The Assassin’s Creed series up to Revelations all follow a pattern of nested interfaces: you are a player controlling Desmond Miles who is strapped into an animus machine that allows him to access and live the memories of family members far back in time. For the most part, this line of interfaces is clean and un-interrupted, a neat line between the playing human and the memory of ancestors.
Revelations breaks this pattern, introducing an immense amount of noise into the system. The story goes this way: at the end of Brotherhood, Desmond is left in a burnout coma after being possessed by an Apple of Eden, a technological artifact of immense power left over from the First People. The aftermath of this possession has left Desmond’s mind in a collapsing state, and all of the genetic memories that he can or could theoretically access are collapsing into him at once — he is becoming all of his ancestors simultaneously.
In order to counter this effect, the other Assassins plug him into the Animus. Due to some technobabble magic, the Animus parses out the identities and keeps them from collapsing into one another. Desmond lies in a coma but he is stable.
Trapped in the Animus, embroiled in a storm of memories and identities, Desmond lives. And it is there that the game begins, on “Animus island,” some sort of weird debug zone for the Animus itself. Subject 16, a previous Animus-user, is there too, ready to pal around and explain what’s happening to you.
It is important to linger here, to think about the Animus. It is a full-body computer system that somehow reads and writes mental and physical data to translate Desmond’s real world thoughts and actions into a simulation of Renaissance Italy or the Holy Land in the High Middle Ages. Before this game, we’ve been given to understand that the Animus is a pure interface with seamless connection between user and content; we’re told that the Animus 2.0 is “better” to account for differences in AC and AC2, but that “better” is never quantified or explained.
Revelations‘ Animus Island, a weird asset dump and debug mode, structures the entirety of the game. It is the rendered-real of the interface, the acknowledgment that there is a procession of processes between Desmond’s body and the action that we see on the screen.
On one hand I can produce trite insight from this: mediation happens.
On the other, there’s something to be gained when a series like Assassin’s Creed, wholly concerned with interfaces, steps back from itself in order to point out the parallel aesthetic events that are constantly occurring within the series (refer to this graph by Brian Taylor for a small sampling of the layers in the series).
The Animus is a machine that highlights the mediation process as process. It points out that the act of touching media is not a subject operating on an object. Instead, it is like standing between two mirrors — a frame and an illusion of self stretch into infinity, tightly nested within each other, the slightest movement in the originals echoes through each small replication.
What does the Animus do? It parses abstract data into concrete structure in which a body can move. It takes genetic memory, this ephemeral nonsense concept, and pieces it together into a cohesive geometry that Desmond interacts with. It is a worldmaking machine. It creates a coherent system in which Desmond (and therefore the player, but that’s another reflection in the mirror) can have full reign — it positions itself as encompassing, as having no limits other than self-imposed ones (“this section is not available at this time”).
Another way of saying “worldmaking machine” is “ideology.”
At first glance, Revelations is a wonderful moment of self-effacement, of ideology revealing itself as ideology. “Here is the system in front of you,” it seems to say. It shows the fractures: time periods are clipped together in a daisy chain of free association, making Animus Island a strange hub world that enables Desmond to access both his own past and the pasts of Ezio and Altair equally. The revelations alluded to in the title are not plot-oriented. Instead, they are about the Animus. Now you know how the genetic memory sausage is made.
Except that every time we get a little closer to understanding, we’re pulled further away.
We’re told that we’re on some sub-level of the Animus, but we’re not living Neo’s life, seeing the encoded structure of the world. Instead, we are on a neatly crafted island, a “physics test” area. We can run. We can jump. We can punch. We are in some version of a vertical slice, a perfect encapsulation of the limits of the world of Assassin’s Creed.
The creed: Nothing is true, everything is permitted. It depends on the conditions of the Real; it is a statement about the nature of reality.
Revelations shows us the heart of the worldmaking machine. A vertical slice of things are true. Mechanics are permitted. Memory and experience are bounded by budget and scope.
A finite set of things are true. Very little is permitted.