Peer hard enough at the obscured walls and hidden alcoves of AC2, and with enough luck you’ll find the ‘glyphs’ scattered around AC2’s digital vision of Renaissance Italy, esoteric puzzles that slowly reveal the ‘true’ history of the world, one ridiculous conspiracy theory after another. As ludicrous as the whole “ancient telekinetics made mind-control balls that are responsible for human history” plot is, the glyphs that fashion it are easily one of the most delightful side-quests Assassin’s Creed has ever created. Sadly, they didn’t last long, showing up to facilitate the weirdness of AC2 and getting a brief recurrence in Brotherhood before vanishing into the night. Now that the series may be slowing down and rethinking its direction, it’s time to bring the glyphs back.
First, a quick run-down for those who ran right by these little oddities: the glyphs appear as glowing wall etchings hidden throughout Italy, and I do mean hidden. In contrast to what is now a Ubisoft staple, the glyphs don’t appear on the mini-map under any circumstances, so you genuinely have to take time to search them out, giving them a genuine air of mystery and achievement. Just the act of stumbling on them is exciting in and of itself, when your Animus-monitor Rebecca tells you she’s picking up some strange readings from that huge and definitely famous church, or you happen to drop onto one while parkouring across the city.
Activate the glyph by using Eagle Vision and you’re get access to one of twenty multi-layered puzzles, featuring code-cracking, word association, or even simple line-matching, all nestled in sinister representations of mystical objects used to manipulate historical events. By functioning the way they do, the glyphs work as a clever one-two punch, fattening up game-time with a distraction that exercises your mind, and getting you to engage with a then-new conspiracy narrative simply by giving it space in your brain. Call it a foot in the door.
Naturally, there’s a final reward for collecting all twenty glyphs: a vision of “the truth” of how humanity came to be, vis-a-vis body-morphing experiments and Adam and Eve going for a nice jog through a factory powered by human slaves. (Brotherhood’s reward for finding its ten glyph-like ‘rifts’ is similar, if less satisfying.) Together, the glyphs do a fantastic job of taking a silly, out-there concept (which definitely mentions Gandhi having a magic mind-control ball and the Assassins killing Hitler) and making it feel like a fun and valuable addition to the series. It essentially sold the tinhat narrative that would become the bedrock for Assassin’s Creed’s modern-day storyline, by getting at the soul of the secret society conspiracies it was trying to emulate without losing its self-awareness.
Sadly, the glyphs disappeared as Ezio aged and haven’t made a comeback, ultimately to the series’ detriment. While Assassin’s Creed naturally has plenty of sidequests and mini-games to fill the hole that glyphs left, very few feel as weighty or worthwhile to their specific title – collecting useless fluff like flags and cockades (and yes, feathers) feels more likely to numb your brain than engage it. Scouting for buried treasure in Black Flag and solving murder mysteries in Unity and Syndicate comes closer, as they require mental labor in addition to mechanical. But still, they simply don’t have the same narrative oomph that the glyphs do, as you could replace any one of them with something else and not really feel much of a loss. Turning a mysterious hominid skeleton into a human one in the final glyph puzzle sticks with me to this day; can’t say any treasure map has done the same.
A new Assassin’s Creed would do well to consider bringing back the glyphs of yore, even sacrificing these fluffier collectibles to make space. It’s been a long while since AC could be called ‘lean’ with a straight face, but if slimming down on sidequests meant there was enough time and resources to bring the glyphs back in a meaningful way, the whole game could stand to benefit from the switch. If the next entry in the series does drop us in Ancient Egypt, I’d gladly miss out on collecting bits of floating papyrus in favor of hunting down mysterious hieroglyphs (it’s right there in the name) that open up the history of the ancient Assassins in mystifying yet ultimately enlightening ways.
Truth be told, I don’t entirely regret that glyphs have taken such a long break – I probably wouldn’t have such fond memories of them if they were used to depreciating effect in every Assassin’s Creed since the second. But rather than leaving them untouched for the rest of the series’ days to keep this precious side-mode from being sullied, I think it’s time for the next Assassin’s Creed game to use this brilliant concept in a new way, capturing that same spirit of fun and mystery going into the franchise’s next phase of life. Look at the idea again and come at it from where the series currently stands, and I wager I’ll be just as excited to toy with it (and bewildered by the results) as I was the first time.