The Past and Future State of The Present Day
Written by Sorrosyss, August 31st, 2018

Warning: Spoilers from across the franchise.

The Present Day setting, or “Modern Day” as fans often refer to it, has been integral to the Assassin's Creed franchise since day one. An often divisive topic, it has changed markedly over the last decade. But today we are going to highlight a realisation, and a frankly inescapable truth:

The Modern Day of Assassin's Creed is not popular.

Now, that may come as a shock statement to you, especially coming from one of the biggest Modern Day fans out there. Sadly to my mind, it is a fact.

Let us consider the rationale behind this opinion then. Take yourself. As you have taken the time to visit a fansite and read this very article, the chances are that much like myself, you are a hardcore fan. You perhaps spend time on Twitter, Reddit, or the forums, expressing your own opinion about the franchise and where it should be going. The reality is though, you and I, make up a small minority of the fanbase. For example, the main Assassin's Creed Reddit should be very proud of its 110,000 users, but when you compare that against the 110 million units sold for the franchise, you realise you are but a grain of sand in the grand scheme of things.

If we take a moment and look at things instead from Ubisoft's perspective, they ultimately have a large variety of fans that they now need to cater for. The hardcore fans that have played every game and love every aspect including the Modern Day (hello!), the fans who have played every game but dislike the Modern Day, the fans who have played some titles (with a further Modern Day split), and then you have the newcomers. A simple flow chart shows just how many pools of consumers that Ubisoft now have to try and placate with each release.

Arguably, the most vital and important pool to them appears to be the newcomers. This is just a simple and rational business approach. We see it in the way that they have effectively tried to make each release a standalone story nowadays, so that the need for prior knowledge does not become a barrier. You may question why they would focus on this group most, but the truth is you cannot focus your product purely on the loyal group of consumers who have been there for a decade. Fact is that pool on the flow chart above is now likely the smallest, a consequence of the passage of time, loss of interest, or simply changes in lifestyle. That pool of fans is forever shrinking now, so focusing your time, resources and efforts on them really would be foolhardy from a business sense. New blood is both vital and desired for the longevity of the franchise.

That's not to say that Ubisoft have not been listening. Many of the hardcore Modern Day fans like to cite the Desmond era as the golden age, and that everybody loved it. But the reality is, even back in those days, not everybody did. There was a fair portion of fans that did not like Desmond at all. Many considered him boring, and as the Modern Day sections often were little more than standing around in dialogue, the “adrenaline junkies” found them not to their taste either.

And so Desmond died. You could argue that he was not only a victim of changes within the fanbase, but as Ubisoft's next narrative arc was trying to put you (as the player) into the story, he really did not fit that model - not more so than in Unity where there was no playable Modern Day at all for the first time. The multiplayer mode would not have made much sense either if we were still playing as Desmond certainly. Here you could also see what the franchise would look like with Modern Day paired down to nothing more than a menu of historical settings. With the invisible war playing out in Abstergo Entertainment products for the general public to see, we were also left to aimlessly wander the halls of a software house as a mute in Black Flag and Rogue, tablet in hand. (You can almost feel the excitement as I typed that) Fortunately, the small yet vocal minority of Modern Day fans expressed their disappointment to Ubisoft with these storytelling aspects, and with that feedback received, over time we eventually once more got a new Modern Day voice and protagonist in Layla Hassan within Origins.

Throughout this period, the changes in creative staff at Ubisoft no doubt also played a part in the stark changes in narrative direction. This is plain to see for example in the path of the character of Juno. As the primary antagonist of the franchise since 2010, she was released from her prison in 2012 at the end of Assassin's Creed III and then did – well, nothing. She first reappeared in Black Flag as a ghost in Abstergo's networks seeking a new body for her consciousness. By Unity, her goal had changed to becoming an all powerful singularity within the Grey, only to change her mind once again by the next game, Syndicate, where she wanted a body again. As she featured in the unused files of Unity, Ubisoft clearly had more detailed plans for her but she was ultimately relegated to side content in each release such as the World War 1 rift of Syndicate. Her last planned appearance was originally going to be a part of the Trial of the Gods in Origins when they were known as “Juno Events”, but her content was unfortunately cut. One can surmise that a combination of time, resources, and deadlines resulted in the teams having to make hard decisions about what aspects of the games would appeal to the majority of their consumers. In this regard, Juno, and the Modern Day, fell down in importance. Indeed, as Jean Guesdon, a Ubisoft Creative Director said in a conference, her story and very existence was not widely known to the overall audience. As Origins set itself before the original Assassin's Creed, the removal of all “narrative barriers” was therefore essential for newcomers. Thus, Juno's fate was sealed. In the end, after several failed attempts to do something with her story, she found her closure within the comics of the expanded universe. As a huge Juno fan, you might know my thoughts on this. A story thread that began in the games themselves really should not have ended in the transmedia, especially after her face closed out Syndicate with a promise of the threat to come. Rather than struggle with her narrative any further though, she was summarily killed off in the Uprising comics bringing an eight year plotline to an end. It was not the closure that many hardcore fans wanted - but it was a closure nonetheless.

