Assassin’s Creed: A Game Done Mostly Right

assassins-creed-1-altairRecently, I saw that an Assassin’s Creed movie is in the works, and while I’m hopeful for its success, I can’t say I’d be surprised if it did poorly, considering how bad other game-to-movie adaptations are. Nevertheless, the trailer reminded me that I had an unplayed copy of Assassin’s Creed III lying around. I put it into my PS3 and sat down with the intention of enjoying what I’d heard was a great game. Unfortunately, starting with the third game made me realize that I had no idea what the hell was happening, and I had to know, because the movie looks awesome.

As such, I found a wonderful walkthrough video series of the first game on YouTube, watched it to the very end, realized I needed the game for myself, and dove head first into yet another fandom.

Spoilers for the first Assassin’s Creed up ahead.

In the world of Assassin’s Creed, the Earth used to be populated by Those Who Came Before, the Isu. Also known as the First Civilization, the Isu were a highly advanced species who, for reasons I don’t know yet, disappeared—but they also left behind some of their technology, called Pieces of Eden. Over the ages, the Templars, the series’ main antagonists, tried to find the Pieces of Eden. With them, the Templars planned to create world peace by mind-controlling the rest of the planet. Opposing the Templars are the Assassins. The Assassins also wish for world peace, but they find the Templars’ way of going about it evil. Unfortunately, right now, no one knows where any of the Pieces of Eden actually are, and the Templars and Assassins are in a race to find them first.

Desmond Miles, a runaway Assassin in the modern day who never believed that the Templars were real, finds himself being held hostage at a company called Abstergo Industries, a giant corporate conglomerate that serves as a front for the Templars. There, they plug Desmond into a machine called the Animus, which allows him to view his genetic memories, in hopes of finding the Pieces of Eden.

The game follows Desmond as he relives his ancestor’s memories. Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad is a Syrian-born Assassin living during the third crusade. Despite being the youngest Master Assassin in history, Altaïr’s reckless and arrogant behavior while on an assignment with two other Assassins, the brothers Malik and Kadar, causes their mission to end in tragedy. Kadar is killed, and Malik loses his arm. Altaïr is demoted back down to novice for his failure and is sent on a series of missions to assassinate nine Templars in order to regain his honor.

The first thing I noticed about this game is that there are almost entirely no female characters. The Animus is operated by a scientist named Lucy, who serves as the most prominent female representation we get. We do learn that she’s an undercover Assassin who plans to break Desmond out when the time is right, but when it comes to Altaïr’s memories, I sometimes felt as though the game makers were unaware that women did in fact exist back in the 1100s. Eventually, Altaïr comes across a female Templar, and both he and Malik are completely shocked that such a thing is possible.

“A woman? I don’t know what that is, Altaïr. Speak sense.”—Malik’s thoughts, I’m assuming.

“A woman? I don’t know what that is, Altaïr. Speak sense.”—Malik’s thoughts, I’m assuming.

What I will say about this, though, is that despite being a game that takes place just over 800 years ago, the story doesn’t use that as an excuse to completely wallpaper its setting with pointless misogyny or oppression of minorities. Altaïr does save random NPCs from corrupt guards abusing their power, and some of those NPCs are women. Once being saved, they tend to say something along the lines of “another minute and they would have made off with me”.

I ended up thinking that this was better done than it could have been. While this is technically violence against women, because these NPCs are women and violence is being done against them, it is not quite what we tend to think of when we say “violence against women”. Usually, when we talk about this issue, it is when a story is exploiting women for being women. The violence is sexualized and can only be done to a female character (like Game of Thrones having Talisa Stark stabbed in her pregnant belly). What the women say implies that they are probably being targeted for their gender, but it could also imply that they’re being arrested for something else. Furthermore, Altaïr does end up saving plenty of male NPCs who also find themselves in similar situations. While what the male NPCs say doesn’t imply possible sexual violence, I was happy that Assassin’s Creed wasn’t unnecessarily explicit or heavy-handed with the female victims. While this is still a use of misogyny in the background without exploration, it is also not an exploitation for the sake of shock value. That is a very low bar to hold any story to, and one that Assassin’s Creed just barely reaches, but as this is a bar very few other stories can even hope to reach themselves, I thought it was worth noting.

The biggest problem here, though, is that because there are almost no other female characters, and the ones we do meet, the Assassin Lucy and the Templar Maria, are both minor characters, the story unintentionally presents women as objects in need of rescue.

Lucy better murder a Templar or something in the next game.

Lucy better murder a Templar or something in the next game.

My only other real complaint about the game is that some of the citizens in the cities are the typical “crazy people” stereotype. They wander around in rags, make odd gagging noises, and will attack or shove Altaïr if he gets too close to them. This probably wouldn’t have been too noticeable had there only been one or two NPCs like this. There’s about fifty in every district, however. They got annoying really fast, and I hope that the later games have better mental illness representation.

On the plus side, thanks to Malik, we do end up with a prominent character who is physically disabled. While Malik does end up in a non-combat position due to his injury, we learn at the end of the game that he can still fight. I really wish that we could have seen more from Malik and learned more about him, because his position in the story made him one of the more interesting characters. He and Altaïr butt heads through the majority of the story, which is completely understandable considering what Altaïr did. As events continue and Altaïr becomes less arrogant and even apologetic, Malik does forgive him and accept him as a fellow Assassin once more.

According to fanfiction, it’s at about this point in time they declare their love for each other.

According to fanfiction, it’s at about this point in time they declare their love for each other.

What I adored about this game, however, is the racial representation. Assassin’s Creed is made by a multicultural team with various backgrounds, and it shows. I can’t say that I’ve ever been part of a story with a Middle Eastern main character who fights evil white people, but that is the entirety of the game. Almost all the Templars that Altaïr assassinates are white, and almost all the non-evil characters are Syrian. While I am white and not Middle Eastern and so cannot speak for this, there was never a time in the game when I thought that the characters were stereotyped for their race. Also, as someone who grew up learning all about the Crusades from a Western perspective that completely villainized Middle Easterners, playing a game that presented the same conflict but from another perspective was so much fun. Considering how well Assassin’s Creed did here, I am beyond excited to work my way through the rest of the series. I know that Assassin’s Creed II has an Italian main character and that the game also points out that Leonardo da Vinci was probably gay. As someone who used to live in Italy, I look forward to it for the sake of nostalgia. And as someone who is queer, I enjoy that a popular franchise acknowledges that we are not a modern invention. Assassin’s Creed III, the game I should probably not have started with, has a Native American main character, which will also be another first for me.

A bunch of men of color and one solitary white woman. Diversity at it's finest.

A bunch of men of color and one solitary white woman. Diversity at its finest.

I highly doubt that the problems I had with the first game will be the only problems that I have with the series as a whole—I have heard some shitty stuff about the following games—but the things that Assassin’s Creed does well made the game really enjoyable. If any of you haven’t played the first game, I would totally do so. It has a great story and some really fun mechanics. And if you don’t want to play the game yourself, but want to know what happens anyway, you can always check out that YouTube series walkthrough.

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