Assassin’s Creed is possibly one of the most intriguing game franchises, telling the story of an age old battle between The Assassins and The Knights Templar. It’s weird, convoluted, and sometimes janky. But its concept is sort of brilliant and worth investing in.
Ahead of the anticipated Assassin’s Creed: Origins, which seeks to tell us the very foundation of the mythos, it’s worth looking at how Assassin’s Creed addresses the inherit conflict of the human soul.
Curious what that question is? Read on to learn more.
1. The Order
Perhaps The Knights Templar….have a point. The veritable ‘villains’ of the Assassin’s Creed franchise believe humanity is too wild, too weak, and too chaotic to be left on their own, believing the human race would descend into anarchy and ultimately destroy themselves if not for their steady hand of guidance…and control.
And if you’re a cynic, their worldview does make sense. Humans are fundamentally diverse; in character, in thought, in action. We mark history by our world wars and global conflicts. We argue about everything and systematically de-humanize the people we disagree with, thinking those who are unlike us are somehow less than real people – aided in modern day by the reductive power of social media.
To solve for humanity’s self-destructive nature, The Knights Templar seek to control the government, the money, and the day-to-day lives of the people they view as too dangerous to themselves to be trusted.
Haytham Kenway put it best: “The people never have the power. Only the illusion of it. And here’s the real secret: they don’t want it. The responsibility is too great to bear. It’s why they’re so quick to fall in line as soon as someone takes charge. They want to be told what to do. They yearn for it. Little wonder, that, since all mankind was built to serve.”
And that too, makes sense. It’s much easier to be told what to believe and how to believe it. It’s easier to pick a side; sports teams, political parties, gaming consoles. We yearn for powerful, charismatic leaders and often forgive or ignore or rationalize their flaws if they speak to the causes we’re told are important.
This is why the New World Order, to the Templar and perhaps to a segment of the citizenry, is a rational solution. The idea is by instilling specific rules and clamping down hard on any and all dissent, you can achieve peace and utopia through the might. No racism. No bigotry. No violence. All made possible by swift and brutal punishment to those who dissent – and enough ‘freedom’ to live a content, docile life. Unity through, as they put it, ‘Benign Tyranny’.
The truth of course, is that freedom without expression, and peace without consent isn’t really freedom or peace. It’s submission.
2. The Freedom
This is where The Assassins come in and pose an incredibly complex worldview. The Brotherhood of Assassins’ official mantra is ‘Nothing Is True, Everything is Permitted’. The Assassin’s Creed wiki explains the rationale of the mantra this way: “(It’s)…a relativistic assertion designed to provide an answer to the vastly disparate convictions over the perfect solution for humanity’s ills: that there is no Truth and any attempted application of a singular ideal on a universal scale is first and foremost unrealistic.”
The Assassins are founded on the fundamental belief humanity needs to figure this out for themselves with an open mind – not a closed fist. That people of power and influence and intelligence cannot and should not run the world from the shadows, operating as puppet masters. Assassins view humanity’s messiness as a virtue. The diversity of thought and action and character is what makes us special, not what damns us – and through education and communication our cultures can learn from one-another and grow together.
This is tricky because it means, to some extent, tolerating and humanizing the ugliest inclinations *of* humanity; racism, bigotry, sexism, horrible violence against entire groups of people based on our culture. This is not to say Assassins don’t believe in punishment for crimes (they are Assassins after all), just that these problems – on a macro level – must be eliminated organically via empathy, and not stamped out via fear – to cure for the infection, not just lance the boils.
This is of course easier said than done. Just ask Assassin Creed III’s Native American protagonist Connor, a man who saw his entire life burned away by American colonists. “I realize now that it will take time. That the road ahead is long and shrouded in darkness. It is a road that will not always take me where I wish to go and I doubt I will live to see its end, but I will travel down it; nonetheless. For at my side walks hope in the face of all that insists I turn back, I carry on and this…this is my compromise”
Assassin’s Creed I protagonist Altair wrestled with the very belief system of the Assassins: “What can be done to stop this? To encourage tolerance and equality? Some days we speak of education, believing that knowledge will free us from immorality. But as I walk the streets and see slaves sent off to auction – my heart grows cold. When I see the husband hurl abuses and stones at his wife, insisting she exists only to serve him – my fists clench. And when I see children torn from their parents so that another man might profit – sent off to suffer beneath the desert sun and die…On these days, I do not think that dialogue will make a difference. On these days, I can think only of how the perpetrators need to die”
3. The Battle
This is all a long and hopefully informative way of saying these ideologies, of the Templar and the Assassins, are heady and messy and complex. Yes, life would be easier if everything were provided for us. Yes people should be free to think and do and say whatever they want within reason. No, a select group of people shouldn’t be allowed to control your life. No you shouldn’t be racist or a bigot, either.
What Assassin’s Creed comes down to is the universal question of whether you believe humanity is going to figure stuff out for themselves, or die trying. And more importantly, even if you *don’t* think humanity can march toward peace, love, and understanding, *do* you think it’s our right to fail miserably?
If you don’t, perhaps a select few people should endeavor to save us from ourselves; to outlaw the incendiary, salacious, and addictive.
And for the record, yes, I am aware I am thinking too much about a game that’s primarily about wearing pajamas and stabbing people from bushes. The above are the kind of thoughts an Assassin’s Creed fan can have when they think about the game’s now decade-long story – and dig into the data in codex, novels, and wikipedia pages.
When you dive in you start to realize, ironically, the ancient battle depicted in Assassin’s Creed is old as time. And the cynical, intriguing reality Assassin’s Creed presents is the notion this battle is chronic. It’s not a bug. It’s a feature. In Assassin’s Creed the battle continues because it’s a popular commercial product.
In our reality, it’s just who we are. Hippies vs. Suits. Democrats vs. Republicans. Socialists vs. Libertarians. Android vs. iPhone. Closed vs. Open. Carrot vs. Stick.
The answer to this eternal struggle? Obviously a balance.
However this balance is fluid and made up of via a totality of human existence. A cosmic ballet of laws, social norms, and institutions that are constantly floating between polar opposite ideologies of what is best for humanity. Systems enacted, smashed, changed, and built and smashed again.
Except in reality there isn’t an all powerful secret society pulling the strings since the dawn of time. Nor are there Assassins. Just humans who come into the world generally wanting the same thing – happiness.
Through the sociological assault that is life, humans come to believe whatever it is they believe. They don’t decide to be racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobic, or any of the innumerable horrible things humans are capable of – often times they just sorta happen. But you can change your mind.
The question is how. The Assassins believe salvation lies in education, communication, and empathy for the ignorant.
The Knights Templar believe in discipline of thought; through law and punishment, people wouldn’t dare say or do anything that could be remotely construed as offensive.
In your heart of hearts, ask yourself, by itself, which solution is more effective?