The Creed of the Assassins (Part 2)

Assassin’s Creed II continue the story of Desmond and the themes of the first. Actually, what surprises most of all, especially for those interested in the continuing plot, is the lack of backstory. This is, even with the change in setting, a direct sequel in both number and in setting. Immediately, Desmond escapes the Abstergo facility with the help of Lucy. In an Assassin hideout, the Animus makes its return to explore further genetic memories of Desmond. Specifically, they want to train Desmond as an Assassin through these memories.

Luckily, they know of Ezio Auditore, whose rise to Assassin-hood comes completely unlike Altair. We don’t start with a fully-trained assassin who’s forced down in rank in a contrived “lose all your gear” Metroid moment. Instead, this is introductory, both for Desmond and for the player. Ezio’s early life is that of a Florentine noble with all the prospects in the world. He has a loving family, he sleeps around and has tons of fist-fights with the children of other Florentine families, and generally Ezio has a great old time with his family’s prosperity. His father hasn’t trained him in combat or anything of the sort; his acrobatic skills come naturally and his fighting abilities, apparently, come from foolish fist-fights with other nobles. It’s all fun and games for Ezio, and he wouldn’t have things any other way. Immediately, Ezio’s a pretty likable and normal guy, albeit a man coming from 15th century Italy.

If things stayed right here, of course, we wouldn’t have that classy picture above, now would we? Rather, Ezio’s story takes a turn for the melancholy and brutal.

Unfortunately for Ezio, his father is one of the Asssassin Order which has existed since the Crusades, and Templars seek control of Italy in the same way they sought control of the Holy Land centuries ago. The Auditore family, caught in the middle, becomes a major casualty of a war they didn’t even start! That isn’t entirely true; Ezio’s father was, in fact, an assassin, but he couldn’t have predicted s family friend would betray him from a simple bribe. Ezio, less than a willful decision on his part, becomes an assassin primarily out of revenge. His father and brothers are brutally hanged due to a simple bribe to a certain official. Ezio wants to get back at those who harmed his family, and his only recourse is violence.

To clarity: this isn’t as traditional a revenge tale as you might think. For one, that is only the case for Ezio, not for the Assassins themselves. There are many things that can inspire action in a human being or change their outlook on the world and life. Rather, the forces of fate bring Ezio into the fold of Assassins. Actually, the trip is fascinating in its obscuring elements. For example, the player assumes Ezio’s motivations right at the start because the stakes, as we know, are clear and simple: Templars = bad, and Templars killed Ezio’s family. In traditional gaming terms, that means they need to die. Like the player, Ezio doesn’t question this logic in any way; unlike Altair, who has no personal motive other than that of the Order, Ezio wants, nay, requires and desires revenge. So, too, does the player as we move along in the game.

His uncle, Mario, is an Assassin himself; he withholds information regarding the Order itself in order to train Ezio without his knowledge. Leading Ezio on a path to finding his family’s murderers, he encounters a variety of figures from actual Italian history such as Niccolo Machiavelli,  Bartolomeo d’Alivano , and Cateriana Sforza (the “lady” of Forli in Machiavelli’s writings). Eventually, we find that each figure and friend along the way were training Ezio in the way of the Assassins without his knowledge. He finally gives up his pursuit of vengeance, seeing that his actions should work for the greater good and not just himself. He doesn’t kill Rodrigo Borgia, the man who set these events into motion and the current Pope Alexander VI. Yet he was never free to make this decision!

Given the platitudes of the Assassin Order, which supposedly emphasizes the free will of free men and women to mark out their own destiny in the world, the paradox emerges once again. Ezio, though free to make his choice to pursue a life of vengeance, has been groomed for this very moment. He is the Prophet who will lead the Assassins to the Vault, where they will discover an artifact of great power. The forces of fate conspire to lead Ezio into a life of constant violence and conflict. Altair notes this same ironic problem in the Codex pages you can gather throughout the game:

What follows are the three great ironies of the Assassin Order: (1) Here we seek to promote peace, but murder is our means. (2) Here we seek to open the minds of men, but require obedience to a master and set of rules. (3) Here we seek to reveal the danger of blind faith, yet we are practitioners ourselves.

I have no satisfactory answer to these charges, only possibilities… Do we bend the rules in service to a greater good? And if we do, what does it say of us? That we are liars? That we are frauds? That we are weak? Every moment is spent wrestling with these contradictions and in spite of all the years I’ve had to reflect, still I can find no suitable answer… And I fear that one may not exist.

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted. Does our creed provide the answer, then? That one may be two things – opposite in every way – simultaneously? And why not? Am I not proof? We of noble intentions, possessed of barbaric means? We who celebrate the sanctity of life and then promptly take it from those we deem our enemies?

In that way, Assassin’s Creed II reveals its themes in a subtle and nuanced manner. Contrary to my initial assumptions, journeying and exploring the world of the Animus brings greater light into the eternal conflict of Assassins and Templars, mankind versus itself, the paradox of human action, and fate. To find the “story” as such in the sequel, one must search for it and piece the puzzle together.

