Note: Spoilers for Assassin’s Creed ahead!
I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also was a chasing of the wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he who increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow.
Ecclesiastes 1:17-18, or Al Mualim, take your pick
Faceless (literallly) townspeople surround you while a mysterious voice recites lines from Ecclesiastes and scientists are talking about you. Everything looks like something out of the Crusades, yet computer code and electronic lines appear everywhere, making it clear that we’re not in reality. That’s not a great way to start a game, is it? Denigrating the player before they’ve even picked up a controller doesn’t strike me as good game design. This quote, however, establishes the game’s theme and plot most deftly; by not telling you much of anything, they’ve set the tone for discovery and knowledge, though they haven’t shown us the consequences.
Frankly, it’s a confusing and empty opener, but that’s a good thing. We don’t learn much information at all during the first few hours of the game; it’s a test of patience for the short attention span of video gamers, that’s for sure. It’s remarkable that Assassin’s Creed became a hit series in that regard. Ubisoft Montreal, apparently, decided that gamers were fit for a bit of undergraduate philosophy to go with their mindless killing so they’d have to actually think about it. Bioshock does much the same, though it’s very difficult connect with a Big Daddy, as opposed to another living breathing human being. To wit:
That’s an enemy to whom you can relate!
Bioshock connects its player to the humanity of Rapture’s plight in different ways, but not through its enemies. Assassin’s Creed, then, is much more subversive in that sense. It plays with your expectations of right and wrong, and who is the villain – you, or the people you kill? That’s not something that was attempted with any competence before 2007, for whatever reason (both games came out the same year). Assassin’s Creed doesn’t get much credit for this, however; I’ve never seen a single video game website remark on the themes in the story, nor comment on much of anything. It’s a result of Bioshock’s narrative innovations that bring Assassin’s Creed down. In hindsight, however, I think Creed 1 aged much better than Bioshock’s gimmick shot at the end (not spoiling that one).
For having a name like Assassin’s Creed, you don’t start the game “assassinating” much of anything; you’re a bartender that was kidnapped by the Abstergo Corporation. Desmond, our protagonist (not so much a hero) is forced into a device called the Animus. This allows the scientists at Abstergo to unlock genetic memories by replaying them in the mind of the person inside the Animus. It’s more realistic than just “replaying”, but reliving these events in the life of Desmond’s ancestors. All of them happen to be assassins of some kind (so far as I know), and they’re looking for…something. You’re just a cipher, after all, trying to piece together why you happen to be important enough to kidnap and examine, not anyone special. Desmond’s “journey” resonates because you’re just as confused.
Still, these science fiction elements only frame the action; it allows Ubisoft to jump around the timeline of the Crusades and cut out all the boring parts of a story. Whether that was intentional or not is another matter.
For the majority of the game, Altair is your companion. The ancestor of Desmond, however, strikes the “aloof and confident” main character chord a little too often. That doesn’t mean he isn’t interesting; rather, he changes throughout the game in his encounters. He’s an arrogant assassin who, by failing to follow the Creed, gets some of his fellow assasin brothers killed and/or maimed. As a result, he’s “killed”, only to find himself alive by Al Mualim’s request. Approrpiately translated from Arabic as “the Teacher”, the assassin leader Al Mualim strips you of your rank and position, forcing you to relearn how to become an assassin. As this is true of both Desmond and yourself, the process of retrieving your weapons and skills makes sense in the context of the story.
You might be an assassin in the game, but you’re certainly not a mindless killer. There are three essential components to the Creed:
1. Stay your blade from the flesh of an innocent.
2. Hide in plain sight.
3. Never compromise the brotherhood.
Altair breaks all three by default when his own pride puts others at risk. The game forces these rules upon you by forcing you to avoid killing innocent people, by forcing you to hide well (and not just in some contextual “hiding spot” most of the time), and by making it impossible to reach safe harbor if you’re being chased by guards. Why are these the three rules, though? There is one more aspect that the game fails to mention:
Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.
This is the main idea underlying the entirety of the Creed. Yet it’s apparent the game forces you into certain circumstances and makes you complete certain tasks. You are not allowed to take this phrase at face value because some things are true. If you fall from too great a height, you’ll die. If you run out of health, you’ll die. These things are true. So, which is it? Are there rules, or are there none?
It’s not so much an “either/or” as it is a “understanding the phrase in its proper context”. You see, Altair (and the player by association) doesn’t understand what he did wrong. Assassins kill dudes, right? Wrong! That isn’t what they do. Their purpose, as the game reveals, is to bring peace by killing certain individuals for the greater good. While this seems utilitarian, the assassins do not see it this way; rather, the death of one becomes a sacrifice for all. The death of the guilty saves the lives of the innocent.
The Crusades, then, are the perfect setting for such a game. It’s generally understood by just about everyone that the Crusades were holy wars, and not in the positive sense. Two forces, guided by religious fervor, led to the slaughter of millions for a tiny speck of symbolic land. Although I personally don’t see them in that sense, the developers certainly do; this allows them to see religious people Doing Bad Things, while still showing them as humans following an erroneous path. The assassins, then, seek to end these wars by killing key figures who perpetuate the conflict in the holy lands.
