The All Too Prescient Assassin in 'Assassin's Creed: Syndicate'

Ubisoft: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Debut Trailer [US]

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 seem less cliché. It’s fucking weird.

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate

Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft
Rated: Teen
Players: 1 player
Release date: 2015-10-23

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.





90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.


Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.