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Essay: Sharing stories and histories

A reflection on Assassin's Creed

 

Published in Swarthmore College's Zine Spring 2017

I owe video games a big debt for giving me a love of history. It all began over a decade ago, on a dewy day in southern England. My family and I lived in a house in the suburb of Ascot, separated from Waterloo Station by an x-teen train ride. It was a cosy, quiet place, made more lively by my uncle and his family who were visiting on vacation. It was a short but very memorable visit. He brought a present for me and my brother: a CD of Age of Empires II: Age of Kings and its expansion pack, The Conquerors. Back then I didn't know the substantial age of the game, which was first released in 1999, but even if I had, I wouldn't have cared. After they left, on that same dreary day as before, I decided to take it for a test drive on our old Dell. The monitor dwarfed my head in width and height, and I remember a horrible game I used to play with myself: I'd put my eyes to the surface of the screen and see how long I could keep them there before I snapped away, blinking back tears and seeing drops of light splatter the inside of my eyelids.

A lovable mania soon followed. I had enjoyed real-time strategy (RTS) games like Age of Empires before, but there was nothing as apparently sophisticated or immersive as the historical pageantry Age of Empires offered: building walls and castles; marshaling soldiers and cavalry in formations of jagged squares; colliding armies on muddy fields; reducing battlements to rubble. Here was history acted with urgency and packaged neatly. To be fair that urgency was due to the game's devotion to mostly military endeavors. Like in most media, violence is often the dramatic story trait and certainly the most tempting to grab our attention and thus make a quick buck upon. Violence plays to our fantasies, and so it can be considered somewhat ahistorical when overused in historical fiction, because it keeps us engrossed in a fake notion of history as entirely comprised of battles rather than a collection of more mundane facts. And there is a fair amount of ahistoricity in games like Age of Empires—it buffs up the product and smoothens the complexity of lived reality in order to market and produce top-shelf entertainment.

Not to mention that I acted essentially like a deity in the game. I cheated with codes to stockpile resources that normally would have taken hours of gameplay to collect; I sped up time so that little soldiers could be mass-produced as if barracks were toothpaste factories; I sent them into battle only to see them cut down and decay into digital skeletons before melting into the screen. In the midst of this excitement, history began to coalesce in my mind as a distinct phenomenon, a construction created through the click of a mouse and the movement of a cursor. It was rooted, primarily, in the belief that human agency is the paver of all paths to the future, which I begrudgingly admit was influenced however slightly by the supreme agency I wielded as a god-like figure in Age of Empires II.

By the time we left England for Johannesburg in 2007, I still played Age of Empires II assiduously, gobbling up sequels and expansion packs as if I had been rationed on them my whole life. Sometimes in my spare time, I also hung out with my friend Frasier at his house, just a bike ride down the street. Most days we had no plan and would just waste the hours away playing Xbox 360. My family's frequent travelling gave me many memories, but the constant variable of hanging out with friends, new or old, gave me a sense of stability I held close as a kid.

Frasier's room was musty. It smelt of fuzz and dust, and had a low ceiling that looked higher than it actually was. Light streamed in through thin horizontal windows near the top of one wall. Once the television flickered to life we'd spend entire days playing games together. One day we soon grew tired of head-shotting each other in...I think it was Call of Duty...and he mentioned trying out a new game, except it was single player. I thought, 'Single player? The hell is this nonsense?' Turned out being a spectator for a change wasn't too bad. It gave me time to think, to stretch my cramped legs (because playing video games for long enough can make you suffer from severe pins-and-needles). Besides Frasier and I would hand the controller off to each other whenever one of us died onscreen in a typically unflattering, stupid manner.

