[30 July 2014]
In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, you don’t play as one of the titular Assassins. Edward Kenway, the protagonist for most of the game, is a pirate who actively avoids choosing a side, and the nameless game developer that you play in the frame narrative is, like Edward, just a guy caught up in this ancient war of secret societies. Neither character has chosen a side, and neither character ever chooses a side. As they get swept up in the events of their respective stories, both the Templars and the Assassins try to sway them, and both organizations have to try harder than ever before to make their case. As a result, for once Ubisoft has written Assassin’s Creed game in which the Assassins are forced to justify themselves just like the Templars.
The result is a game that’s all about propaganda, advertising, (mis)education, and creative selling. The story of Edward Kenway focuses more on the Assassins’ sales tactics since they spend more time among the pirates, while one Assassin actively tries to recruit him. The frame story focuses more on Templar sales tactics since you work for a Templar run corporation/game development studio called Abstergo Entertainment, so you’re inundated with promotional material that tries to justify the actions of past Templars while also denigrating the Assassins.
The Pirate Creed
We fly no colors out here, praise the lack. And let the black flag signal nothing but your allegiance to man’s natural freedom.
—Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch
A lot of characters in Black Flag talk about “freedom” and that becomes a perfect marketing word because it means different things to different people. How one defines “freedom” is likely to indicate which of the three factions one belongs to in the game: Pirates, Assassins, or Templars.
The pirates praise individual freedom. They want a world in which men rule themselves. Nassau, the pirate base of operations, is meant to be a kind of ultimate democracy with no central source of power. Of course, there are still leaders (and they’re all captains, naturally) who strive for the betterment of the community, but their words have no real power. Their decrees are optional at best.
This exposes the fragile truth of Nassau. It is a community based around individual freedom that doesn’t foster any sense of community, and its citizens are easily swayed against it. When the king offers a pardon to all pirates, the captains are rightly worried because they know that this is worst thing that could happen to their world. At the same time, they too are tempted by the offer because they too are driven by personal gain, not communal gain.
Benjamin Hornigold is one of the first to abandon Nassau, calling it a cesspool and correctly observing that “when I look on the fruits of our years of labor, all I see is sickness, idleness, idiocy.” He sees it as a failed experiment, and like any practical pirate, he refuses to stay on this sinking ship of a society. Thatch (aka Blackbeard), on the other hand, has a more idealistic view of things: “It’s our republic, our idea. A free land for free men. So maybe it’s filthy to look at, but aint it still an idea worth fighting for?”
What’s interesting about their conversation is that it encapsulates both the Assassin and Pirate worldview as defined in the game’s mythos even though neither character knows of the secret society. Thatch does not become an Assassin, but it stands to reason that he would have made a good Assassin in due time. He truly believes in Nassau, even if it is falling apart, and he stands by his ideals even as they burn. He’s actually not a very good Pirate because he believes in a cause greater than himself and he’s clearly willing to fight for that cause.
Even Hornigold, who seems to be more driven by practicality than ideology, eventually ends up with the Templars because he sees in them a way to create the kind of society he wanted to make in Nassau. His abandonment of Nassau may have been driven by self-preservation, but even he still believes in a cause greater than himself. This actually proves him correct in his argument with Thatch. Their pirate experiment was doomed to fail because a true Pirate can’t be part of an organized society.
The game makes a point of stressing that the Pirate worldview is untenable. One of your early assassination targets, Laurens Prins, shows Kenway the darker side of this “freeing” philosophy. Kenway just wants money, he doesn’t really believe in a greater cause other than his own freedom, and Prins is the same. However, Prins uses that belief to justify his job as a slave trader. He’s what Kenway might become without moral intervention.
Yet it’s Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts who best encapsulates the pirate code as he pushes it to its nihilistic extreme. Roberts, as usual, works only for his own advancement, but he also actively argues against belief in any larger creed. He asks Kenway, “All men desire to live by a code or a creed, yes? Yet when pressed most defer to their instincts rather than the laws that bind them. What is the appeal of a creed if it does not yoke all men to like behavior?” Kenway answers, “Might make a man feel like he belongs to something. What’s your answer?” Roberts explains his belief “That all men are sheep. And that an old wolf like me deserves every ounce of blood he draws.”
The pirates may have a noble goal in promoting individual freedom, but what that actually creates is a dog-eat-dog world filled with backstabbing friends, broken alliances, and a trail of selfish destruction. To be a true pirate is to be a traitorous nihilist like Roberts.
Most of the pirate characters aren’t like that. They’re lost men looking for something to believe in. As a result, they either end up dead or choosing a side between the Templars and the Assassins. The pirate life is a difficult life, and even those who profess a belief in it can’t actually sustain it. The Pirate Creed is no way to live, and every character knows this even if they can’t admit it.
Misinterpreting the Assassin’s Creed
With this skin and this voice where can I go in the world and feel at ease? This country here is my best chance, this country called Jackdaw where I know the names of all citizens and every man works together. Not always out of love, but to keep our country afloat.
—Adewale, the former salve
Perhaps the biggest problem for the Assassin sales team is that it’s so easy to misinterpret their titular creed: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” On the surface, it’s a freeing ideology that would certainly appeal to a pirate.
Nassau seems to be a bastion of “nothing is true, everything is permitted”, and Kenway mocks that idea when he first hears it: “Everything is permitted? I like the sound of that, taking what I like and acting how I please.” But he doesn’t actually understand the meaning behind the words, and James Kidd/Mary Read rebukes him immediately for it. Edward misinterprets the creed as a set of rules by which we should live by, but as Master Assassin Ezio once explained, the creed is not a doctrine, it’s a set of observations.
