Behind the Games Interviews January 11, 201615 upvotes
Jacob Frye in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
**spoilers for Jacob’s storyline in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate**
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate has been rightfully praised for introducing the first playable female character in a main series game, with the fantastic Evie Frye.
Evie isn’t the only thing Syndicate does right, and she’s also not the only protagonist who subverts expectations. Yes, I’m here to sing the praises of Jacob Frye.
For me, Jacob Frye was one of the most pleasant surprises of Syndicate. To be perfectly honest, I went into the game with some preconceptions about who he would be: probably a gruff and quippy guy, inveterate womanizer, your typical White Guy With Stubble.
This is my apology.
Right off the bat Jacob flouted those expectations by having a complex and respectful relationship with his twin sister Evie. He’s a lovable loser who’s full of bravado, but who is still searching for his place in the world. I was surprised by how many of the issues that Jacob deals with are thoroughly modern: he lashes out at societal inequality, chafes against the expectations imposed on him by the older generation of Assassins (especially his father), and even grapples with his sexuality.
I spoke to lead writer Jeffrey Yohalem about writing Jacob Frye’s character arc.
“I think it’s fun to have Jacob wondering about himself, because for me the story is really about Jacob finding out who he is,” Yohalem said.
While Evie’s role as a badass, confident Assassin is never challenged, Jacob spends much of the game struggling because he doesn’t fit the mold of what an Assassin should be. And for millennials playing Syndicate, he’s perhaps the most relatable character.
“We had big conversations how a 13-year-old or a 14-year-old in the middle of nowhere can take down a bank now. Or can take down the government website,” Yohalem said. “The Internet is giving people incredible tools for total mayhem, and so the game is an examination of that. You know, what it would be like if you’re Jacob, you’re taking things out just for fun, and then as Evie you experience the fallout from that.”
Syndicate takes place in 1868, roughly 30 years after the Industrial Revolution ended. In a lot of ways it’s a reflection of where we are today: the Internet was its own Industrial Revolution, and in the years since a generation of people have grown up with unprecedented access to information and the power that comes with it.
Throughout the game, Jacob is essentially that rebellious kid who is tearing down facets of society—sometimes accidentally, and sometimes purposefully.
For Yohalem, being able to explore this level of power in a game gives players a chance to experience the consequences that, for much of the game, Jacob manages to avoid.
“In the modern age, I feel that I’m very separated from consequence and what my everyday choices do to society as a whole.”
But in a game, “if [the system] feels rotten to you, then you can go out and change it.”
Syndicate gives the player chaos and consequence through the lens of the dual protagonists. Playing as Jacob, you cause anarchy as he works through his early-20s existential crisis. While playing as Evie, you are tasked with fixing the resulting disasters.
But the crux of any good story is when a character eventually confronts their flaws.
“I think the toughest thing about writing is that you have to torture people you like. That’s the thing I feel like as a writer takes you the longest to get over,” Yohalem told me. “You have to take characters you want to be happy and destroy them.”
Jacob’s trial by fire comes in sequence eight, when he aligns himself with the head of the Blighters gang, Maxwell Roth. Roth’s character grew out of the story’s focus on gang warfare and conquest side missions. If there’s gang warfare, logic went, there must be a rival gang leader who Jacob has to confront. Rather than devolving directly into a battle, Jacob’s confrontation with Roth instead takes the form of an extended courtship, as Roth tempts him toward anarchy.
“All of the conversations between Roth and Jacob are about freedom and the meaning behind freedom, because Assassin philosophy—ultimate freedom—can result in the destruction of society and death for a lot of people if it’s taken to an extreme without rules.”
I call it a courtship because it is. Roth compliments Jacob’s bravery, calls him “darling,” and takes him on a series of murder-dates around town. Their time together culminates with a kiss, albeit one that takes place after Roth has been stabbed in the throat. For the writing team, this storyline took the place of the traditional romance that an Assassin’s Creed protagonist would usually have.
“It was like, oh, well, Jacob doesn’t have a love interest yet in the game. If you notice, it’s very definitively the subtext, because Roth has this ex-boyfriend character that works for him,” Yohalem told me. “Lewis wouldn’t exist otherwise.”
This foray into chaos brings Jacob to his darkest point, where he has to kill Roth and re-evaluate who he is. It brings us to one of the strongest scenes in the game, where Jacob’s anger boils over onto Evie, who is understandably frustrated that he hasn’t taken responsibility for his destructiveness yet.
While the twins have been snippy with each other before, this scene brings them to a point where it seems like they won’t be able to work together anymore.
“I love that because there’d been a question, you know, where does the anger in that scene come from, and I was like, ‘it’s Roth’s death,’” Yohalem explained.
In Roth, Jacob is forced to confront the logical extreme of his actions.
“The idea overall was that the sequence was about Jacob facing his perfect self. Who he would become if he wasn’t an assassin.”
Roth is a deeply interesting character to me because in a lot of ways he echoes flamboyant gay villains like Sander Cohen from BioShock. Roth’s place in Jacob’s story is more nuanced because these traits that would usually make a character clear-cut enemy from the beginning are things that Jacob is curious about and has to explore in his character arc. “This is the perfect person that Jacob would hang out with if he wanted to piss off his father. At the same time, by the end of the sequence he realizes what his father was trying to teach him. There’s also this incredibly strong attraction, obviously.”
So when people write off Jacob’s story as not being as interesting as Evie’s, I think they’re kind of missing the point. I love Evie Frye and would probably thank her if she punched me in the face. But her story isn’t the only one subverting what we’ve come to expect from the Assassin’s Creed series.
Assassin’s Creed is all about the how the past informs the present, and vice versa. It makes sense to experience that through a character who wrestles with issues that are thematically relevant today—like exploring identity and confronting societal inequality.
In many ways Yohalem tailor-made the game for those struggling to find their place. His goal in writing “is always to look at the world at that moment and our world today and try to say something useful or helpful and examine society. In this case it was really exciting because it was an opportunity to allow players to experience first-hand what it would be like to take down various parts of society, and not make a statement about it. Just let them experience it.”
Simone de Rochefort
Simone de Rochefort
Simone de Rochefort is a game journalist, writer, podcast host, and video producer who does a prolific amount of Stuff. You can find her on Twitter @doomquasar, and hear her weekly on tech podcast Rocket, as well as Pixelkin’s Gaming With the Moms podcast. You can always count on Simone to make it weird.
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