[28 March 2011]
Assassin’s Creed was for the most part about a secret war being waged by the Assassins and the Templars against each other in the 12th century Holy Land. The sequel greatly expanded on this fiction by going into more detail about the sci-fi frame narrative, including a vast corporate conspiracy, and a prophesied apocalypse. Assassin’s Creed II also expanded the thematic scope of the franchise, acting as critique of the blind faith encouraged by religion.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood never touches on the topic of religion, a seemingly odd choice considering its thematic importance in the second game. Sure, the Pope is still an antagonist, but the main villain of the game is Cesare Borgia, the Pope’s son and commander of the Papal army, a man with ambitions to unite and rule all of Italy. This shift in villains isn’t an arbitrary choice; it correlates with Brotherhood’s critical shift away from religion towards politics, specifically corporate politics.
Yet once again, the deeper themes of Assassin’s Creed are felt most often outside the main narrative. In the second game, players had to track down the pages of Altair’s journal, and in Brotherhood, we have to find several “Truth” glyphs hidden around the open world. Each glyph leads to a “Cluster”, a series of puzzles, that presents bunches of seemingly disparate information, but when each quote, picture, recording, letter, and historical factoid are put together, they creates a bigger picture of corruption and conspiracy throughout the US government from the 1700s to the present.
Templars: From Popes to CEOs
In order to understand the Assassins’ politics, one must first understand the politics of their opposition, the Templars, because—politically speaking—the Assassins are mostly defined by this opposition to the Templars and not by their own beliefs. The Templars want power more than anything else, so they naturally drift towards those social positions that would give them the most power. In the 12th century, they targeted religious institutions, but by the 1500s, religion’s role in everyday life had begun to wane. In Cluster 1, an unidentified Templar is quted: “They become increasingly aware of our existence. We can no longer rely on the divine right of the aristocracy to maintain control. We need a new system, something more subtle.”
In Cluster 2, it becomes clear that the Templars’ new subtle system of control is described in a quote by Adam Smith written in 1776: “A great empire has been established for the sole purpose of raising up a nation of customers… it cannot be very difficult to determine who have been the contrivers of this whole mercantile system; not the consumers, we may believe, whose interest has been entirely neglected; but the producers, whose interest has been so carefully attended to.”
Things quickly escalate from there. Through a series of pictures, we’re shown how the Templars orchestrated the rise of capitalism and free market principles across the world, quashing opposition through faux revolutions. The game provides multiple examples of their conspiracy, mixing the fiction with real-world events. The Templars devised the 1953 Iranian coup d’etat against its Prime Minister in order to prevent him from nationalizing oil refineries, which would cut the UK out of the profits, and they used the C.I.A. to interfere with Chilean elections in 1964 so that Marxist Salvador Allende wouldn’t win.
But the Templars are not capitalists, they simply embrace that economic system because it allows them to garner more power. As with the religious institutions of the 12th century, the Templars plant spies in key positions (as the Pope was placed by them) in order to solidify their power, though now they’re fostering a capitalist and corporate friendly economy instead of naïve religiosity. The game flat out states that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision will “wed the U.S. to the Templars’ will.” It even accuses Justice Roberts and Scalia of being Templars themselves: Roberts is shown wearing a Templar ring, and Scalia writes in a letter, “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.”
These tactics aren’t just meant to benefit Abstergo, the Templars’ central corporate organization, they’re also meant to entice other corporations to follow in Abstergo’s footsteps, creating a self perpetuating corporatization of government that runs even without Templar involvement. The game makes a special example out of the Bush administration as an exemplum of the many government officials that had close ties to major corporations.
All this politicking and scrabbling for power has a purpose. The Templars’ endgame is not to rule the world but to protect it from itself: “Capitalists and workers will be locked in a closed loop that is safe and prosperous for humanity. No more war, only desks, cars, and TV sets. We will protect them and keep them safe forever.” They want to create a homogenized populace using the Pieces of Eden, mind control devices left over from an ancient alien race. Some text in Cluster 8 shows us that Templar scientists can mimic the illusionary powers of the Pieces of Eden over wireless networks, and a recorded call to Abstergo subsidiary Comstatic, a cable company, tells us about a secret “channel between channels” that takes biometric scans of customers.
This plan is certainly outlandish. It’s one thing to orchestrate the rise of an economic and political ideology around the world, but it’s quite another to hypnotize the world using cell phone signals and alien tech. Yet, within the context of the world of Assassin’s Creed, this outlandish goal actually seems possible and serves as the cornerstone for the franchise’s social commentary.
The Templars have always understood that governments and people are best managed indirectly, through outside pressure from some central pillar of society. By latching onto these pillars of society, it suddenly becomes very easy for the Templars to execute their grand plans. In the 12th century, they used religion to pressure governments into unwittingly solidifying Templar power by solidifying the Church’s power.
In the 21st century, they use businesses the same way. According to Templar philosophy, businesses can satiate the masses: “The peasants are like the sea, raging and unpredictable. That is why we have built walls ... A shelf of soda here, a case of candy there, magazines, talk shows, pills. The walls of the 21st century surround us.” And businesses can pressure the government: “Democracy must die to ensure the stability of the world. Capitalism will end it.”
