Assassins Creed

G. Christopher Williams

While the word jihad is never spoken, its frightening theological implications as a physical struggle as well as its more disarming theological definition as a spiritual struggle are both on display.

Publisher: Ubisoft
Genres: Action/adventure
Price: $59.99
Multimedia: Assassin's Creed
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Mature
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
US release date: 2007-11-13
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While I had heard prior to its release that some game journalists were concerned that Assassin's Creed could be controversial given that its protagonist is an Arab assassin, I was, nevertheless, both surprised and intrigued as the game loaded up that I was met with a rather unusual disclaimer for a video game: "This work of fiction was designed, developed, and produced by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs."

The disclaimer is, perhaps, an effort to acknowledge the potential concerns that this game's content may have; however, it interestingly does have very real relevance on the game itself.

Assassin's Creed is the first mainstream video game that I can recall that has dealt with both very real religious issues and very real religious politics in such an overt and sophisticated way, in both its narrative and its gameplay. Certainly, other plots in modern video games have considered religious issues and the politics surrounding them as rife with potential for plot and character motivation. In particular, Japanese games (I am thinking especially of the Final Fantasy series, particularly Final Fantasy X) have used fictional religions in their fantasy games that have interesting correlatives with modern religious issues. Some more Westernized games have as well, though again, those that I can think of (Star Wars games and the Halo series for example) tend to do so within fantastic worlds distancing themselves from the real life consequences of those who might be offended by extended critiques of religious beliefs and values and the role that they sometimes play in politics.

In a sense, too, Assassin's Creed's main narrative does create an artificial or fictional boundary between itself and the real world. Despite its largely Middle Eastern setting, the game is couched within a metafictive frame-tale that seemingly sets the narrative at some distance from reality.

Such a metafictive conceit is not a new one for a video game. Games like Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid series have played around with the notion that a video game by its nature as a simulation of reality affords interesting opportunities to examine the relationship between the real and the artificial. Moments in those games, which play on the convention that the player is experiencing Solid Snake's "reality" via the distance of a game controller interface (such as when the player realizes in the first Metal Gear Solid title that in order to defeat Psycho Mantis, a mind reading opponent, we can only do so via very "real" physical means: by unplugging the controller from port 1 and moving it to port 2 in our PlayStation console so that the computer can no longer "read" the player's mind/actions rapidly enough to never allow Mantis to be hit), are ones laden with interesting postmodern notions that the boundaries between fiction and reality are thinner than we might think.

You don't need to be Spider-Man to jump from the rooftops.

Indeed, perhaps, Assassin's Creed's metafictive frame is one that brings the player closer to the main characters of the game, Desmond and his own simulated avatar, Altair, rather than distancing us from their actions. From the outset of the game, the player takes on the role of a character named Desmond who in some futuristic setting has been kidnapped by a multinational conglomerate and forced to enter a virtual reality machine called the Animus that simulates "genetic memories" latent in Desmond's DNA of the experiences of his ancestor, the assassin, Altair. This frame-tale immediately generates a sympathetic bond between ourselves (the player in a virtual reality) with the main character (a player in a virtual reality).

Some of this sympathy, though, is tested by the arduous length of the tutorial sessions in the animus as we (and Desmond) are forced to play out and practice some of the basic skills of an ancient assassin in some rather tedious ways. While this metafictive conceit affords Ubisoft the ability to justify "unrealistic" elements of gameplay (when Altair dies, it is a result of a poorly loaded memory in the simulation that must be "reinitialized", allowing Desmond and the player to try again), I was initially less charmed by the conceit than aggravated. Metal Gear handled such elements more deftly and less didactically than Assassin's Creed initially does in its "hour-too-long" series of tutorial sequences coupled with intrusive loading and reloading of memories that do more to irritate the player (and maybe Desmond, too?) than to make us feel sympathetic to the experience. Frequently, the loading sequences, too, disrupt a sense of immersion in the simulated historical scenario. Though, perhaps this experience is appropriate given the extra layer of plot in the game.

However, once the tutorial has been successfully surmounted and full reign is given to the player in taking on the role of Altair, the game becomes much more compelling, as do the infrequent but intriguing interludes between some chapters of Desmond's experiences with the scientists charged with discovering a secret treasure within the memories of Desmond through the use of the Animus machine.

