Assassin’s Creed III brings an end to the “Desmond Arc” of the series. The story will continue, but the central conflict will no longer revolve around the end of the world by solar flare in 2012. As a kind of “season finale,” one expects a certain amount of closure and resolution. Unfortunately, how the game resolves its Armageddon conflict is the very definition of anti-climactic.
However, while the conclusion to its plot leaves a lot to be desired, its thematic conclusion is the complete opposite. The game ends with a definitive statement about the merits of the Assassin ideology. It tells the story of the failure of the Assassin’s Creed.
Assassins vs. Templars
To understand how the creed fails, one must first understand the creed itself: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” In Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, Ezio explains “…it is an observation of the nature of reality. To say, ‘nothing is true’, is to realize that the foundations of society are fragile, and that we must be the shepherds of our own civilization. To say, ‘everything is permitted’, is to understand that we are the architects of our actions, and that we must live with their consequences, whether glorious or tragic.”
It’s a belief that puts a lot of responsibility on the individual. The Assassins believe that people are inherently good, if flawed. Leave people to act on their own and they will inevitably make mistakes, but they will learn from those mistakes and society will grow in a direction that emphasizes goodness, kindness, and freedom.
Their eternal enemy, the Templars, believe that people are not inherently good. Leave people to act on their own, and they will only create chaos. The only way that social and human progress can happen is through the strength of leaders. People need strong leaders to tell them what to do, to keep them in line.
Minerva vs. Juno
At the end of Assassin’s Creed III, the Assassin group led by Desmond finds a magic button that will save the world from a massive solar flare, but salvation comes at a cost. Pushing the button will release Juno, a captive god who will then go on to rule over the world. (Of course, she’s not really a god but a member of ancient alien race with technology so advanced it makes them seem godly. But that’s semantics). Another “god,” Minerva, warns them against this course of action and tries to convince them to let the flare hit earth.
Minerva represents the Assassins’ ideology of individualism and consequences taken to their extreme: We failed to stop the flare using our own abilities, so we should accept the disaster that entails. However, her most important words, and the most damning evidence against the Assassins, is her prediction of what will happen afterwards: The Assassins will survive the apocalypse, hidden in the cave with the “gods” and emerge years later to bring order to what’s left of society. Desmond will become a leader, people will follow his words of wisdom, but when he eventually dies, his words will be distorted by fanatical followers. He will be deified and his words will be used to justify slaughter and war. This is perhaps the worst fate for any Assassin: his words of inclusiveness used to justify prejudice.
Minerva’s story paints a very bleak picture of the future. This would have been a society guided by the Assassin ideals from its very inception, yet it still descends into chaos and war. The people let their prejudices twist the words of Desmond, rather than the other way around. In short, Minerva tells us that a world built by the Assassins is still doomed to repeat the cycle of hate that the Assassins fight to stop.
Juno represents the Templar’s ideology of dictatorship taken to its own extreme. We’ve proven that we can’t save ourselves, so we need a strong and uniquely capable leader to protect us. The last four games in the series have criticized this form of government by showing us what would happen if the “select few” in charge didn’t care about the people, but Assassin’s Creed III argues for this ideology by suggesting that if the “select few” in charge really do care about those beneath them, then society might flourish. It’s all just a matter of living under a dictatorship as opposed to a benign dictatorship, but we don’t know which one Juno will embrace.
Faced with this kind of symbolic choice, it might seem that the real ideological failure is how the four Assassins in the room react to this news. Desmond sides with Juno, seemingly without a second thought or hesitation. He even says, “I have no choice.” His father objects, but only because he doesn’t want to see his son die, not for any ideological reason. In this moment, not one Assassin seems willing to stand up for their beliefs.
Of course, one can’t ignore that in this context “standing up for their beliefs” means killing multiple billions of people on Earth. That stacks the deck rather unfairly on the side of the Templar ideology. The fact that no Assassin is wiling to sacrifice the world for their beliefs doesn’t signal a lack of conviction. It’s more like an embrace of practicality generally. The important part of this ending conversation is Minerva’s prediction. Desmond is actually quite right that he doesn’t have a choice. Siding with Juno is the only option with the potential of preventing more prejudice and war. Humanity has proven incapable of stopping such things themselves, and the Assassins will be proven incapable of doing it as well. The only logical choice is to go with Juno and hope for the best.