It’s only natural that the Templars would want to kill Democracy since they believe themselves to be the only true leaders of the people. Capitalism is the best tool for the job because capitalists can be easily manipulated through the desire for profit. In Cluster 7, a voice states, “The capitalists think we run these companies for profit, the fools. Those ‘fools’ work for you. Optional slavery in exchange for pieces of paper.”
So how can the Assassins fight against such an entrenched power?
The Assassins used to be like journalists, gathering information about the Templars’ manipulative tricks and exposing them to anyone who would listen. Much of Altair’s journal in Assassin’s Creed II revolved around how people reacted when confronted with the truth that their religious leaders had lied. By showing us how these pillars of society were controlled, the game becomes a social commentary, a warning about how these aspects of society can be used against the populace they purport to serve.
The message is that the blind faith encouraged by organized religion can be dangerous, and the constant drive for profit leaves a capitalist society amenable to outside influence. This criticism doesn’t mean that the Assassins are against religion and capitalism, just the submissive behavior that they promote. After all, they did allow a nun to join their ranks.
However, as the Templars entered the world of politics and business, this journalistic tactic became less effective. People have a more cynical attitude towards business and politics than they do religious leaders; the idea that CEOs or politicians lie is not surprising, so simply exposing those lies won’t hurt the Templars’ power structure. To combat this new threat, the Assassins started to use Templar tactics.
In Cluster 3, there is a quote hidden within a picture of a Russian protestor, “How can I adopt a creed which, preferring the mud to the fish, exalts the boorish proletariat above the bourgeois and the intelligentsia who, with whatever faults, are the quality in life and surely carry the seeds of all human advancement.” This sounds like a criticism of the Assassins, who continually fight against entrenched powers in the upper class, and a validation of the Templars, who believe themselves inherently better than the rest of the world. In fact, this is a quote is from John Maynard Keynes, a British economist writing in 1931, criticizing communism.
The game makes a very specific effort to link the Assassins to communism, especially with this quotation that appears rather early in the puzzles. The use of the word “creed” is meant to make us think that the Assassins’ creed is the subject of the sentence, and the word “proletariat” is commonly associated with communism. The comparison is one that Ubisoft wants us to make, and it makes sense. If capitalism is the key to the Templars’ plan, then the most effective way to oppose them would be to stop the spread of capitalism. It’s only natural that the Assassins would latch onto communism as it is the extreme opposite of capitalism.
However, once again, the Assassins are not communists, they simply embrace that economic system because it allows them to fight the Templars in the world of politics. It’s hard to pin down Assassins politically. Despite their socialist tendencies, they’re organized more like a feudal monarchy with masters, disciples, and a single head assassin. There are advisors to the head assassin, but they’re just advisors.
There’s no actual system of checks and balances in place to protect the group if the head decides to go bad, which is what happened in the original Assassin’s Creed. They’re guided by a general desire to uphold the inherent dignity of humankind, but while this humanist philosophy was easy to understand when contrasted with the religion of their day, there’s no perfect parallel for it in modern politics, leaving the Assassins with a much weaker core identity. An identity that’s further compromised as they try to guide the rise of communism against the Templars, manipulating society from behind the scenes just like their enemy.
Preparing for the Apocalypse
In addition to the plot about secret, conspiratorial wars, Assassin’s Creed contains a sub-plot about the coming apocalypse. It’s odd that the end of world is treated as a sub-plot, but this tendency mirrors the Assassins’ own misplaced priorities.
At the end of Assassin’s Creed II, Ezio activates a recording of an ancient alien that early humans mistook for a god, a god known in the game’s mythos as Minerva. She tells him of a disaster that her kind was unable to stop, “So busy were we with Earthly concerns, we failed to notice the Heavens. And by the time we did, the world burned until naught remained but ash.” She also tells him about special temples that were built to protect such a massive disaster from ever happening again. Using Ezio’s memories as a conduit, she then talks to Desmond, the present day Assassin, strongly urging him to find these special temples in order to save the world.
However, at the end of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, a similar recording of another alien god takes a different tone with Desmond, admonishing the Assassins (or perhaps all of humankind) with menacing warnings like “You will know only when it is too late.” Also, once all the Cluster puzzles are solved, we hear a similar message from the mysterious Subject 16, “It is far later than you know. Too late to save them… Everything you hold dear, it’s already gone.”
These ominous messages suggest that some disaster has already struck—perhaps not the apocalypse, but some other catastrophe. This occurs despite the advance warning that the Assassins received from Minerva back in Ezio’s time. They failed to understand that warning and focused instead on their immediate conflict with the Templars, letting themselves get dragged into an endless religious, economic, political, ideological war.
It became an obsession, so much so that they compromised their core beliefs in order to continue fighting it, orchestrating the rise of an economic system that they don’t really believe in just because it opposes the Templars’ goals. Like the alien gods before them, the Assassins became distracted with “earthly concerns” and failed to see the greater danger.
The Assassins were supposed to be apolitical, so perhaps their greatest mistake was getting involved with politics in the first place. Ironically, the “politics of an assassin” simply shouldn’t exist at all.