It is the power of reason which guides the assassin, not that of religious devotion; they see the world clearly without the blinding force of emotion, rational creatures in an irrational world. They are not guided by fear or ignorance like their adversaries; they seek to set the world free, rather than bind them to nonexistent exterior forces. They seek the ultimate tool of free will without corruption. The Templars, their enemies (and also the people that kidnap Desmond), seek to use these forces as tools of subjugation. As such, both sides they see the one thing that is true: Nothing is true. Everything is permitted. As Al Mualim says:
You do not understand the true meaning of the phrase, my child. It does not grant you the freedom to do as you wish, it is a knowledge meant to guide your senses. It expects a wisdom you clearly lack!
Yet Al Mualim will not give you knowledge! He actively prevents you from learning actual facts about your missions. It makes sense from one perspective – too much knowledge was a crutch – but presents difficulties from another – why am I killing these men? This constant tension remains a source of motivation throughout.
Altair, your greatest failure was borne of knowing too much. If I choose to withhold information from you, it is only to ensure you do not make the same mistake a second time.
You get the sense that Al Mualim isn’t telling you everything because he says it right away. But is this act for the right reasons? Why should I simply trust this “master” implicitly just because he’s the head of an order? I find Assassin’s Creed effectively makes the case for questioning authority.
Al Mualim: Ah, but as an Assassin, it is also your duty to still these thoughts, and trust in your Master. For there can be no true peace without order – and order requires authority.
Altaïr: [Irately confused] You speak in circles, Master. You commend me for being aware, then ask me not to be. Which is it?
Al Mualim: [Enlightening] The question will be answered when you no longer need to ask it.
That’s pretty heady stuff!
Both sides have the same objectives, yet they solve the problem in a different manner. One has faith in human nature, the other does not. Either side, however, can fall to the madness and thirst for power. It is this that makes Assassin’s Creed so fascinating. The people you kill are all Templars, yet they’re merely obstacles to Al Mualim’s desire for power. Each of them has their own sin which they openly confess to you. One target is a homosexual who cannot abide by those who see him as an abomination to God; another is a slave-trader who believes he is saving his slaves from destitution and death. Another seeks to end the crusades by preventing Crusader forces from re-entering the Holy Land through a naval blockade; a monk performs horrible experiments on war casualties to “cure” them, yet believes he is curing their mental illness. It’s interesting that the Templars, contrary to the assumptions Al Mualim places in the player, seem like genuinely men of integrity who want to see evil removed as much as the assassins. They’re two sides of an ideological war, a battle of ideas (with blades) rather than the obvious war that surrounds them. Yet Al Mualim still strives to defeat them. So why? Altair seems to point out the answer:
Al Mualim: What is the Truth?
Altair: We place faith in ourselves; we see the world the way it really is, and hope that, one day, all mankind might see the same.
Al Mualim: What is the world, then?
Altair: An illusion. One which we can either submit to; as most do, or transcend.
Al Mualim: What is it to transcend?
Altair: To recognize nothing is true, and everything is permitted. That laws arise, not from divinity, but reason. I understand now that our creed does not command us to be free; it commands us to be wise.
Al Mualim: Do you see now why the Templars are a threat?
Altair: [Understandingly] Where as we would dispel the illusion; they would use it to rule.
Yet, we find Al Mualim worked all along with the Templars; he had them killed so he could use a device, called a “Piece of Eden”, which allows a man to perpetrate any illusion upon anyone. For the game’s story, every great theophany was the result of this device (or one of them, as there are many). Thus, even Al Mualim succumbs to the desire for power, even as reason allows him to rationalize his evil. He uses the Piece of Eden to control minds, to replace one illusion with another:
Al Mualim: Is it any less real than the phantoms the Saracens and Crusaders follow now? Those craven gods who retreat from this world that men might slaughter one another in their names? They live amongst an illusion already. I’m simply giving them another; one that demands less blood.
To deprive people of free will goes against the Creed, regardless of Al Mualim’s ambitions; he, ultimately, dies at Altair’s hand. Yet, we’re left without a real conclusion. We do not see Altair destroy this instrument that destroys free will. Will we ever? Who knows
We see, in Assassin’s Creed, how deep the sorrows of knowledge go. The more you know, the less you really know. The more you know, the less happy and joyous you can be. The only thing that can bring true peace is obedience to God. You see this throughout the Bible; in Job, in Ecclesiastes, and even in the New Testament.
The difference between me and the writers of Assassin’s Creed, however, is that I know Christianity and religion aren’t fairy tales and illusions. Though nothing is true, and everything is permitted, that only applies to the world; I am beholden to God, who creates value and does not permit all actions, but gives me freedom from the Law. That’s a precarious and dangerous position, but also a rewarding one. God gives me free will to decide what I will do, to not be blinded by the words of men but to follow the Word of God. To present salvation to others is to free their minds from corruption and self-rationalization. It is to present them before the judgement of God and God’s grace at the same time. Obedience to God is freedom itself, a great divine paradox!
13 The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. 14 For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.
Continue to Part 2