Image: Gamasutra

The Mystical Iconoclasm of Assassin’s Creed

I wrote this piece in mid-2020, a few months before Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. That game sheds new light on the direct ancestry of the crusade-era of Assassins, and warrants discussion.

Bells ring over ambling alleyways and thoroughfares; smoke rises from rooftops; the golden domes of Jerusalem shine dully in the evening sun as hawkers, thieves and beggars wander the streets. A lone warrior-monk, masquerading as a clergyman, prowls in plain sight, watching his prey amble towards their death, by his hand.

If you squint, you can still see the ambition of Assassin’s Creed, raw and sprawling, looking not to be Prince of Persia, but Lawrence of Arabia. Scores of sequels later, it’s hard to say whether that ambition was ever achieved — certainly, at least, not as it was initially imagined. There’s a dear lot of Assassin’s Creed that didn’t work then, and sure doesn’t now. But in 2020, as the biggest AC yet looms, I’m surprised to return to the very first tale, and find so much that’s right.

Let’s start with the many wrongs, the easy targets that were glaringly kludgey in the first iteration. The remarkable sprawl of territory — three cities! — collapse quick under a paucity of assets. The cries of everymen in the streets start to repeat after the first minute. Even with distinct architecture, the cities strain to distinguish between themselves. It’s clear why each one was given a slightly different colour tint. Jerusalem is Acre, is Damascus — these are maps with different skins. The countryside hub is quite beautiful, but useless, and a chore to traverse. Small relief that there is something of a fast-travel option early on in the story.

Then there’s the detection system, which, unlike many other stealth games, becomes perhaps the most essential attention-commanding element of the experience. Technically it is fairly complete in its UI, but for the average player, with just an initial tutorial, it’s terribly opaque. For many, the only way to ensure a no-detection incursion, without run-breaking fuckups, is to crawl through the streets in slow-walk monk-mode, and no one has that kind of time. For anyone who isn’t motivated to trial-and-error, or research, a run is going to be full of snafus, detections, roof-chases, and catastrophic chain-reactions that burn one’s shot at anything but a swords-out madcap run at the target. Of course, this is kind of the point of the game, and no sequel has really changed the stealth loop to be any different, for better or worse.

Then there’s the parkour itself, which again presents as opaque, but can be unpacked with patience. The rules are there, but the average player will not understand. Again, the player must have the patience to make (lots) of mistakes, to watch Altair peer up at an inaccessible handhold, impassively, refusing to continue as ten guards throw rocks at him from below. There is so much happening here, technically, to appreciate, but it’s hard to move away from frustration in the heat of the moment.

And yet: what an incredible thing, in 2007, to watch Altair climb, using real handholds, so see him shift his weight and leap, like a real human. How shockingly clear the flow of bones and muscle, especially in relief to the canned, staid animations from the previous console generation. Assassin’s Creed is the story of humans — real humans — and you believe it, because they move like we do.

(And it is this motion, this methodical fluidity, that reveals that the true sequel to Assassin’s Creed is in fact Unity: patient, opaque, difficult; committed to the story of one assassin and the city. For better or worse, Unity was the true successor to the weird first child. There will likely not be another.)

You also have to be okay, in Assassin’s Creed, to spend a fair amount of time containing a simmering frustration, as beggars and idiots try their very best to break your cool by being as irritating and obstructive as possible. Generally speaking, being annoying isn’t a great gameplay strategy, and the sequels did much better by thinking more carefully about what’s fun.

These are the faults and nits of a first shot at a fairly wild new concept, so let’s consider further the astonishing uniqueness of the thing, especially in its time. Within the first few minutes, one can’t help but be completely arrested by the tone of Assassin’s Creed. Dark, uncomfortable, cynical: the burgeoning world of knights and templars is full of wretched people doing despicable things. Their squalid lives reflect what we know of the world in that time: poverty and sickness abound, and the relatively well-off harass and oppress. Assassin’s Creed wants so badly to be taken seriously at its historical accuracy, and to do so it portrays life with a Christopher Nolan-like realism. This is Batman in Palestine, and its designers deserve credit for a setting so atypical of AAA blockbusters of the time. That a slow-burning narrative stealth epic, starring a brown man with an Arabic name, became a dominant mainstream franchise, is itself a triumph in an industry better known for cookie-cutters.

