The question of whether the Animus still belongs in the Assassin’s Creed series comes up with the release of each new game, but Assassin’s Creed Odyssey makes me even more sure that Ubisoft should take a simple, but obvious, step: Remove the Animus from future games completely and pretend it never existed.
People play Assassin’s Creed games to travel through time and kill a bunch of people; the framing device that explains how and why characters in our own time are themselves taking that journey has never felt so archaic and vestigial.
The lore reason to forget the Animus
I don’t want to relitigate the past of the series or guess about the future, but the lore of the franchise itself is a mess, as you’d expect from any pop culture property that stretches across 20 games and 11 years. The easiest way to clean it all up would be to simply cut the line that holds all the games together, and that line is the Animus.
Assassin’s Creed is about two stories, each of which are moved slightly by each release. There is the battle between the Assassins and the Templars through history, and that battle can only be relived through the Animus, a piece of technology that is used to let people re-experience memories that were locked in their DNA. If you wanted to find something from the past, you had to locate an ancestor of the person who knew where it was, and put them in the Animus so they could experience those memories and share the information with you. It kinda made sense!
In the current games, however, anyone can visit any memory, and the reasons for why people are searching the past for these artifacts or knowledge has grown so unnecessarily complicated that you’ll likely have more fun ignoring that aspect of the series completely.
What happens, and in what order, is set in stone. It’s literally history.
Which means, conceptually speaking, we’re all in the Animus when we’re playing the game. Everything that happens is the right thing, because the history has already been written. We know we’re not in the past, we’re in a simulation of the past, and we don’t need that explained a second way by pointing out that we’re actually playing another character playing another character living through something that already happened.
Ask yourself this: Were you ever bothered by the fact you literally weren’t Kratos when you played God of War? Would the game have been stronger if someone was there to explain you’re actually a third person playing Kratos, and that’s how this is all happening? Or are you just aware that video games exist and you’re cool with God of War being a video game?
So if the framing device isn’t necessary to explain that people throughout history are trying to kill other people and another group is trying to kill them — and the philosophies of both the Assassins and Templars are pretty interesting on their own — you have to ask what the modern day segments are bringing to the game narratively.
The answer can be found when you attempt to figure out what the hell is going on in the modern day segments, because it deals with the end of the world and the First Civilization and the path of legendary items throughout history. It’s the only part of the story that’s actually happening in real time, except the modern day story is so bogged down in the ridiculous and complicated lore at this point that it’s impossible for anyone outside of the hardcore fans to follow.
That’s a problem when games like Odyssey do so much to set up what’s going on in the historical part of the story, maybe to its detriment, while just assuming you’ve already played all the previous Assassin’s Creed games so you don’t need anything in the present-day laid out for you. The historical stories remain well above average, game after game, while players are slowly growing farther and farther away from caring about the modern day stories.
And do you want to know why Ubisoft doesn’t just release a five-minute video of the modern day story up to this point so we can all catch up? Because doing so would prove what a useless mess it has become. The best you can do these days are Wiki articles that, I promise, aren’t a joke, and are actually meant to help. They just seem like nonsense when you look at them through the lens of effective storytelling.
The main selling point of the Animus often seems to be that its story so complicated that you have to study it to even pretend to understand it, and that means that, without the Animus, all of that meta-narrative is meaningless. The Assassin’s Creed story, some argue, is the story of the Animus. The Animus is important to us because the Animus is important to Assassin’s Creed; which is circular logic based around the Thermian argument more than any actual reason for the Animus to continue to be a thing.
Cutting all the horrendous lore loose would annoy the same 10 people who claim to love Desmond Miles in the comments of every story about how the Animus is bad — even though he died roughly 87 games ago — but it would make it much easier for new players to jump into future games and enjoy them for what they are: ridiculously detailed worlds in which you can kill people throughout time.
That’s enough of a selling point! The lore is a weight, not a feature.
The gameplay reason for getting rid of the Animus
The bigger reason, and arguably the better reason, for ditching the Animus and the modern story stories is that the modern day stories aren’t fun.
If you want to be introduced to Alexios or Kassandra, the two characters you can play as in ancient Greece, you need to play Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Fair enough! That’s the game Ubisoft wants you to buy and play this week. It’s a good game! If you want to be introduced to Layla Hassan, the star of the modern day portion of the story, you need to buy and play Assassin’s Creed Origins, a game that came out last year. Or you can read a Wiki article, I guess.
I didn’t play much of Origins, so the modern day portion of Odyssey showed me a character I didn’t know, and when the first chunk of the game was over and Hassan left the Animus I was stuck wandering around a small room, being told to look at my email. So I sat down at a computer and brought up a few dozen emails, all of which seemed to describe more of the modern day story, starring a character whose story has never been told to me, so I just got up and went back to the Animus in order to kill more people throughout history in the beauty of ancient Greece.
Friend, I read enough email about people I don’t care about in real life. That shit can get right the frick on out of my video games. So here’s the bigger question: When did you play a modern day segment in an Assassin’s Creed game that was actually fun?
When your choice is between being a badass historical killer with a variety of lethal means with which to dispatch your enemies through history’s most beautiful countrysides or checking your email, why include it at all? Is it surprising that I hopped right back into the Animus the moment the game kicked me out of the fun stuff to try to get me to read my emails?
The Animus will never get better until it’s destroyed
These modern day characters won’t be fun until they let us play active Assassins or Templars in the secondary story, and they won’t be interesting until Ubisoft can find some way of simplifying and re-introducing the lore.
Which is a challenge because while the historical aspects of the games can tell a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, the modern day sections can’t ever come to a complete end because that would mean the series would end. So Ubisoft feels trapped between ending the series or laying on even more silly, modern day plot lines and characters.
The technology itself has already been rebooted in the game’s world so that anyone can use it, which makes the modern characters themselves interchangeable. The stakes are even lower now than when the series began. The only good choice is the third option, the one Ubisoft doesn’t want to admit exists: Get rid of the Animus, and never bring it up again.
It’s the right thing to do.