“Inspired by historical events and characters. This work of fiction was designed, developed and produced by a multicultural team of various religious faiths and beliefs.” Thus reads the disclaimer that appears at the beginning of the original Assassin’s Creed, and all the other subsequent games. No other game feels the need to qualify its ethical stance before allowing the player access, setting them up for something that may question their beliefs. But why does Assassin’s Creed do this?
It’s worth remembering that the original Assassin’s Creed came out in 2007 to fairly positive reviews, but its legacy seems to be one of unrealized potential that is full of shortcomings. For example, Eurogamer gave Assassin’s Creed 7/10, which is a decent score, but (rightly so) criticized the repetitive nature of the game. Over time, this seems to have become the accepted narrative, with the general consensus being that Assassin’s Creed didn’t really take off until the second instalment was released. The sequel certainly streamlined the gameplay and received many deserved plaudits from critics, but the acknowledged history that the series only hit its stride with Assassin’s Creed II is a case of ignoring the past. The original Assassin’s Creed took more bold risks than any of its successive entries, and remains the silent revolutionary member of the family.
The Creed’s Maxim of “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” is the guiding philosophy of the Assassin Brotherhood in the game. This is certainly appropriate when applied to this tale of duplicity, setting the player up for the fantastical nature of the plot, while encouraging them to challenge the perceived truth in any given situation. The Maxim serves as a plot device for the player to start asking questions of themselves, their actions, and the orders they follow.
However, this is an adapted quote from Vladimir Bartol’s 1938 novel Alamut, which Assassin’s Creed borrows from liberally. The original quote “Nothing is an absolute reality, all is permitted” performs the same function in Alamut as it does in Assassin’s Creed. In Bartol’s work, the Hashashin (an Islamic order of assassins) force the protagonist Ibn Tahir to assassinate leaders of rival Islamic sects. The rebels have developed a cult of personality around their leader Hassan-i Sabbah, who manipulates his soldiers into following his cause by drugging them and performing “miracles”. After questioning his motives, Tahir turns on his master and during this final showdown, Hassan tells Tahir his motto: “Nothing is an absolute reality, all is permitted.” Sound familiar?
Assassin’s Creed is essentially a retelling of this story. Set in 1191 during the Crusades, the plot revolves around a power struggle between two secret organizations, the Knights Templar and the Assassins. The protagonist Altair ibn-La’Ahad, desperate to appease his master Al Mualim after a previous transgression, accepts a list of assassination targets. Altair is told that by killing these warmongering figureheads, he will halt the European invasion of the Middle East without the need for an all-out war. Despite the irony of preventing mass murder by murdering people, the cause of the Assassin’s seems to be a noble one at first glance.
As he carries out his orders, Altair gains vital information from his dying subjects. The player is shown lengthy death sequences where the assassination target questions Altair’s motives while simultaneously justifying their own. While these often sound like excuses for terrible deeds, the targets rarely feel regretful for their actions. Eventually, Altair begins to question the motives of his leader Al Mualim, who has been using Altair to eliminate rivals and gain control over a powerful artifact, The Apple of Eden, which will allow him to assert control over his subjects.
The parallels between Alamut and Assassin’s Creed are undeniable, but this reworking of literature created a rich narrative that explored the idea of the unwinnable conflict; that neither side can be categorized as solely good or evil. However, both pieces of work also contained a commentary on global politics of the time.
In the years since Alamut’s initial release in 1938, many have come to view the novel as an observation of Mussolini’s fascist regime. Contrary to the scare tactics employed by Nazi Germany at the time, Mussolini set about winning over the public through propaganda that depicted him in an almost divine light, while conquering his political rivals (often by employing his secret police force). For a modern day example, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il serves as an equivalent, where his mythology claims that a new star shone in the heavens and a double rainbow appeared on the day of his birth. This is the exact same effect that Al Mualim sought to achieve through The Apple Of Eden. The Apple could produce effects that could be construed as miracles, by allowing him to change into people who you’ve already killed, teleporting around, and creating illusory copies of himself.
Bringing this forward to 2007 when Assassin’s Creed was initially released, and the Western world finds itself in the middle of a struggle against the Middle East through the War On Terror. There are comparisons to be made between the game and the political climate of the time. Altair joins the rebel militia for an honest cause; to repel the attack of the European invaders and prevent further bloodshed in the region. His goal is to use violence to end violence, just as there were debates on whether a war in the Middle East was justified on the back of the tragically violent 9/11 attacks. Conversely, the same could be said for Osama Bin Laden, who performed atrocious acts in order to fight against the encroachment of Western power and influence in his country. Assassin’s Creed does a fine job in allowing the player to decide whether that is justified or not. It asks just enough questions through the monologues of the assassination targets, and through Altair’s debates with Al Mualim between missions.
Through doing this, the game provides a protagonist who, in other games, would be marked as a terrorist or an objective marker on a map to be destroyed. An examination on opposing forces wouldn’t have worked for the gung ho bombast of Call of Duty, which relegates the other side to the level of cannon fodder; another row of tetronimos to clear. Assassin’s Creed’s triumph is that it is able to present both sides of the conflict from a human level, and neither side come out of it smelling pretty.
Futhermore, Assassin’s Creed does a great job in employing Altair as the protagonist. The murders he commits could be construed as terrorism in another light, but the game presents his thought processes in a human light, highlighting the escalation of conflict through further violence. It lends a sympathetic ear to a person who is undoubtedly doing terrible things, then tries to understand his motivations.
It seems a shame then that Assassin’s Creed is regarded as a stumbling block for the series, when it is actually the only game to focus on plot in such an intriguing fashion. Take Assassin’s Creed II and its protagonist Ezio. The Knights Templar and Assassin Brotherhood have already fallen into their binary divisions of good and evil (with you, inevitably, being on the good side). Ezio’s quest is a typical tale of revenge as he seeks to avenge his father’s death at the hands of the diabolical Templars. He never questions his role in all of this violence, instead leaping between rooftops and fighting corruption where he sees it. There may be a case to argue that Ezio eventually takes on the role Al Mualim by strengthening the brotherhood, sending off his recruits to take out targets on his behalf (Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood), but the game doesn’t really explore this idea and uses it merely as a way to earn money and unlock items.
After 8 years and 9 entries in the main series (not to mention 11 other spin offs or standalone DLCs) the series has drifted further from this initial premise. As the franchise turned annual, the plot seemingly became more of an excuse rather than the primary reason to make these games, and the animus serves as a mobile through which to loosely hang new history periods from. As the review scores tumble and the franchise moves on, perhaps it would serve Ubisoft to look at the first game and learn from it. Remembering the disclaimer that appears at the start of the original Assassin’s Creed, perhaps Ubisoft should try to be as innovative with the plot of their next game, rather than attempting to rehash the formula from Assassin’s Creed II.