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Landscape Painting and the Vistas of Assassin's Creed II

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Wednesday, Dec 16, 2009
Solving the mysteries of Assassin's Creed II are all about gaining enough height and perspective to put the pieces of a picture all together.

One might observe that the opening few hours of Assassin’s Creed II resemble the pacing of a story told in a still life painting (that is: going nowhere fast).  Blessedly once the player has a larger sense of the picture of the game as its vistas and views unfold, it becomes a canvas much much more vividly alive.


While this metaphor between painting and game might seem just a cute criticism, it is also a rather appropriate one for a game that is set in one of the most fruitful eras and locations for painting in Western history, the Italian Renaissance.  Also, it is notably a game particularly focused on vision and seeing as the game’s protagonist, Ezio, is an assassin who can only get his bearings in the world by scaling buildings to overlook the places in which he will be hunting his prey.  This need translates into one of the major objectives in gameplay. Unlike other open world games, which usually feature a fairly clear sense of the layout of the place that the main character will be residing in through a map in both compass form and/or accessible through a pause menu, both Assassin’s Creed games require the player to uncover the details of such maps by reaching perches noted on a map that is otherwise obscured by a fog of war.  The fog of war is removed when the player figures out how to reach a perch and presses a “sychronization” button that results in a long sweeping camera pan around the city revealing its heights and depths to the player on the main screen but also as it clears away the obscurity of the mini-map.


Renaissance painters are frequently cited as the chief developers of the landscape painting in the history of art, so this camera pan, which has qualities of the landscape painting (revealing the immensity and grandeur of size of human surroundings) seems particularly fitting for this second game in the series.  After all, it is set within this time period. 


The Healing of a Madman

The Healing of a Madman (1494), Vittore Carpaccio

While one might note that landscape painting very often revels in showing the small stature of humanity in relation to their surroundings, art critics have noted the complicated relationship between landscapes and human beings especially as they relate to human power and authority.  The central thesis of Kenneth Robert Olwig’s Landscape, Nature, and the Body Politic is that in landscape painting the viewer discovers that “our environment, conceived of as landscape scenery, is fundamentally linked to our political landscape.” Olwig’s observations concerning the landscape painting that developed during the Renaissance is especially indicative of this correlation between nature and the political.  For instance, he describes the world controlled by a Renaissance prince in terms of how it is viewed as landscape by such a ruler:
One characteristic of that world is that it was observed at neither ground level nor from a vertical point infinitely above, but somewhere in between—a compromise, as it were, between the vertical and the horizontal.  From the vertical axis were taken such elements as pagan gods and goddesses floating in the sky and tableaux showing the unvarying cycle of the season; from the horizontal axis, pastoral landscapes of Virgilian inspiration opening out to the horizon, that is, reaching deep into the recesses of an elongated stage.  The potentate viewed the entire spectacle from a well-placed, elevated seat.  HE was the force that made it all happen and now he could see it all—an essentially harmonious universe—going through its paces before his commanding eye.
Interestingly, in Assassin’s Creed 2 such tableaux’s become the object of Ezio’s studied eye and not that of a Renaissance potentate.  Having to crawl up the walls of Venetian churches or bell towers in Florence, Ezio finds himself at the “top of the world” to study and map the region and its doing.  That so much of Renaissance Italy’s heights are marked by churches and the like, though, is indicative of Olwig’s thesis.  As much of the game suggests, most of the powerful men of this period were directly or indirectly related to the church, and thus, the “elevated seat” of rulers could often be mapped to the elevated steeples and bell towers of the churches of the area and the men who control the knowledge of the world and cosmos that occupy those spaces and would normally then “control” those heights.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1558), Pieter the Elder Bruegel

That Ezio climbs to these heights himself is indicative of his character as assassin and general troublemaker.  In attempting to figure out his bearings and to suss out the mysteries that underlie the landscapes (both their physical space but also the political realities that the cities represent and that he will involve himself in) before him, Ezio takes it upon himself to share the perspective of the vertical and horizontal worlds controlled by his opposition.  That Ezio is capable of surviving on the rooftops is suggestive of his challenge of those normally “seated” there to view the spectacle.  He wants to be able to view this spectacle too.  He may be able to wrest control of the heights, or at least, do so long enough in game terms to understand the lay of the land beneath him, what treasures and objectives that it holds (again, in game terms, since the mini-map provides information on collectibles and mission starting points).  In this sense, the game mechanic of revealing maps by climbing towers in order to understand how to proceed next is emblematic of the narrative, as those physical spaces represent the political world that Ezio needs to map and wreak havoc upon.

Thus, landscapes serve both the interests of this political narrative as well as the interests of uncovering the mysteries of power in the game.  Ezio is constantly trying to see the order of the conspiracies that underlie the hidden power structures that have embedded themselves into the landscape.  Be it in unraveling the mysteries of the Codex or by locating the glyphs that also mark the heights of these politicized buildings, the mysteries of Assassin’s Creed II are all about gaining enough height and perspective to put the pieces of a picture all together.  Climbing towers to fully come “to know” the landscape beneath him becomes a metaphor for fully coming “to know” the grounds under which power lies.  To climb to these heights is to rebel and to attempt to see as a potentate or a god might, which is ironically exemplified by the artifact of power that so many are seeking in both games.  The apple of Eden involves coupling the concept of rebellion against authority with knowledge, thus, overcoming one’s lowly stature as mere mortal and becoming powerful “like a God.”  While taking on such authority through knowledge is warned against in the traditional views of this story, the man that so comfortably scrabbles over rooftops and cornices, the assassin Ezio, simply seems less afraid of a fall.

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