Now I’m going to talk about a video game.
I just completed a run-through of some the old Assassin’ Creed 2 and AC: Brotherhood games that first came out back in 2009. It’s hard to believe that was nearly a decade ago, considering how the gameplay itself seems only to have aged a few years. Granted, I played the remastered collection that was released in 2012, so maybe that has something to do with it.
I’m behind the times. Sue me.
Only the first of the bunch had been familiar, so Brotherhood’s run-through was a new experience, though it remained similar enough to its predecessor that there weren’t any surprises. As of this writing, I’ve gotten a fair bit into Revelations as well, but since I haven’t completed it, I’ll refrain from commenting on it at length. So far, however, everything I’ve noticed about the first two seems to apply to the third.
The whole franchise, at least up to this point, is bogged down by three major problems: the first is its asinine meta-story that involves a present-day cult of Templars chasing this rag-tag band of superhackers who use the Animus machine like out of Nolan’s 2009 film Inception. This whole plotline, which was puzzlingly included in the first Assassin’s Creed game almost as an afterthought, should have been scrubbed completely. It bogs down the experience with pointless “IRL” segments and seems like it’s only there to pad out the gameplay.
The second problem is the massive bone it has to pick with Christianity, and worse, its moderate historical illiteracy as to the period in which the games take place. The Knights Templar, the Church, the rivalry between the Medici and the Borgias, and the secretive cult of assassins that are, presumably, still middle-eastern in origin are all blended together in a way that forces a good versus evil storyline. That makes the ideology of the Catholic Church (alluded to in the minor but frequent philosophical dialogues that take place during some cut scenes), the Knights Templar (a military organization and financial institution of the Church that was purged in the fourteenth century), the infamous dynasty of Borgias (specifically Rodrigo, or Pope Alexander VI, an historically complicated character whose legacy remains fairly unsympathetic), even the Dominican friar Savonarola as all somehow being on the same general side of the conflict, while popular historical figures like Lorenzo de Medici (known for taking a diminishing Florentine state and driving it straight into the ground), Machiavelli (whose writings indicate the strategical mind of a psychopath), and of course the secretive order of the Assassins (in reality, decimated by the Mongols in the thirteenth century) all fighting for good.
I understand that this is a video game, so writers are forced to play fast and loose with some historical realities, and I also understand that historical fiction requires writers to fill in some gaps for the characterization of real figures in order to make them more lifelike to an audience. That said, there is a point where artistic liberty becomes too obviously motivated by ideology—the point when storytelling turns into propaganda. Assassin’s Creed 2 is pretty much that, given how many strawmen are burnt in the name of anti-Christian rhetoric. The game’s treatment of Savonarola, for instance, is perhaps the most egregious of these points, if one overlooks the necessarily sympathetic light it has to cast the entire order of assassins in the first place.
What I find most amusing about playing this game is how it seems to be so accidentally redpilled. It does all it can to make this arbitrary collection of the Church’s enemies also somehow be prophets of the coming age of Enlightenment, despite the order of Assassins that they’re supposed to speak for being directly descended from Islamic religious zealots native to Iran. Revolution is spoken of openly and favorably, and our main character Ezio is held up as vox populi, a sort of Robin Hood whose assassinations change the path of history so it can bend toward justice. At least, that’s what the game is telling you during missions and cut-scenes.
Meanwhile, during the gameplay itself, we’re encouraged to outright rob from the citizens we’re supposed to be the champion of—and one or two missions even call for the pickpocketing of random civilians in order to raise the funds necessary for an armor upgrade or two. Thievery is encouraged and while we’re periodically reminded by the game that “Ezio did not kill civilians,” our targets for assassinations are more often than not completely unarmed and, when executed well, completely unaware of their impending slaughter by knife. A man of supposed honor, as highlighted by numerous cut-scenes and his loyalty to his band of merry men (comprised of women and minorities!), our hero has no problems gunning down unarmed opponents from the shadows. It seems his honor is a matter of political convenience, rather than a binding and principled code of ethic.
“Well of course,” you might say, “the game is called Assassin’s Creed.” And you’re right, which is part of why I think the game is accidentally redpilled. But more on this as we get there.
The third problem is related to the second one: Ezio’s motivations simply don’t make any sense. The game begins with a basic plot of revenge. Ezio’s conscription into the outer fringes of the Assassin’s organization served only to get him close enough to his targets as to reap his vengeance. Far from being a big mover and shaker of the order, Ezio seemed instead to be caught up in a feud much larger than he was, and his lust for revenge played to the strengths of the Assassin’s order. Somehow, perhaps after being exposed to the world outside his privileged upbringing, or perhaps after discovering that he had a remarkable talent for parkour and murder, his motivation turned toward the preservation of the order itself. It is with this in mind that he finds himself, at the end of the first game, fist fighting Rodrigo de Borgia in an alien vessel stored beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. This sort of brings us back to the ludicrous nature of the overarching narrative of Assassin’s Creed, but the less said about technobabble and crypto-alien seed races, the better.
So what is the actual message of Assassin’s Creed? It’s the actual message of reality: stand against truth and you become the villain. Stand against truth and you’re either stupid or you’re evil.
The credo of the Assassin’s organization throughout the games is the dubiously-sourced quote “Nothing is true, everything is permitted;” the one attributed to Hassan-I Sabbah. But if nothing is true, then the Assassin has no purpose and his conflict serves no goal. If nothing is true, then what is the point of piloting Ezio around all of these missions and assassinations? If nothing is true, then everything is permitted, but is it true that everything can be permitted if nothing is true? Man, that really makes me think.
This message is right out there in the open. It’s present from the very beginning of the first Assassin’s Creed game, and it’s carried through all the way through Revelations. It’s impossible not to catch wind of it as a casual player, even if you skip the cut-scenes.
I’m willing to bet the games were made in earnest, and that they were made specifically with an anti-Catholic bent as a means of propaganda. Maybe they wanted to deliver an enjoyable gameplay experience first, but the ideology that leaks into the story is also impossible to ignore. And yet the game can’t help itself. Its own statements undermine the very context that allows it to function. “Viva le Revolution!” it seems to cry, there in Florence under the reign of Lorenzo de Medici, a man who used circuses to distract the people from the pilfered coffers of the Florentine treasury and an unsustainable economy built on usury. Meanwhile, it calls out that nothing is true and that everything is permitted—permitted for what, though? The pursuit of power? So would claim Machiavelli, but even Machiavelli would admit that power, at least, held some kind of truth, even if it was a temporary one.
This reveals the general pattern of liberal propaganda; inevitably, it starts to tell the truth. Anyone capable of discerning the truth can recognize when the contradictions in the propaganda have added up. Liberalism, and indeed, any champion of that Enlightenment thought, leaves its ideology completely open to any radical position, and the truth remains a radical position. The embrace of a “go your own way” ideology absconds with radicalism and mediates toward an ambiguous centrism when implemented as a political platform; no one ends up completely satisfied and any pursuit of truth or virtue is compromised for the sake of keeping order. But compromising such values only leads, inevitably, to collapse.
Truth has never been welcome by the typical social system. Assassin’s Creed, in its own way, repeats this motif. It hammers this point home by casting you, the player, as the deliverer of evil against it–charmingly so, even, as Ezio’s a likeable enough character, possessing a silver tongue and plenty more than a mere thirty pieces of silver. But nonetheless, this is as play-ably postmodern as it gets.