Nobody Loves An Assassin: The Problem of "Assassin's Creed"
- by Leo Stableford, 21 June 2015
I have loved no game franchise as much as I have loved "Assassin's Creed". The reasons we love game franchises are all personal to us. I'm sure people have love for other game franchises for reasons that I would find bizarre. What I'm trying to get at is that when I tell you why I love AC you will think I am bonkers.
SPOILER WARNING: I have assumed that you have had a chance to play the Assassin's Creed series up to Unity. There are, in particular, discussions of events in ACIII that are pretty spoileriffic.
I love it for the history. I don't mean in some vague way, like I love costume dramas or antiques. I specifically love the way they play in the gap between what is known and what can never be known. I love the fact that they take facts and proceed to blunt Occam's Razor in making those facts fit. Ramming what's known into a secret war between two factions over control of the technology of a lost race of demigods.
I love it for the philosophy. I love that it contains in it questions about the nature of history, reality, consciousness. I love that it relies on the deepest debates of fate versus free will and freedom versus control. The turgid winding plots of AC would not work at all were it not for these titanic concepts.
These aspects, for me anyway, far outstrip concerns about release bugs or tired game mechanics. I hear and acknowledge the complaints of others about my most cherished game series. Without apology I fail to care about those criticisms.
I don't care that the gameplay loop is stuck a short walk from where it began. I couldn't give a hoot that your historical assassin will parkour up a wall when you wanted them to turn a corner. I could care less that Ubisoft can only ever seem to dream up square-jawed male ruffians to wear the assassin's blade. I embrace the convoluted plot and all the techno-mystic mumbo jumbo. For me, AC transcends arguments about stale gameplay or how many of the playable characters are women.
As I watch the trailer and gameplay video released yesterday from E3, I can't help but take note of one serious historical flaw. This flaw shines through the ongoing meta-narrative concerning the war between assassin and Templar. The flaw is simple, yet devastating: The assassins can't win.
Let me unpick this.
Back in 2007, the original development team of Assassin's Creed took a solid idea and ran with that. Setting AC1 during the Third Crusade in 1191 CE was a good move. It's almost one thousand years ago, during a holy war we are no longer equipped to understand on an emotional level. The effects of the Third Crusade still tangible in our lives today are few and far between.
In the game a mysterious Assassin, Altair Ibn-La'Ahad, carries out contracts. These missions conform, broadly, to the shape of historical fact. In so doing he uncovers a hidden plot centered on a plan for world domination. At the end of the game the artifact that is the center of this plan falls into the hands of the assassins. History progresses without ancient super-weapons and the havoc they could cause.
For some reason that is beyond me (probably beyond most people), Ubisoft decided to put this story into a framing mechanism. This wrap around story concerns a modern day doofus called Desmond. Desmond is a descendant of Altair. The evil Abstergo corporation abducts him to unearth details of the ancient super-weapon.
By accident, the development team, in this simple addition, doomed sequels the nearer they got to the present day.
It was fine for AC1 to have a happy ending because of the gulf of time between the then and the now. It also helps the player to adopt a pretty black and white world view with regards to the Assassins and the Templars. It goes like this: Assassins are awesome, Templars suck.
However, in the modern world we know that the Templars are way more powerful than the underdog Assassin's Order. The Assassins, as we know from Desmond's situation, are on the brink of extinction. Booo.
I believe that the vague idea behind this set up was that Desmond's actions would eventually change the power balance. This did not, in fact, happen. The balance didn't change so much as tip further in the favor of the Templars.
This is not a mistake as much as it is a political statement about the ongoing development team's group picture of the world as we know it. Video games are meant to be about escapist entertainment. This level of bone deep cynical pessimism is quite remarkable in a mass market pop culture franchise.
Let's move on.
The much lauded sequel to the original Assassin's Creed came in 2009. It was set in Renaissance Italy a full 500 years after the events in the first game. Now you play through the memories of Ezio Auditore di Firenze. This new protagonist discovers the ongoing secret war between the Templars and the Assassins. Ezio becomes an assassin himself in a world bursting with new innovation and invention.
At this point, Ubisoft are playing smart. Despite the ongoing Templar problem in the modern era plot line, it is simple to give Ezio an upbeat story. He lives at a time when the world is generally agreed to have improved its lot by an order of magnitude. The Renaissance was a real good hair day for Western European culture. Handing credit to a shadowy cabal of proto-anarchists seems like a winning plot move.
Indeed it was. To this day, Ezio is the favourite son of the AC franchise. He was so beloved that the next two sequels took their time to lay out the full shape of Ezio's life. The story raised him up to master assassin and even took some time to fill in more detail in Altair's story along the way.
