This is the first of a few essays in a series on Assassin’s Creed 2, which is itself part of a much larger series on the Assassin’s Creed franchise itself.
Assassin’s Creed 2 invites us to think two ways about control.
The Assassin’s Order is based around a simple phrase, repeated over and over again: “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” During AC2, you can read a Codex Pages, which are basically diary entries from Altair, the protagonist of the first game who lived during around 500 years before the events of the second game. In those pages, Altair discusses the difficulty of understanding the difference between the Templars and the Assassins Order — both groups understand that nothing is true and that everything is permitted, but they choose to do different things in the face of that fact. Those actions hinge around control.
The Assassins, as I’ve written before, choose self-control as their ethical axis. Altair’s diary entries are a great summation of this, claiming that many come to the Order after learning the first section of the Creed, and needing to be guided to the second; however, that guiding needs to be a showing rather than a telling. The praxis of the Assassins is not one built around dictating the shape of the world. Instead, armed with hidden blades, they carve it in a particular way, to evoke the opaque machinery of the world to common people. Late in AC2, Ezio and the gathered Assassins of his time period roam around Florence and gather masses of people, who revolt against their masters after the local military, religious, and civil infrastructures are revealed to be irrevocably corrupt.
Knowledge isn’t only power; knowledge is revolt.
The Templars understand control differently. It isn’t about the self, but rather about the body politic; everything individual must be sacrificed for the good of everyone else, but that’s only something to be said, not performed. Instead, they are the most classically evil dictatorial group possible, with a brutal desire to eliminate selves in order to make the world a more orderly place, where everyone is accountable to laws of man and God.
There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that on face, of course, and that’s the particular insidiousness of the Templars. Since they also know that nothing is true, they are content not to show, but rather to lead; they want to take the most appealing rhetoric and the most brutal plays for power and apply them to the greatest populations possible. There is very little difference between the modern Dr. Vidic and his ploy to launch a population-controlling satellite and Rodrigo Borgia, the master villain of Assassin’s Creed 2, who becomes Pope not to devote himself to God, but to wield the power of the church as a tool of oppression and violence.
This is the struggle, over and over again, and I’ll return to the theme in later essays.
Another way of understanding control in Assassin’s Creed 2:
It is very difficult to move Ezio. It is very difficult to translate something I want to do into the 3D world of the game. In a game about chasing, climbing, jumping, flying, and traversing a Renaissance cityscape, it is virtually impossible to do any of those things with any predictability.
Assassin’s Creed 2 controls like shit.
The first moments of playing Ezio, who we will follow for more than a decade of his life in this game alone, are as a baby. The player pushes in directions and presses buttons to move his limbs. It is awkward and strange it doesn’t make any sense. Then the same thing happens for the next 30 hours of your life but with an entire digital body. I don’t know how many times I ended up yelling “I hate this god damn game” at the television, but it was more than ten times when I decided to write it in my notes in a longform screed against the distance between my desires and the digital model prancing around in front of me.
Felan Parker gets us started with an explanation of the controls:
The ancestral assassin avatar Altair, we are given to understand, is a master of his craft, and the player guides his movements at a remove from the minutiae of quick-timed button presses. When Altair comes to a wall, if the player is holding down the free-run buttons, he will climb it; when he comes to a ledge, he will leap to the next building (or, in rare cases where there is no next building, he will fall).
Felan is writing about the first game, but the same concept holds in the second. You point Ezio at a wall and you run and he will climb. In the first game, Altair had weight — he could never jump as far as you wanted him to, or climb as high, or really just move like you wanted. This was frustrating but understandable. The reason why those controls are merely “ok” and why the controls of Assassin’s Creed 2 are unbelievable trash is that Ezio cannot wait to move. In the desire to connect up small parkour challenges or to skip across rooftops or to clear a corner by swinging on a hanging plant, Ezio is not too heavy; instead, he is too light, to quick to move, too quick to be uncontrollable. So where we had a lack of control in the previous, now we have an excess of control. Ezio’s body is one in excess of the player’s desires. He is a raw, twitching nerve.
If we make it past the pain, we’re left with a question: what does the pain of control do?
One thing is that it makes the interruption of the cinematic into the Assassin’s Creed series more palatable, a balm to make up for CONSTANTLY BEING BURNED by the game. The first game in the series had few, if any, “cinematic” moments, delivering the narrative to the player without breaking the diegesis of Altair living in his world. There weren’t any dramatic angles or medium closeups or establishing shots before cutting to the interiors of buildings. In Assassin’s Creed, the player lived the world with Altair; in Assassin’s Creed 2, the player watches Ezio live his life. In the first game, there was absolute control, and while the scheme was difficult, it wasn’t a soul-destroying force; in the second, it becomes a wedge between the player and the world, pointing out that we are watching the past more than we are creating something new.
This is really great.
Also a real bummer that by (AC4 at least, I skipped AC3 – tho maybe it was already going by the time of AC:Rev? I didn’t play enough to know) the theme of “Nothing is True. Everything is permitted.” just completely disappears from the narrative and character motivations.
Looking forward to reading more, and if you want me to read some draft stuff from thesis on this topic would be more than happy to!
AC IV totally has the “nothing is true, everything is forbidden” stuff in it — Kenway grabs hold of it as soon as he learns the phrase and fundamentally misunderstands it for a very long time.
Sadly, I’m not writing anything about AC in the thesis! This is actually my thesis distraction project.