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The Pleasures of Paranoia

Assassin’s Creed II

Ubisoft, 2009

During my time in Austin, I had the pleasure of visiting the city fixture Brave New Books, a book store dedicated to serving those intrepid souls engaged in fighting the Secret Masters of the World. Though their individual theories vary widely, some focusing on the Illuminati’s involvement in the early US Presidencies, others on the Third Reich’s more ambitious sallies into the occult, still others concerned with what really happened on September 11th, 2001, all these souls agree about one thing: They are out there, pulling the strings. Who are They? Well, as I said, everyone’s got their own take.

It’s hardly fair to lump all conspiracy theorists together (though it’s almost impossible not to). Each theory has its tenets and core beliefs – suspicions, really – many of which are incompatible with one another. After all, if Adam Weishaupt, founder of the Ancient and Illuminated Seers of Bavaria, really did kill George Washington and take his place as the first President of our republic, then George Washington couldn’t also be the immortal Count of St. Germaine. The elixir of life would have saved Washington/St. Germaine’s life, after all, and Weishaupt would never have had the chance to transfer the Templar Gold into the national treasury. This factionalism is helpful, though; when accused of being crazy, it’s always nice to be able to point to somebody else and say, ‘You think I’m nuts, what about him? He thinks Jews are lizard men from the center of the earth!”

Still, the drive to explain everything, without gaps or contradictions, to make sense of the world and what (or Who) wags it, is a common goal of the conspiracy theorist crowd, and it’s shared by many other curious, intelligent people. Umberto Eco’s peerless and hilarious Foucault’s Pendulum revels in the sheer pleasure of connecting widely scattered dots, though it also points to the danger of such all-encompassing explanations. And it is this pleasure, the pleasure of paranoia, that drives the more sophisticated elements of Ubisoft’s latest release, Assassin’s Creed II, a game that places the player at the heart of one such supreme conspiracy – both as actor and theorist, initiate of mysteries and mystified investigator. In doing so, it demonstrates the tension between self, text and history. It reveals, in action, that the desire to construct a complete explanation of the world and its secrets has its source in the desire to construct a coherent sense of your own identity.

But first, backstory.

This game is a sequel, so there are some things you should know. First, since the Third Crusade, there has been a vicious, hidden war between the Knights Templar and the Assassins. It began with the protagonist of the first game: Altair, an assassin who, through murder and betrayal, learned that the Templars intended to use a strange, powerful technological artifact, called ‘The Piece of Eden’, to enslave the world and bring about an age of peace enforced through domination – which Altair and the Assassins oppose. This war – between would-be Masters and their potential subjects – stretches forward until the present/near future, culminating in the capture of the main character, a young man name Desmond. He’s the last living descendant of Altair, and his genetic code contains the memories of all his ancestors, a long line of Assassins. His captors, the modern-day Templars, operating under the guise of a pharmaceutical company called ‘Abstergo’, strapped him into a machine called the ‘Animus’ and forced him to relive the life of Altair in order to locate the rest of the Pieces of Eden so they can finalize their plans for world domination.

And that’s just the first game.

In the second game, Desmond has been rescued by the last remnants of the beleaguered and outnumbered Assassins. Which is a relief, since maybe now Desmond can stretch his legs a little. But no such luck – turns out they’ve got their own jury-rigged Animus waiting for him, and they need him to relive the life of yet another ancestor, Ezio Auditore de Ferenzi, son of a Florentine banker working for Lorenzo de Medici during the mid-1400’s. Desmond’s job is to learn the Assassin’s Way along with Ezio, so he will be ready to fight the Templars. Ezio’s job is to train to become an Assassin, like his (and Desmond’s) ancestor Altair – and to learn the Templar’s plans for Italy. Underpinning all this, there are messages left in the memories by the subject Abstergo previously forced into the Animus, known only as Subject 16, whose hidden clues promise to reveal the Truth with a capital “T.”

The structure of Assassin’s Creed II is thus threefold and interwoven. We have Desmond caught up in Abstergo’s conspiracy, reliving the memories of Ezio in the Renaissance Templar’s conspiracy, who discovers, hidden amongst the beautiful (and beautifully reproduced) architecture of Florence, Tuscany and Venice, clues from Subject 16’s own research into the conspiracy that enfolds Desmond and Abstergo. The hidden truth of one level depends on the hidden truth of the next, and the next, until the circle is complete.

This quest of discovery is also a quest for identity. Desmond’s job is to make use of the ‘bleed effect’, by which playing through his ancestor’s life will give him access to his ancestor’s skills. “Synchronizing” with his ancestor, he is literally lining up in time with him, bridging the gap between present and past, self and other; he is making recorded history, a text, into his living memory. This motion is mirrored by Ezio’s own discovery of his own heritage and his quest to become an Assassin like Altair. In fact, one of the loftiest of Ezio’s goals is to raid enough secret tombs to reconstitute the armor of Altair, to walk in Altair’s footsteps while literally wearing Altair’s shoes. And to do this properly, Ezio must reconstruct a text, find scattered pages of an encrypted codex and reveal the secrets hidden within. All this while, in the background (or is it foreground? The cyclical structure makes this distinction difficult, and possibly, thrillingly, meaningless), the player is urged to scan and decode famous paintings and photographs, hunting down clues like a real conspiracy theorist. Each success gains a snippet of video that, when all the snippets are gathered, will reveal the promised Truth.

