“Assassin’s Creed” the movie fails because Hollywood dismisses the storytelling power of video games

Fight night.
Fight night.
Image: Reuters/Fred Prouser
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I’ve played Assassin’s Creed since its initial release in 2007. I’d be lying if I said that the promise of a film version of the Ubisoft video game didn’t have me excited—but many fans, including myself, were also cautious. Would Assassin’s Creed be yet another flop in the long history of failures to translate games to the silver screen? If it failed, would it finally scare the video game industry away from trying to convert their moneymaker franchises into crossover cash cows?

As it turns out, there was good reason to be nervous about how mainstream cinema would interpret Assassin’s Creed—a game that was experimental in all the right ways. The game told the story of a modern-day conspiracy revolving around the medieval organization known as the Knights Templar who had captured a young man named Desmond Miles. By using a machine called the Animus, the Templars could trace his genetic memory in order to have him live out the life of his ancestor, Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad. By observing his actions as he lived out these fantasies, they were able to track a mystical artifact that could dominate and control the minds of humans.

Surprisingly, Assassin’s Creed deftly weaved all these moving pieces into an engaging plot. It married an action game framework to a more cinematic and mature tone, and it pushed video games forward as a storytelling medium. More importantly, at least from an intellectual and media property standpoint, it worked to get the player invested in the intricate world of Templars and the Assassins, much as the Star Wars or Harry Potter franchises plunge fans into a universe with its own set of rules.

Ubisoft fleshed out the world of Assassin’s Creed with eight more games, a bundle of side stories and mobile games, comic books, online shorts, animated films, novels, and encyclopedias (I have every edition of the latter, I have to admit). Taken together, they provided a massive interconnected web of storylines, characters, and fictional shadow histories of the world.

Rumors of a live-action Assassin’s Creed film have been floating around since the release of the first game in the franchise, and with good reason. You want to get your audience hooked on a world, not a particular format. Once that world is established among players, why not try to lure new people into the existing web of interrelated stories? For these newcomers, you want their initial introduction to be as big and splashy as possible. You want Michael Fassbender onscreen flexing his arms and acting his ass off. You want viewers to say: “Well, I just gotta know more about these Assassins and their creed!”

But now that Assassin’s Creed is a film, we’re seeing Ubisoft flinch for the first time when it comes to multi-platform storytelling.

About a decade ago, “transmedia” was the buzzword of choice for a specific understanding of how to get audience members to follow you from product to product, desperate to get the next narrative puzzle piece. But since then, conventional wisdom has changed. Massive franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe have abandoned the transmedia idea. Marvel isn’t trying to tell one single story across all of their comics, novels, films, and tv shows, although there is plenty of overlap.

Assassin’s Creed is a deeply flawed film because it is caught between being an introduction to the world of the Assassins and the Templars and serving as yet another node in a large web of stories. It is also partly a deepening of the narrative threads from the games.

It’s difficult to know exactly how invested in the grand narratives of Ubisoft’s magnum opus a viewer needs to be to understand the film. At some points, the viewer is given an ungodly amount of exposition about the world we’re being introduced to. Characters robotically move through scenes where they painstakingly tell us exactly what emotion they’re feeling. Faceless bad guys literally throw their screaming bodies into the gristmill of the protagonist’s murderous capabilities. The script and cinematography seem to be operating on autopilot, going through the motions of until we begrudgingly get onboard the ride.

It’s not a lack of care in screenwriting or direction that generates this feeling of aimless movement through the plot. Rather, I think it’s a unique problem with the contemporary video game movie: How much of the movie is spent rehashing the world of the video game, and how much is spent expanding on it?

This same problem plagued the recent Warcraft film. If you know nothing about the general concept of the story and world of the film, you’ll likely feel like you’re being shotgunned with exposition at every turn. If you’ve played the game, you feel like you’re getting a vague retread of information you’ve already heard a dozen times before. It’s a half-measure of narrative development that leaves few people pleased.

Assassin’s Creed is, generally, about as painful to watch as Warcraft was. They are not good films. Both suffer from long expository word dumps of concepts and ideas that matter to a video game playing audience but have nothing to do with your average filmgoer. It’s telling that the best parts of these films happen when they go off-script and let the action do the talking. Warcraft’s orcs fighting for leadership of their clan was some of the most engaging filmmaking I’ve seen in the past couple years, and when Assassin’s Creed stops yammering on about genetic memory, it makes a similar shift into a realm of “pretty damn good.”

There are some moments when the translation from game to film works. When the film’s protagonist, Lynch, is transported back in time to carry out missions during the Spanish Inquisition, it’s a compelling, classic example of action cinema at its finest. But such successes only make the expository talking heads all the more painful to sit through.

This problem isn’t unique to video game movies. The Star Wars films have to remain within a well-known and understood narrative system. Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations create their own unique canons while purposefully cutting out things that might be too clunky for the screen. All of these are adaptations, and they recognize themselves as such. But the film adaptations of video games have remained stubbornly unwilling to swerve from their original content.

On a fundamental level, Assassin’s Creed’s inability to break from what the games, comics, and novels have done before is a real detriment to what it is able to do now.

Ultimately, this points to the incredibly difficult task that the filmmakers on Assassin’s Creed had on their hands. They had to create a film that delivered on a decade’s worth of storytelling promises. They had to create a film that looked and felt right to players and filmgoers while also remaining true to the narrative threads that the games and related media have developed over the years. I don’t envy them, but the reality of watching the film is this: The only fans who will leave the theater satisfied will be Michael Fassbender’s.