The allusions and devices of Assassin’s Creed II
Assassin’s Creed II is a sophisticated story-line in an unsophisticated game. Combined with the first game, it’s shaping up to be a classic and perhaps even a defining franchise.
Although full of historical references and biblical allusions, at its core, the Assassin’s Creed story is an Alternate History tale.
In this underground timeline, which includes many real-world figures, there is a war raging between two groups, who have been opposed since the beginning of human history.
The Templars, who wish to locate the power of the gods (in the form of ancient artifacts, which they call the “pieces of Eden”) and use those powers to control the population of the world. The Assassins exist to stop them from their plans, and in general to oppose governments and other leaders of men when needed.
It is revealed in Assassin’s Creed II that, while the Templars are simply men who seek power, the Assassins are descended from the “first people”, a race of men who lived long before humans, and are thusly uniquely talented in many arts, including jumping around and stabbing people in the neck. Man’s stories of gods and religion are based on these ancient figures, but for their part, they are not gods, they are simply a more advanced race of people.
The frame of the narrative is set in the not-too-distant-future, where the Templars and Assassins are still battling, but the technology has changed, and the Templars are attempting to use a machine called the animus to extract “genetic memory’ from a man named Desmond, the true protagonist of the story. Their goal is to locate the first two pieces of Eden, so that they may be used to control the population of the modern world.
The actual challenge of the game takes place inside Desmond’s head, and the animus allows him to access the memories of his ancestors, but only by essentially lucid dreaming his way through whatever challenges those ancestors were required to overcome. The player takes control of Desmond only in very few scenes, which have no penalty for failure, so serve as cut scenes from a narrative standpoint.
The true challenges are relatively linear, requiring the player to complete certain objectives with the only freedom occasionally being the order in which they are completed, but usually not even that.
There are, of course, side objectives which the player can choose to complete or not, but, as you’ve likely read in the reviews, most of these are boring and repetitive, and add nothing to the greater narrative, so should be skipped entirely.
From a literary standpoint, the framing device for the plot - Desmond’s use of the animus - is unique and compelling. The player knows, the entire time, that they are actually just dreaming inside of Desmond’s head, as graphical artifacts from the animus’ operating system are constantly creeping into the memories, and occasionally the characters in the room with Desmond, who are watching his progress, will speak to him, and their voices will be heard over the din of the Old World cities.
The penalty to the player for failure at any time is a “synchronization lost” message, and a return to an earlier part of the memory with obvious visual transition coming from the animus. Success is rewarded with the synchronization of another memory, bringing the player closer to the big reveal at the end of the story.
As the story is truly about Desmond, rather than Ezio or Altair, the plot doesn’t suffer from the typical dissonance that almost every video game plot suffers from. The internal narrative is about Desmond slowly overcoming his ancestors’ challenges, and thusly the challenges and punishments experienced by Desmond within the device, during the ludic narrative, actually act to solidify the narratives, and increase the player’s immersion in the story.
I’m guessing that the eventual plan is to play one of the future games (likely not the very next one) as Desmond, fighting for the Assassins in the modern world. It will be interesting to see what device the designers use when they nolonger have the animus, will they resort to a more typical narrative style or come up with something else to keep it interesting?
Of course, the game-inside-a-game device which is used so effectively to reduce dissonance in this plot would become trite and ineffective if it got picked up by other video game writers as a standard technique, and it would eventually become a sort-of literary cheating, but for this title, it works, and it presented well.
As a gamer, I didn’t find Assassin’s Creed II entirely compelling. More than once, I fell to wishing that it would hurry itself along, and I admit that I occasionally loaded up gamefaqs.com in an effort to move to the next thing more quickly.
This was especially true with the glyph system. Part of the information revealed in this episode requires the players to search 30 of the historically authentic buildings in the world for little glyphs which trigger puzzle sequences, which in-turn reveal short video clips which, once all of them are completed, give the character another clue in the over arching mystery of the series. Searching for these glyphs got so tedious that eventually I stopped even trying, and just looked up all of the locations.
As a literary, however, I couldn’t put the game down, and this perhaps accounts, partly at least, for my impatience with the ludic elements of the game. If those glyphs had been something silly and unconnected to the greater narrative, like collecting all of the eagle feathers, then I wouldn’t care enough to look them up, or even go out of my way to grab them when located, but this was more than just an in-game collection; it was an important part of the plot, which the game was holding away from me unnecessarily.
All of this almost makes me wish that Assassin’s Creed was a series of movies rather than video games. I found myself genuinely playing the game more out of interest in advancing the plot, rather than out of enjoyment in the gameplay.
While the narrative is always the most important thing for me, the interactive aspects are what make that narrative interesting in games like the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series. In this one, I found the game play mostly just getting in the way of the intriguing story.