Writing the Creed: An Interview with Jill Murray

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Assassin’s Creed is definitely a series that is known for it’s writing. Contained within every game is a veritable library of dialogue and lore, and that’s to say nothing of the books, comics, and some very well-done live-action videos that exist outside of the games themselves. Therefore, it really came as absolutely no surprise to me when the Writers Guild of America announced that Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation (an entry in the series that I liked quite a bit) had won the award for Outstanding Achievement in Video Game Writing.  Of course, none of this is possible without dedicated and talented writers, and in the case of Liberation, the pen was in the hands of Jill Murray and Richard Farrese.

Since the release of Liberation, Jill has been active around the internet working to keep the dialogue open about the importance of creating diverse, yet realistic characters in video games. In fact, she is giving a talk at this year’s Game Developers Conference over that very thing. After being in contact with Jill over social media, I asked if she would answer some questions regarding the process of crafting such fully-realized characters as Aveline, as well as her experiences creating a game in an already well-established franchise. Despite her busy schedule, she was happy to answer my inquiries, and the resulting interview is as follows.

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Gregory Fisher: Was this your first foray into historical fiction, or is that something you’d written before?

Jill Murray: This was my first experience with historical fiction. Prior to this I’d written mainly contemporary fiction. My co-writer, Richard Farresse had written for previous Assassin’s Creed games, and the encyclopedia.

GF: So when you started writing for the game, did you go back through the lore and get back up to speed on a lot of it? I know that as a player, I have to with pretty much each new game.

JM: Having now completed my work on an Assassin’s Creed game, I am now still sorting through the back-lore. There is so much of it- not just the games, but the comics and the books- and having to internalize it so quickly was definitely one of the more challenging aspects of the project for me.

GF: Was there a specific part of the game that you were mostly in charge of? One character, or particular parts of the plot, or what have you?

JM: Richard and I shared the game equally. More of the narrative design (negotiating the overarching story arc and that within missions, with the designers) probably fell to him, whereas I probably wound up writing more line-by-line dialogue, but it was definitely a shared collaboration.

GF: Without spoiling anything, I can say that in comparison to Connor or Ezio, Aveline struck me as more cold, more brutal. Was that a thought you had going into writing her (or writing the characters around her)? Like, “How can we make her a different kind of Assassin than what we’ve seen in the past two numbered games?”

JM: Not really. Our approach was very character-centric, and we allowed Aveline to grow out of her environment and the forces that shaped her. I think with Ezio, the way his story starts, his Assassinhood feels almost mandatory. Certainly, you’re rooting for him from the beginning. With Aveline, she has more of a task to find herself within her own milieu and that of the Assassins and Templars. Also, don’t forget, Aveline’s story is told to us by Abstergo Entertainment, for the purpose of painting the Assassins in a harsh light, so you never know what they left on the cutting room floor of the Animus. She could have been picking flowers like Ezio, and we wouldn’t have seen it.

GF: The Assassin’s Creed games have always struck me as being very forward-thinking in terms of diversity. Was the decision to make Aveline the gender and race she was something that you decided on to continue that trend, or was that something that had already been decided within the AC lore?

JM: The development team in Sofia Bulgaria was committed to that from day one, and there are many people working within Assassin’s Creed who’d wanted a protagonist like her for a long time.

GF: And finally, is Aveline a character you would like to revisit sometime in the future? Obviously you can’t say whether you are or not, but she did seem like she would be a fun character to write for.

JM: I’d love that. I’m unhealthily attached to her as a character.

GF: Once the script was done and the scenes were being voiced, did you and your fellow writers have much input after that? Like “Oh, we envisioned it sounding more like this”?

JM: A game is never really done until it’s gold, and this one was no exception. Once there was nothing more we could do with the script or in the sound booth, we played it constantly, reviewing the weekly builds. This is probably the worst part of any game for writers, because we can submit feedback as kindly and persuasively and passionately as possible, and then we have to sit back and accept whatever the team decides to do with it– which could be anything or nothing.

GF: When writing in a team-based environment, were there times when the writers would pull plot twists on each other? Like, writing something, handing it to the next person, and say “Okay, have fun writing your way out of THAT.” Because in my mind, that is the sort of thing that happens all the time.

JM: Never. I don’t know if there’s a game where that would work, because in game writing, it’s not just you and your writer buddies, it’s you, and the other writers, and all of the game and level designers, and it doesn’t even end there, but that’s the real core of game story– the collaboration between writing and design. We have meetings more than we have surprises, and even then we still wind up with more than enough situations to write our way out of without also springing things on each other.

GF: Have you played the finished product all the way through? What style of Assassin are you? (for the record, I was a big fan of the poison dart blowgun.)

JM: Richard and I have both played this game many, many, many times. Like you, I am a proponent of the blow gun. In general, I like to think that I like stealth, but the reality is that I have a tendency to just barge in to situations. The blow gun lets me barge in from a distance and flatter myself that that’s something like stealth.

GF: I know you write other things as well. Are there times when you wished you had the same level of creative control over the parts that you were writing?

JM: Fairly often, yes. If they would let me touch the game editor, I would probably go full control-freak, which is exactly why they don’t. But I recognize that I also like coming to work and collaborating with other people, and suspect I would miss that after I turned all my colleagues into mortal enemies. So that’s fine. I’ll just sit here on my hands. It’s OK. I’m fine. Everything’s fine.

GF: So…..Canadian currency history, huh?

JM: Thank you for drawing attention to my super-strength. ‘Nuff said.

GF: Last, but not least, when playing other games recently, what writing have you enjoyed, or has stood out to you?

JM: The last three games I really loved were The Room, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and Gravity Rush. I’m flinging paint around in Unfinished Swan right now, and that’s pretty great, too. Game story is so much more than words, and I tend to like games that use mechanics and the environment to place the player in a context that draws story out of play, or allows it to be discovered or created.

In addition to her video game writing, Jill Murray is also the author of two YA novels, Break On Through and Rhythm and Blues. She also has a blog in which she posts advice on writing.

[This interview originally appeared on the gaming website Attack Initiative.]

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