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The Emergent Politics of Assassin’s Creed

Assassin’s Creed first came out in November of 2007 and has spawned a franchise with 7, soon to be 8, games in the main franchise, a dozen side games, and a number of other tie-in media. It is a massive franchise that is to many a moribund, lumbering part of the videogame landscape. Its overarching plot concerns two groups: Assassins and Templars, who have been fighting in the shadows for all of human history and working with various Great Men for their own ends. In addition to that, there’s an Ancient Alien conspiracy involved as well. In short, it’s a delightful setting that hits a lot of my buttons in the right way. Given how many installments this franchise has, looking at it as a whole and the emergent trends within it becomes interesting, so let’s get into it.

First, it’s important to give some more meaningful context to just what it is I’m talking. The first Assassin Creed, or AC for short, was set during the 3rd Crusade and had the Knights Templar, a Christian monastic order who have been the source of numerous conspiracies theories, locked into a secret war that is as old as humanity itself with the Assassins, a Muslim sect who gave us the word assassin. They’re fighting over artifacts from a Precursor civilization, known as the First Civ and this war has lasted long after the Crusade, up until the current day. The games following that have focused on different time periods as well as a continuation of the modern day plotline.

This is all pretty straightforward but raises the question of am I talking about emergent stuff? As I mentioned above, this franchise is huge, and has had multiple creative teams working on it. At best, this means poor communication creates a less cohesive whole; more realistically this means that different people have different interpretations and opinions of how things should work that get canonized. Also, these games aren’t very smart, or rather, they don’t set out to be. They’re part historical parkour part muderfest; these games are open about being theme parks.

Now, this raises the fair question of just what they have been fighting over for all human history?  In theory, the Assassins are dedicated to the enlightenment and liberation of all of humanity, the titular creed is “nothing is true, everything is permitted”. In short, they’re anarchists, revolutionaries. The Templars on the other hand, are convinced that they need to control humanity and through their guidance can lead humanity to better heights. In short, they’re technocrats, the Establishment.  Given this kind of setup, AC by definition is some flavor of punk.

This is especially true in the earlier installments. AC1’s targets are the ruling members of both sides of the Crusades who are by and large war profiteers. The modern day Templars have formed Abstergo, your typical cyberpunk megacorp. AC2 has the Italian Assassins be primarily drawn from the lower classes: sex workers, thieves and mercenaries. It is revealed that most of the 20th century, with the exception of the Lenin in the Russian Revolution, was orchestrated by the Templars; Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were Templars who thought that industrialization would be the perfect means of control.

While the setting is punk, the games are less so. AC1 is more focused on two hidden monastic orders fighting one another and are somewhat disjointed from the rest of the world. AC2 on the other hand, is a bit of a mess due to the main character of Ezio Auditore di Firenze. The first problem is that Ezio is the son of the wealthy merchant, he’s a part of the Establishmetn and while he gets along with thieves, sex workers and the like, he also gets along with the Medici. Second, Ezio isn’t really concerned with being an Assassin; he just wants to kill Templars because they murdered his family.  The games shy away from actually embracing these punk origins in favor of more generic conspiracies fighting one another.

This is inevitable given how the games approach history. If no small part of the appeal is supposed to be interacting with the Great Men of history, then that is going to predispose the narrative to embracing the Great Men theory. In turn, narrative necessity means that the Assassins need to ally with some of these Great Men. The ultimate result is that it moderates the Assassins from being anarchists into generic good guys who have a cool catchphrase. They become a part of the system and cannot destroy it.

This is coupled with the fact that anarchism or any sort of ideology that the Assassins should theoretically support hasn’t really done all that well historically and you don’t want every game to be a tragedy. Again, this idea is tied to the Great Men presentation of history; by focusing on these big shifts you ignore local shifts or shifts in societal norms.

This moderation of the Assassins isn’t enough though, in a lot of ways the first two games have been pushed to the sidelines as much as possible. It seems that the writers looked at AC, realized that there was a problem in moderating the Assassins, didn’t stop to think about their own assumptions that lead to happen and decided to take the series in a different direction. Instead of being revolutionaries, they’re morally ambiguous good guys who aren’t that different from the Templars. Considering that the Templars include Hitler, that’s an interesting claim to put forward.

By pushing for the two sides to not be that different, that’s exactly what happens. You have two conspiracies who are really good at wiping out branches of the other side and getting their team on top. It creates a false moral equivalence between the oppressed and the oppressors by just presenting them as the same thing. Of course, talking about how the two factions are just different shades of grey who could work together if only they stopped killing each other requires me to discuss AC’s metaplot and the First Civ. The short version is that there was the First Civ, who used humanity as slaves. They were also trying to stop the world from ending and between their efforts to stop that and humanity having enough First Civ DNA to use their tools to rise up against them. The end result is that the First Civ is wiped out and leave a bunch of their stuff around that humanity ends up using. A First Civ survivor has been able to use these tools to manipulate people and is probably the reason for why the Assassins and Templars have been fighting for all of history. So it turns out that the real answer is some sort of mythical moderate position that lacks any substance. It ultimately means that the Templars, an organization that is devoted to establishing and maintaining all of the world’s ills, is basically right, but maybe they should put a human face on it.

So how is surprising and why does it matter? It’s not surprising; we’re talking about one of the biggest AAA game franchises right now after all. Made by a major publisher and focus-group’d to seeming perfection. And it’s exactly because it’s such a big franchise and because of the subject matter that talking about this is relevant. History isn’t some objective and immutable record, it’s a collection of stories that tell us where we came from, but these are stories that are fought over constantly. This is why we have histiography, basically the study of history.  The presentation of history in pop culture, and this ultimately liberal moderate wistful thinking is nonsense.

That’s all I got for this week, next week is a surprise for both you and me. Till next time.



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