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Jan 25, 2012

The Memory Palace of Desmond Miles

Assassin’s Creed: Revelati

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The memory palace sequences of Assassin's Creed: Revelations

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is nothing if not diverse. Each entry into the Assassin’s Creed series has seemingly taken the approach of enforced diversity, and in Revelations, it reaches its apex. Aside from the central conceit of assassin-ing around Constantinople, there are tower defense sequences, RPG elements, and a semi turn-based strategy mode.

But certainly the most surprising new element added by Revelations is the Desmond Miles sequences. Desmond, the present-day character whose ancestors form the crux of the game, has always been a playable character in the Assassin’s Creed series, usually to the detriment of the game’s quality of play and narrative. For Revelations, however, the Desmond sequences broke with the tradition of being regular third person action sequences, and transitioned into something entirely unexpected.

In Revelations, you enter the memory palace of Desmond Miles.

Matteo Ricci was born in 1552 in Italy, and in 1596, he taught the Chinese how to build a memory palace. Ricci was a founding figure of the Jesuit mission in China, where he had been stationed since 1582, after four years spent in Goa. He held a more open approach to his missionary work than was usual, which resulted in him being one of the first Western scholars to master both Chinese script and Classical Chinese. This approach paid dividends for Ricci, as in recognition of his abilities, the Wanli Emperor granted him a patronage, and invited him into the Forbidden City – making Ricci the first Westerner to be admitted.

But earlier, in 1596, Ricci wrote a book in Chinese on the art of memory palaces and presented it as a gift to the governor of Jiangxi, Lu Wangai. The short book held great detail on Ricci’s interpretation of the memory palace, a mnemonic technique that dates to antiquity. A memory palace was a key technique for an infallible memory, Ricci argued. All you had to do was to build one.

If you’re familiar with the idea of a memory palace, or the method of loci, as it is sometimes known, then you’ll know it isn’t a physical construct, but a mental one. The memory palace can be based on a real building or entirely constructed in the mind, and it can be either large or small. Fundamentally, though, our palace is a storage and recall structure for the aid of memory.

The trick, said Ricci, is to ‘build’ a specific structure in your mind, a unique place that can be navigated in order to recall facts with great accuracy and detail. We assign an image to each point we need to remember, and assign a location within our palace to each image. Say you had to remember the sequence of a series of cards. You could put a medical centre (meaning the Queen of Hearts) in the entrance hallway, followed by a garden shed (for the Ace of Spades). Therefore, to navigate our memory palace is to navigate our own memory. It’s a neat trick.

Clearly, when the designers at Ubisoft’s Massive Entertainment needed a spatial metaphor in order to convey the previously hidden backstory of Desmond Miles, the memory palace was quick to hand. The Desmond sequences in Revelations are spatially allegorical, and take place in no particular reality within the game’s setting. They are, the game tells us, splintered layers of Desmond’s subconscious.

Aesthetically, the grey concrete slabs of these sequences are reminiscent of brutalist architecture, or perhaps even Berlin’s striking Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Yet structurally, they have clearly been designed as allegories for the life story that Desmond relates.

When Desmond talks of his childhood, growing up on a farm, we get mostly open spaces, idyllic to start with, and then constricting as Desmond relates his growing dissatisfaction with his childhood life. When Desmond relates his journey away from the farm, we get a memory palace to match, with difficult to navigate architecture and intentionally complex spaces. When Desmond reaches a forest, we find dense pillars. When he reaches a river, we find a low, flowing cavern. When Desmond finally reaches New York City, we get the most tightly controlled spaces yet – all winding corridors and narrow platforms.

There seemed to be a fair bit of frustration with these sequences when Revelations was first released last November. Possibly, the frustration had to do with the more-is-more design approach and the dissimilarity to the other sections of the game. But notwithstanding some pretty poor dialogue (“Sometimes the city is a vampire”), and some gameplay concepts that possibly could have been communicated more effectively, these Desmond sequences in Revelations are probably the most interesting – and certainly the most courageous – in the game.

It isn’t often that a studio like Massive Entertainment makes such a clear effort to say something with level design alone. These sequences are clearly spiritually, if not directly, memory palaces. For Revelations, in order to recall facts about a previous life, we must navigate a specially designed space with a place for each point of interest. Though these points of interest are largely allegorical, rather than the direct image-location that Ricci and others suggested, the reference point is still clear.

This is the memory palace of Desmond Miles.

[Thanks to reader Long, who wrote in to correct me – these sequences were designed by Ubisoft’s Massive Entertainment in Sweden, not Ubisoft Montreal as I had previously suggested. You should read the brief entry on their site about it – they say the references for the sequences included Pink Floyd, David Lynch, Tado Andao, Robert Penrose, René Magritte and Oscar Reutersvärd.]

Daniel Golding —

Daniel Golding

Writer, PhD candidate and Game On blogger

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14 thoughts on “The Memory Palace of Desmond Miles

  1. I really enjoy the series, and it’s one of the few in which I find myself driven to find out more of the story, rather than just pushing kind of mindlessly towards 100% completion. The writing’s kind of clunky, but the storytelling is great (and I’m a sucker for a good conspiracy). I’ve only just started on the Desmond sections (back story or no, he’s a painfully dull character – the designers went a bit too far with the whole blank-slate thing), but they’re definitely an interesting addition to the game.

    Sam – Revelations is the last Ezio game; Assassin’s Creed III should be out this year.

  2. unfortunately the series is incredibly repetitive and hasn’t moved on much from the original. Like so many movie francises perhaps its time to give the series a rest?

  3. Tim & DMX – Yes, the first game in particular was very repetitive, and suffered because of it. Ubisoft made broad strides to fix that problem as early as Assassin’s Creed II, and I think by the time Brotherhood came around it wasn’t an issue anymore. Perhaps in Revelations, they’ve even gone too far with the diversity – as I mentioned in the post, there are so many different game elements that the central conceit of being an assassin in Constantinople is a bit lost.

  4. Has the mission diversity increased since the earlier games at all? The original game had a fantastic premise, and mostly excellent gameplay attributes. It was primarily action oriented, but had a fairly engrossing political quasi dan-brown type background, and the whole stealthy assasination with the need for careful planning and the like made a genuinely interesting game (Well until the one “boss fight” scene where the game abandoned its stealthy thing and it just reacted badly with my shitty laptop controls) , but the game was bogged down by the fact theres really just 3 or 4 missions in the whole game repeated over and over. I would love a game like this to be made by someone like rockstar or bethseda who know how to do open-worlds properly, but yeah keep ubisofts animation dept, those guys are *good*.

  5. I played the last two, I really liked them both but I found them a little tiresome after a while.

    The story of desmond and the storyline behind Assassins creed series is really interesting and what moves the whole series.

    I loved the whole idea of the animus, and that you could access your ancestors history.

  6. Yes, you’re dead right about Hannibal Lecter, Luke. There’s a similar scene in an episode of the BBC Sherlock TV series – it seems a favourite strategy of writers of dangerous eccentrics!

  7. You have certainly piqued my interest; I found this post fascinating. I haven’t actually played any of the Assassin’s Creed games. I am intrigued by the concept of a memory palace and will read up on it — it reminds me of Thomas Harris/Hannibal Lecter; moments in the Hannibal books when Hannibal frees himself from the confines of prison by walking the corridors of his mind.