The Assassins' Aristocracy

Assassin's Creed: Unity highlights the difficulty of influencing social change from the shadows.

Assassin's Creed: Unity

Publisher: Ubisoft
Rated: Mature
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release date: 2014-11-11

Assassin’s Creed: Unity represents a change in direction for the Assassin’s Creed series, or rather, it reinforces a change that began in the previous game, Black Flag. As such, it's a standalone game that doesn't advance the serialized parts of the story (the modern day stuff), and its historical story of Arno feels like a self-contained adventure specifically designed not to impact future events. Personally, I understand why some would find this frustrating, but as a fan of the series, I find this statement of a status quo exciting because Unity represents a new status quo for the Assassin's Creed universe.

The Assassins’ Aristocracy

The Assassins are usually portrayed as standing up for the oppressed. They always side with “the people” in conflicts and revolutions. The Templars are usually portrayed as the oppressors, their desire for order through control all but requiring them to hinder personal freedoms. This has been the ideological battle lines that defined Assassin’s Creed until now.

For the first time in a long time (since Assassin’s Creed II actually), the Assassins are in a position of power in Unity. They have a huge base of operations underground, members in high society, and they’re even in communication with the king. They're actually capable of influencing society in the ways that they always dreamed of, the ways we fought for in previous games. However, this also puts them in the awkward position of trying to maintain that power, which means preventing the French Revolution.

When the revolution begins, Arno supports it and is confused by all the worry and fear, “And this doesn’t please us? The people are fighting for what is owed them. Liberty, equality...” he says. The Assassin in charge responds by essentially calling Arno naïve: “If we danced about on a simple scale in need of balancing, you’d be right. But the truth is more complicated.”

You’re then tasked with sneaking into the king’s palace and stealing letters of correspondence between him and a high-ranking Assassin (Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau). By this point in the revolution, the people are out for blood, and if they find the letters, they will likely be upset about a secret order trying to influence the king, even if that secret order is ostensibly working in their best interest.

This reversal of fortunes for the Assassins, and this mission in particular, highlight the difficulty in influencing social change from the shadows. Previous games have always made it seem easy, as if the group in control (usually Templars) could manipulate society on a whim, but change is never that easy. A society and culture has a mind of its own and acts independently of its government. The Assassins want change, but the people want it faster. When the Assassins try to work within the system to change it, they simply move too slow, which makes sense, as they were never cut out for leadership.

It’s easier to define the Assassins by what they are not. The things they support -- individuality, freedom, liberty -- are vague ideals at best. Their creed is similarly vague ("Nothing is true, everything is permitted"), offering no clear meaning or set of values. They’re always “for the people”, but that, too, is a vague term that is best understood when there exists an enemy who is very obviously “against the people”. This makes them perfect in the role of rebel underdog, a role that necessitates an oppressor and opposition. But once the fighting is over, once the oppressor is defeated, being "for the people" takes on a very different meaning. Who are "the people" now, and what exactly does the "for" mean? This is when ideological splits occur.

Mirabeau supports a constitutional monarchy; he wants to find a solution that allows both sides of the revolution to live together. In that same vein, he also seeks peace between the Assassins in power and the remaining Templars. This puts him at odds with the other Assassins, arguably the more “pure” Assassins, the kind we played as in previous games who were against monarchy in all its forms. Our personal mentor in this game, Pierre Bellec, ridicules Mirabeau: “He thinks he can end the war between Assassins and Templars, bring the Revolution to a happy conclusion, and convince dogs and cats to live together in peace.” Eventually, Bellec assassinates Mirabeau over this change in direction, and Arno must then kill Bellec.

When actually put in power, the Assassins become toothless, unable to influence the change they desire. The Templars, surprisingly, are in no better position, as they spend the game dealing with their own internal power struggles. In fact, the main antagonist of Unity is a Templar who is killing other Templars in an attempt to purge the Order of all but the most devout.

In both cases, we see the sides more at war with themselves than with each other. You actually kill a fellow Assassin because he wouldn’t make peace with a Templar, an act that would be unheard of in previous games. Unity goes a long way in downplaying the traditional Assassin/Templar war. Enter Arno, a protagonist who could only exist in this weird world of reversed fortunes and internal conflict.

Previous games had our playable Assassin hero building up a broken Brotherhood. We’d recruit members from among the downtrodden and send them on missions across the world to better establish ourselves as an influential force. In Unity, however, this is no longer necessary, and the entire system of recruitment and influence has been removed from the game.

