There's no big new Assassin's Creed game this year - instead, Valhalla instead lives on through expansions set in Ireland and France - but that doesn't mean Ubisoft's biggest franchise is taking a breather. Quite the opposite, in fact.
For fans, 2021 will see the series' broadest collection yet of books, manga, webtoons and audios arrive from a wide range of creative partners across the world, expanding the franchise further via characters old and new. And beyond that? Well, there's under-wraps plans at Netflix for an animated series and live-action show, too.
This week, Ubisoft will detail eight projects to be published this year - more on all those below - and a new system of categorising future stories published under the Assassin's Creed umbrella; Classics are direct adaptations of video games, Chronicles feature new stories with returning Assassins, while Originals offer all-new protagonists and time periods.
Today I sat down for a video call with two of the loremasters in charge of all that and much more: publishing content manager Etienne Bouvier and transmedia director Aymar Azaïzia, who together act as the brains behind the Assassin's Creed stories that aren't video games. Our chat reveals new details on a webtoon series set to feature Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag star Edward Kenway, discusses whether fan favourite Shao Jun is off the table for her own big game in the future, and touches on learnings from that Michael Fassbender film.
Fair warning, the third question lightly references a story point introduced at the end of Valhalla - so if you are yet to finish that game, it may be worth skipping past this. Enjoy!
Let's start off with the projects you've got coming this year and the new Classics/Chronicles/Originals branding you're introducing - what's the thinking behind all this?
Bouvier: This year will be especially dense so for us it was important to make it more understandable for fans, readers, listeners the kind of stories they'll get.
And here's a question which you'll probably hate: are these all canon? Fans care! (I care.)
Azaïzia: [Laughs] It's my job to label them as canon or not, which is super important for fans. It's not the category which will make the project canon - and most of what we're producing is canon. It's more how the project has been developed and if, for example, a super famous artist has given their own take on something, we'll give them carte blanche but it may not be canon as we want them to be able to express themselves. But most of the time, and most of this year, everything will be canon.
It's one of the big takes we have on Assassin's Creed - and I'm old, I started out 12 years ago now on Assassin's Creed - we always try to maintain consistency, so everything we we are producing is part of an eco-system, part of a world we are building. And as much as possible, we want to avoid becoming a cross-media franchise like DC or Marvel with a multiverse or multiple existences with multiple versions of Bruce Wayne, or whoever is Batman, where if you're watching Gotham or playing the Arkham series you're not playing the same character.
What we're doing - and it's super hard with so many things going on at the same time! - is that we always acknowledge what has been said already with retconning at absolute minimum.
You mentioned a multiverse and I have to ask here about the ending of Valhalla - spoiler warning! Fans have theorised the Yggdrasil machine might open up the franchise to exploring multi-universe stories, or making some non-canon stuff canon... what's your view on all that?
Azaïzia: Well, as you've said it's something we've created and I won't shy away from it because it exists! It's something we've created! But it's kind of the other way around. We started thinking about something like that very early on, and there are traces of it in earlier games. If you ask yourself, how were Minerva or Juno able to leave messages for Desmond in the present knowing that centuries after he would be the one to receive it? There had to be some kind of device so they would be able to anticipate what was coming. So what we said from the get-go was that the Animus was based on Isu tech - it's a simulation machine - and that probably the Isu have used tons of simulations to consider what might happen and left a few messages hoping the chances are someone like Desmond will see them.
So it's more we're playing with that. It could be a way for us to make previous non-canon things canonical - we could say it was in another universe, in a simulation. We haven't done that yet and I don't know if we'll ever do it. But at least it gives information on events which happened in the past that weren't ever really explained before.
As the Assassin's Creed franchise gets bigger and more complex, fans have called for a loremaster to look after everything, and on Valhalla, narrative director Darby McDevitt often popped up to answer queries. What're your thoughts on that?
Azaïzia: In the past we had a former team which I was part of - and I was kind of the gatekeeper for the Assassin's Creedverse. That was super fun but super tough with all the projects and everyone involved. And then it separated into me doing everything that's happening on the transmedia [non-game] side, which is massive. It's the projects, the TV series, the movie which I worked on... There's always so much to do.