A lot of what the Assassins do is based on faith, Altair says as much in his journals in Assassin’s Creed II. They kill with the faith that this death will make the world a better place. It’s not a religious kind of faith, but a faith in the Brotherhood itself and a faith in humanity to rise above its prejudices when given the opportunity to do so. Desmond’s last act is very much in keeping with this faith. Minerva paints a very detailed picture of life post-flare, but Juno gives no details as to how she will rule the earth once given power. Desmond makes his choice on nothing but faith. In this way, his actions are in keeping with the spirit of the Assassin’s Creed, even though he chooses to put his faith in the enemy.
The failure of the Assassin’s Creed doesn’t come out of nowhere in this final cut scene. The game spends a considerable amount of time setting up this thematic shift by demeaning the Assassins and justifying the Templars.
In previous games, we played as a Grand Master Assassin, the highest rank achievable, or as a young man who would rise to become Grand Master. By contrast, Connor, the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed III, is neither of these things. He’s not a Grand Master; he’s not even much of a leader, though in his defense, he doesn’t get the same training as Ezio or Altair. The Assassin Brotherhood of the New World is a weak shadow of its former self by the time that Connor comes along. There’s only one Assassin left alive, and he’s an old man incapable of fighting. Then the Revolutionary War begins and Connor gets caught up in that conflict. He spends most of the game taking orders from the Patriots and arguing with his Assassin mentor. By the time that he starts recruiting people into the Brotherhood he hasn’t had time to develop a deep understanding of the Creed, so he builds his Assassin army not using the Creed as a foundation, but using his own moral compass as a foundation. And his moral compass is colored more by the Patriot revolutionaries than by any Assassin leader.
It’s easy for him to fall in with the Patriots since they seem to share the Assassin’s belief in individual freedom. However, their definition of “individual” is severely limited. When Connor talks with Samuel Adams about freedom for the Colonies, he points out the hypocrisy of such propaganda coming from a slave owner. Adams tells us that his servant is a free woman who simply works for him (and she was) and that he despises the practice of slavery. However, “he also says, We must focus first on defending our rights. When this is done we’ll have the luxury of addressing these other matters.” Connor pushes the subject a little more, but then he drops it and the game doesn’t mention slavery again until the very end. Conner puts his faith in these men, that the freedom they speak of applies to all people, and puts all his effort into helping the Patriot cause. As a result, he stops thinking like an Assassin and starts thinking like a Patriot.
This concept is best encapsulated in the character of Stephane Chapheau, a mutual friend of the Patriot cause who refuses to pay taxes to the British. One day his footlocker goes missing, and he’s convinced that the tax collector broke into his home and stole it. He grabs a knife and goes shouting into the streets, picking a fight with every Red Coat he meets, forcing Conner to intervene and kill them even as Connor tries to talk him down. Stephane eventually finds a tax collector and then Connor instructs him on how to kill his target. Afterwards, they learn that tax collector was not actually working for the British, but for a Templar; neither of them seem to care.
Stephane’s explosive show of defiance doesn’t stem from a place of reason. He doesn’t go out with any particular goal in mind. He just wants to kill Red Coats and tax collectors. His actions actually stem from a deep seeded prejudice against the British. His father died fighting for the French in the French and Indian War. Afterwards, Stephane fled Canada for Boston, but he still couldn’t escape the reach of the British. Given his history, it’s understandable that a minor slight would release his pent up anger, but the Assassins normally strive to be above such sentiments. Ezio may begin Assassin’s Creed II with revenge in mind, but by the end, he allows his enemy to live because he realizes there are more important things than his revenge. Stephane’s show of anger is precisely the kind of narrow minded vengeance that should prevent him from becoming an Assassin because it’s clear that he’s driven more by anti-British sentiments than he is by pro-freedom sentiments. Yet he’s the first person that Connor recruits into the Brotherhood.
