Assassin’s Creed is one of modern gaming’s biggest franchises, beginning as smaller action adventures with historical before evolving into mammoth open-world RPGs. However, with Ubisoft having a bigger focus on its core IPs, it is banking big on Assassin’s Creed, with multiple projects in the works. The next one in the pipeline is Assassin’s Creed Mirage, an experience that developer Ubisoft Bordeaux says goes back to the series’ roots. We had the chance to sit down with the game’s narrative director Sarah Beaulieu about its development process.
WellPlayed: How has Mirage being a smaller-scale experience helped you build the game’s narrative?
Sarah Beaulieu: Well, I don’t know if that helped. But definitely what was important for us when we started working on Mirage is that we used what we liked in the first Assassin’s Creeds, but also in the last ones – which is both the linear structure in terms of narrative – the linear structure from the earlier games – and the more open world structure from the last ones. So what we did is a hybrid version, with a very linear beginning and end, and the open world in the middle. But what was very important, and what helped in that sense of the structure, is that we wanted to have a clear evolution for Basim’s character, and we wanted the player to feel that evolution through the gameplay. So being linear at some point was very mandatory if we wanted to reach that feeling. In Valhalla, the open world structure is not good for characterisation, it’s not a focus. So in our case, it was more of you know, helping the narrative and helping build this evolution once again with a narrative structure that is more linear.
WP: What were the challenges or the opportunities when crafting a narrative around an existing character? And is that kind of easier? Or is it or is it more challenging than having just a blank canvas to kind of work with?
SB: So Basim was basically a blank page for us. If you know him from Valhalla, he doesn’t talk very much in the game. We only knew that he had a father in Samarra (in the Middle East), which is where he grew up, but we didn’t have any more information on him. But in Mirage, what we wanted to do was start with a young person and with a totally different character. So that was not very difficult, because again, that was a blank page, and what we wanted to do was show how this happened to Basim, how he became the person he is in Valhalla. The challenge was more about people hating him in Valhalla for what he does to Eivor. That was something, and we heard people complaining about having to play Basim, who was sometimes called the bad guy. But to me and the team, he never was the bad guy per se, he was someone with a complicated past and someone that we actually wanted to tackle as a character. So the challenge was more how can we make him lovable and likeable right from the beginning of Mirage and make people understand that okay, this is not the same guy, he’s not the person from Valhalla yet.
WP: You’ve kind of touched on it, but was there a particular reason why you wanted to build on Basim’s story?
SB: When we started working on the game we knew we wanted to go back to the Middle East and go back to the roots with the mechanics, and Basim was the right choice because he’s from Samarra. Building upon a character that is complex and that people tend to hate is actually something I wanted to do because if people hate him, it’s because you play as Eivor, and we have this point of view on him that is very specific to the main character’s point of view. But in Mirage, you actually play as Basim, as a different character. So Basim felt like the right choice. And as a team, we loved him in Valhalla. He has his reasons. You know, every guy has their reasons. But I guess one of the interesting things would if people who played Valhalla and hated Basim actually end up understanding and replaying Valhalla (after Mirage), seeing the scenes differently, because they know what happened before. That would be great.
WP: Was there ever a time in the pre-production that it was going to be someone new or was always going to be Basim?
SB: You probably already know, but in the beginning it was supposed to be a DLC for Valhalla. So the idea was Eivor going to the Middle East. That was the first idea and it lasted for two to three weeks. Soon enough it was Basim because we wanted to tackle Basim.
WP: How has your background in TV and cinema helped you write games and in particular Mirage?
SB: Definitely what helped is the fact that I have been a writer for 15 years. But when you write for movies, and you write for theatre, and you write for video games, you don’t use the same tools at all. So it’s not like copy-paste – it’s not working the same way. What is very different from video games to movies is that we use interactivity to tell stories. In the specific case of Mirage, what we wanted to do right from the beginning was make sure that the mechanics and the way the player evolves through the game, as a player and as a character story, are intertwined. That was very key. What was useful for me? Maybe from a narrative point of view, and from movies and plays was more the voice acting, that’s something I’m used to working with. So working with actors, especially with voice actors is something that I really like and that I’ve done for a long time now. So that’s probably something that helps. But in terms of the story again, which was a narrative structure that was able to support the character evolution, you know, very specifically. So as a player, I hope you’ll feel that through the game and when you play you will feel like you really are in Basim’s shoes, having a role in history.
WP: Just on the differences between the mediums, is there any easier one to kind of write for? Do you have more control in games? I feel like in films you’ll get some directors that will overrule the writers.
SB: Yeah, it’s a great question. The main difference in the overall process of production is that in video games, when things are done the right way, the narrative comes with everything else and is totally dependent on everything else. But so is the world – the world is dependent on narrative, the mechanics are dependent on narrative etc. Sometimes studios do make the mistake of putting the narrative after the mechanics, and that’s the problem. But when it’s done properly, the narrative is there from the beginning to the end of production. In movies, for example, you write the movie and then sometimes another person is going to direct it and you don’t even show up on the set. So that’s the main difference, and also narratives in video games are built upon stuff and built under stuff, so you have to communicate all day long with all the other departments. So it’s more the collaborative stuff to do. That would be the main difference between say a linear prediction, like movies and video games.
