We got to chat to the rather personable and chatty Julien Cuny, the Transmedia Development Director at Ubisoft Montreal at rAge this weekend. He’s the guy who was given the mammothine task of compiling the Assassin’s Creed Encyclopedia – so he probably knows more about the Assassin’s Creed Universe than anybody rightly should.
Here’s what he had to say about life, the universe, and everything.
Assassin’s Creed has a rich, multi-layered story with inter-twining time-lines. How do you make sure it all stays coherent?
Obviously it’s a big job and we have a team dedicated only to this. We have a catch phrase “history is our playground” AC is not a historic game, but it is time we make it accurate (with history) the consistency is complex, but it is helped by the fact that we have already very big very historic stories during a very big age – so its like the foundations where we are building stuff.
Is the Assassin’s Creed story mapped out as a complete narrative, or does it evolve as you go along?
Now it’s much more mapped than what it was a few years ago, because we are more organised. I would say you would be surprised at how mapped out it is. In fact if you look at the encyclopedia you would probably be surprised about how many things are already there that you are probably not aware, because there are so many things between the different games, the portable games, the comic book the Facebook games. The encyclopedia is giving you a pretty good idea about how everything is connected.
Assassin’s Creed is transmedia property, spanning games, comic books, graphics novels, mobile games and short films. How do you deal with the possibility of alienating some of your audience – those who aren’t able to consume every facet, as we saw with the Matrix.
We have few rules. We believe that transmedia is kind of a buzz word, it has different reality, depending on who you talk to. The way we see transmedia, the way we want to approach it, we have few rules that we have to respect. First thing is everything needs to be stand alone, which means, it doesn’t make sense if you pick up a comic book because you heard about Assassin’s Creed and say “What is this?” because you haven’t played the game, you can’t understand that. If you buy something, whatever it is, which is story-based, you need a beginning and an end and you need a satisfying experience and that’s the first, very important rule.
Obviously the more you know about it the more you will see details, that other people might not see. But it’s our job to make enough depth, to make the story interesting enough as a standalone and having enough level of details for the people who are already able to connect things. So obviously you can imagine that requires even more planning on our side, because everything has to work together. So these rules are like the ground where we build everything so we do hope it’s going to help us to not bore people.
It does create an issue where it happens. I have a round table here [at rAge] with fans and I ask the question at the beginning; “Who knows about subject seventeen?” “me, me” come the replies. “Who knows about subject sixteen?” “me,me” they reply again. “Who knows about subject four?” Silence! Well I had few people who were very well aware, and say it’s Daniel Cross and he plays a very important role in Assassin’s Creed history, for this and that reason, and people are like “Oh wow, I never knew that!” And so we need to put it all together in a simple way, and that’s how we came up with the encyclopedia.
The encyclopedia is universal; no mention of any mediums, like invest in this or that product. It is like it was written by people living in the Assassin’s Creed universe, and it is reorganised chronologically, so each time you hear something, you say well I don’t necessarily need this but I am curious about that, okay, I go to table of contents and in one page you can get the whole story of subject four and say “Oh that’s why! Okay get it, I can move on.”
Community is big in this area and have put together a wiki, very well organised. There are a few mistakes in some places, but generally speaking it is very well organised. The community is tracking everything, so we do work on this.
In a relatively short time, Assassin’s Creed has built up an incredibly rich, overflowing backstory and history. What challenges did you have deciding what to include in the encyclopedia?
More specifically about the encyclopedia the goal was to include everything. We had to make some choices. We said “OK, Cool…we’re going to make an encyclopedia”…and everybody’s excited around the table. “How do we do an encyclopedia? Has anyone ever done an encyclopedia before?” so after a few minutes we decide we’re going to do a table of contents. “What do we want to talk about in this book?” so we make the table of contents…but this character, or this one might not be important enough, so we decide what we have to say about each one, get an idea of how many pages or characters. We look at the result, and it’s 500 pages, so we’ll have to think about it twice.
We had to narrow down what’s really important – and what’s interesting for us, because there’s a plan and we know what’s coming up, we’re able to say “this character will play bigger role later on” so leave extra pages for that. We were able in the end to cut it down to 256 pages. 80 000 characters in the en- so it’s huge.
