It’s one of the narrative points of Assassin’s Creed II that comes up again and again. The fight with the Pope, Alexander VI. Cherry-picked anecdotal evidence aside, a lot of the time I talk about AC2 with someone who has some working knowledge of the series, that scene always comes up as how ridiculous/shocking the game is. But in nearly every dialogue, the other person always get one small piece of information wrong; they always think you kill the Pope.
Assassin’s Creed is one of my favourite series. I love its attention to historical events and architecture, its ability to inform and entertain and in all fairness it has pretty graphics and a good fighting system, even if certain weapons are over-powered *cough-Hidden-Blade-cough*. But it was only after talking about the themes of the franchise with housemates that I realised, the game could also be seen as an anti-violence slogan.
The first Assassin’s Creed game is bloody. In my opinion it has the best combat, because it feels like it has weight. To swing your sword hard, you have to hold the attack button for a precious few seconds, building up your strength to cleave a Saracen or Templar in two. Blood in the sequels are just a red spots that appears unconvincingly on the enemies face and chest; I remember the first assassination (1:45) from the original AC involves a stabbed man falling into a fountain, his blood merging with the water. It is a game that focuses on the violence, but it is still anti-violent. As assassins, we are told that running away is sometimes the best option, with hiding spots and vigilantes to help in that quest. It’s also interesting to note that in AC1, the signature weapon of the Assassins, the hidden blade, can only be used in self-defence in open combat, you can’t use it in a battle without being attacked first.
The story also feeds into the anti-violent narrative. Altair, the main character, wants to make the Holy Land safe and peaceful, that’s why he goes out to assassinate the war profiteers. That may seem hypocritical, but in Altair’s defence, the war was brought to his doorstep. The Crusaders/Templars came to claim the Holy Land for themselves, so Altair is stepping up to wipe them out, creating a more peaceful world. The idea that the war has been brought to Altair can be seen in the design of Acre; after the Templars take it, Acre looks like ruins and is generally darker and grimier than the brighter Jerusalem or Damascus.
Before every mission Altair is seen “resting” at the Assassin’s Bureau before going on his mission. If we take the historical evidence of the Hashashin using hash before going on missions, it lends a sombre tone to the proceedings; Altair is a man haunted by violence and feels like he must disconnect from the world through drugs to perform his task. His blank face and vacated voice strengthen this argument. What’s more, after he has finished the mission, Altair confronts Al-Mualim (The leader of the Assassins) about the kills. Each time he comes back from one, Altair gets more irate and argues with his mentor about the validity of the kills.
Where the first AC falls down is that is has a “Templar Kill-List” side-quest. Throughout the land, there are special Templars, identified by their white outfits with red crosses across the chest. While it is a side-quest, meaning you don’t have to complete it in the game, if you want to 100% the game you have to kill every single one of the special Templars. It seems a bit rich for an anti-violence game to then say, “Now indiscriminately kill these seventy-five guys.”
The anti-violence theme was subsequently trampled by later games in the series. Even though I love the Ezio Auditore trilogy, they are probably the worst when it comes to wanton killing. While Ezio will keep the Creed’s tenet of “staying his blade from the flesh of an innocent,” every game from AC2 to Revelations gave him a new set of weapons. Crossbows, improvised explosives, a handgun, his own private murder cult and even an industrial-sized flamethrower, the AC series seemed to just jog in place for a while, giving players newer and more fantastical ways to kill enemies.
Brotherhood also added the “Strike First, Strike Fast” mechanic, where if Ezio killed someone with a counter, he could then chain that kill, until it reached ridiculous scenarios where Ezio could take out four squadrons of highly-trained Papal Guards…with one button. The end of ACII is almost bittersweet; when you first face the Pope, it’s an all-out fight with all your weapons and skills, but once you’ve cornered him you lay down your weapons and fight without any gimmicks. It strips it back to the most basic fighting mechanic. I remember when I first played it, I was a bit miffed that I wasn’t allowed to kill the big bad guy that I had tailed for 20+ hours, but now that I’m older I think much more fondly on the scene. But then the sequel gave you a magic ball thing that turned people mad, so that thread was promptly dropped.
Edit: After replaying ACR, I found that Ezio does realise the hypocritical nature of the Assassins, saying, “We fight to end the fighting. It’s a sad irony.” (3:45). His conversation in this sections with Piri Reis (starts at 3:08) hints that as Ezio has got older, he might have seen the side-effects killing has. But he says this as he’s getting lethal bombs from Piri Reis, which undermines it.
[Return to original text].
It was only until ACIII that the anti-violence theme came back into the series, if in a weak, underdeveloped way. ACIII threw even more weapons into the mix; rope darts, muskets, rifles, tomahawks, and upped the “Strike First” mechanic into even more ridiculous proportions, where you can leave entire towns full of dead bodies.
But the confessions of the targets killed in ACIII brought back the idea of anti-violence. Through continual reinforcement through the AC games we are told the Templars are evil and you must kill every single one, but when Connor (the character in ACIII) kills one of his targets they tell him how they were trying to save his Native American village and stop the destruction of the Americas. As one of Connor’s targets says, “You wield your blade like a man, but your mouth like a child.” (3:12). Connor is literally killing these people because someone told him to, without any critical thinking about the situation. In an earlier sequence, a friend of Connor’s, Stephane, incites a riot. While Connor chastises him, saying there are better ways of fighting injustice, the game makes you complicit it protecting Stephane from Redcoats. Even after Connor’s moralising, he sends Stephane to kill some low-tier hoodlum rather than hunting down the Templars responsible. When I first played that scene it made me extremely uncomfortable, just through the complete lack of accountability and the blasé response of violence from Connor.
To conclude, let’s return to my first point. We have been trained by Assassin’s Creed and games in general to murder to progress. Two games I can think of that have tried to subvert this trope; Tomb Raider: Anniversary and Spec Ops: The Line. TRA‘s designer Toby Gard said while developing the game, “…[killing human characters] gave us an opportunity to really focus on what should be a difficult choice for a person.” (2:35). Spec Ops did something similar, with its second refugee camp sequence. But it speaks volumes that the most infamous scene from the AC series, a punch-up with the Pope, is constantly thought to have been a kill.
I’m all for violence in video games. I don’t believe that violent games make people violent. Most of our history, art and culture revolves around violence. Violence even makes sense when it comes to games, as it’s a binary of winning or losing. But the anti-violence theme of Assassin’s Creed gave it some bite, some traction in an increasingly gore-filled AAA industry. It would be nice to get back to that more thoughtful, adult view of violence, as something to be feared rather than glamourised.
Banner Photo Source: gameranx.com.