Meanwhile, in the present Desmond... well, Desmond was in a spot of bother. As Ezio was so well loved, his story fell into a kind of holding pattern. The modern day plot toyed with an apocalypse idea, twisted and turned a bit, left him in a coma and didn't know what to do with itself.
In a way, Ezio was too exciting for the franchise and he managed to completely derail the modern plot by having too much charisma.
Here things take a distinct turn for the bizarre. Desmond's last ancestor is a surly chap by the name of Connor, or to give him his birth name Ratonhnhaké:ton, let's stick to Connor. His story is philosophically in a place beyond that of Ezio. Even beyond that of several of the characters that followed in terms of game release. So we will have to circle round and come back to him.
Desmond, on the other hand, was given an ignominious death. He saved the earth from fiery doom by sticking his hand in a gigantic ancient microwave (sort of). In a way I think this reflects the way the development team had come to recognise problems with the modern day plot line. The balance of power was not going in favour of the Assassins in the modern day. It could not provide a significant victory for the Assassins as this would be completely unrealistic.
Over the course of the series it had become plain that the Assassins are not a force for good as much as they are a force for chaos. The Templars are not a force for evil as much as they are a force for order. There are good things about order, and bad things about chaos. The war between the Assassins and the Templars is far more complicated than AC1 would have you believe.
Over the course of the games it transpires that the Templars believe in slavery, in Nietzschean ideas of man and superman. However they also believe in their role as father-figures, protectors and guides to the human race. They see themselves as wise slave masters, or maybe not even slave masters at all.
The Assassins, by contrast, believe in man's individual freedom. They believe that this freedom starts at home. The seduction of the assassins is the desire to make one's own way, free from the interference of those who would presume to make you a slave.
The downside of this, as it is shown, is that the Assassins take it upon themselves to nurture personal grudges. They will use all of their personal wealth and power to identify potential threats. They then extinguish those threats with violence, apparently in the interests of preserving freedom.
This philosophical behemoth is born with the story of Edward Kenway. Kenway is the piratical protagonist of ACIV. In this romp through the golden age of piracy, Edward is a pirate who knows of the assassins more than he is ever an assassin.
The game examines the philosophy of the pirate of Nassau during the early 18th Century. The story explores the piratical notion of a kind of fascist capitalism. In the world of a pirate financial and martial power is all that matters. The philosophy of the fading assassin's order cannot hope to compete. The Assassins of ACIV wage war on the Templars because it's what they do. They appear toothless and ridiculous next to the vigour and glamour of the pirate.
When Edward embraces the Assassin's cause at the close of ACIV it is clear that it is too little too late. As the Enlightenment comes to the world it is the Templars who gain the upper hand, as indeed they must, for history tells us so.
The final AC game for the last generation of consoles, "AC:Rogue", fills in a missing period of time between the events of ACIV and ACIII. In Rogue, an assassin turns on the order. He helps the Templars to destroy Edward Kenway's legacy, believing it to be corrupt and decadent.
The protagonist of Rogue, Shay Patrick Cormac, hunts down his former colleagues without mercy. He lives in a world where black and white morality no longer exist. The game designers never quite end up endorsing the Templars, but Rogue is the place where you see just how bad the way of the assassins can be.
Only once you have seen this can you appreciate how screwed Connor in ACIII is. At the time of its release in 2012 a number of release bugs were blamed for making ACIII the series nadir. Its true that ACIII is a slog and the game play isn't always as smooth as it should be. What probably doesn't help is the game's unique brand of cynical pessimism.
After the joy of Ezio spending three games saving the renaissance, the American War of Independence has no easy answers. As the game progresses, it turns out that both philosophies are equally awful. It would take something new and improved to fight on for the Apollonian ideals at the heart of the Assassin's Creed.
And we know that this never happened. We know that to date the world appears to be in the grip of Templar control. If there are Assassins, then they are depleted in numbers, scared and confused to the point of uselessness.
I haven't yet played Unity, of course no one's played Syndicate, but it seems to me that Ubisoft are fighting a losing battle on this one. The French Revolution started out with liberté, égalité, fraternité. It ended up being dubbed "The Terror".
The nearer we get to the present day, the more the story becomes one where the Assassins are doomed to failure and ignominy. It's a spot that it would seem the developers at Ubisoft can't get out of.
I will continue to love the series for all its audacity and its attention to detail. Details that others may have ignored or deemed unimportant. There are no easy solutions to the philosophical problems that Assassin's Creed has posed. As they close the historical loop, it seems more and more unlikely that there will ever be a satisfactory conclusion. Maybe that's not such a bad thing. The problems of the Assassins would be impossible to bring to the attention of such a large number of people in any other medium.
How do you see the future of the AC games? Let us know in the comments!
Tagged: video games.