Patrice Desilets is the charming creative director on Assassin's Creed II. Despite having worked at Ubisoft Montreal for over ten years now, it is the first sequel he's ever been involved with. Let's find out how he decided to follow-up one of this console generation's best-selling games.
My chat with Patrice begins with me relating how at E3 this year I'd asked fellow Ubisoft Montreal creative director Maxime Béland to describe his game, Splinter Cell: Conviction, in just one word.
"Panther," Maxime had said back then, without pausing to think.
I tell Patrice I thought that one word encapsulated everything that was different about Conviction, compared to the previous games. So I ask Patrice if he had one word for Assassin's Creed II. At first, he looks a little surprised.
"Two," he says, after a few moments.
Two? I repeat.
"No, really. Two. Because for me it's my first sequel."
I was surprised to learn that, after serving as creative director on Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Patrice did not work on any of that game's successors. After Sands of Time shipped he went straight to work on the first Assassin's Creed. So how did he approach making a sequel for the very first time?
"Everything that was in the first one is still there," said Patrice. "We wanted worked on the pillars of the game, making them better, getting rid of the frustration, and we wanted to change the main character. It's the real sequel; it's not 1.5, it's not more of the same.
"It really is Assassin's Creed TWO," he says, emphasising that word again, before smiling. "I'm sorry I don't have as good a word as Max."
Patrice then shoots down my suggestion that perhaps Assassin's Creed II is everything he wanted the first game to be.
"No," he says, firmly. "The first game was a game about a warrior monk during the Crusades, and that was the game we wanted to make. Going to Italy is not something we wanted to do in the first game. Did we learn? Did we come back with some ideas for which we didn't have the time? For sure. But it's not the game I wanted to make in the first place."
The games industry can have a strange attitude towards sequel, and so can the fans. We see developers deliberately changing the mood or tone between sequels, as Ubisoft themselves did with the choice to make the Prince darker and carry more attitude in Warrior Within. Yet at other times, we see sequels arrive where, really, very little seems to have changed.
"Sometimes we react in the games industry a lot," says Patrice. "You give the game to the world and you take the feedback. I wanted to do a sequel and so I said to the team, 'Look, we're going to change a lot of stuff, but it still has to be part of the overall [Assassin's Creed series] .'
"I don't know why in the games industry, we change so much between sequels. But not all of us do it. You look at the Japanese, once they establish something they like to repeat it. Look at someting like Metal Gear Solid and you can feel pretty confident about the pillars, but it is the story that will change.
"Here it is like that too," he says. "The story will change, but the pillars are pretty much the same. The character moves the same, we kept the control scheme. We kept this idea of having an ancestor and we kept Desmond as the guy in the present. We kept the basic core mechanic of the fights, the free-running, the climbing. But we did put some stuff aside."
Patrice wasn't shy when it came to changing major aspects of the first, such as the entire structure. The first game was all about numbers, he tells me. There were three cities divided into three districts where you had to do six investigations and eventually carry out nine assassinations. It was all very regimented and predictable, exposing the bare framework of the game and pulling you out of the experience.
"The structure of the first game is gone," confirms Patrice. "We went for a more organic, more narratively driven game structure."
In large part, this is because the new assassin, Ezio, is a very different person to Altair, the original game's protagonist. Where Altair remained apart from society, Ezio is very much a part of his. As such, his story weaves through the cities he travels to and people he meets along the way.
"In the first one it was this monk warrior who had no life at all except killing people and the creed was really important to him," says Patrice, explaining the difference between the two characters. "Now, Ezio, he's got a life. He knows people, he is part of society.
"The first one was very serious, maybe too much. But here we're making jokes, there is some comic relief. For example, in the relationship between Ezio and Leonardo Da Vinci, they're friends, they act like friends. It's not like [adopts serious voice]'Oh, you're Ezio the assassin and you're Leonardo, the most intelligent person on earth.' No. One time Ezio is pissed off at Leo and he'll say 'Oh, look, he's trying to invent some piece of shit!' You know, they're real people... except he doesn't say 'piece of shit' because all the swearing is in Italian!"
"When you see it," he continues, "you'll feel that maybe we went in a different direction. But I think it's because we're not talking about the same guy. So, for sure, that different guy in that different period of time has given us different ideas. It has nothing to do with a reaction to the first one; it's just that Ezio is not Altair, and Altair is not Ezio.
"But it's still an Assassin's Creed game. You'll still do viewpoints... there's a bunch of stuff like that that repeats, that are good. You'll still do the 'leap of faith' because it's fun. Ezio is not Altair, but he's got it in his blood."
It appears that Patrice and his team have really taken on board criticism of the weaknesses of the first game, while at the same time amplifying its strengths. The outward appearance may seem different, but underneath that Assassin's Creed blood still flows. Isn't that what we really want from a sequel?