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Revisiting the original, quietly revolutionary Assassin’s Creed

“Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” Across the various timelines and protagonists of the Assassin’s Creed series, this motto has remained constant. Taken from Vladimir Bartol’s 1938 novel Alamut, the series uses it to endorse a sort of individualistic freedom, encouraging players to challenge social norms and instead dictate the course of their own lives. It’s a fitting message, given the premise of the first game. Released during the height of the so-called War on Terror, the first Assassin’s Creed chose not to cast the player in the familiar role of a Western white soldier invading the Middle East, as seen in titles such as Call of Duty and Medal of Honor, but rather had the player act as part of a Syrian rebel group with the distinct goal of pushing back European invaders during the Crusades. The allegory is clear, and with it comes a radical tone that more recent entries in the series have backed away from. Though not always remembered well due to a repetitive nature that had the player repeating samey investigation minigames prior to each main assassination mission, the first Assassin’s Creed game’s teeth are sharper than many give it credit for. There’s a reason for that infamous disclaimer about the developers being a multicultural team made up of different faiths that pops up when the game is booted up. While the first Assassin’s Creed is sometimes remembered as a glorified demo for future entries, its unique tone gives it a feel all its own which sets it apart from—and in some ways above—later titles in the series.

First receiving an English translation in 2004, Alamut is a 1938 Slovenian novel from author Vladimir Bartol which first began seeing mass attention from the Western world as terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda started becoming more dominant in the public eye. The story was written as an allegorical condemnation of Mussolini and his fascist tactics, as it used a mythologized version of the Hashashin (westernized as Assassin) sect of Islam to highlight how Mussolini would manipulate soldiers and the public into following his cause. Its plot follows a young man known as Ibn Tahir as he is forced into a Hashashin rebel group built on a cult of personality surrounding its leader, Hassan-i Sabbah. Tahir is forced to assassinate leaders of competing sects of Islam, before eventually turning against his master after being tipped off to his deceptive ways by a former target. During his final confrontation with his master, Hassan tells Tahir his motto: “Nothing is an absolute reality, all is permitted.”

With it comes a radical tone that more recent entries in the series have backed away from  

Though the book was originally written to comment on European politics and was ignored by the English-speaking world, scholars began to look at Alamut as an invaluable breakdown of the sort of recruitment and indoctrination tactics employed by Osama Bin Laden and others like him. The allegory of Alamut suddenly found itself being used to analyze the War on Terror, making it a perfect setting for works of fiction seeking to comment on the issue.

Those who remember the original Assassin’s Creed well may have found themselves having a fit of deja vu while reading the above synopsis of Alamut. This is no accident. Aside from the sci-fi elements setting up Assassin’s Creed’s frame story, the plot of the first game follows that of the novel almost to a tee.

In the first Assassin’s Creed game, players assume the role of Altair, a disgraced Assassin from the Syrian city of Masyaf who is seeking redemption after breaking his order’s creed. To make up for his transgressions, he is assigned to kill 9 war profiteers and Crusader leaders who are helping to further the European Crusades to take the Holy Land. The hope is that doing so will help end the Crusades with as little bloodshed as possible, as is the public goal of the Assassins.

Like Ibn Tahir, Altair assassinates targets who give him valuable information upon their death while also criticizing his methods and defending their own tactics. Although these rationalizations often ring false, Altair eventually begins to question whether the Assassins are just. By the end of the game, he finds himself returning home to see the entirety of Masyaf under the power of the Assassin leader, Al Mualim, who has secretly been using Altair to eliminate competition for control over a powerful artifact- the Apple of Eden- which allows him to indoctrinate people to his way of thinking. This mirrors Hassan’s use of hashish in Alamut, as he would drug his soldiers to convince them that he could perform miracles and as such convince them to obey him. The game ends on a climactic fight between Altair and Al Mualim in the ethereal gardens behind his castle, after which Altair finds himself studying the secrets of the Apple in a quest for enlightenment, similar to a worldwide journey Tahir takes at the end of Alamut.

It’s not often that classic novels find themselves adapted into videogames, yet Assassin’s Creed’s choice to use Alamut as a base gave it an intriguing setting, rich with conflict and competing factions with no easy solutions in sight. Most importantly, due to the recent scholarly reinterpretation of Alamut, it helped connect the game to similar current events.

