Assassin's Creed: Syndicate
US: 23 Oct 2015
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate has a pretty generic story. The good guys are roguish heroes, likable but not lawful, loyal Assassins with just enough of a rebellious streak to avoid looking dogmatic. The bad guys are scheming villains, understandable but not relatable, loyal Templars whose noble goals can’t make up for their superiority complex. It’s an easy story to dismiss as fluff, a simple story for a big-budget mainstream game, but Assassin’s Creed has always been a political series, and Syndicate is, surprisingly, one of the more politically charged entries in the series. Its politics are painted with broad strokes, and that what makes it easy to dismiss, but in these modern times of cartoonishly absurd politics, those broad strokes become sharp and pointed commentary.
The Transition of Power
Jacob and Evie Frye are a pair of fraternal twin Assassins, raised in the Brotherhood since birth, so they’re staunchly loyal to the cause. However, they’re also young and confident and impulsive, so they decide, mostly on a whim, to travel to Templar-controlled London and liberate the city. They team up with the undermanned London branch of the Assassins and go about taking back the city.
This involves analyzing the power structure that gives the Templars control. Crawford Starrick is the man at the top, an authoritarian leader who’s smart enough to wield his power like a pen rather a sword. He’s been seizing control of the city from the bottom up, slowly turning existing democratic and capitalistic institutions into a personal support system. We’re told, “There is no aspect of society he does not control. No industry that escapes his grim touch. By day it is corrupt merchants and venal politicians who hold court. Come night, a vicious street gang known as the Blighters strikes terror in the hearts of all. There is no business untainted by his poison. No person unexploited—be if by duplicity or force.”
Of course, Starrick sees things differently. Early in the game he gives a rather great monologue to an underling who has brought bad news: While pouring and mixing his tea he ruminates, “This tea was brought to me from India by a ship, then, up from a harbor to a factory, where it was packaged and ferried by carriage to my door, unpacked in the larder, and brought upstairs to me. All by men and women who work for me. Who are indebted to me, Crawford Starrick, for their jobs, their time, the very lives they lead. They will work in my factories and so too shall their children. And you come to me with talk of this Jacob Frye, this insignificant blemish who calls himself Assassin. You disrespect the very city that works day and night so that we may drink this. This miracle. This tea.”
It’s a great monologue because it highlights the seductive vision of order inherent in authoritarianism. Starrick has, in fact, brought order to London, but it’s an elitist order that privileges the few at the expense of the many. Still, in order to undermine Starrick’s control of London, Jacob and Evie must undermine that authoritarian order. Which basically means causing a bit of chaos. Jacob, being the more impulsive of the two, always causes this chaos. He infiltrates some pillar of Starrick’s support system and tears it down.
Most games would leave it at that and move on—the bad guys lost control, so naturally the good guys must take control afterwards—and this is exactly what previous Assassin’s Creed have done, and Jacob himself certainly moves on, hopping from one assassination to another. However, this time the game stays behind to look at the aftermath of such violence.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is all about the transition of power. More specially, it argues that there is no such thing as an easy transition of power between two opposing power structures. When you remove someone from a position of power you create a vacuum, and power abhors a vacuum. Opportunists will jump to fill any vacant seat of authority, and that’s exactly what happens here, forcing Evie to constantly step in and clean up her brother’s messes. It’s not enough to simply remove a bad leader, you have to replace them. A proper transition requires more than just assassination.
Starrick’s Soothing Syrup is the main form of health care for the poor: A cheap, cure-all tonic that’s really just a kind of liquid opium, turning people numb, dumb, and dead. It’s a perfect health care solution if you don’t actually care about people’s health because it’s exceedingly cheap. The money you save letting people die can be spent elsewhere.
To break this corrupt system, Jacob targets the distribution network of the syrup. He starts with those selling it on the street, beating names out of them like a noir detective, working his up the chain to the central production plant, which he then promptly blows up. He then follows his trail to the doctor behind the syrup, one John Elliotson, who works in the nearby asylum, freely using and abusing the patients both living and dead as medical experiments. Naturally, he’s got to die. But as Elliotson bleeds out on the floor he points out Jacob’s naiveté: “You are a child who believes he can solve all the world’s woes with the flick of a blade. Have you ever pondered the consequences of your actions?”