At first I thought Assassin's Creed was okay. It was fun and interesting, the story was compelling, but the actions and controls were clumsy and blocky. It lacked dynamism, a fluidity that makes gameplay easily and subconsciously enjoyable. But the world—a fictional recreation of the Crusade-era Levant—was engrossing. Unlike Age of Empires, Assassin's Creed did not make me, the player, an overlord. Instead I was a character with personality, an arrogant but later stoic man known as Altair, who sported a bleached arabesque hoodie and a sash of crimson, was a master of stealth and parkour, and a deliverer of death via a retractable writ-mounted blade—a surrogate for a missing finger. His quest for redemption, which involves slaying nine influential men in the Holy Land, leads him on a path of discovery, treachery, and self-education, culminating in the revelation of a shadow war fought between the Assassins, who safeguard free will, and their nemeses the Templars, who seek to guide society as its puppet masters.

Assassin's Creed ​broadened my expectations for video games as a storytelling medium in their own right. I once thought cutscenes were deadening, that they killed a game's momentum—after all, the distinguishing feature of any video game is that you are taking the entertainment into your own hands. But when I actually started to listen to the conversations in the game, I soon found them as interesting as the parts when I had control over the narrative. The characters discussed topics such as free will, the necessity of duty, and decision-making. It was my first crash course in philosophy, and the classroom was a sandbox video game where one could roam free, fulfilling side missions, protecting civilians, or collecting medieval memorabilia in the bustling alleys of Damascus, Acre, and Jerusalem. Yet the narrative was bolstered by the cutscene digressions, not hindered by them. History lent Assassin's Creed a gravitas that it would have otherwise lacked. There was was also something giddy about seeing a historical character of titanic stature, like Richard the Lionheart, portrayed in pixelated flesh and skin. I became so involved in the story I would chastise my friend whenever he didn't pay attention or skipped the cutscenes with a flick of a stubby button.

After I left Joburg for Tokyo, one of the first things I bought upon arriving in Japan was my own copy of Assassin's Creed. Sadly, Age of Empires was put in a cubby and soon blanketed by dust as the years rolled on. I had migrated from a PC patrician to a console plebeian, but it had zero effect on me. I transferred a nascent love of history into the seemingly tangible world of Assassin's Creed, and I lost myself in the past it created through its well-drawn characters. Or perhaps it would be better to say I found some of myself in the stories it told through their voices. Because as fiction, it was simply superb. Whatever the game's faults (namely the staccato controls), it became one of my favorites. Sequels were inevitable and anticipated.

In 2009 Assassin's Creed II was released and it surpassed the original. It became the first of a trilogy set in Renaissance Italy and the Mediterranean. It starred a new follower of the titular creed, Ezio Auditore, a charismatic playboy and a Florentine nobleman, who has since joined the likes of Mario and Master Chief in the pantheon of video game icons. (A confession: I referred to Ezio as an Italian Batman running on Roman rooftops in my college application essay, a sentiment I fondly chuckle at.)

If the first Assassin's Creed was a gateway for my interest into history, the second opened a floodgate of passion that gushes to this day and refuses to abate. History was not relegated to the background in these games. It was brought to life through vivid design and rich detail, which were woven into the historical tapestry of the games, and not placed upon it like eye-popping candy on a carpet. The improvements to the graphics and the fast-paced combat made the pleasure of playing even greater. No longer was I at the mercy of a sticky joystick over whether I'd leap over a chasm or plummet into it face-first; instances of me rage-quitting diminished considerably. The overall effect of these updated but familiar elements was the sense of a past that actually existed beyond the dry lectures of middle-school teachers.

This was and still is partly due to a little disclaimer that appears at the beginning of each game (with minor rewording depending on the title), following the sparkly Ubisoft icon that brings to mind the vague shape of a shellfish: "INSPIRED BY HISTORICAL EVENTS AND CHARACTERS THIS WORK OF FICTION WAS DESIGNED, DEVELOPED AND PRODUCED BY A MULTICULTURAL TEAM OF VARIOUS RELIGIOUS FAITHS AND BELIEFS."

