I was terribly disappointed by Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate when I first played it in 2015. It was entertaining and fun, but it also felt cynically designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator gamer. Everything felt so painfully generic, from the “lovable rogue” protagonists to the flashy-yet-boring combat. All the things that Assassin’s Creed: Unity did to complicate the franchise — challenging combat, and a morally ambiguous story — were reversed with Syndicate. I didn’t like it.
So I started writing a column about how Syndicate was worse than Unity despite the critical consensus to the contrary (and yes, Unity is still a better game, and I’ll fight anyone who claims otherwise; meet me after school behind the playground). I had a whole outline and theme planned out: One part about the story and the transition of power, one part about the controls and the transition of movement, and one part about the franchise as a whole and its transition into the future. The latter two parts were easy to write, but for the first part I’d have to go through the game again to pick apart the story in detail. I didn’t want to do that, so I let the column sit unfinished for two years.
Recently, after watching some promo stuff for Assassin’s Creed: Origins, I decided to return to Syndicate to see if I would feel the same disappointment. I didn’t replay the game, but instead I watched a YouTube video of all the cut scenes spliced together with some gameplay to create a 4.5 hour “movie”.
Then something strange happened. My opinion of the game’s story didn’t change, I still found it disappointingly simple and clichéd, but now it also felt profoundly relevant.
A bit of a history lesson: Assassin’s Creed has always been about progressivism versus conservatism, going all the way back to the second game (and the first one, to a lesser degree), which told a story about the corrupt Catholic Church under the Borgia using religion to enrich and empower themselves, i.e., the progressive Assassins versus the conservative Church. The next game in the franchise, Brotherhood, made those politics even more explicit by tying the Assassins to modern-day Democrats and the Templars to modern-day Republicans, i.e., the progressive Assassins versus the Conservative Party.
Later games complicated this messaging a bit by showing the Assassins fail, and then fall to corruption themselves, but throughout it all the Templars were a clear stand-in for conservatism. Until Syndicate, that is.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is clearly a story about progressivism versus authoritarianism. That means the political nuances of the previous games, which had gone to great lengths to justify the Templar ideology, is gone. There’s no attempt to justify the Big Bad Guy’s beliefs or actions: He’s an arrogant man who wants power, and that’s pretty much his entire character. He thinks he’s helping the city, but everywhere we look we see proof otherwise. The game takes an obvious stand against him. He’s just a bad guy doing bad things for bad reasons.
In 2015 I found this frustratingly simple. Then the events of 2016 happened. In 2017 I find it, through no success of its own, socially relevant.
For example, the Big Bad Guy uses his influence over the city to control the health care of the poor. Specifically, he pays for the production and distribution of a snake oil cure-all soothing syrup that’s really just liquid opium. It’s a health care plan designed to hurt people. Why does that sound so familiar?
How does that bad guy fund this health care plan that kills poor people? He steals, of course. From poor people. Of course.
Turns out his buddy is the governor of the Bank of England, and regularly moves funds to his account. They’re literally stealing from the poor to give to the rich. In 2015, I was rolling my eyes at the game’s oh-so-brave stance against this ridiculous redistribution. Then in 2017 this scenario happened (almost) for real:
“Susan Collins… is wondering aloud why BCRA repeals taxes that aren’t by any stretch of the imagination a burden on health-care premiums. She specifically mentioned the repeal of a 3.8 percent surcharge on investment earnings, which would cost a cool $172 billion and strictly benefit individuals with over $200,000 and couples with over $250,000 in income.””
(Kilgore, Ed. New York Magazine. 28 June 2017.)
The bank governor tries to justify himself, but his arguments just make him even more of a cartoon villain: “[The poor] squander their savings. We are the experts in investment. Nothing would be built or improved, nothing would rise above the mulch without our hand guiding — No, creating! — the future. They benefit as much as their worth.”
He thinks his wealth makes him better than everyone else, smarter than everyone else, more important than everyone else. His argument might hold more water if we didn’t just catch him stealing from hardworking people, thus negating all his claims of greatness.
So he’s an idiot and an asshole, a cartoonishly simplistic villain who falls right in line with modern Republicanism.
“Social Darwinism is a philosophy that treats the market as a perfectly efficient and moral mechanism for allocating wealth… The richest people in the country are, by definition, the most brilliant and well qualified… Social Darwinism is the tissue connecting this shady conduct with the Republican Party’s highest policy priorities. Conservatives believe programs that tax the rich and benefit the poor illegitimately meddle with the natural and correct distribution of wealth produced by the marketplace. The Republican health-care bill — both what passed in the House and what Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has brought to the Senate — confers a nearly trillion-dollar tax cut that overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy. That appears to be its sponsors’ primary consideration. Secondarily, it strips away an equal amount in Medicaid and middle-class insurance tax credits.”
(Chait, Jonathan. New York Magazine. 25 June 2017.)
There’s even a bit in the game, I kid you not, about combating fake news. Your comrade says:
“Would you believe, my mother says there are some wives in her street that swear by that soothing sryup. So I took it upon myself to tell her neighbors the truth about that obnoxious drought… I wasn’t always welcome, which goes to show how false information can be harder to stamp out as fishwive’s profanities at Billinsgate. But if we can take out the source that continually feeds such detrimental trash, then little by little the truth will take the upper hand and the sham will be flushed out.”
Let me remind you that this game came out mere months after Trump announced he was running for President. It is in no way a reaction to his presidency or any modern politicking, it’s a reaction to a generic authoritarian villain.
Indeed, watching Syndicate in 2017 imbues it with more meaning than it originally had in 2015. The story and symbolism haven’t improved, but rather reality has descended to its simplified level.
The world has reached a point where clichéd cartoon depictions of authoritarianism feel like pointed political commentary. When you’re living a cliché, those clichés suddenly seem less cliché. It’s fucking weird.
So now, instead of writing a column bashing Syndicate, I wrote a column praising it, taking a closer look at how the game explores the difficulty in transitioning power from an authoritarian system to a more democratic system.
I can honestly say I didn’t see that coming.