The syrup has become part of the culture of lower-class London. Just because you take it away doesn’t mean people will stop seeking it out. As a friend (Alexander Graham Bell, because this is still Assassin’s Creed) laments some time later, “Would you believe, my mother says there are still some wives in her street that swear by that soothing syrup.”
Without Elliotson, Florence Nightengale takes over the asylum, but she’s overwhelmed with the number of people who are no longer drugged into complacently, not to mention the spread of counterfeit tonics. It falls to Evie to stop the spread of the counterfeits, much in the same way Jacob stopped the spread of the original, but it also falls to her to guard a trading route of legitimate medical supplies.
With the counterfeits gone and the trade route secure, Evie has done all that she can. The transition to better health care won’t be instantaneous, but at least she has established an alternative.
Bell comes to a similar conclusion regarding those stubborn wives: “I took it upon myself to tell [them] the truth about that obnoxious drought… I wasn’t always welcome, which goes to show how false information can be harder to stamp out as fishwive’s profanities at Billinsgate. But if we can take out the source that continually feeds such detrimental trash, then little by little the truth will take the upper hand and the sham will be flushed out.”
Our contact at the London branch explains the situation regarding public transportation: “Owning the railway wasn’t enough. Now Starrick has bought an omnibus company. I suppose he wants to control the neighborhood’s workers and keep them under his thumb.”
This time, Jacob teams with Pearl Attaway, owner of the Attaway Transport Company, the main competitor to Starrick’s new company. Together they wage a bit of corporate warfare (blowing up rival buses), corporate espionage (stealing an internal combustion engine), and of course, assassinations, eventually killing the man in charge of Starrick’s omnibus company, Malcolm Millner.
However, we then learn that Starrick and Attaway are cousins, and Attaway simply used us to assert her own position of power within Starrick’s monopoly—capitalism cuddling up to authoritarianism. The business-minded Attaway opposes Starrick only as long as that opposition serves herself, their familial bond actually means very little. Her betrayal feels natural in retrospect, as both the capitalist and the authoritarian are primarily interested in consolidating power. With Millner dead, Attaway gets her piece of the monopoly. Yet her personal corporate war is ultimately self-defeating because even with her monopoly she’s just fighting for the scraps of the industry that Starrick allows her to control. The authoritarian is no real friend to the capitalist because, eventually, the consolidation of power has to favor one over the other.
Her betrayal also puts her in the crosshairs of the Assassins, who live up to their name and assassinate her. Jacob does the deed and sends the omnibus industry into chaos.
Ed Bayley, owner of a minor omnibus company, explains the situation to Evie, “This city’s been turned upside down since Attaway Transport and the Millner Company went belly up. With no one to fill their shoes, the gangs made their move.” Those gangs demand that the remaining, smaller, omnibus owners work for them, going so far as to accost the owners on the street and threaten their families.
The solution to this problem strikes at the very heart of Starrick’s and the Templars’ authoritarian worldview: Not a company, but a coalition. Ed explains, “I know good men who want to form a united transport company. What do they say in America? ‘By the people, for the people?’ That is our intention with the London United Omnibus Company.”
Evie steals the deed for Attaway Transport from the Blighter gang, thus giving the business men the resources they need to make their united company. It’s not a perfect solution as it’s still a company subject to the same whims and greed as before, but at least this time it’s run by a group rather than an individual. The power Attaway once had has been broken up.
Starrick has a personal banker in charge of his funds, and after a bit of spying we learn that personal banker is Philip Twopenny, the governor of the Bank of England. He’s a cheery fellow who loves to lecture his peers while literally kicking at homeless people on the street. “I say we stop this goodwill towards strangers nonsense and focus on what London really needs, solid leadership whose hard work will raise everyone up to success. As go the titans of business, so goes the world,” he exclaims.
He’s a caricature of an arrogant, out-of-touch, upper class, elitist. Or rather, he would be a caricature if he weren’t so honest. Twopenny is the perfect symbol of an upper-class man that is too rich to be inconvenienced by authoritarianism. As such, he helps Starrick not just out of greed (though that’s part of it) but also out of an inflated sense of self-worth: For the rich man, to help the authoritarian is to prove himself valuable and important: “We are the experts in investment. Nothing would be built or improved, nothing would rise above the mulch without our hand guiding—No, creating!—the future. [The poor] benefit as much as their worth… Without our investments, there would be no city.”
