Note: If you haven’t played through AC2, you may want to finish first before you read this. There’s some acknowledgement of end-game revelations.
Assassin’s Creed 2 opens with a telling disclaimer: “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.” It’s the first in a series of signals that what we are about to play is in fact a very different type of game.
In an industry starved for games that mean something, acknowledge the concept of God in a real and serious manner, and that do more than dodge hot-topic issues, Assassin’s Creed 2 is a game that should be first commended. Clearly the writers of this game put their beliefs and convictions on the line, or at least refused to suppress them, resulting in what can only be a more interesting and provocative game. While most video games are produced with a mindset not unlike Michael Bay – with a determination not to confuse or defend the lowest common denominator – we could use a developer that pours itself into its’ games.
There were specific things about the game I really loved and can really get behind. For the most part, Assassin’s Creed 2 drives home the moral gravity of killing a human being. Each major assassination is followed up by a small cinematic in which the target dies in my arms. Ezio, our lead character, always finds it within himself to wish them peace, however hypocritical that wish may be.
In fact, it is that conflict that serves as the primary growth experience for Ezio. Rather than becoming more comfortable and hardened as the years go by, each kill brings its’ own surprises and regrets. That guy you were going to kill because you thought he was going to do something hurtful? The letter you find on his person explains that he wasn’t going to go through with it after all. Another man had a family that he loved dearly and anxiously anticipated seeing again. These people Ezio killed? They’re human beings.
The game itself takes place within the ‘Animus’, a type of virtual reality system in which Desmond, our real hero, experiences the past lives of his relatives. This is a brilliant narrative device which drives home the essence of playing a video game in which you carry out numerous questionable acts. Desmond is doing no real harm by merely experiencing Ezio’s many assassinations. He is, however experiencing a very real idea and concept. The acts may be virtual, but they carry real weight and represent real evils. It’s a helpful way to think about the tension video games present in the first place, and in my opinion the masterstroke of Assassin’s Creed 2 itself.
I am a devout Christian though, and just as the writers poured themselves into the development of the game, I cannot help but experience Assassin’s Creed 2 within the context of my own belief system. It is in fact the concept of a belief system itself which this game seems to hold up to scrutiny, particularly when the Assassin’s Creed is revealed: “Nothing is true. Everything is permissible.” This creed is in fact presented in direct opposition to the organized religion of the Catholic church, the only real religious institution in place within the context of the game.
By the end of the game it becomes very clear that the true heroes aren’t the ones who claim the truth, but are instead those who live in ambiguity and seek out freedom. The climactic moment is by far one of the most memorable and disturbing video game moments I’ve ever had: I literally had to assassinate the Pope (it turns out, the games primary villain) as he recited a Latin liturgy in the Vatican.
Granted, this guy is (both within the fiction and historically) probably the worst Pope ever. And yet, in this game, like so many of the other characters, he is used as a kind of object lesson or prop. The game points to him and every other powerful spiritual leader and declares unequivocal villainy. Meanwhile, the group of Assassins which Ezio joins later in the game are the unabashed good guys. We see that over time they’ve grown to be much more conflicted about the nature of their assassinations. Is it really right to take a man’s life, for any reason? In this world, the religious institutions and their leaders do so much harm, that they simply must be stopped.
Maybe we can acknowledge that one of the problems with video games of this sort is that the primary mechanics have a tendency to overshadow any traditional attempt at balance. So yes, while the targets often turn out to be human beings, while the villain is probably about as evil in the game as he was historically, and while the Assassins seem to be rethinking the whole killing thing by the end of the game, the mechanics tell another story.
Yes, that disclaimer at the beginning attempts to say something, but for a video game like this, it says very little. Maybe it’s true that people of various faiths developed this game, but I’m starting to wonder if any of them were writers for the game. I wanted Assassin’s Creed 2 to be an honest discussion about the benefits and dangers of organized religion, but as I jumped out of the rafters and towards the Pope with blades drawn, I started to feel like that discussion was over. When Alexander VI’s sermon stopped, the preaching was just getting started.