Published on October 3rd, 2012 | by rowsdower0
History Loaf, Going Outside, and Other Assassins Creed Thoughts
In gaming, much as in life, I don’t make the best choices. Not harmful choices, mind you, just not the best ones. This is an over-dramatic way of saying that I just finished Assassins’ Creed: Revelations for the first time this past week. Yeah, I’m talking about a year-old game like it’s the freshest thing out there. It’s either that or finishing the public transport sim. Roll with me here.
I’ve generally enjoyed the AC series and agree with what is (I think) the general critical consensus on the series. Namely, the original Assassins Creed is interesting if repetitive, II is great, and Brotherhood and Revelations add incrementally onto II. I thought Revelations was a little disappointing: the gameplay’s still good, but some of the additions are more annoying that interesting. The bomb-making mechanic feels really superfluous, Den Defense is both hard to trigger and hard to ultimately win and some aspects of the Desmond-era story feel tacked on. It’s an alright game, but that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, there were a few topics that came up during the game that I wanted to explore in more detail. Spoilers for the Assassins’ Creed games follow.
The first topic is the historicity of the Assassins Creed series. I’ve talked with AC fans, like my last college roommate, who really liked how historical the AC games were. Now, my old roommate was a cool dude and I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean that literally, but I found that statement to be a little odd. On one level, Ubisoft populates each game with contemporary historical figures and creates very accurate versions of the featured cities. I’d suspect that there’s some liberty taken with some of the buildings, in that they’re suspiciously easy for one man to climb and leap across, but that’s probably a straightforward concession to gameplay.
That being said, it’s kind of ridiculous to call a game that features the historical Assassins, a splinter of a splinter sect of Shia Islam defeated in the 13th century, fighting the Knights Templar, the military order condemned in 1312 who sort of invented modern banking but haven’t done half the thing that people allege they did, fighting each other across history for what are basically ancient alien/human forerunner artifacts. Also almost every historical figure of note has either been aware of this forever war or has participated in it or has used the alien artifacts themselves. Also Tesla. I realize that these games are kinda dumb entertainment products and Ubisoft didn’t intend for them to be taken totally seriously, but I’m a history major who can easily write a lot of words about video games, so there’s some room for further analysis.
Even if we assume that complete historical accuracy is impossible, it is still possible to say that Assassins Creed is less historically accurate than any historical work not written by a conspiracy theorist. Not only are these games intended as works of fiction, but their collective universe is distinctly implausible. Hell, these games are less accurate than The Da Vinci Code, but they’re also somehow more accurate because they only claim historical accuracy in creating the setting. The games are less “real history” and more like some kind of “history loaf”, wherein real historical places and figures are tenderized, smushed together with completely unconnected facts and outright fiction, sprinkled with salt, and put into the oven at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or until cooked through. This, perhaps not coincidentally, is how a lot of conspiracy theorist works are assembled. As scholars will point out (a introductory work I’d recommend here is Daniel Pipes’ 1996 Conspiracy. Do not get his The Hidden Hand though, everyone else hates it), a lot of conspiracy minded authors are obsessed with footnotes and citation and low-level facts and all the trappings of formal scholarship, but use them to write things like “psychologists caused Hitler” or “the Knights Templar ran everything.” This isn’t a bad thing for a video game; in fact, it makes perfect sense for a series as suffused in conspiracist tropes (TEMPLARS! NEW WORLD ORDER! MAYAN DOOM PROPHECY!) and conspiracist culture as Assassins Creed is.
The second topic I wanted to discuss are the strange mixed messages that the AC games sometimes put out. I was talking with my dad (again, I don’t make great life choices) about the ending of Revelations. If you don’t already know, that game ends with Ezio discovering that his life is more or less a conduit through which Desmond can get messages from the ancient aliens, which leads him to retire from the Assassins and date a redhead twenty years his junior. That last part is pretty Ezio, but I thought it was a bit unsatisfying. It made sense, in that Revelations‘ writers chose to focus on how futile Altaïr and Ezio’s efforts to lead the Assassins to ultimate victory have been. And that makes sense, in that the plot demands that the Assassins can’t win in the Crusades or the Renaissance because the games have already set up the Templars as almost completely controlling Desmond’s time. Altaïr’s subplot feels like I missed a few scenes and needed to have read the tie-in novel, but I get that Ezio stumbled into the Assassins as part of his personal vendetta and has some doubts about growing older. It just seems odd that the main character, someone who is devoted to a cause that appears to emphasize personal decisions and awareness and responsibility, basically chooses to retire because the Ancient Alien Destiny may or may not have been fulfilled. Maybe they really want to close out Ezio’s story before they release Assassins’ Creed III, I don’t know.
My dad asked, “Wait, is this game telling you to go put it down and go outside?”
In a way, Revelations is telling the player to do just that. It’s a meta way of looking at it, and I think it might be more about closing three games’ worth of story before moving on to Advanced Bear Fighting Simulations in III, but there’s something about that statement that makes sense. First, the AC games have always been kind of meta due to their narrative structure. At the end of Revelations, Desmond is living through Ezio’s memories who is sometimes living through Altaïr’s memories who is starting into an Ancient Alien artifact which allows the Ancient Alien to speak directly to Desmond. When you play those kinds of narrative tricks, the fourth wall gets shaky. Then there’s the glyphs.
The glyphs (clusters in Brotherhood) are kinda one of my favorite parts of Assassins Creed II and Brotherhood. In-game, they’re the packets of information and backstory that the insane person stuck in the Animus before you left behind for you. They were also, especially in Brotherhood, probably written by that guy in the Ubisoft office who passes out pamphlets for the local nutso political group. According to the glyphs, all world religions and major technological advances are derived from Ancient Alien artifacts. All the leaders in World War II, Allied and Axis alike, were Templars who launched the war with the express goal of breaking resistance to Templar ideals. According to a glyph in Brotherhood, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is an active member of the Knights Templar who actively schemed to get also-Templar John Roberts on the court to make the majority decision in Citizens United, which will finally give the Templars the power to control all aspects of American government. Apparently American jurisprudence was the one thing stopping them from doing this before, in say the late 19th century. The wrinkle is that the Templars aren’t into capitalism for capital’s sake; rather, they’re controlling capitalists in order to push through the Templar New World Order, which is basically an actively malign version of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan theory of government. I don’t agree with a lot of Scalia’s legal thought, but I also don’t think he’s a big player in a literally evil secret society that governs everything in the modern world. The glyphs are, to put it simply, as fucking nuts as a game that attempts this kind of connection with the contemporary world can be.
There’s another glyph in Brotherhood, however, that reveals another cog in the Templar plan. Apparently, all the things that stereotypical nerds stereotypically enjoy, like unhealthy snack foods and video games, are part of the Templar plan to turn people’s minds to mush so they won’t rise up in revolt. This is a thing that a video game is telling you. Maybe I’m playing the wrong games, but this is a bold thing for a AAA title to throw in the player’s face. I’d say that one could make the case that one can read a real “go outside and stop playing video games” subtext in some of the Assassins Creed games.
So, what can we conclude? Assassins Creed is a surprisingly weird game series. It’s somewhat historical, but not at all historically accurate. It tells you to believe in an organization that values individual freedom and take control of a single individual to change the world and also put your faith in Ancient Alien destiny. And it’s also a video game that tells you to let go of video games. I hardly dare imagine what messages Assassins Creed III is going to tell players. It’ll probably be something about how both sides the Revolutionary War are bad and how to turn big profits in the furrier business.