WARNING: The following article contains spoilers about the Assassin’s Creed franchise. If you haven’t played any of the games in the series then I recommend you don’t read on.
The Assassins of the Assassin’s Creed games are a group presented to us as heroes, defenders who will do anything to make sure people stay free and are not brought under the control of the Templar Order. After all, they’re the bad guys who just want to control the world and force everyone to live their way. That lesson was demonstrated by Al Mualim, who used the Apple to try and control the people. Of course, Altair stopped him like the hero he is.
But wait! Have you ever thought who is telling you that the Templars are evil, and the Assassins are the good guys? Every Assassin’s Creed title has given us the perspective of the Assassins. They are the heroes in their own tale. The central conflict is presented as a good versus evil scenario, but dig even a little and you’ll quickly realise that the Assassins just aren’t as good as they say they are.
The Assassin/Templar conflict centres around the theme of control. The Templars are presented as the group who want power and to run the world their way, while the Assassins are presented as the group who want to stop them. However, what’s the plan if the Assassins are successful? If they’re against a group controlling society, are they against any group that tries to run society? The Assassins demand freedom for all people, but what kind of freedom does that actually entail?[drop]Freedom is a concept that has all sorts of definitions and is something scholars, philosophers and lawmakers have all debated throughout history. Even now, wars are fought in the name of freedom. How free would a society created by the Assassins be?
If we’re talking about total freedom then we could be looking at a world without boundaries, without rules. Is this what the Assassins want? A world without structure could be a nightmare to live in. Chaos would reign as people did whatever they wanted without real repercussions. Every target the Assassins kill makes this point one way or another. These targets understand that we as a group need some sort of order to survive, and to thrive.
If their goal isn’t this kind of anarchy, then maybe the Assassins want a free world as long as that world meets their definition of freedom; a world where everyone is free as long as they don’t pursue the Templar’s ideals. A world where the Assassins become everything they fought against. A world run as the Templars would have wanted.
“Men must be free to do what they believe. It is not our right to punish one for thinking what they do, no matter how much we disagree.” – Altair
See, Altair almost gets it, but still he kills those he disagrees with. This one phrase, from the founder of the modern Assassin Order – no less – highlights the very reason the Assassins should not exist anyway: they don’t protect freedom but police it. The Order is also not innocent of controlling the world from behind the scenes, as the Templars do. The Assassins influence and instruct major historical figures including the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I. Ezio forms an alliance with the young Prince, eventually helping him rise to the position of Sultan. If the Assassins truly believed in freedom then they would not have meddled in the succession of a powerful Empire.
At least the Templars know what they want. Perhaps they offer a better alternative? Haytham, one of the main antagonists of Assassin’s Creed III, represented a new direction for the Templars, the next step in the Templar evolution. He wanted to move the group away from focusing on the first civilisation, instead trying to create an ordered world where people were treated with respect and equality.[drop2]Every action Haytham ordered of his group was for the betterment of the fledgling United States, including the purchase of the Native lands to make sure no one invaded and displaced the indigenous population. Even Washington’s assassination was only ordered to shorten the war, allowing the new United States to establish itself earlier.
This was something Connor realised, and he wanted to join forces with Haytham to bring in a new world with order. He tried to build a bridge but even Haytham could not see the whole picture, as he truly believed the Assassins were an evil cult. Connor himself was brainwashed by Achilles to see the Templars as nothing but evil. Is that what’s happened to every player who has experienced the franchise?
The real nail in the coffin of the Assassin hero portrayal are the last actions of Desmond. He is shown a world which does survive the apocalypse. A world where his words spread and shape the new society, though it doesn’t quite live up to what he wants to build. He is shown this future and elects to instead choose a future where control is given to a single entity: Juno. Desmond committed the ultimate sin, at least by the standards of the Assassins, by sacrificing the freedom of the remaining humans for the order and control of Juno. In this final action the Assassins have failed to reach their goal, ill-conceived though it may be.
When it really comes down to it though, the Assassins simply don’t the deserve to be called heroes or freedom fighters; their goal seems so poorly thought out that they can never really win. All they can ever hope for is to disrupt the Templars, which hardly seems that noble in the long run.
I’m not saying that I agree with the total control that the Templars crave though, I don’t think anyone really could. In fact the only vision that really makes any sense is the one that Haytham and Connor share: a world with structure, equality and freedom.
It seems that the nature of the conflict between the two sides, and their respective goals, means that neither side can really claim the moral high ground, neither side can become the archetypal hero. It’s only when the two combine their ideas that we get a stable world view, but both sides seem so dedicated to their ideologies that such a compromise could never happen. If anyone could broker such a peace then they’d become the only true hero the series has but, as it stands, the goals of both sides are ultimately futile.