When Assassin’s Creed was first released in 2007, the United States and parts of Europe were embroiled in conflict in the Middle East, most notably Afghanistan and Iraq, in a series of military campaigns known as the War on Terror. Naturally, the conflict began spilling over into media, in films such as Zero Dark Thirty and even popcorn entertainment like Iron Man. Videogames were not immune to this influence, as the real life War on Terror helped to inspire settings for a burgeoning new genre: the military first person shooter. Perhaps the most notable example, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, also came out in 2007, reinventing a series of World War II shooters into a bombastic fetishization of modern military bombast.

it helped connect the game to similar current events 

These games have been accused by some of acting as military propaganda, or at the very least, military worship. In fairness’ sake, it is worth mentioning that the major villains in these games are often either Russian military leaders or corrupt Americans. However, the moment to moment action of the modern military genre can look like a shooting gallery where the player must shoot as many brown people as possible. There are games, like Spec-Ops: The Line, which manage to subvert this, but also titles such as 2012’s Medal of Honor reboot, which play the situation completely straight and therefore fail to secure a unique narrative identity.

While Assassin’s Creed is not a shooter and does not literally take place during the War on Terror, it’s difficult to avoid drawing connections between the two, given Altair’s place as part of a small, idealistic group of freedom fighters led by a manipulative leader staving off Western invaders looking to establish themselves as the dominant power in his Middle-Eastern homeland. When taken in light of the the time of the game’s release and the elements it borrows from Alamut, Assassin’s Creed’s Crusades begin to feel like an allegory for the War on Terror, intentional or not. It seems as if the game’s designers were aware of this reading of its story, which may be the reason for the disclaimer about the developers being a multicultural team seen at the beginning of the game. After all, whereas titles such as Call of Duty 4 and Battlefield 2 had the player fighting to take down local rebel groups, Assassin’s Creed arguably casts the player as a member of one of said groups. In this way, it switches the perspective usually seen in games about the War on Terror to one hardly explored—that of the local militia members which are the equivalent of goombas in so many other titles.

This alone is perhaps the game’s boldest choice, as it sympathizes with and humanizes people that the news media at the time portrayed as inherently violent and beyond help. With this in mind, it could be easy to read Assassin’s Creed as a pro-terrorist game, essentially having the player kill Western soldiers as part of a terrorist cell. But to do so would be to ignore the game’s most subversive element: that is, a wider message of de-escalation.

In accordance with the public message of the Assassins, Altair hopes to end the Crusades, achieve freedom for his homeland, and stop the bloodshed. Of course, for an organization known as the Assassins, there is a touch of irony to this goal. How can he hope to end violence through the use of violence itself? After slaying his targets, several of them either insinuate or directly ask him this question. And yet, when speaking to Al Mualim, the Assassin philosophy becomes clear: to end the war with as little violence as possible. That they must kill is treated as a dark burden, but a necessary one if the Assassins are to achieve their goal. Rather than meeting the crusaders on the battlefield, they instead covertly sneak into cities and take out their leaders individually, hoping to destroy the infrastructure of the enemy troops and end the war without risking the casualties of a full-on conflict. It’s an intriguing take on an open-world game. Whereas titles such as Grand Theft Auto encourage the player to cause as much violence as possible, Assassin’s Creed asks the player to get through the game with as few casualties as she can, even punishing any player who takes out civilians by causing a game over. Altair even comes across as a man of the people, siding with vigilantes, scholars, and the local underground to free their cities from tyranny. It’s also telling that his most effective combat move is the counter, something which can only be used in defense.

humanize members of local rebel groups without condoning extremist actions 

However, to pretend that the Assassins are always restrained in violence and thus without fault is to do the game’s setting a disservice. With the final confrontation in the game being with the Assassin leader himself, it’s only natural that the Assassins get their fair bit of criticism from the game’s narrative. This is seen as Altair begins to doubt the Assassin ways as each new kill weighs more and more on his conscience, causing him to debate with Al Mualim after every mission. Even if killing is restrained and treated as a burden, is it still right to use violence to end violence? The game does not answer this directly, but rather allows the player to consider where they stand on it by introducing a complex moral question with no easy solution. Again, this mirrors real life: Americans at the time were debating whether war was justified in response to something like the 9/11 attacks. What is important is that death is treated with weight and clearly affects the emotional arcs of several of the game’s most important characters.

