Progressive Videogame Saturday: The Assassin's Creed Series
by David Atkins
This is the first in a Saturday morning series dedicated to reviewing progressive videogames. It's my hope that progressives with an aversion to videogames as mindless, sexist, violent entertainments lacking in art will read these reviews with an open mind, and maybe even try out a game or two. WARNING: Major spoilers below....
The year is 2007. The President of the United States is still George W. Bush, and the American people are still embroiled in two wars in the Middle East, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Turmoil in the Middle East continues to rage, with anti-Arab sentiment still rampant.
A Canadian video game company releases a game called Assassin's Creed. The hero of the game is Altair ibn-La'Ahad, a hooded Arab man of violent temper who walks in the shadows killing high-profile targets in secret. The setting is the Third Crusade. The villain? Without revealing a major plot twist at the end, the primary villains are European Crusaders, in particular members of the Order of the Knights Templar, men who walk the landscape with crosses on their clothing and shields plotting permanent domination of the lands. It's your job to put on your hood, blend into the crowd, slip into the shadows and foil their plots with a hidden blade. We experience the exploits of Altair ibn-La'Ahad through the "Animus", a machine that allows modern day humans to experience the "genetic memories" of their ancestors. Interspersed, then, with the Middle Ages cloak-and-dagger story is a modern-day one in which you discover that the protagonist is actually one Desmond Miles, a modern-day descendant of Altair. Desmond has been kidnapped by gigantic multinational corporation Abstergo with interests ranging from pharmaceuticals to telecom, and forced into the Animus to relive the exploits of Altair. Why? Because the Templars still exist and run Abstergo. What do they want?
Well, at this point I suppose I should mention that the game is determinedly atheistic in the Biblical sense. Every religion in the world, in the game's story, is supposed to have been a man-made creation to explain the now-extinct but technologically superior race of forerunners ("Those Who Came Before") who created us. Adam and Eve, the Apple, and the Garden of Eden? Historical events detailing a revolution against the oppressors. Here's a video from the game's second installment, labeled simply The Truth:
The "pieces of Eden" stolen or discovered by humans are technological wonders akin to magic that have been lost to history and hidden, often by ancient Assassins. And now multinational corporation Abstergo wants to find them to control humanity. Altair's memories hold a final piece of the puzzle. Various missions in the game also touch on slavery, the futility of war, persecution of gays and other themes.
If you don't believe that such a blatantly subversive game could sell in the United States, you'd be wrong. The first and second games of the series have sold over 8 million copies to date plus hundreds of thousands of pirated downloads, and the series has spawned countless sequels, spinoffs, and comic books, and now even a feature film slated to begin filming in 2013.
And that's just the beginning. The game's sequels only double down on the message, tying in not only the Catholic Church but even the CIA-backed coups against Allende and Mossadegh, the homophobic persecution of Alan Turing, Bush's Iraq war, the predations of the IMF, the Yeltsin coup, and even the Citizens United case into the grand conspiracy. It's almost as if a video game had been written by Naomi Klein.
Desmond has managed to break free from Abstergo's clutches and join a group of modern-day Assassins. It's a race between Desmond and the Templars to discover another "Piece of Eden," this time by going into the Animus to relive the life of another of Desmond's ancestors, Ezio Auditore da Firenze, in Renaissance Italy. Ezio's family was framed and executed in a plot involving the infamous Borgias of Italy. Rodrigo Borgia has been using a Piece of Eden as part of his Papal scepter and advancing the ambitions of his son Cesare. Ezio must stop them.