Yes, this is primarily a story about Ezio’s rise as an assassin, but it’s also an explanation of origins. The first game, for all its talky narrative, had a definite bias towards religion; it portrayed Templars and Assassins alike as those who “opened” their eyes to the truth of reality that there isn’t an objective order or metaphysical structure. The Bible, for them, is a book of silly superstition. The Pieces of Eden, rather, are the true power in the game’s universe – any miracle, every “Great Prophet”, and every religion was the result of these devices. A person who submits to the promise of the Apple, as it is also called, gains knowledge of the present and the past, as well as the future – things that have not even happenend yet! Able to craft any illusion or convince any strong willed person, the Piece of Eden offers a man or woman control over the mind, and ultimately control over free will.

Where did these things come from?

That was the primary question left lingering at the end of the original game. Even the mind of the assassin can be turned (as in Al Mualim), but they can’t just arrive out of nowhere. Altair says as such:

I have studied the ancient pagan faiths that came before this more recent obsession with a single, divine creator. They seem to have focused more on the fundamental forces at play in the world around us and less on arbitrary moral rules…

The sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. The tides ebb and flow. Grass grows, withers, dies, and then in time, emerges from the ground once more. The air turns warm then cools and back again. Some hidden energy keeps us fitted to the ground and pulls us back when we attempt to leave it.

Each of these movements was represented before by a god or goddess. Each force given face, but recognized as something distinct and powerful. Which is not to say there were not connections between these forces – a pantheon of individual spirits – of rules. Invisible hands guiding the progress of the world around us.
And so here there was an attempt to categorize, study, explain, and understand the way things work – even if it was flawed. But no more. Now we are asked to succumb to a far more simplified explanation. How naive to believe there might be a single answer to every question. Every mystery. That there exists a lone divine light which rules over all. They say it is a light that brings truth and love. I say it is a light that blinds us – and forces us to stumble about in ignorance.
I long for the day when men turn away from invisible monsters and once more embrace a more rational view of the world. But these new religions are so convenient – and promise such terrible punishment should one reject them – I worry that fear shall keep us stuck to what is surely the greatest lie ever told.

The world of Assassin’s Creed doesn’t have need for God, that’s for sure. Rather, its metaphysics hearken back to the pantheon of gods; what we find is the first civilization. Humans were created by an earlier race, created in their image for reasons unknown. Eventually, humanity did much the same as they did in the Bible – they took the Piece of Eden (a none too subtle metaphor to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) and threw this new world into chaos. The First Civilization died out soon after (or at least disappeared) these events as a great catastrophe unfolds. Ezio, who has no idea what is going on, retains this information unintentionally for Desmond, whose current era draws ever closer to said disaster.

So why does Assassin’s Creed need these science fiction elements? Don’t they seem like unnecessary additions to the narrative? Other than solving the Problem of Evil in Christian theology by positing panspermia of a kind (which somehow makes me giggle), it’s almost an outright condemnation of both sides. While we aren’t given many clues as to the First Civilization (God, this sounds like the television show Fringe, doesn’t it?), we know one of them is Minerva, and she delivers a dire message: the same fate that befell the mortal races will happen again. Altair sees visions through his use of the Piece of Eden, and in it he sees “pillars of steel” crumble (skyscrapers) and fire everywhere. Clearly, some cataclysmic event will come again. But by what measure?

It is ourselves. The great irony of Assassin’s Creed isn’t that both orders use the same means (although they purport to be quite different); they both wage war over the single most important thing on earth: knowledge. Control or freedom becomes the framing of this conversation, but it’s really a matter of who should control said knowledge. This war, as far as I can tell, will be the end of humanity if something isn’t done. An “Adam” and an “Eve” take the Apple, and they bring an end to the gods of their world. The folly of their decision reveals itself in future events. The very freedom of humanity brings it into slavery in the form of the Assassins and Templars, each seeking dominance of the heart and mind in different pragmatic fashions. Each has its own prejudice, its own bias – if you don’t see things my way, it isn’t right. The same thing happens in the real life story:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. 24 So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.

Genesis 3

Does God know better than you? I would imagine so. Yet we place ourselves on the top, and suffer as a result. We see that knowledge leads to great sorrow, yet we continue to gather said knowledge. I know this enough from personal experience What a weird thing to have in Scripture! The same religion that encourages Scripture reading condemns that reading almost in the same breath. But, I don’t think that’s what we mean here. It’s a certain kind of knowledge that is restricted, that type that leads to sin.

Eternal life, apparently, wasn’t something God wanted a fallen humanity to have – too powerful. Nor did He want us to have knowledge of good and evil, from which all of our current conflicts spring. Relativism reigns in Assassin’s Creed, yet we accept this in our current cultural paradigm as a fact of life. Objectivity has gone out of vogue, and the idea of a Creator God who sets values and makes His creation look horrific by comparison hasn’t survived. Humans are good creatures, really, not sinful! The great lies continues. Whether for the few or the many, the knowledge of good and evil brings more evil than good to a species that can’t handle it.

Perhaps it’s the greatest compliment that in a world without a God in the Christian sense, humanity still creates its own eschatology and becomes the root of its own end – but there’s no backdoor in this tale. There’s no salvation – there is only what humanity can do for itself, and the answer isn’t clear and distinct. Humanity’s thirst for knowledge leads to its own destruction.

Like Ubisoft’s universe, Ezio’s discoveries bring him no closure. The more people he kills, the more he angers his enemies. The more conflict he brings, the more people die. The more he gains, the more he equally loses. How does one end this cycle? Violence begets more violence. Ezio’s story continues in Brotherhood, and his own recognition of the futility of this conflict eventually unfolds.

Continue to Part 3

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.