It was a warm, sunny morning. In his small house at the other side of the wood, Mr Tickle was asleep.
In fact, he didn't look like he would ever wake up. There was some strange red juice spilled all over the bed. And why was Mr Ezio running away along the rooftop?
...Now I highly doubt the Assassin's Creed-themed Mr Men books announced this week -- short stories featuring series protagonists such as Ezio, Eivor and Kassandra -- will feature such an opening. But I'm still struggling to understand what possible story they can tell that warrants introducing young children to characters best known in gaming circles for killing people.
The new short stories were announced among a wave of multimedia reveals from Ubisoft's flagship series, including new comics, novels and narrative podcasts -- all of which are in much the same vein as previous non-game expansions for Assassin's Creed.
These books can only have two purposes: to appeal to established fans, and to market to new ones. But children should never be the target when marketing mature-rated franchises
I'll admit my eyebrow raised slightly when this included a series of young adult books, but reasoned that the brand's core characteristics can probably be delivered in an appropriate way to 12 to 18-year-olds, at least in written form. However, both eyebrows hurtled aloft when the Mr Men announcement was made.
I'm currently reading through the complete Mr Men box set with my four-year-old son. They are delightfully odd books that -- while sometimes having dated attitudes -- ultimately teach kids about good manners, positive attitudes, the need to laugh, and the perils of being grumpy, rude or mischievous.
I struggle to think of a laudable Assassin's Creed protagonist that would fit this format. Yes, Altaïr's tale is one of overcoming arrogance, Arno's of finding love and Bayek's of following a moral compass -- but all of them ultimately accomplish these things by making the bad people dead. (And some Assassin's Creed games have blurred the battlelines in the good vs evil saga against the Templars, further calling into question whether these are heroic figures that kids should be exposed to).
I'm trying not to go all 'Won't someone please think of the children?' or #NotMyMrMen, but there is something inherently wrong about combining an 18-rated games franchise about killing with a long-running and beloved children's book series aimed at the very youngest of readers.
I highlight the series' age rating because, for all Ubisoft's efforts to make it a multimedia property, Assassin's Creed remains an 18-rated games franchise. That's the core of the brand, everything else is an extension. "But," I hear Ubisoft and its defenders cry, "these are aimed at adult readers, mature fans with love for Assassin's Creed and nostalgia for the Mr Men books of their childhood." Perhaps -- although they seem to be missing the announcement's explicit pitch that these books "will appeal to both young and adult readers."
Even if these have been designed with 30-year-old Mr Men and Assassin's fans in mind, the products (as they have been shown so far) show no indication of this. The cover for M. Ezio looks no different to that of Mr Tickle, a book that originates as a story for the author's eight-year-old son.
These books can only have two purposes: to appeal to established fans, and to market to new ones. But children should never be the target audience when marketing a mature-rated franchise.
The worst thing is this isn't even new, and Ubisoft is not the first -- nor, frustratingly, will it be the last -- to target children in this way. There have been the Mega Bloks toys for Assassin's Creed, Halo, Destiny and Call of Duty and child-sized hoodies for the latter. Activision insists the Call of Duty toys are only aimed at adult fans, and claims any children's apparel is unofficial and a "consequence of success" -- yet I have still seen kids who should be wholly unaware of the series wearing its merchandise.
The industry should not be creating avenues that lead directly from children as young as 4 to 18-rated games
Those Mega Bloks sets are by no means Ubisoft's only attempt to expand the brand to younger customers. Back in 2014, international brand manager Yannick Spagna talked about children as a new audience the publisher was looking at, and imagined what a kid-friendly Assassin's Creed game might look like, suggesting something like the Lego games. (Indeed, this is a challenge Lego itself faces as it creates sets based on mature franchises to appeal to adult fans, but can't escape its legacy as a children's toy manufacturer.)
When we followed up, Spagna stressed he had been talking about Assassin's Creed the brand, not Assassin's Creed the game -- but until a child-friendly game exists, I don't think you can make such a distinction (and even then it's questionable).
Again, it's not about the children's books, toys or whatever is being sold to such a young audience. It's the journey those products will put them on: introducing that Assassin's Creed brand in the hopes that they will recognise it on the cover of the latest game and have enough brand loyalty to buy it. Or perhaps spot it on the menu of mummy or daddy's Xbox and boot it up. Hopefully parental controls are in place to prevent that, but there's little to guarantee children won't complete that brand journey ten-plus years too early. Regardless of the logistics of how it happens, Ubisoft wants these children to become Assassin's Creed fans.
I understand the need to grow your audience for an increasingly expensive franchise. There will come a time when the millions of people who buy Assassin's Creed, and the thousands of devoted fans that buy its merchandise, won't be enough to appease Ubisoft's shareholders. And it makes sense to reach out to future fans in a way that is appropriate to them -- again, that's why I take less umbridge with the young adult novels or the notion of a younger-rated Assassin's Creed game. Both would appeal to that Fortnite audience aged 12 upwards, when combat and death are common (if somewhat sanitised) concepts in video games. I am a big fan of the Assassin's Creed games and I'm looking forward to sharing them with my children -- but not when they're children.
Sadly this looks like an issue we're going to have again and again. The even sadder reality is that children can never be fully protected from inappropriate content as long as there are ways for them to access it without parents' permission or knowledge, or parents that have neither time nor inclination to actually monitor what their children engage with.
But that does not mean the industry should be creating new avenues that lead directly from children as young as 4 to 18-rated games, actively encouraging them to seek out other forms of that brand -- including the one that is least appropriate for them at the core of the franchise -- and all for the sake of marketing.
Mr Murderer and Little Miss Stabby are not just where we should draw the line, but far beyond where said line should be drawn.