Then there is the so-called “modern-day”, front-and-centre in the introduction, jarringly breaking the fourth wall of Altair’s story. Everything in the simulation is framed in the animus: locked-on targets shimmer with augmented reality footnotes; chases through cities flicker with the DNA of ancestors. What is real? The game isn’t telling. Real is what you see at this moment. Don’t get used to it.

Just about everything in the presentation is high-concept, iconoclastic. The button scheme corresponds to the limbs and head of the player. A modifier key changes the player’s stance. There are four — four! — functionally different traversing speeds, not even counting the gradated input of analog sticks. This game is the opposite of so-called “walking simulators”, but that description could hardly be more apt. And yet: we are shown, again and again, that we are learning to work a machine, not our avatar. At one point, the tutorial refers to our actions as “puppet controls”. We are piloting not a man, but a simulation of a man.

Which is another fascinating angle of Assassin’s Creed: where the player should see themselves. Like the Metal Gear Solids, all narrative action is in-engine, and the player can almost always move Altair during cutscenes. When we eagle-eye, we become Altair himself, seeing through his own eyes. And yet, when the DNA of the simulation jitter, the camera is allowed to jump to external perspectives, breaking our link with Altair in the first person. Similarly, we control Desmond in third person, except when he enters the Animus. When it’s time to press the “go” button, continuing the story, we see straight through Desmond’s eyes.

What to do with this puppet, who obeys our controller? Like us, Desmond is no killer, but he enters a simulation and is told to kill. And his present day timeline was our own when the game launched. Are we intended to be Desmond, then, to see through his eyes as we surrender to the simulation? I think this is the standard read, but I’m not convinced. For one thing, Desmond isn’t exactly a blank-slate avatar; he was supposed to be an assassin himself (a fact either I completely missed the first playthrough, or just forgot).

To me, to play Assassin’s Creed is not the be Desmond, but rather directly Altair himself, puppeteer or not. Dropped into the first mission, we kill without thinking about it. We are playing a game, we encounter enemies, and we dispatch them. There is a button for killing, and we kill effortlessly. Indeed, when our friends are pinned down and appear to be lost, we press on without them. Why? Because they are not the quest marker on our map.

However, we are quickly made to atone for our actions. For being insensitive, for being violent; for playing as in every other game, rather than Assassin’s Creed, we are demoted and de-powered, returned to base-camp as a grunt. As Altair must re-learn his craft, we start fresh, not with abilities on controller buttons, but arms and feet to move. “Forget what you know”. Nothing is true; everything is permitted, but if you roam the world like the detached killer we expect to be in games, you will be overwhelmed by the constabulary. Logic, not faith, must guide our actions: in an inhospitable world, we must bend the rules to our cause, acting in the shadows, so as to not be recognized as an antigen, exposed and suppressed.

But the reward isn’t really truth, or even power. As we succeed and rise in the ranks, increasing our abilities as we learn the game’s inscrutable systems, we come to trust in our superiors. Altair objects, but does not rebel. We are given more difficult tasks, and we oblige. The path forward assumes patterns (sometimes very repetitive ones), and we solve the mazes. And — shocker! — we are totally, cruelly, deceived by our boss. We heard “nothing is true,” but did not learn it well enough to see through Masyaf. The eagle-eye can reveal truths, but cannot see behind walls. As Desmond finally escapes his captives, the vague truths of the Isu glimmer beyond his own walls — a cruel cliffhanger for the player, trying desperately to find a little truth themselves.

As the credits roll, most players will have little satisfaction, and lots of questions. This, after all, was the “Lost” era of TV, and writers had discovered a winning strategy for setting up sequels. This might have been the original sin of Modern Day — that the metagame needed to be adequately opaque to be continued, and unfortunately this meant mostly telling no story at all. On the other hand, the assassins and templars, and their conflict, had room to grow, and happily was written from the outset to be a complex relationship. The two institutions were not, and are not, clearly binary or opposite; certainly not merely good vs. evil. Both are fundamentally antisocial — are contemptive of the value of human life — and this made narrative space for questioning motives, for rebelling, for Edward Kenway, Shay Cormac and other cynical heroes, doubtful of anything but themselves.

Bravo to perhaps the weirdest game of 2007, and the grandparent of one of the most fruitful IPs in gaming. Some of its grandchildren are so very different from the original that returning to the series’ roots is like rediscovering a lost heirloom. Long may the family line run; long may it evolve.

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