For the game, we usually let the narrative and creative director run the show and we're talking with them so we know everything we're going to do we're going to do together. So when Darby pitched us along with Ashraf Ismail for Valhalla what happened next was we worked together telling them what kind of projects we could do around that. And then with Darby we worked on the Dark Horse prequel comics which are canon and telling what happens before Valhalla, we worked on the novel with Matt Kirby so we could have some recurring characters, all of that stuff we built together.
So there's not a single entity dealing with everything - one single person handling the whole thing. It's more a group of people who have been there more than a decade handling the Assassin's Creed franchise and that's part of Ubisoft's strategy to have people stick around on the portfolio for a long time to handle this kind of franchise and be able to have this kind of super nerdy conversation and know what we're talking about.
Do you feel the need to have a prominent lore master for fans? Darby was that for Valhalla but only specifically for Valhalla.
Azaïzia: Yeah, so usually internally we have our community manager and community developer handling the community and working with The Mentor's Guild, which we created a few years ago. It started as a couple of guys from all branches of the community - people making cosplay, writing short stories, artists - and we now have 12-20 new people joining each year. We talk directly to these people, they have access to the game before it's released, we fly them to Montreal and get feedback, we send them proof samples of narrative things we're working on... And this is how you end up with an incredible Assassin's Creed wiki as they know in detail everything we're doing!
This year's plans include a broad mix of story settings, and also lots of fan-favourite Shao Jun. How you decide what to focus on - do you pitch authors with characters or ideas in mind, or do they pitch you?
Bouvier: We've had a lot of demand from Asian partners to develop more around Shao Jun, she was a relatable character to our audience in China but also in Japan - which resulted in the Blade of Shao Jun manga. So it can happen that way - partners wanting to develop a specific era or setting because it appeals to their audience. But it can also arrive the other way around, for example the Fragments young adult novel trilogy, we left the door open for writers to pitch ideas and settings. The only creative input we gave to that project was we wanted three writers working on three different settings and focusing on the young adult trope of siblings - brothers, sisters, twins - and how they can be affected by the events of an Assassin's Creed story.
We try to develop content meaningful to the audience where the development partner launches - which explains why we have content focused mainly in Asia, in China for example, from Asian partners, and content mainly set in Western countries and history with Western partners. You are able to tackle this content more legitimately. And what's nice is the Assassin's Creed franchise is international so this content then gets translated across the world - so we have Chinese novels, Korean webtoons travel across the world.
Everyone across the world would love a Shao Jun game - do you have to plan around the possibility of something like that happening when thinking about future projects?
Azaïzia: Yes. That's a big part of the discussions we're having with Etienne, the partners, and myself on the team. That's why we're interested in having lore masters who stay within the project so we know exactly what's coming next. And it's a discussion which goes both ways. We let parners know the future of the Assassin's Creed franchise - the games, the TV series - so if we do double up we do so intentionally and everything works together. So when we started the Shao Jun project, part of the Chronicles series, we had Chinese, Indian and Russian Assassins which were also the three countries we were looking to tap into. We had references to Shao Jun in the movie. Shao Jun's origin in Embers was used to wrap up Ezio's story but also pass over the torch, and since then she's had her own 2D platformer game, then her own manga, then her own books... she's pretty successful so we know we made a pretty great character.
And then from another angle, we've made characters like Subject 16, Otso Berg who have come from comic books into the games and become important parts of the lore. To do all that properly there's a lot of coordination and information - and sometimes telling them about projects which end up changing direction, changing gear, so that's kind of entertaining...
What would you say to fans this week who see all the cool Shao Jun things coming out this year and are excited for them but also get the impression this also means there isn't a Shao Jun video game coming, if you're telling her story there?
Azaïzia: [Laughs] That's the best and worst feedback we get. The best thing is 'oh my god that's such an amazing story' and then it's 'I hope it's a game'. It's very flattering to hear that the story is amazing but at the same time it's not a game so it's also not! We spend a lot of time making sure we're nurturing every story and making them relevant to the mediums in which they appear. The narrative is always adapted to the format. We wouldn't have the same thing in a book as we would in a graphic novel as we would in a game, even if characters can be recurring and coming back.
