Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is a departure from the previous games in the series in that it takes place almost completely within the city of Rome. The very tail end of Assassin’s Creed 2 had protagonist Ezio Auditore invading the Vatican in order to kill chief antagonist Rodrigo Borgia (recently-named Alexander IV). For reasons that are at best murky, Ezio spares Borgia’s life, and so the plot of Brotherhood takes us back to Rome and the Vatican in order to destroy a recently-resurrected Borgia plot to take over Italy (and the world) with a magical/technological device known as the Apple of Eden. Honestly, the plot of Brotherhood is labyrinthine, so I suggest reading this page or watching this 30 minute video to get totally caught up for this piece.
Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed 2 have particular kinds of relationships to cities. Both have what we can consider a “home base” alongside a few different metropolitan areas where the assassin character does assassin stuff. In the first game, this is Masyaf, the enclave of the assassins; the second game has Monteriggioni, the ancestral home of the Auditore family and the critical center of assassin activity in Italy. These cities are central to the plots of these two games, but they are not central to their spaces. You spend a minimal amount of time in these enclaves, returning only to get new skills or increase your general income. Most of your playtime is spent bouncing back and forth between conspiracies and missions set in the prominent cities of the Holy Land and Italy respectively.
Brotherhood ditches the model of an assassin traveling between cities and instead takes place almost entirely within the walled confines of the grand (in sense of scale) city of Rome. This shifts the entire understanding of space in the game. Whereas in the previous games you had home (the assassin enclave) and out there (whatever city you happened to be in at the time), now you merely have arbitrary locations within the vastness of the city.
The fundamental core of the game shifts with this basic change in the understanding of the game world. Fights over individual cities in previous games were battles in a larger war, and the act of playing the game was mostly about playing in these cities as if they were battles. Each was a single instance that did not, by itself, determine the outcome of the entire conflict.
The focus on Rome means that we are denied the context of the war. Instead, we are drilling down into the microphysics of a single one of those battles; we are not just looking at the outcomes of specific events, but with supply lines, troop morale, and the leaking of information. These sorts of quests make up the bulk of what you do in Brotherhood. You manage this small world until a specific constellation of events aligns. Ezio acts. The game is over.
One thing not-so-apparent that gets managed during Ezio’s time in Rome is the community itself. I’ve written about the individual subject and how the Templars and the Assassins conceive of that subject before, but this is a question that forks out from that one: how does a community like the Assassins’, which prides itself on individual liberty, understand corruption? In other words, how can the Assassins speak of solidarity?
To state the question a third way: how can a heterogeneous city speak of itself?
I mean this both in the sense of architecture and the population that crowds around that architecture. The game takes place in “Rome,” but what is called Rome during this time period is a strange collection of farmland, urban areas, and villages spread out between the seven hills that mark the boundary of that place. It is all in various stages of decay and development, new overriding the collapsing old, and yet it is still united in its commanding place-name: Rome.
The groups of characters we meet in Rome have this same strange experience. They are united under a single banner–they are Assassin’s in the sense that building and ruins are Rome–and yet there is a constant anxiety over whether someone will turn on the others (which we actually see happen in a later game).
A crucial set of missions in Brotherhood are built around the possible betrayal of the Assassins by Nicolo Machiavelli, their chief political strategist. At a critical moment where half of the order has decided to kill Machiavelli, Ezio realizes that there is a totally separate spy in their midst, a mere “worker bee” in the group who happened to be in two places during two bad times. Ezio kills the traitor, the anxiety is alleviated, and the game continues on.
This exact same concept is mirrored in the gameplay of Brotherhood. Rome is split up into several pieces, and each of those pieces are in various states of decay. They are dominated by Borgia militias; their shops are closed. Ezio, with his blades and money, cuts out the infection, the rot, and reinvigorates these areas. Much like the case of the traitor in the group, he eliminates the anxiety by turning these unpredictable, unmappable, unfriendly areas into ideologically-aligned zones of commerce and safety.
If this sounds out of line with the previous games, it is because it is. AC1 and AC2 draw a clear distinction between the methods of the Templars (smoothing, making homogenous) and the Assassins (prickly, preserving difference). Brotherhood seems to actively ignore all of that, and places the idea of brutal repression at the core of the Assassin’s order, seemingly misinterpreting the Creed of “nothing is true, everything is permitted” to mean that the Assassin’s can do whatever they want to one another as long as they feel personally justified in doing so.
There isn’t an easy answer here, but it does land back at the centrality of the name of community, of city, of Assassins. It is an easy claim to say that the act of naming “as a whole” is the homogenizing violence. A more difficult but more rewarding claim might be this one: the moment that the writer decided to write “as a whole”/”on the whole” rather than in specific character events, scenarios, plots–this is the crucial moment that caused Brotherhood to betray its forebears.