As far as Twopenny is concerned, the rich not only deserve their wealth but yours as well. After all, you don’t know how to properly use it, how to properly invest it. For him and his ilk, to be smart is to be rich, and to be rich is to be powerful, and to be powerful is to enrich yourself further. This isn’t arrogance to them, its pure Social Darwinism. They didn’t get lucky, they didn’t benefit from social institutions or gender or race, they were born awesome and their wealth is an extension of that birthright.
At least, that’s the excuse Twopenny uses to justify literally stealing money from the poor to give to the rich. He uses his position at the bank to move funds into Starrick’s account, literally redistributing wealth upwards. Never mind that this kind of betrays his argument—if he’s really so smart, why does he have to steal? Twopenny has to die, and Jacob is glad to see him go.
Unfortunately, killing the governor of the bank while he’s in the middle of a bank heist is a surefire way to kill public trust in any financial institution. “The currency a laughingstock. Inflation out of control,” Starrick is told. And in this confusion, one of Twopenny’s goons is able to steal a currency plate to make counterfeit money, further eroding trust in the government’s money.
Evie not only has to steal the plate back but then she has to sneak it back into the bank so that looks like it was never gone. This subterfuge calls into question the stories about Twopenny’s death and thieving, letting the dangerous man off the hook (in death), but at least she restores some confidence in London’s finances.
Those “titans of business” may be dangerous and destructive, but they’re also integral to the economy. Twopenny was not entirely wrong about his role in society. You can’t kill a man of such power without some negative fallout. Hopefully, you’re equipped to manage that fallout.
The Criminal Class
It’s about at this point in the story that Jacob teams up with his supposed enemy: Maxwell Roth, the leader of the Blighters. Roth now wants to take down Starrick as well, though for personal reasons rather than political reasons.
Roth values his survival and freedom more than any political ideology, and even insults those who believe the opposite.
Roth: “These cowardly fools under Starrick have built their own prisons. It’s a dreadful waste.”
Jacob: “They could be building gangs instead.”
Roth: “No, no. Why build when you can ebb and flow like the sea.”
This is a telling exchange. Twopenny justified his actions by claiming he built the city—as if that contribution to the world makes him better than others. Roth is the exact opposite, he sees danger in building, in rooting yourself to a single location. It’s a belief that makes sense for a powerful criminal—someone on the run from the law doesn’t want a lot of baggage. Roth is under no disillusions about his place in the world, he knows he operates in the shadows, and so he doesn’t excuse his actions with self-aggrandizement, but with self-reflection. Roth acknowledges that he’s a big fish in a small pond, a pond gifted to him by larger players like Twopenny and Starrick—he’s a blue collar crook in a white collar world. “A man like Starrick builds a world around his desires, so we lose the ability to dream for ourselves, he says”
Roth and Jacob make for an interesting team as they show that rebellion isn’t always fought for the same reasons. However, those differing reasons must eventually be reconciled. Like with Attaway and Starrick, the capitalist and the authoritarian, the two sides may work for equal ends, but only one can actually achieve those ends. We kill Attaway before she and Starrick can fight about these ends, but we get to see this intra-party conflict play out with Jacob and Roth.
Roth is still a gang leader; he doesn’t care about human life, he just wants his freedom. So when he proves himself willing to blow up a building full of working children, Jacob severs his ties with the man and soon after severs his throat as well.
The transition of power is hard because you’re not only dealing with the existing power structure, but with any other power structure that tries to insert itself in its place. Roth would love for anarchy to reign, but Jacob seeks a more democratic end. For a while, they have a shared enemy that makes them partners, but that partnership cannot last.
The Political Class
The ordeal with Twopenny and the bank shows us the delicacy of Starrick’s power. For all his talk of strength and systems and control, in truth his power simply comes from money—money to pay for syrup production, money to buy omnibus companies, money to fund the construction projects Twopenny brags about, and money to bribe politicians.
Jacob soon learns of a bill working its way through Parliament that might destroy Starrick’s ability to pay off his friends in high places. The anti-corruption bill is authored by Benjamin Disraeli, who becomes the target of an assassination, paid for by Starrick and his fellow Parliamentarian conspirators.
The assassination plot is actually rather reassuring, in its own way. It proves that Starrick, for all his bluster, has not actually taken control of the government. He’s just a rich man with lofty goals, less of a tyrant and more of a mob boss, or a political donor.