In this way, the game manages to humanize members of local rebel groups without condoning extremist actions. By having the narrative show empathy without acceptance, the Assassins are fairly criticized and yet also have an equal chance to have their arguments heard. The message that Altair simply wants his homeland to be free is valiant, but Al Mualim’s callousness towards killing and manipulative fervor are soundly dismissed as having no place in a peaceful society.

As such, the game asks players to consider members of local militias in embattled regions as simply being human beings who are the product of their circumstances rather than crazed zealots. It does not claim that their tactics are always just, but rather asks players to consider why they might fight and how those issues could be addressed to de-escalate existing conflict and prevent future clashes. In showing understanding without praise, the game’s story manages to walk a thin line between having the player act as part of what is arguably a local insurgent group and siding with said groups, the end goal of which is a more considered viewpoint which treats enemy combatants as human beings rather than koopa troopas.

It should also be noted that many of Altair’s targets are also from the Holy Land themselves, though that does not necessarily reduce their role as warmongers. To the Assassins, these figures are provoking war as much as European invaders, and so are just as guilty of bringing conflict to their homeland. However, this does manage to portray war-torn populations as diverse and consisting of a number of multiple viewpoints, which again serves to elevate local concerns as being multi-tiered and worth considering.

All of which prompts a reconsideration for the game, as the series stretches into its billionth installment. The first Assassin’s Creed, though mired with a repetitive mission structure, still stands as a notable example of giving the player control over a character who would otherwise be an enemy in other, similar games. Through this simple perspective shift, the game’s designers were able to pose questions about violence and the motivations of local freedom fighters which seemed all too poised to coincide with the real-world political events surrounding the game’s release.

In comparison to the scope of the first game, new stories in the series can’t help but come across to me as smaller and less radical, making me question if the disclaimer at the opening of each new title is even necessary at this point. Whereas Altair Ibn La’Ahad was a man who some might claim to be a terrorist, Ezio Auditore da Firenze came across more as Italian Batman, fighting to avenge his fallen family members. Ratonhnhaké:ton, though again helping revolutionaries fight against a larger power, also fought in a much more publicized period of history than Altair and on a side with which many Westerners agree. Also troubling is how he fought for the Americans despite their mistreatment of local Native American tribes. Occasionally, this conflict between his dual heritages was explored, but by the end of the game, Connor Kenway was raising American flags and using a Westernized name with no issues. Meanwhile, Black Flag tells a fairly generic pirate story with no radical teeth whatsoever. None of these settings have engaged me as much as that of the first game, and over the course of time, I’ve become less interested in the series as a whole.

With it came a sense of amnesia over the first game’s themes. 

When Assassin’s Creed 2 was released, it did much to bring the series into line with standard open-world game development. A less experimental mission structure replaced the former routine of investigation followed by assassination, vehicle segments and side activities were added to give the game variety, and the game sported a robust economy. The protagonist was switched for more of a pulp hero type, and his story took a far more personal tone. All of this made for engaging entertainment, but with it came a sense of amnesia over the first game’s themes. Though Ezio still spoke with targets after killing them, these were perfunctory conversations in which he did not show much remorse. Whereas Altair questioned Western conceptions of who could serve as a hero, Ezio drew from classic Western hero archetypes such as Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and even Batman. And whereas the Assassins were originally presented as a local rebel group, they more and more began to take on the appearance of a Dan Brown-esque secret society, with their methods no longer being called into question but rather celebrated. And of course, very few of the main characters in Assassin’s Creed 2 were of color.

I can’t help but wonder if what the series has gained in features, it’s lost in setting. Since the launch of Assassin’s Creed 2, the radical choices of the first game have been slowly sanded off with each new installment. This may give the series a broader appeal, but it also shows a lack of faith in the supposed central conceit of Assassin’s Creed. We’re told that the motto of each game is “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” And yet, as the series continues to ditch its most subversive elements in favor of standard open-world game design, it compromises on that very message. As such, any claims it makes about freedom feel hollow at best. In no longer permitting itself to challenge its audience’s ideals, it forgets the same creed after which it is named.

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Photograph of Alamut and painting depicting the assassination of Nizam al-Mulk are both acquired via public domain.