As the player controls Ezio, free-running throughout Florence, Rome, Venice and a variety of other renaissance Italian locations faithfully reproduced as they would have appeared at the time, the player is invited to read encyclopedia-style entries on a hundreds of locations, people and events--all of which are written with a biting sense of humor and sarcasm from a left-leaning perspective. Meanwhile, the player is given assistance from another abducted Assassin who died connected to the Animus, who through sometimes difficult puzzles provides Desmond insight on the Templar conspiracy to control mankind throughout history. Nearly all of these puzzles have a progressive theme and make remarkably subversive implications about various points in human history. How subversive? This is just one of the puzzles:
Following a sequence including quotes from George W. Bush about privatization and code that declares the Iraq War to have been fought by contractors for profit, a Templar says "Democracy must die to ensure the stability of the world. Capitalism will end it." To solve the puzzle, the player can look at, among other related images including quotes from Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, the faces of the Supreme Court justices, each with a quote taken from their opinions on the Citizens United case. The solution to the puzzle involves discovering the Templar ring on Chief Justice Roberts' finger. No joke. Solving the puzzle unlocks the following letter:
Supreme Court of the United StatesDecember, 2000
I have convinced Sandra to join the majority opinion. The enticement of retirement under a Republican president tipped the scales. Although the ruling will differ from our previous decisions on Equal Protection, it will not call attention to our actual goals. With Sandra gone, we can pave the way for the key majority member of the Order to be seated. As discussed, W. will prove the perfect distraction. I have no doubt he will restart animosities with Iraq. Let him, it will give C.'s contractors more work. When the time comes, I will make sure W. is given Roberts' name.
With Roberts on the court, it will only be a matter of waiting for the right case. After the destruction of Campaign Finance laws, the Company will be free to elect anyone they choose to the Senate, the House and, eventually, the Presidency. Soon, our hopes will be realized. Government will no longer derive its authority from the people, but from us, their protectors. --Antonin Scalia
Yes, this is a video game. One that sold millions of copies in the United States. And there are many, many puzzles like this along similar themes.
One of the other beauties of the Assassin's Creed games is the way that the fictional pseudo-history is woven into the real history often in the service of political points. The corruption of the Borgias is an easy entry for the game to take shots at corruption in the Catholic Church. Ezio meets Leonardo da Vinci who helps him in his cause, even as Ezio discovers his da Vinci's male partner. Da Vinci is fearful of being discovered, but Ezio as an agnostic Assassin doesn't care about da Vinci's homosexuality and wishes only the best for both of them. Lucrezia Borgia is a sympathetic character and victim of her father's and brother's brutality. Rodrigo Borgia's debilitating illness is supposed to have been caused by poison. And the anonymous soldier who finally throws Cesare off a bridge (his actual historical death)? Well, the player controls Ezio in that confrontation, who is turned into the man who does it. There are a wide range of nifty historical fictions like this that reward further research into the real history and further an appreciation of the writing team that developed the Assassin's Creed games.
After a beautifully conceived sequel that sends Ezio to Constantinople to run parkour atop Hagia Sofia while resolving intrigues that ultimately bring the enlightened Suleiman the Magnificent to power, the most recently released installment takes Desmond into the history of yet another ancestor: a half-Native American, half British young Assassin named Connor under the tutelage of an African-American master assassin at the dawn of the Revolutionary War. It's a gut-wrenching tale that not only nicely weaves real American history into the game's mythos, but also forces serious introspection on the part of the player by silently breaking the fourth wall. As young Connor takes the side of the American Revolutionaries (and leads the Boston Tea Party--being, after all, a Native American without need of disguise!) in their fight for freedom against the Templar-backed British, the encyclopedia provides constant reminders of just how much of a gray zone the conflict and its reasons often were. Most problematic is the treatment of Native Americans: even as Connor helps the Patriots most of his tribe is assisting the British (as is historically accurate.) Connor continues to insist the Patriots desire only freedom and will leave his people, the Iroquois, in peace. But the player knows better, and the cognitively dissonant false hope can be almost unbearable at times. Connor saves George Washington from assassination, only to be shown by a Templar Washington's orders to destroy his village and slaughter his people in an attack presaging the Sullivan Expedition (helpfully noted in the game's database.) Here's the video of the confrontation:
Connor ends the game successful in his mission, but disillusioned as his people flee their lands and slaves are sold at the docks while the crowds cheer their newly won "freedom." Desmond also finds what he seeks, but must choose between becoming the next world's messiah only to die and have his words taken out of context by evil men who use them to control society, and a fate almost as unacceptable.
Yes, my friends. This is a video game.
And it can be under your Christmas tree this December if you'll give it a chance as the amazing work of art and subversive political treatise it is.