do anything worthwhile: You made a silly trailer.
Other Creed games tie major plot points to the real-world sections—a central character dies in Assassin’s Creed III, for one—despite the fact that the present day is always secondary to the cool yesteryear-assassin stuff. Twisting around itself further, Black Flag takes the real world and renders it inconsequential by grounding it in a reasonable facsimile of the actual real world.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag’s real-world section doesn’t really have anything profound to offer, but then again, neither did its predecessors. Black Flag is simply more honest about it. For an already well-worn series that sometimes seems driven by marketing interests as much as creative vision, it’s a disarming glimpse of self-awareness that makes a typically dull framing device worthy of players’ attention.