Arno is not a leader. His loyalty to the cause is often in doubt as he spends most of the game more concerned with a personal murder mystery than with the Assassins' fortunes. Arno is less of an ideologue, like Altier, Ezio and Connor, and more of an everyman swept up in this secret war by circumstance (more like Edward from Black Flag). Complicating matters is the fact that the murder victim was a Templar and the father of Arno’s girlfriend, Elise, who is also a Templar. This naturally causes tension among the Assassins, but Arno never wavers in his commitment to his personal cause and frequently argues in favor of working with former enemies. His loyalty is clearly to his lover, not to the Brotherhood.

These thematic and personal conflicts can only be explored when the Assassins have power. Unity finally gives the Assassins an opportunity to shine as leaders, to prove themselves capable of more than just subterfuge and murder, and they kind of bungle it. Not only is influencing social change hard enough on its own, but like any large organization, the Assassins become distracted by internal struggles.

In Unity, the Assassins finally gain power only to becomes victims of it.

Assassin’s Creed: The Sequel

Many critics and players have complained that Unity doesn’t advance the “main” story of Assassin’s Creed, i.e., the modern day story. I would argue that while Unity certainly doesn’t advance the plot of that story, it does advance the relevant themes of that story and that this is perfectly fine because of the serialized nature of the story.

Assassin’s Creed is probably the closest the video game industry has come to true episodic gaming, in that its serialized story has been forced to stretch and bend in order to fit a changing episode count. The franchise was originally meant to be a trilogy, but like a popular new television show, more episodes were ordered after the initial batch. The story stretched to fit this new count, but it still had to end eventually. Yet more episodes were ordered, so a new arc (or “season” to continue with the TV metaphor) was started.

Many game franchises have yearly iterations, but none of them tell a single story across each game. There are countless sequels released all the time, but those often come years after their original entry. Assassin’s Creed is the only game franchise that tells a serialized story with yearly entries, and as such, it often struggles with the inherent problems of serialization. In this case, some “episodes” exist less to push the plot forward, and more to set the stage for future plot developments.

Assassin’s Creed III killed off its central protagonist, Desmond Miles, effectively ending what is now unofficially referred to as The Desmond Saga. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag started a new long narrative arc, the second such arc for the series (it’s sequel, essentially), and like any proper sequel, this one examines and complicates the black-and-white morality of the original.

The Assassins in Arno’s time are beginning to see the Templars as people, as just another political group, and not as an evil boogeyman. Since the player’s historical perspective is inexorably tied to the Assassins, this allows the game to try and change our minds as well. The creeds of both sides have evolved drastically over the seven games that make up this series (and that’s not mentioning the spin-off games) to the point which we as an audience can understand, sympathize with, and even agree with the enemy who was once presented as a slave driver. It’s no longer as simple as “the Assassins want freedom; the Templars want slavery”. Those vague terms have become more defined: The Assassins want governance by the people; the Templars want governance by an individual. What one side sees as freedom, the other sees as chaos. What one side sees as slavery, the other sees as leadership.

This moral complication is important in order to keep the conflict interesting, but it’s also necessary to soften the evil edges of the Templars because they’re slowly being established as the new heroes. The main purpose of Unity is to firmly establish a new conflict between the Templars and the Sages, a new enemy for this new narrative arc. The reasoning behind the existence of this third party is convoluted and digs deeply into the lore, but the important takeaway from all that rationalization is that the Sages understand the bizarre “secret truth of the world” without anyone having to explain it to them. They are a new enemy who is immediately up to speed with our major players, and therefore can be an immediate threat to both sides.

In the historical story, this conflict plays out as an Assassin vs. Sage battle. In both Black Flag and Unity, our ultimate antagonist is a Sage. The Templars still exist, but they're always defeated before the end, setting the stage for a showdown between our hero and the Sage. However, in the modern day story, this conflict plays out as a Templar vs. Sage battle because in the modern day the Assassins have essentially been defeated.

By the end of Assassin's Creed III the titular group was but a shadow of their former glory, and in each game since then, they've become a non-entity in their own series. You don’t actually play as an Assassin in the modern day story of Black Flag or Unity. You play as a rookie game designer and a normal gamer, respectively. In both cases, you're a civilian who gets caught up in this struggle (like Edward and Arno, natch), and the Assassins exist mostly as observers, chiming in as the occasional “voice in your ear” to give instructions.

This is the new status quo for the series, one in which we don’t play as an Assassin but as an everyman. Unity is an essay in favor of this status quo, arguing that the Assassins are better rebels than leaders, and as such, they belong in the periphery of their own story. Without the Assassins acting as the moral center of the game, the story is free to explore other perspectives, and so the Templars grow as a group as well.

Assassin's Creed has always been about unlikely heroes, men who have had to look past their selfish arrogance, greed, vengeance, and romance in order to more clearly see the bigger picture. It seems only natural that this series would eventually shift its focus to the Templars. There's no better unlikely hero than a former villain.

Splash image from Assassins Creed: Unity (Ubisoft, 2014)

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