Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag did a lot for the series. By expanding on the ocean combat of AC3 and making it central to the games’ premise, it reinvigorated a franchise that had become increasingly rote. On top of this, it also allowed for the introduction of the best collectibles of the series to date.
Most game collectibles take the form of random objects scattered around the world (diary entries, feathers, hidden packages), usually providing an experience bonus or easter egg once a certain amount have been collected. Others unlock concept art or expand on the games’ lore. The inclusion of these in any game can be a mixed bag, and Assassin’s Creed has fallen afoul of an excess of them in the past, drawing criticism for what could be deemed as unnecessary padding. Indeed, Black Flag had its share of extraneous collectibles of varying usefulness (I still haven’t collected the 200 animus fragments), but among these were the uniquely memorable sea shanties.
The sea shanties were found in the form of sheet music scattered throughout the various islands of the Caribbean that Edward Kenway visited. Approaching one would trigger a chase, as the sheet music was carried away on the breeze. It was a challenging test of the players’ free-running abilities, provided they didn’t cheat it by standing where the sheet music started and waiting for it to respawn. Once collected, it was added to the repertoire of songs that the crew of the Jackdaw would sing while at sea.
Not only did this avoid the monotony of simply seeking out collectibles and grabbing them, one waypoint after the other, it loaned itself to a much more organic method of worldbuilding. It provided the player with the sense that their crew were picking up these songs as they explored the world, learning them at the ports and taverns that they visited in between the stretches of time spent on the open ocean. This was vital to the overall experience, as otherwise very little is actually seen of the Captain Kenway’s loyal crew. They’re shown during naval combat, and occasionally in cutscenes, but only a handful are ever named.
Given their absence elsewhere, it would have been easy to assume that the inhabitants of the ship are mute, or absent altogether. But when the player is cutting a steady path through the cerulean waves, and a chorus of unseen men starts into the familiar refrain of Drunken Sailor, it all feels real. The Jackdaw is given a life and speaks in the rough, cracked, but united voices of its’ crew. In an equally impressive feat, this is never unwelcome, or overly cheesy. Quite the opposite, it almost leaves the quiet moments feeling empty. Some of these songs are genuinely catchy even to the point of leaving the player not wanting to make landfall, loitering around the docks in what must seem baffling to any observers.
Assassin’s Creed, as a series, seems set to continue to iterate and build upon it’s successes (and failures) for the foreseeable future. But, for me at least, it will always be epitomised by the sun rising at my back, waves breaking on the bow of the Jackdaw, and my drunken, bawdy crew crooning “leave her Johnny, leave her”.