Speaking of the expanded universe, even here we see resistance and distaste to the Modern Day setting from the fanbase. The infamous Initiates project was an attempt to bring fans closer via a centralised hub. Amongst other things, it brought new focus to the Modern Day, and featured many tidbits of information that drip fed the hardcore fans along with new lore for months. In terms of its wider appeal though, the project was deemed unsuccessful and was rescoped into a data tracking site before ultimately closing down. In other areas, one of the most widely criticised aspects to the 2016 movie was that the “dull” present day scenes were boring compared to the vibrant action scenes of the historical time period. Many commentators expressed how they wished the entire movie had only centred around Aguilar. If we look beyond the movie to the comics too, the Uprising series was the most dedicated Modern Day set release thus far. Yet even here, we saw that the final few issues were not even released as physical editions. We don't know the true reason for that, but from the outside it looks like a cost cutting exercise – which we can only assume would be down to poor sales.

In the end, we have to have an appreciation for the difficult task that Ubisoft now has here, ten years into the franchise. They have various pools of fans, each interested in different aspects, and appeasing them all is going to be pretty difficult going forwards. They still take on feedback though, as they conduct their own surveys of their consumers, as many of us no doubt have received by e-mail at some points after we finish a game. Our understanding is that these are sent out in the thousands, and will no doubt capture a wider view of their consumer base, rather than the confined viewpoint of the hardcore fans you will find on Reddit and the forums. We were somewhat surprised ourselves recently, when we conducted our own survey. If you consider that ATA's main audience is no doubt the hardcore fanbase, even there the highest Modern Day option only achieved 13th on the poll of importance to fans.

If you look beyond the traditional fan haunts, and look at more mainstream websites – the likes of IGN and Youtube for example, you see a similar picture of distaste. “I wish Ubisoft would drop the Modern Day” type comments can often be seen in comment sections, and in high frequency as well. Some fans genuinely believe that it would greatly benefit the historical storytelling if the narrative was simply self contained. More than ever, you can see for yourself that the vocal online minority of hardcore Modern Day fans simply does not represent the majority of the consumer base.

So what next? Well, the Modern Day continues to be what it has always been - a framing device. It will hopefully always be there, as it always provides the context and ties to the historical and Isu time periods. In actuality though, even when you think back to the first few games, the amount of Modern Day content was always pretty minimal anyway. If you look at “all Modern Day cutscenes” on Youtube for example, most of the videos for each release only run between 10 to 20 minutes each, which is a pretty honest reflection of the minority of Modern Day fans versus the majority of the historical portion fanbase - which takes up many more hours by comparison. Whilst I firmly believe that the Modern Day fully has the depth and potential for a spinoff to stand on its own right, the likelihood of it ever playing a larger part within the main Assassin's Creed narrative releases is at this point highly unlikely.

That being said, for the content that we do receive, how the Modern Day is handled is crucial. For example, the Lost Archive DLC for Revelations was a painful experience for many with its frustrating puzzle mechanics. Whilst many were ultimately happy to see a new protagonist in Origins, Layla did very little apart from hiding in a cave and reading a laptop. (about that helicopter...) Certainly the early indications from the developers of Odyssey are that we should expect the same amount of content in terms of the Modern Day of Origins, but I am at least encouraged to have seen a heavy focus on Isu elements in the marketing, with even Layla herself appearing in some materials – which in itself is a rare occurance for the Modern Day to be seen in any capacity prior to release.

In the end, the franchise has carved out a niche in the market and is known for its historical tourism above all other aspects. When Ubisoft plan out each game, the task they have before them becomes more complex with each release. The various pools of fans notwithstanding, it appears that when their marketing teams see a business opportunity in the market to expand the brand, such as increasing the RPG elements and introducing narrative choice, then the developers do their best to bring this vision to life. As I am sure we can appreciate, the gameplay requirements and feature set, as well as the world itself, will in all likelihood be put in place before the story is placed around it. Whilst there have been questions surrounding lore elements of Odyssey in that respect, and although many of us have our own theories and ideas that we would like to see realised, we should also acknowledge Ubisoft's creative freedom to show us the game that they want to make. We can but wait and see where the story of the next game takes us, before we draw the conclusions we can make from it. Certainly though, we know roughly where we will stand in terms of the Modern Day going forwards. It will be minimal, but if it can give us that extra level of narrative interconnectivity with the Isu that many fans have missed, it may well be an enjoyable final layer to pave the way for one of the most enjoyable Assassin's Creed stories to date.

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