The setting of the game offers a rather unique experience both dramatically and intellectually. Seeing both the sprawling ancient cities of Damascus and Jerusalem (a third city that I am unfamiliar with, Acre, is also included) for the first time in a video game was a unique and rather awe-inspiring experience due to the beautifully detailed architecture and level of detail Ubisoft has paid attention to in order to document and generate these living and bustling cities and their denizens. Additionally, the complicated religious and political socio-economic landscape of these cities, which at the time were occupied at once by various European and Semitic ethnic groups and the faiths of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, is fascinating to behold both within the architecture of these carefully crafted simulations themselves (from Jewish temples, to Muslim mosques, to Gothic cathedrals, you will find it all in the Holy Land of Assassin's Creed) as well as in the political scheming and intrigue that serves as backdrop to the series of stealth missions and assassinations performed by Altair.

Religious and political strife is at the heart of the game, and its relevance in an era when so much of our political attention is on the Middle East can hardly be denied. While the word jihad is never spoken, its frightening theological implications as a physical struggle (actual violent actions taken to perpetrate "Holy War") as well as its more disarming theological definition as a spiritual struggle (an internal moral battle within the believer) are both on display through the actions of Altair as an assassin on a holy mission and as a man struggling with the actions of his activities and their moral consequences.

How about a little bit of combat on horseback?

While the game's disclaimer and lack of usage of words like jihad suggest some care in addressing the religious issues in the game, the developers should be commended for not shying away from some of the complex and thorny Muslim-Christian-Jewish "problems" arising in the Middle East during this period and today. Bravely, they acknowledge that some of the issues at stake in the Middle East are in part caused by the very real and very critical beliefs and values of a variety of very different religious faiths (an acknowledgment sometimes pooh-poohed by modern liberals who would like to define such conflicts as matters of politics and not at all religiously motivated in nature) while also acknowledging that some of these issues are simply pragmatic and political in nature (an acknowledgment sometimes pooh-poohed by modern conservatives who would like to define such conflicts as matters of religion and not at all pragmatic and political in nature).

This even-handedness is refreshing as it offers insights into both positions, and illustrates the conflict of practical solutions balanced against highly volatile and deeply believed principles through Altair himself.

Altair initially believes that his mission is one justified by a philosophy and code defined by the traditions of his own sect. He feels that the political nature of his actions as he cuts down important but morally bankrupt citizens like slavers, influential merchants, and high ranking soldiers on all sides of the conflict is unimportant as the principle of peace that he is willing to kill for is more important than mere politics. However, one of his contacts observes that in assassinating such politically substantive men, "You are a politician, too, in your own." This statement is true enough, as Altair's philosophy and those of the assassins are having not merely moral but political effects on the region.

This realization precipitates a crisis of faith in Altair, especially as his mentor, the leader of the assassins, begins to suggest to him that the God that the Jews, Muslims, and Christians are all fighting over may not exist at all and that the role of the assassin is amoral in nature: "Nothing is true. Everything is permitted." This possibility that reality is all an illusion and that Altair has found himself in a solipsistic universe is equally supported by the frame-tale of the game. Indeed, in the Animus and in a video game, nothing is true and everything is permitted.

Again bravely, though, Ubisoft does not allow for this simplistic and pragmatic a solution to stand. Altair's crisis is complicated by a loss of faith in the Order of the Assassins itself as he realizes the assassins' complicity in the power grabs going on between the warring factions. While he begins to fear that no one may be right as he confronted with the explanations of his victims justifying their actions for the greater good of the community (much as Altair has justified the notion of killing in the name of peace) and, thus, that all of these versions of God may be an illusion, he begins to realize the necessity for a code, a tradition, and a principle to define and justify his own behavior.

When faced with the realization that the puppet masters behind the Holy War are killing not in the name of God, but in the same spirit as the assassins in order to build a more peaceful world, the hypocrisy of doing evil in order to generate a greater good becomes apparent to him. While others may have chosen to believe in their version of God, Altair recognizes, "At least they choose these phantoms."

Altair's jihad, his personal struggle, becomes easily as interesting if not more so than the jihad he wages through assassination. He realizes that choice -- be it to deny gods and seek political resolution or to embrace gods and tradition -- is more important than being a slave to the ideology of others. What Altair's narrative may suggest is that while Desmond (and to some degree the players themselves given the scripted nature of their own experiences in Desmond and Altair's worlds) may not be free to escape the simulated world that the narrative forces them to play, perhaps, choices outside of the frameworks of media remediated reality -- ideologically bound as they are -- and the beliefs and values of others might be respected as choices that individuals make for themselves.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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