But he could still become a tyrant. Politicians who care more about themselves (or their wallet) than their city work to stall or kill the anti-corruption bill, much to Disraeli’s dismay: “You would rather throw your body upon the gears of progress than give up one iota of power,” Disraeli accuses his main opponent, Lord Cardigan.
It’s a damning quote, especially at this point in the story. The systems and structures that support Starrick are crumbling around him, yet he still enjoys the full support of men like Lord Cardigan. At this point, the man really is throwing his body into the metaphorical gears. Starrick is a sinking ship, yet men like Cardigan, men obsessed with their own enrichment and power, still cling to Starrick with a death grip, even as it kills them. Or rather, even as we kill them.
Jacob saves Disraeli, of course, and then hatches his own assassination plot. We sneak into the halls of Parliament to kill Cardigan, and then something surprising happens: Nothing. There’s no societal or political blowback from Cardigan’s death. The only consequence is that opposition to the anti-corruption bill falls apart and the bill passes. This time, there’s no mess for Evie to clean.
This twist suggests that Syndicate has an implicit trust in the strength of government. You kill a doctor or a business man or a banker, and chaos erupts; the flow of medical supplies breaks down, the business breaks down, trust in the bank and thus the bank itself breaks down. Yet you kill a politician and Parliament does not break down. The government is too strong of a social institution to be broken with a simple assassination.
The Best Transition of Power Is No Transition of Power
With all the crap that comes from a messy transition of power, the most straightforward solution is not have any transition of power. Just avoid the messy process altogether. This is the Templar’s ultimate goal in London.
While Jacob is off assassinating people, Evie spends the game hunting down a powerful ancient relic: A shroud that can repair any damage to the body. This includes extreme damage like stab wounds and subtler damage like from a disease or aging. In essence, this shroud makes its wearer immortal.
The Templars have always believed, since the first Assassin’s Creed, that the best way to improve society is through the strong leadership of a select few individuals (see, Starrick’s speech about his tea). The inherent flaw in this belief is that all people die, so what happens then? If all power is consolidated in a single individual, what happens when that individual dies? The power must transfer to someone else, and then chaos erupts; the problem isn’t solved. Immortality obviously makes this a moot point, but it also raises a new issue: How do you determine who should wear the shroud? Who’s the strongest leader in an organization full of people who see themselves as strong leaders?
Throughout the game, while Starrick busies himself dealing with Jacob, Evie has to deal with Lucy Thorne, the lead scientist of the London Templars. There’s a legitimate debate to be had about which of them deserves the shroud: Starrick, or Lucy; the one who did the ruling, or the one who worked to make that rule permanent; the face of power, or the power behind-the-scenes?
Starrick obviously thinks he’s earned it. Once Lucy finds and secures the shroud, he prepares a note for her: “You supplied me with the means to secure London’s future. The city thanks you. The Order thanks you. I thank you. But the Shroud can only be worn by one. Therefore, I hearby dissolve this partnership. I promise to endow you with an income into your old age, but that is the most I can do.”
Unfortunately, we’ll never know exactly how Lucy feels about this betrayal because by the time Starrick writes it she’s already dead. However, the fact that he feels the need to write it in the first place suggests that authoritarian power can never be transferred without a bit of chaos. Starrick assumed he’d be able to effortlessly jump from his temporary position of power into a permanent position of power, yet here he is cutting Lucy loose through a letter; he’s breaking up with her by text like a frightened teenager. This is, assumedly, because Starrick knows Lucy is a threat to his power. It’s yet another intra-party conflict, and it proves that no transition of power is easy.
No position of power is truly permanent. Once Starrick has the shroud he is indeed immortal, but he’s not invincible. Also, for as powerful as the shroud is, it is also still just a shroud, nothing more than a simple piece of clothing.
As the twins fight Starrick in the climactic battle they stab him repeatedly to no avail, but with a bit of teamwork they strip him of the magical garment and he goes down like all the others before him. The Templars want to believe that the shroud can strengthen their authoritarian politics, but it can’t. Leaders still die, power still changes hands, and that transition is still messy.
Starrick, dying: “I would have made a paradise.”
Evie: “The city belongs to the people. You are but one man.”
Starrick: “I am at the very top of the Order!”
Jacob: “You were, Mr. Starrick. You were.”