The game’s control system both supports and troubles this order of decoding. Assassin’s Creed II, like its predecessor, is a game about free running through gorgeous urban spaces, clambering over the arches of the Piazza della Signoria or peering from the top spire of the Santa Croce. It’s a game about lurking in the crowd gathered to trade in the Mercato Vecchio before striking at your target and disappearing into the panicked masses before the bodyguards know what’s happened. It’s a game about bodies in a space, and you direct your body’s movements through a set of controls called the “puppet system”. In the semiotics of conspiracy, the puppeteer and his puppet are well-worn symbols, and by this logic Ezio is Desmond’s puppet and Desmond is the player’s puppet. But since Desmond is trying, in a very real sense, to become Ezio, and the player is meant to identify with Desmond, indulging in a fantasy of power and conspiracy, the strings are tied at both ends, and who controls whom is less certain.

This is not far off from the Lacanian conception of the mirror stage, the idea that constituting yourself both as a conscious subject and a ordered body requires the perception of an other that is/becomes a reflection of the self, and that this relationship will always be one of weirdly projecting the self into the space occupied by the other, a space thought to be more powerful, with a greater command over the body. Which assertion the game’s design further supports, since perfect memory synchronization depends on perfect completion of every task, without mistakes or omissions. Desmond’s ancestor completed all these tasks seamlessly, and to fully become him, Desmond must also perform each task perfectly. And he can do this only if the player directs Desmond’s own actions perfectly. Lacan would probably have been camped out on the sidewalk at midnight awaiting Assassin’s Creed II.

Whether or not you swallow Lacan’s theories, the interrelation this game forms between self, text and history is fascinating, and it ultimately reveals just what’s so fascinating about conspiracy theories: self identification, textual analysis and the production of history are all paranoid practices. History is about causes and effects, trends and connections, making sense of the chaos of time, marking the convergence of human intention and arbitrary natural motions. Textual analysis (why, I’m doing it right now!) is about producing a coherent reading by indicating hidden structures within the text itself. Identity formation is based on locating a coherent, lasting pattern of behaviors, of individual agency and desire, within the roiling mass of drives that bubbles in the unconscious. All three are about seeing what’s going on ‘beneath’ or ‘behind’ the cluttered mess that’s visible at first glance. And all three, if carried out to their logical extremity, are self-destructive and contradictory. The conspiracy theorist doesn’t discover the real Truth through their investigations – they instead produce a Truth through paranoid thinking and then suffer voluntary amnesia, forgetting just how much work it took them to get to a Truth they claim is self-evident. History behaves in the exact same way, and relies on analyses of texts, which, if taken to extremes, becomes another paranoid process, deeply invested in the ideas of self and other. And any issue of self and other is predicated on a sense of identity, which can itself, in extremes, be construed as a paranoid product …

It’s just possible we do this to ourselves, with our own identities. We create a conspiracy of one, the grand scheme of the self, a lie we have to believe in to make sense of our consciousness.

While playing Assassin’s Creed II, I found myself asking a very important gaming question: why make this a game? Wouldn’t it be possible to demonstrate the very same conclusions (the Templars, the conspiracies, etc.) with a book or a film, a simple narrative form that didn’t require re-recreating Florence, Venice, and huge sections of the Tuscan countryside? While such a recreation should serve as its own reason (as you clamber over landmarks, the game volunteers facts about their design, construction and significance – this is actually an entertainingly educational game), this text’s choice of game medium is not accidental. By making the player live what Desmond lives, and thus what Ezio lives and, by extension, what Altair lives, the player is refused the privileged position of observer, a position required to support the fantasy that makes the paranoid perspective seem objectively true. As a game, Assassin’s Creed II closes the player into the circuit, refusing to give an easy out.

This is not an artistic game. I am almost certain that, once I decode all the pages (in this version of the game and in the inevitable sequels), I will see the Truth that exists behind the veils, a revelation about the nature of the game world I am exploring. The strange interdependences that might perpetuate, unresolved, in a film by David Lynch, or a game by Jonathan Blow, will probably be tied up whenever the series ends, maybe sooner. But Assassin’s Creed II, taken on its own, reveals the truth about our paranoid Truths. Like any other great work of art?

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Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous reviews for Open Letters were on Grand Theft Auto IV, BioShock, video game movies, Christie Golden’s World of Warcraft novel Arthas, Massive Multiplayer Online Gaming, The Sims franchise, video game music, Halo 3: Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, and Tropico 3.

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