Assassin’s Creed is series tied to a futuristic machine. Let’s take it apart.
To celebrate the release this Friday of Assassin’s Creed: Origins we are going to explore the series and its weird and wonderful world. Whether it be foible, folly, or flourish, we will look at the worlds, the ideas, and the studios, to revel in a decade-long franchise that’s shifted the gaming landscape. For more AC Week articles, go here.
A stampede of city guards, hands clenched round rapier and falchion, charge through Florentine streets after a white-hooded fugitive. With the surly grope of a single button they would all fall to a pair of wrist-mounted blades, but a different game is played. With trigger-depressed slur, the figure darts up the sheer face of a stone building like a salamander.
Slipping the hurled rocks of his pursuers, he climbs higher and higher. The imbroglio below dies down; the shouts of the guards mingle with the ambient clamour of the street. Higher and higher still, up tracery and tympanum, the air grows thin and quiet – a faint piano floats on the breeze.
He scales the Santa Maria del Fiore, a cathedral of faith and game design. This is Assassin’s Creed‘s synecdoche and centrepiece: the Tower. Cresting them and beholding the chartered vistas below as your map de-fogs, it feels like bringing a city plan into focus on a microfiche – all those little lines and squares denoting streets and buildings.
It de-fogs your mind, too, of the dirt and sweat of adventure, bringing the painstaking detail of those sumptuous strata to heel; it’s a different game up here than the one down below. At once tamed and tamer, you are brought into the cataloguing mind-set of the archivist. In these towers is Assassin’s Creed as a new kind of Vatican: converter of its own congregation.
This is, or at least is thought to be, the problem with Assassin’s Creed as the years have worn on. Instead of a challenging climb, the drug of context-sensitivity melts avatar into environment – you become a camera on the wind, sweeping across rooftops in a glance. Instead of climbing to see, you climb to flesh out the map, the checklist, the manacle.
It’s not an invalid criticism either, as far as gameplay goes, but it does overlook the joy of being a wanderer in this place. Those towers are tent poles propping up a cerebral canopy extracted from genetic memory, machine precision cutting through the liber of memory and rendering reality from lost dreams.
The Animus is a noble failure, a wonderful idea incongruous and superfluous to play. We all remember the groan when rebooted kicking and screaming from sun-dappled Naples to the sterile confines of Abstergo Industries’ labs. It’s no wonder that as the series marched on, its keystone mechanic has receded to the background, ironically forgotten.
Some see the machine as post-modern, the idea of a game within a game. Others see it as pointless game-explain – you don’t die, only desynchronise; those aren’t invisible walls, only the limits of your memory. The Animus is an exhaustive attempt to capture reality, to render a place in time.
Walter Benjamin, the philosopher, critic, and essayist, embarked on a mission that would sadly survive him. Written between 1927 and 1940, The Arcades Project was a bold attempt to capture a time and place through its… things.
Benjamin’s subject was the arcades of Paris, the passages couverts de Paris. These glass-ceilinged walkways ran through Paris like veins filled with the blood of the time: delicatessens, boutiques, parlours cluttered with novelties like false teeth and antique typewriters, luxurious clothes, and musty bookshops all pulling at the eyes of passers-by.
Benjamin structured the work into segments focusing on certain topics; originally envisioned as a small project, these topics grew far larger in scope. He compiled new dossiers on the stock exchange, the working-class movement, professional revolutionaries, the commune, the materialist anthropology and zoology of the first socialist sects.
It was the form of the thing that captures the imagination. Benjamin used a form of literary collage, hoping these physical objects from different times would spark off each other and form their own mesh of history.
He touched on one of Carl Jung’s famous theories, the collective unconscious, and explored physical objects as emblems of their time. It makes a simple sense: how better to explain an era than by rummaging through its contents – What did they wear? Where did they live? What did they throw away?
It was Shaun Hastings, a historian and member of the Assassins order, who made use of the Animus’ database functionality. As part of the Animus 2.0 established in Assassin’s Creed II, he was able to flood the device with rivers of information: countless files on historical figures, locations, customs, even buildings and their architecture.
Benjamin’s approach leant much of itself to Baudelaire, the inescapable French literary giant and master Flâneur. As such, he walked; he wrote about what he saw; and his walks and his writings meandered and slipped from his reach. Just as his convolutes grew, the task unfurled ahead of him and further topics tickled the edges of his imagination.
It’s similar, when we play Assassin’s Creed, to the way we wend our way away from the task at hand. Leaving the fighting down below, we explore to fill the Animus with data: compiling its files, collecting fragments of memories, accumulating money to buy clothes and weapons – not for their own sake, but for the sake of completion.
It’s a cautionary tale akin to the likes of Tristram Shandy – whose father Walter’s attempts at cataloguing life, at trying to codify the chaos, inevitably outran him. Life is too rich, too amorphous, time too fleeting; any attempt at capturing its essence in an objective manner is doomed. Instead, it has to be captured in the intimate: filtered through the lives of the people who lived it.
Yan Martell once said of the novel:
“There’s no greater representation of reality than a great novel. Nothing can beat a great novel. Nothing. Not cinema. Not music. Not Painting. They all have their strengths, but if you want to capture a past reality – you know, Russia in the 19th Century, nothing will do it better than a great novel by Tolstoy. It is the greatest mode of representation.”
This is because in the novel the arcades of history, the disparate objects and places, are rendered through the strainer of human experience. The world is made vivid in the sparks struck between characters in the reader’s mind.
It isn’t the animus that lets Assassin’s Creed down; Assassin’s Creed lets the Animus down. The nature of the Assassins order is antithetical to the task: they live their lives on the outside like cyphers. Suitably blind, deaf, or dumb as fits their ideology, cloaked in shadow, they ring the bells of history like rank and file Quasimodos. Their dictum is fitting after all: everything may well be permitted here, in all its exquisite detail, but nothing is true.
And yet high up above, skimming across the rooftops like a clip-winged bird is the spirit of the Animus: dipping down observing the streets and people, revelling in their things, consuming files on their buildings and customs and clothes. It grasps for essence and comes away with a meticulous museum display case. The Animus fails because it must, but its purpose is no less a thing of wonder for its failure.