In the encyclopedia, is there a lot for the fans to look forward to that’s not provided within the main sources of canon?
We had opportunity to add new content. There are always things that come up when make games that they do not have time to include. We think about the story and say this character, his motivation is this and this, so we end up with all this information that is in our head. It gave opportunity to give more background of characters.
What we did is – because the encyclopedia is up to date with what is happening in the franchise, it is full of spoilers of what’s happening in the story, we had to keep a lot of things internally, we could not imagine having someone external being involved. Also a lot of things in this book that are related to Assassin’s Creed 1, Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brotherhood that are already public – so we said “what if we involve the community?” so we made a call for a contribution and said we’re doing this encyclopedia and we did it on UBIworkshop.com said that if you want to participate, and if you want to make a proposal, send us a text so that we can judge how you write and if we like it we’ll provide you with a contract and we’ll pay you and ask you to write articles that you can handle based on the information that is already public. We got more than 200 submissions. to submit was difficult because you had to write articles with specifics elements. We were surprised at the number and quality of them, some were really good. Our first idea was to hire one community writer, we ended up hiring five community writers because we had some really good choices. Some of them actually came up with suggestions that weren’t in the universe and we said “that’s smart, that works!”
A short example is: the article about Leonardo Da Vinci, that was one article we asked – to see if they can write it – one of the community writers has a historical degree and is from Oxford and has a speciality in Italian medieval history. When he wrote his first draft he used something real, which is that Da Vinci was always extremely late, when he was commissioned to do a painting in six months, it took five years to complete. That’s the reality. He suggested that the reason why Da Vinci behaved this way was that he was constantly helping the assassins and Ezio, and that’s why he was always late. It’s not a big thing, it’s a small detail – but it’s smart. So we said “great!” and now it is part of the cannon and it is in the encyclopedia, so we had things which came on the fly which helps enrich the story and we included in the encyclopedia and in the end the universe and in the end we consider it normal.
As a transmedia property, what does the future hold for Assassin’s Creed?
Well, we still don’t have a motion picture and TV show. There are still many, many stories in history that should be told. The first Assassin’s Creed spoke about the first crusade and we had no idea if it would work. There was no slow mo-explosion – we’re talking about the first crusade and the Jew and the Muslim ferries, that period of time is very conflictual and it worked very well. What it proved was that people are actually interested in history despite what most people think. If we provide a backround (obviously not accurate) but hopefully it will make you want to know more. If you consider “History is our playground,” there are so many civilisations that have great stories to be told and so many characters. Story wise we have many stories still to be told and medium wise, there are still many mediums which we still have not touched.
There is a short film, Assassin’s Creed Embers, that tells Ezio’s last story. Why did you choose this medium, as opposed to keeping it within the games?
We have Embers which is a 22 minute long animated short movie to be released this November and you probably know by now that Revelations is the last game featuring Ezio, but it’s not the end of his life – so we realise that there was still a story that needed to be told and when you think about it in Assassin’s Creed 2 you even see his birth. We had ideas and thought we needed to provide an ending. He deserved a last chapter of his life, which cannot be told in a game, because story wise, the structure (talking about consistency) you can relive Ezio’s life through Desmond, thanks to the Animus. The only reason you can read the DNA of Ezio was because he had children, but what happens is as soon as you have your last children, your DNA is not carried anymore…so technically assassins cannot die in a game.
So we said the last chapter after he has his last children, what happens to him, so we said okay he’s retired now, and it’s not a story that needs to be told for game play. So coming back to trans media, the gaming medium wasn’t the most powerful medium to convey this part of the story and then we came back and said, maybe movies is the right way to go. So we have this movie, and we recommend that people should play the game first before seeing the movie, because the movie takes place ten years after the end of Revelations and some things that are happening in the movie will make more sense for Ezio as a character.
Assassin’s Creed Embers is available as a bonus with the collector’s editions of Assassin’s Creed Revelations, which will be available in South Africa on November 15. The Encyclopedia is available with the Animus Edition – which looks like it might not make its way to our shores. It’s a pity – because it really is a fantastic coffee table book, filled with the rich history of the Assassin’s Creed universe and illustrated with a wealth of beautiful hand-drawn concept art. The encyclopedia will however be available from ubiworkshop.com from November.
Last Updated: October 4, 2011