The Assassins believe that the world is what we make of it. There is no single truth, and there are no holy rules that guide morality. Nothing is true, and everything is permitted, so what do you do with that freedom? The actual doctrine of the Assassins is more humanistic. They see that freedom and decide that the only way to make sense of it is to work together as a community for the betterment of all, which is what Kenway comes to learn eventually.
But it takes him a while to learn it. The Assassins sales team is awful because they don’t really make an attempt at explaining their easily misunderstood creed. If we assume that Mary Reed is a typical Assassin recruiter, she’s willing to let Kenway waver for years, confident that in time his life experiences will pull him towards the Assassins. She’s not wrong, but her long-game is so long that even by the end of the game Edward hasn’t officially becomes an assassin. He only comes to realize that the creed is “the beginning of wisdom.” He just now starts to understand what the Assassins are about, but he’s not a member of their order.
It doesn’t help that the Assassin point-of-view is already a difficult sell because it relies so much on an ideal form of community. When ideals don’t work out, people risk becoming disillusioned. Thatch had an ideal for Nassau, but even he abandoned the pirate stronghold when it was taken by the British, and without Nassau, he decided to retire. When we become disillusioned with a cause, we often retreat from the cause completely. This is a risk for the Pirates and Assassins, but less so for the Templars.
Misrepresenting the Templar’s Creed
To guide all wayward souls, ‘til they reach the quiet road; to guide all wayward desire, til impassioned hearts are cooled; to guide all wayward minds, to safe and sober thought.
—Governor Torres, a Templar leader
When Nassau goes to hell, most of the pirates go over to the side of the Templars and it’s not hard to see why: The Templar Creed is easier to understand and inherently flattering. The idea that you need an exceptional individual to rule over society has a certain rationality to it, but the practical problem with such an ideology is that it naturally attracts despots who just want power. The Assassins may have the less practical ideology, but at least they attract the right kind of leaders. As such, the Templars don’t need much of a sales team, but they do need a PR team to turn their often despotic leaders into sympathetic underdogs.
We see that public relations spin first hand as a rookie game developer working for the (secretly) Templar-run virtual reality development studio Abstero Entertainment. This is the frame narrative that surrounds Kenway’s journey: You play the role of that rookie game designer as he or she delves into Kenway’s virtual memories in order to turn his life into a compelling game.
Those memories exist within the same universe as the frame narrative, the same timeline, so the Templars and Assassins are known historical groups. In past games, both groups were still trying to hide themselves from the wider world, but since the Templars can now control how history is presented to the masses through their video games, they’re comfortable exposing their past members.
Your only understanding of the Templars comes from behind-the-scenes development material that treats them as people ahead of their time, and treats the Assassins who… uh, assassinated them, as backward thinking conspirators. Robert de Sable, the antagonist of the original Assassin’s Creed, is described as a martyr who was “dogged by Assassins throughout his tenure” as Templar Grand Master. Pope Rodrigo Borgia of Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood is described as having suffered “a smear campaign at the hands of his enemy”, who should be celebrated “for his progressive outlook and focus on family values.”
Madeleine de L’Isle of Assassin’s Creed: Liberation “freed hundreds of slaves and brought them to sanctuary in a tropical haven” until she was “brutally cut down at the peak of her career by Aveline de Grandpre, the orphan [and Assassin] she rescued from a broken home.” Finally, Haytham Kenway of Assassin’s Creed III is called a hero, while the Assassins who killed him are implied racists. Haytham was “slain by the ungrateful [Assassin] son who could not appreciate the wisdom of his pragmatic, race-blind approach to politics and personal life.”
In truth, most of these figures were simply trying to consolidate power for personal gain, but you wouldn’t know that based on the Abstergo-provided biographies. Ironically, these four, together, accurately reflect the Templar Creed. It can create good leaders, but not often. Haythem was a good leader, sympathetic to the plights of those beneath him, but he’s among terrible company: two tyrants and a slave trader. The Templars are in a position to rewrite history and fudge the statistics into something more favorable. They don’t need to sell their beliefs. They need to sell themselves.
All Assassin’s Creed games have a frame story set in a near future, but in the past, that frame story was always told from the Assassins’ point of view. This naturally endeared them to us, and the fact that they were an underdog group fighting a monolithic corporation only made them seem nobler. This kind of narrative ignored the nuances that exist between both sides, so now, just like with the pirates, the frame story is told from an independent point of view. This results in a narrative that paints both sides as manipulative and controlling.
Abstergo Entertainment is a draconian corporation that is free to lock up employees in its own private prison if they’re suspected of corporate espionage or other wrongdoings. The Assassins are willing to entrap and blackmail a random civilian, using you as a pawn in their spy game. Both sides have their own justifications, and the advantage of playing as a neutral party is that we get to hear that justification from both sides. The Templars (Abstergo) make a compelling case for keeping business secrets secret, and the Assassins make a compelling case for exposing those secrets when they impact the world.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is interested in going back to the basics and exploring what makes each side tick. It doesn’t cast you as an Assassin and then take that status for granted, it actually wants to mold Kenway into someone who fits the Assassin’s Creed, thus giving the player a better sense of what that is exactly. This newfound indifference also allows the game to delve deeper into the Templar Creed, exposing the noble, practical, and dangerous ideals at its core.
Black Flag isn’t interested in breaking the world into two opposing ideologies, it’s interested in how those ideologies sell themselves to a broken world and to broken people. As Roberts said, we’re all looking to follow a creed, which one sounds better to you?