I have lived my life as best I could, not knowing its purpose, but drawn forward like a moth to a distant moon. — Ezio Auditore da Firenze, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations
The historian […] finds himself transported into a strange-one dimensional world, a world of strong passions certainly, blind like any other living world, our own included, and unconscious of the deeper realities of history, of the running waters on which our frail barks are tossed like cockle-shells. — Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II
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I leap into the air. Everything seems perfect. The sun is shining so beautifully, the world around me so colorful, and everything seems to shimmer in place. Time actually does slow down to accentuate my grace.
I fall down on top of what looks like an elderly man walking with his family. They spin towards me in place, faces agape. Everybody screams. Murder. Blood. Assassin. Vision jolts and shivers.
Ezio did not kill civilians, the game tells me.
I try running toward the captain of the guard, some Byzantine relic I was trying to find this whole time. But the screen keeps shaking. The floor and walls peel away, showing the bland and faceless stream of data beneath.
Assassin’s Creed is an open world—the type of videogame that promises its player a huge sandbox to roam through, paying no thought to the narrative structure. Grand Theft Auto, probably the most famous example of the form, is usually played with two simple edicts: Go anywhere; kill anything. The police may stop you eventually, but the profound liberation invites aimless exploration.
So why is everything suddenly so strict? The heroes of Assassin’s Creed move with a swiftness and grace unheard of in GTA. But they’re constantly bumping into these unseen walls, as if they were running on an invisible hamster wheel. Born free, but everywhere in chains.
Go outside a videogame’s rules and parameters, and the boundaries of its world dissolve. This happened when I ran into a glitch playing Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. It was in a dark dungeon where I was looking for a shiny metal disc. Quests for shiny things usually lead to violence, so before I knew it Ezio Auditore da Firenze was pummeling soldiers left and right. He fought valiantly until the last surviving guard trapped him in a headlock. Thing is, another guard needed to be alive to punch and release him from the grip. Without this necessary ingredient, we stood there, writhing together. And we waited.
Assassin’s Creed has always been a game about structure. There is the literal structure of the game world, walls of code pieced together like bricks and mortar to keep every moment of gameplay intact as you swing across rooftops. This is turned into a clever metaphor with the conceit of the Animus, a virtual-reality interface. If you step too far in the wrong direction, or kill the wrong person, the intricate digital recreation of Constantinople becomes marred with thick fog that slowly grasps at your limbs, tiring them as you delve beyond the rendered world. And then there’s the historical structure of the plot: the fact that you are trapezing across the roof of the Hagia Sophia as a Renaissance-era nobleman, dead but now incarnate.
This weird way of playing with history is one scholars might appreciate. Struggling with the difficulties of describing a 16th-century Italian miller in his book The Cheese and the Worms, Carlo Ginzburg offered up a peculiar solution: Put the man in a cage. Let me explain. Postmodernism had gripped academia with the ferocity of the rage virus, turning scholars from champions of discourse into sputtering self-deprecating piles of prevarication. Suddenly every statement was problematized, every viewpoint interrogated. Scholarship was something to argue about rather than just do—the same wheel journalism is trapped in, now that nobody knows what the hell a “professional journalist” is anymore. The Ginzburgian cage, he promised, would shield the subject as much as it stifled him; it was as much a castle as it was a prison. Basically, it was a fancy way of saying that to fully understand a person, you had to put yourself in their shoes.
Enter the Animus, a machine that made me think of Lisa Simpson excitedly donning her virtual reality helmet to go meet Genghis Khan. It’s as if the assassin, a neat rhetorical trick, becomes your cage to inhabit. Playing Ezio—or, rather, playing Desmond Miles in the 21st century playing Ezio—is sort of like stepping into the body of a smarter and sexier Forrest Gump. He’s just some guy that finds himself around famous people doing important stuff.
In Revelations, you travel to Constantinople in search of the Masayaf keys to discover your predecessor Altaïr’s secret. You hobnob with a young and eager student who turns out to be none other than Suleiman the Magnificent. You bump elbows with Selim the Grim and his power-hungry brother, Sehzade Ahmet. The two are vying for the sultanate, but you have bigger fish to fry. So the Ottoman power struggle of 1512 unfolds as a byproduct of a much larger and more sinister Templar plot, the ouster of Prince Ahmet an accidental outcome of Ezio’s attraction to a well-read and even more well-endowed damsel. Did I mention you also teach Elvis how to dance?
Ezio, for his part, isn’t concerned with these kinds of historical trifles. By the time Revelations begins, he’s tired. Onlookers gasp at how a man of his age could contort himself around buildings with such ease as he cavorts across Constantinople’s skyline. He glances at a pretty girl across the street, and shrugs to one of his assassin cohorts that he’s too old for womanizing.
Critics complain about the awkwardness of his new toys. Writing in Eurogamer, John Teti called it the “clank, clank, clank” of “superfluous gadgetry.” But that’s the point. The final structure laid onto Ezio’s story is his age, the shock of mortality both you and he were willing and eager to brush off for the rest of his story. Here, his struggle is palpable. His Hookblade thuds with the impaired futility of a walking stick as he ascends ever upwards. His hands don’t brush the walls almost silently anymore; they clatter with the jangle of distended metal. There are moments when it’s just me missing the mark, like when I accidentally fell on top of a group of civilians. But you can see Ezio’s muscles strain and hear his breath grow short as he continues to scale walls higher and higher.
As a sequel to a seemingly endless series, Revelations is growing old too. While the game offers some new toys and tweaks, it’s the same basic game made four times before. Here is the structure of culture and finance that propels the game industry forward at a breakneck pace—fans demanding innovation and bigger, better badassery with each successive title, but getting mad when everything doesn’t stay the same. “I think I’m getting Assassin’s Creed fatigue,” a friend texted me. Well, so is Ezio. Staying the same for Revelations was almost a bolder choice for Assassin’s Creed. Left on their own, all of the game’s competing structures start to spin out of control: the story descends into Da Vinci Code-esque ridiculousness; the limits of the sandbox seen here for the fifth time start to feel cramped.
And here’s where Ginzburg himself runs into a wall. Taking his model to its furthest extent, the historian would see the innermost psyche of his subjects, probing their every hunger and motivations as if he were clicking through Facebook. Braudel didn’t just want to enter Phillip II’s world; he wanted to become that world. But he saw how blinding it could be—you run the risk of trapping yourself like Ezio writhing in the dungeon, stuck between layer and layer of overlapping structures. Eventually, you’re unable to even move forward, like today’s journalists trying to process the endless barrage of information spewed throughout the Twitterverse.
So finally Ezio puts a stop to it himself. “Who are we,” he asks towards the end of the game, “that have been so blessed to share our stories like this? To speak across centuries?” I didn’t know what to say, except to continue to push him forward. “Maybe you will answer all the questions I have asked,” he finished. I was silent; it’s not often that I have a game talk back to me. This series has always embraced its game-like elements in the story itself. In our interview last year with Revelations lead writer Darby McDevitt, he admitted that while the Animus is indeed “a metaphor for playing games,” when it “was first invented, it was as a justification for doing certain game-y things.” But here, Assassin’s Creed breaks the fourth wall entirely and demands that you, as the player, had better have a good reason for doing all the crazy shit you get up to. Laid bare, the structure returns to the background where it belongs.
“Maybe you will be the one to make all this suffering worth something in the end,” Ezio implores. I just wish he had more to say. But isn’t that, ultimately, what history is—a series of unfinished sentences? Everything else is just the world we build around it.