So by the company's admission these games demonstrate a collective effort to import a sense of cultural complexity, if not always in fidelity to accuracy, at least to the emotional richness of its human characters. The vast array of stories they've told, spanning time periods of different cultures, customs, and religions—be it Renaissance Italy, Colonial America, Victorian England, the Caribbean during the Age of Piracy—always seemed to have an eye for the stray detail that made the games that much more involving, whether it was an attention to costume configuration, or an architectural replica of Brunelleschi's Duomo for you to explore. Their success is a testament to the fact that while history can be pushed through events and forces outside of human control, the emotions driving our narratives and connecting us to the past are not artificial. Rather, they are necessary to root us within our current predicament.

Time has allowed me to collect my memories and scrutinize my opinions. In all honesty, they haven't changed very much. I always recognized the games were fictional at heart, and were not healthy substitutes to a well-written dose of non-fiction. Of course, certain technical aspects were annoying and criticism was commonly thrown at its merits as plain, time-sucking entertainment.

But what I admired most about Assassin's Creed as a series was how each entry deftly manipulated historical elements for exciting, story-driven motives. That is how these games retain their defining charm. Now of course Leonardo da Vinci never flew a makeshift glider into the Palazzo Ducale. But he did draw a rudimentary design of it, and in the world of Assassin's Creed II that became as real as pigeon guano on Venetian docks. Elements like these allowed me to delve into differing realms of history with a newfound passion.

I began to realize that historical topics need not be connected by bloodshed despite its apparent omnipresence in most human drama. These games are no exception to that rule, but are only richer for it because they explore annals of history often overshadowed by the bombastic nature of warfare. The violence in Assassin's Creed is anarchic and personal and therefore more gut-punching to witness and perform. It proposes a sense of historical accountability by making me, the player, a character in the past whose life had already been lived according to morals and motivations vastly different from my own. It made me more aware of how history is so often sensory, and how difficult it is to be objective when dealing with the past.

So without the soil of Assassin's Creed, fertilized with both imagination and reality, I doubt my love of history would have grown as stoutly and sternly as it did.

No entry in the series did this better than Assassin's Creed: Revelations (2011), which capped Ezio's story, seeing him as an aged man seeking wisdom through a journey eastward. Through carefully placed flashbacks, Altair also returned from the original game, adding a circular, reflective tone that brought characters separated by centuries together. There was no better setting for this game than Istanbul, a city whose architectural bones are built upon the literal crossroads of Asia and Europe, closing the gap between old and new, past and present, Altair and Ezio, character and player.

The opening sequence of Assassin's Creed: Revelations takes the form of a letter Ezio sends to his sister. "Should my skills fail me, or my ambition lead me astray," it reads, "do not seek revenge or retribution in my memory, but fight to continue the search for truth so that all may benefit. My story is one of many thousands, and the world will not suffer, if it ends too soon."

At the end, Ezio discovers Altair's skeleton in a lightless vault, a library buried beneath the stones of Masyaf, the setting of the first game. After realizing the place is desolate and he was searching for nothing, Ezio accepts the limitations of his own time and of his own ability to find meaning, as if in a moment of existential reckoning. Succumbing to a calm inner voice, he realizes that the journey that led him here gave him more than the destination ever could. He then remarks, to himself quietly, "I have seen enough for one life."

"I have lived my life as best I could, not knowing its purpose, but drawn forward like a moth to a distant moon, and here at last I discover a strange truth: that I am but a conduit for a message that eludes my understanding. Who are we to have been so blessed to share stories like this? To speak across centuries? Maybe one day you will have the answers to the questions I have asked. Maybe you will be the one to make all this suffering worth something in the end."

The best stories, like those of Assassin's Creed, are the ones that stay with us, that bridge our beliefs and reveal aspects of ordinary life we never knew, that deceive us with their maturity and passion, that make us pay attention to what we do. They not only propel us into new challenges but also equip us with the emotions to overcome them. Hence my decision to become a Honors History Major and Film & Media Studies Minor. Hopefully I'll see it through without a major hiccup or reversal of fortune. Because as the motto of the Creed commands, "Nothing is true, everything is permitted," and as such we are the architects of our destruction or the pallbearers of our success.

Written by Abhinav Tiku

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