WP: How much collaboration is there between other departments? I’m going to assume you often go back and forth between level designers and have a quest you want to put in or a story arc and they’ll say whether it’s possible or not.
SB: Absolutely. We go back and forth, every day basically, and the way we worked with Mirage is that we have story beats – the whole story is written from the beginning just to make sure that everybody is aligned – because we need specific locations. Sometimes the art team will bring a location, or the stories will bring a location that could be very interesting, and we have a couple of writers and quest designers that help. For the quest designers, we actually have story beats and quest beats, but the story beats come first, and then the quest designers and the writers are going to structure quest beats to make sure that we tell the story in a compelling way in terms of gameplay.
WP: On the world, Baghdad is such a culturally rich place. What sort of research did you do to ensure that the Mirages narrative and its people and its world were as authentic as possible from a cultural point of view?
SB: So that’s something that we like to do at Ubisoft, and Assassin’s Creed is really known for that. We have our historians internally, but the first thing we did was buy as many books as we could on the subject because we didn’t have any on ninth–century Baghdad. So we had our books and we started tackling those, while at the same time, the historians at Ubisoft can provide you with information. For example, the Zanj rebellion, which is the main rebellion we’re talking about in Mirage. We would ask for more details and more sources, so they could feed us with inspiration, I would say. The other way, for example, if we had a specific character, and we wanted to put him or her in the game, we would ask the historian and they would feed us with that.
The second step is having some external experts because historians are not going to specialise in one specific time period. For example, we had an expert on ninth-century Baghdad, who dedicated all his life to that, and he visited the world at some point with the with the art director, and that was a great moment, he was very emotional about it. We had someone about slavery because that’s something we tackled in the game. So we had an expert on slavery, of that time period and that specific setting. We also had different people inside Ubisoft, who were dedicated to authenticity. So for example, people checking the accents, because we had a choice at the beginning of production to have English speakers of all the master languages that aren’t English. We wanted to have actors with backgrounds from the Middle East and China and accents. We wanted to avoid fake accents at any cost, so we had some people in the team dedicated to checking and making sure that it was authentic. It’s the same with all the writings in Arabic, for example, or the cultural elements or the religion stuff, you know, these kind of subjects. So we had a lot of back and forth with the authenticity team – we had a weekly sync with them – just making sure that this was as authentic as possible. That was key to us.
WP: Do you have a favourite quest or story beat or something that you’ve designed in Mirage that you can share?
SB: That I can share the contents, no. But what I can tell you is and I have said that a couple of times already, but the very first scene I wrote for the game was the last one. So that’s the very, very last scene. And that was something that we built upon because that gave a lot about the character evolution. That was very important to understand for everybody in the team. So I will say this one because it was a complicated one to shoot. And actually, when I asked for the cinematic team to start thinking about this specific scene, everybody was like, “Oh, wow, that’s too complicated, we’re never gonna make it on time,” because of mocap reasons and stuff like that. But I wanted it so much that it actually became something, and I’m proud of it because it made it. That’s the scene I like very much.
WP: Was there a different approach to writing NPC stories in Mirage in comparison to games like Valhalla and Odyssey which are quite big with lots of NPCs? I have one example from my preview hands-on and I’ll be very light on specifics, but very early in the game, there’s a moment that takes place and a young boy up the tower. I actually found that quite a nice little moment. Is it easier to have those moments when it’s more of a compact experience, even though there are open-world elements?
SB: I guess it’s easier in the sense that it’s easier to trigger those moments because we know where the player is likely to be or will likely wander – what we call the golden path for the player. So we know that probably, there’s a 100% chance that the player is going to go this way. So we can trigger a specific event there. So it’s easier because the world is not as big as in Valhalla. But you also have these moments in Valhalla, and they use the golden path to make sure that you encounter them as much as possible. The side content is something that we like to do very much because it helps you feel as though the world is living and that the world is not waiting for you as a player to do something, which is a nice feeling in an open world. The side content was something that we wanted to use as a support for the characterisation of Basim, so what you’ve seen with the young boy. Also to support the world so ninth-century Baghdad and the people who you can meet in there. Quick question for you, did you hear the boy’s name?
WP: I don’t recall his name, unfortunately.
SB: Okay, you’ll have to do it again then but he is more than just a young boy. So that’s also something we did with the side content – putting easter eggs and references everywhere.
WP: Last one because I know we’re running out of time. Assassin’s Creed has evolved so much over the years, going from smaller games to big games. In regards to the narrative, how do you ensure they have that Assassin’s Creed feel to it? Is it purely just the historical backdrop? Or is there more to it than that?
SB: Definitely the historical setting is very important for sure. That’s something we take very seriously at Ubisoft with Assassin’s Creed. But I would say that, to me, actually, and to the team, that’s why we went back to the roots. It was this feeling of being the lonely assassin, in the streets of a very specific city, and having this feeling of being a shadow, that was something that we wanted to feel again, and that was our focus in on stealth. Particularly, that’s that’s why we chose the stealth as a pillar. So I think to me it is really this feeling of being a lone hunter, and yeah and I guess that’s why we went back to the roots as a team because we had wanted to do that as players, so let’s do it again.
WP: Thanks for your time, best of luck with the game’s launch.
Assassin’s Creed Mirage launches on PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and PC on October 5.