Stephane’s recruitment isn’t surprising considering that Connor is caught up in his own quest for vengeance. Unlike Ezio, Connor does follows through with his revenge but gains nothing from it — not for the Assassins and not for himself. After the war is won and all the Templars are dead, Conner watches as a group of slaves are paraded out on the docks of Boston, being prepared for sale. Later, he returns to his village only to find it abandoned: The land sold, his tribe fled. In these moments, he realizes that he was duped, not purposefully or maliciously, but duped nonetheless. While he fought for the freedom of all men, the Patriots fought for themselves, and in this aftermath, Conner sees the futility of his fight and the Assassins’ fight.
Before considering Haytham as a character, it’s important to consider how he and the other Templars are presented. In previous games the Templars were always on the side of tyrannical leaders, which made them great video game antagonists, but Assassin’s Creed III takes pains to develop them beyond this cliché. The Templars are not against the Patriots; they also fight for the Patriot cause. They have the same goals as the Assassins, but different tactics. The Templars focus more on how to strengthen the Patriots rather than on how to weaken the British. This is an important distinction because the Patriots are portrayed as freedom fighters, both in the game and in larger American culture. Even though the game paints the Patriot proclamations of tyranny as overblown at times, it never outright demeans them. They are still clearly the “good guys” in this conflict. So by aligning the Templars with the Patriots, the game prevents us from instantly dismissing the Templers as the obvious bad guys, and we’re forced to reconsider our opinion of them.
The similarities are even represented through gameplay. Haytham has a hidden blade and he can climb on buildings just like Altair and Ezio and Desmond. This Templar plays just like an Assassin. There’s no physical different between the two sides; the only difference is ideological.
This is where the character of Haytham becomes important. Haytham is well-spoken; he can better articulate his stance and beliefs and the logic behind his plans. Connor, on the other hand, is so invested in the Patriot cause that he can only repeat what he’s been told. When these two men argue about how to best accomplish their goals, Haytham always sounds like he has the better plan. It’s almost pointless to pit these two against each other in a verbal sparring match. Haytham always comes out the winner, which further erodes the moral high ground of the Assassins.
George Washington in forthcoming DLC for Assassin’s Creed III (Ubisoft, 2012)
Some of your Templar targets also have understandable justifications for their actions. William Johnson was trying to buy land from Connor’s tribe in order to ensure its safe keeping. Charles Lee tried to assassinate George Washington because he thought that Washington was an inept military leader who would lead the Patriots to failure. Conner stopped both of these plans, and while things worked out well regarding the latter situation, he only made the former situation worse. Lee’s motivation strikes a particularly resonant chord, since he’s thinking through the problem like an Assassin would, killing (or trying to kill) with the faith that this death will have a positive impact on the world.
Of course, not all the Templars are driven by such selfless motivations. One of your targets is a mercenary in it for the money, and another turns traitor to join the British. This variety of members and motivations is important in fleshing out the Templars as a group of individuals rather than as a single monolithic evil entity. The Templar Order may attract leaders with a lust for power (since their ideology is based around promoting the “special few”), but Assassin’s Creed III asks us not to dismiss the entire Order based on the actions of certain leaders at certain points in history. The Borgias and Abstergo have certainly tainted the Templar name, but Haytham represents the possibility of real change, the possibility that the Templars can actually be a positive force in the world, or at least as much a positive force as the Assassins, as long as the right person is in charge.
“Represents” doesn’t equal “is” however. While the game makes us sympathize with the Templars, it never goes so far as to re-cast them as good guys, and this works to the game’s advantage. It erodes the Assassins’ moral high ground while also casting us in the role of a classic hero. The game then pits us against smart, relatable enemies while also casting them in the roles of a classic villain. We go through the typical Assassin’s Creed narrative arc, vanquishing the villains, but this time our victory feels more tragic than heroic. It’s impossible not to come out of Assassin’s Creed III feeling a little hypocritical.
In every game the Assassins fight the Templars, and in every game, the Assassins win. However, by the end of Assassin’s Creed III, it becomes clear that while the Assassins may win the physical battles, they lose the ideological war.