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Reflections: Assassin’s Creed II

“What. The. Fuck.” – Desmond Miles, Assassin’s Creed 2.

If you played AC2 like I did, compulsively completing every objective as it was presented to you, then by the time Minerva explains to Desmond (via Ezio, while looking directly out of the television) what is going on, you’ve already established that the Apple of Eden has something to do with the origins of humanity. If you’ve read all the Codex pages, you know that there are similar stories in cultures across the world.

“Everyone has a flood story”, my anthropology professors were fond of saying. There were different hypothesis for why this would be: psychological need for humans to tell certain stories, limited explanations of natural phenomena, a tendency in the observer to see the similarities without looking for the differences (seeing what you want to see). While the idea that these stories all stemmed from the same source was plausible, that source was considered a common cultural ancestry, not holographic alien Greek gods.

“What the fuck?” indeed.

When you take a step back and look at the motivations of different characters in the game, it’s dizzying. The modern-day Assassins need Desmond so they can stop the Templars from getting their hands on a weapon that they lost many years before. Abstergo and the modern day Templars are looking for the Apple of Eden, apparently with full knowledge of its capabilities. Desmond’s genetic memories of Ezio indicate that he is out for revenge, a goal that coincides with the Renaissance assassins’ desire to stop the Templars from gaining a weapon at that point in history – which, through the Codex (written by Altair and pieced together nonlinearly), Ezio, Desmond, and the modern Assassins learn is the Apple of Eden – apparently the weapon Abstergo is looking for in the present. And through The Truth, the player, Desmond, and the Assassins learn that, apparently, the Apple was stolen from some advanced society of parkour experts in the past. If you add real-world history into the mix, then you might know before Desmond and his Assassins and Ezio and his Assassins that Rodrigo Borgia becomes pope. And you might also know about the political machinations of Renaissance Italy and how they make the game’s plot (which I am not done detailing yet!) look straightforward.

So thanks to a few corrupted memories (to be remembered in recently announced DLC, I assume), we miss about ten years’ of Ezio’s life after he manages to kill a bunch of Templars and acquire the Apple of Eden. It’s time to assassinate Rodrigo, who is now the pope. One would assume he and his fellow Templars would be happy with this – if the Apple were a means to an end, what better one than the seat of power in Renaissance Europe? It seems like that was the others’ motivation for going along with Borgia’s schemes (and the main reason the Assassins were after him – they don’t like top-down hierarchy (except, as Altair points out in the Codex, the structure of their organization contradicts this)). So now we know that Abstergo wanted Desmond so they could use Ezio’s memories to figure out this key of Borgia’s to get into the vault which has apparently been powerless since the day Ezio entered because the Hologram said so (who knows what Abstergo would have done had they gotten that information along with the location).

Get all that? Good. I would go into more depth regarding the player relationship to all of this, and maybe even toss in a bit about Ezio’s family history as relayed through the Auditore family crypt (Dante, an Assassin? Getting dangerously close to The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles here) but I don’t want things to get too complicated.

The stories in chronological order: The Truth videos -> Altair’s Memory -> Altair’s Codex -> Auditore Family Crypt story -> Ezio’s memories -> The Truth puzzles -> Desmond’s experience. Now, look at this chart of how the stories nest:

A handy chart!

The narrative itself is linear, but your ways of experiencing it are not. It’s like a detective story – two parallel plots (the past and the present reassembling of the past), but strengthened because of the myriad ways the story can be delivered (cutscene, in-game items, character conversations, mission objectives).

Characters in AC2 have different motivations for their behavior. And aside from the Assassins choosing to use Ezio’s memories in order to figure out what Abstergo was looking for, everyone assumes they understand their opponents’ motivations and are reacting accordingly. As the plot continues to become more and more convoluted, more character motivations are revealed. And if you look at the previous actions in the light of these new motivations, they still make sense. Your interpretations create reality.

And reality is what’s at stake throughout most of Assassin’s Creed 2. The Templars want to “bend it to their will”, the Assassins profess that “nothing is true”. It’s indoctrination and dogma versus free-thinking; information warfare, in a way. A battle of philosophies. History versus memory.

Memory is of the man; history of the Man. Individuals have their own memory; history is written down and whoever chooses what goes into it can choose how the past was perceived. They can “bend reality” as they choose. Memory is fallible, but acknowledged to be subjective. History is subjective, but is fixed when it is written down. Nothing is true.

Now, we know Ezio and the Assassins are different from the other characters in the game. There are arguments that architecture can influence behavior and thinking (see The Panopticon), but the assassins are free of the tyranny of streets and ladders and stairs. Action is character. They may buy into their own perceptions of reality, but not into the reality of everyone else, where people walk on the ground and can be manipulated by Templars.

Before the Apple of Eden actually appears in the game, there’s no guarantee it exists. Until that moment, AC2 is about history and memory and obsession and lust for power; it’s groups of people interpreting events in ways that they believe are objective and impartial but are so skewed by their position that they can’t see the bend.

It’s an interactive parallel text to Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, in which a group of book editors begin creating a conspiracy theory, The Plan, about the Templars involvement in major historical events, drawing on coincidences and filling in missing information with explanations of Templar involvement. As it becomes more and more plausible, they lose their sense of perspective and at the same time begin encountering other people who believe this Plan to be true and something they can take advantage of. As the novel goes on, its veracity becomes irrelevant. The characters in the novel believe it is true and act accordingly. It becomes a story of belief, of point-of-view, and how this motivates people.

Nothing is true;  anything is plausible?

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November 2010
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