So, no, in the franchise having a book or realising something about a character [in another medium] does not mean, at all, it's a no-go for a video game project or a TV show. It's Assassin's Creed, so everything is permitted. So you can expect anything to happen. And it's not like we ever have a choice where we're saying 'we have a chance to tell a story from a Chinese partner in a book, so there will never be a game set in China'. It doesn't work like that, we're working all together and if we find a project which works together on multiple formats, we'll do it.
Are any characters off the table? I thought Ezio got his ending beautifully in Embers, and it felt right, perhaps, to leave that story there.
Azaïzia: Yeah, I could say sometimes 'let that character rest, we've told so many stories about him already, let's try to investigate that other thing'. That leads to other super interesting projects like the webtoon we're currently developing, animating in Korea - it was going to be a project like that where we re-used a [specific] character. And then we had a talk about Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag and potential novels or DLCs we never used or tapped into where we could see Edward going somewhere else - maybe not staying in the same seas, maybe going East... 'That could be super interesting. We never told this story, what about pitching that?'
So we decided to go with Assassin's Creed 4 - we haven't written anything yet, we know exactly what we want to do but we're still in the process of creating. But that's exactly how it came to be - we explored different characters, different things we wanted to do in the franchise, and what would work in a specific format - animated pirates! amazing! - that opened specific doors.
There's definitely characters which have been very, very used. Ezio, we were okay to bring him back for the Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood board game which had a narrative, as it worked for the character and we know it'll work for fans who love him. But from now on, we try to focus on any potential characters with stones still untouched - and there's a lot!
I'd love to hear more about the project for Edward. Would that be set after he leaves for England at the end of Black Flag?
Azaïzia: It's probably going to be just after the game, I don't know exactly which year we'll do specifically as we'll do historical research to make sure we have some nice and interesting characters, but it's after the main events of Assassin's Creed 4 so a lot characters are out the call from the get-go, and at a point where Edward is embracing the Creed. Because in the game, a lot of people forget Edward is not an Assassin but posing as one, helping them. And it's only at the end of the game he's like 'huh, maybe I could join'. It could be interesting to tap into that and see Edward as an Assassin.
There was a Netflix live-action show announced last October, is that something you're working on too?
Azaïzia: Yeah. [Silence, laughs.] I can't give you any more information but we have secured a couple of talents and are working with them on the show. We don't have anything more to announce apart from we're working on it and have been taking our time. We learnt a lot from the movie and have a really strong team behind it, and I'm super hopeful and super happy for the format. I think the TV series format works better to craft an Assassin's Creed story.
Than a movie? I agree.
Azaïzia: Yeah - you have to pack so many things for newcomers in a movie - you have to deal with multiple timelines, Assassins, Templars, Isu... you have to come up with something cleaner, or you can have a TV show where you can pace it in a different fashion and take your time.
There was a Netflix animated series, too...
Azaïzia: It's still active - it's the guys who brought us the Raving Rabbids TV show which have also announced the Far Cry animated series. Those guys are really focusing on that. It's not the next project which is coming up in their pipeline but it's still in their hands. It hasn't been canned.
Thank you both - and I look forward to Michael Fassbender's return in the TV show!
This year's new projects include: Assassin's Creed Fragments, a young adult trilogy set in 19th Century Japan, 13th Century Scotland and 17th Century France and Assassin's Creed: The Jade Seal Collection, a 10-novel exploration of Chinese history from the 4th to 17th Centuries. These, along with Assassin's Creed Dynasty, a paperback of the earlier webcomic, are part of the brand's Originals range featuring new protagonists and settings.
Assassin's Creed: The Ming Storm, from Chinese author Yan Leisheng, is a Shao Jun adventure due to be published in June. Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Blood Brothers, a manhua (Chinese comic), and a forthcoming French graphic novel, will spin-off from the series' recent Viking epic with new characters and stories, and are labelled under the new Chronicles brand. This is also where Assassin's Creed: Turbulence in the Ming Dynasty audio series will sit - another Shao Jun saga. Finally, there's the aforementioned webtoon Black Flag sequel, from Korean partner Redice.