Assassin's Creed: Why a Little Goes a Long Way

Kevin VanOrd shares why he holds this alternative-history series so dear.

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(Editor's note: the following article contains spoilers for the Assassin's Creed series.)

I have a fascination with conspiracy theories.

No, I don't actually believe there is a secret alien base beneath Dulce, New Mexico, or that Denver International Airport is a future internment camp. I don't think that the events of September 11, 2001 are a hoax, or that the 1969 moon landing was faked. But I am intrigued by how such theories reflect recurring themes: fear of technology (fluoridated water fears, vaccination fears), mistrust of government (the Majestic 12, the New World Order), and plain-old racism (Holocaust denial). Most such theories are preposterous, even when they grow from grains of truth, but theorists fervently believe. Every scrap of information is twisted to fit, and soon grows a pseudoscience that develops an air of truth because its proponents are so sincere.

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Developer Ubisoft Montreal understands that for a conspiracy theory to work, its believers must take it dead seriously. And that's one of the many reasons why I love Assassin's Creed.

The Assassin vs. Templar story that ties each Assassin's Creed game together is ridiculous--but if a single core character were to stop taking it seriously, the threads would dissolve and the series would become a parody of itself. For us to believe in conspiracies, we must believe the people that create them. We believe Shaun, Rebecca, and Lucy, and by the end of Assassin's Creed II, I was ready to give myself over to anything the series wanted to tell me. As long as its characters trusted, I would too. And they made me believe something wholly preposterous: that a spacey woman from the past was staring directly at me, sending me messages through the eyes of the ancestor whose life I was reliving.

My respect for Assassin's Creed goes beyond its ability to tap into my own fascinations, however. It taps into what I love about games--and what I think games can be and should be. The series takes nothing for granted: each element has an explanation within its lore. The interface, time-trial arenas, the method by which the world opens up--all of this and more have a reason to exist as they do. Of course, some explanations stretch the limits, but where other games throw these elements in because they must, Assassin's Creed also finds a deeper justification. Consider the health system--that is, synchronization. We accept that games have health bars. Assassin's Creed's fiction finds a place for this triviality, explaining that your synchronization bar represents how strictly you adhere to your ancestor's memories. It's a logical stretch, of course, but it's a self-reference few games would make.

A complex plot deserves praise, but without characters like the cosmopolitan Ezio, plot is just a fancy machine without humanity or impact.

This is such a small element--but for me, Assassin's Creed resonates because care is taken with the smallest details along with the broad strokes. During the opening hour of Assassin's Creed III, stage performers recite lines from The Beggar's Opera. The music and text are accurate, and you don't hear just a small bit of the opera, but many minutes worth. In an Assassin's Creed II chase, you weave among fire-eaters during a chase sequence at the Venetian carnival--and the ambience is so celebratory that you wish you could join the revelers. These are little touches, but worthy ones that allow you to leave the cares of the real world behind and focus solely on the digital one you inhabit.

But what of the broad strokes? The series understands narrative in ways many games don't. Of course, with stories stretching across multiple games, and with Ubisoft's gargantuan budget and huge development team, the games have the time to tell broad stories featuring multiple characters. But Ubisoft is less concerned with plot and more focused on character and theme. Assassin's Creed games, Assassin's Creed II in particular, deserve a place with other special games that for me are defined as much be their lead character as any other element--games like Metal Gear Solid, Half-Life 2, Grim Fandango, and Planescape: Torment. A complex plot deserves praise, but without characters like the cosmopolitan Ezio, or the power-hungry Lucrezia Borgia, plot is just a fancy machine without humanity or impact.

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But Assassin's Creed digs even deeper, creating important thematic ties between games and characters. In each game, the dying soliloquies of the men you assassinate sound more and more reasonable. Assassin's Creed III's Connor gives more consideration to the Templar point of view than any of his predecessors, which isn't just appropriate given the trajectory of the series' overarching story--it's appropriate given Connor's background. An uneasy partnership between him and his father leads Connor to explore the Templar philosophy more than any Assassin before him--and the entire opening sequence subverts series expectations and forces players to see the world through Templar eyes, which, as it turns out, aren't so different from the eyes of the Assassins.

Meanwhile, events in Assassin's Creed III build on earlier story elements. At one point, Connor is brought to the gallows; you view the entire episode from his point of view, observing through a thick layer of burlap. It's scarily claustrophobic--and it also recalls the events that put Ezio's story in motion. Ezio watched his father and brothers hang. Assassin's Creed III puts those earlier events in perspective by bringing you even closer to your own demise--and in doing so, builds a connection between these characters that a simple scar cannot. With each development, the series builds its characters, its lore, and its world, allowing the game to stay in your consciousness even when you aren't playing it. Assassin's Creed fans love discussing the endings and the singular moments, seeking meaning and explanation. How wonderful that a series can continue to keep its fans so invested in its fiction.

The interface, the health system, the method by which the game opens up--all of this and more have a reason to exist as they do.

In contrast to the seriousness of Assassin's Creed is the joy of existing in its world. I treasure games that make the simple act of moving about a pleasure, and leaping across rooftops and scaling towers hasn't lost its freshness since the first time I did it in the original Assassin's Creed. Synchronizing the map from the tallest of viewpoints is, for me, the singular Assassin's Creed moment. After the exertion of a long climb, you press that synchronization button and the entire world spins around you as that wonderful musical cue enhances the emotional uplift. (How sad I was that Assassin's Creed III minimized the importance of the synchronizations--and that none of the musical cues were as memorable as in previous games.) Then you make that miraculous, ridiculous leap into a bale of hay or pile of leaves hundreds of feet below. Other games let you fly, but somehow, Assassin's Creed feels even more fantastical: it makes me feel like a man who thinks he can fly.

Ultimately, there's just nothing quite like Assassin's Creed. It's a series that speaks to me, with its straight-faced conspiratorial narrative, and its willingness to pursue aspects of storytelling beyond pure plot points: character development, thematic musings, and stylistic flourishes. (Ezio's smirk, for instance, may seem unimportant, but it's a vital visual aspect of his own story's tonal consistency.) Like my favorite novels and films, the Assassin's Creed series depicts worlds I want to be in, and populates them with people I want to spend time with.

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