In 1988, the Italian writer Umberto Eco published one of the more interesting ‘secret history’ novels: Foucault’s Pendulum. It’s centred around three employees of an Italian publishing company who come up with, for a lark, an extravagant secret history, complete with Templars vying for an occult power that will allow them to assert control over civilization. This creative fiction’s ideal reader – a man knowledgeable in these kinds of conspiracies – is convinced that the three really are in possession of this power, for the narrative they spin is too consistent, he believes, for it to be otherwise. Twenty years after its publication, in an interview with the Paris Review, Eco responded to a question about the popularity of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code by responding “The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him.” He might as well have said that he had invented Assassin’s Creed II.
Now, this is not an essay solely on the historical inaccuracies of a game classified under the label of historical fiction. This is not a criticism of the lackluster characterization in a series where the main characters – Altair, Ezio, and Desmond – barely serve to anchor the narrative. Nor is this an essay that applies to the whole series, as I can only legitimately comment on Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed II. This is an essay on the insubstantiality of its goals, and how this weakness is tied to all of the features listed above. I want to make this clear, since the idea of “mere narrative” both isn’t exactly self-explanatory and serves to underpin the broader criticisms listed above.
On a surface level, the series’ presentation of history is perfectly sufficient. Florence is modelled with period details, the Sistine Chapel lacks Michelangelo’s frescoes (as they were painted after Ezio’s attempted assassination of Alexander VI), and so on. Events happen when they actually occurred, like Da Vinci’s peregrinations or the Third Crusade. But these are all superficial details – they represent the setting or backdrop of a stage. They represent nothing of the nature of the conflicts and beliefs at play. Niccolò Machiavelli serves as a nice example: he certainly lived during the setting of Assassin’s Creed II, but to place him in an oppositional role to the Borgias and their conquests is an inaccurate representation of history, not merely in terms of simple plot (i.e., what happened) but also in terms of symbolic importance (i.e., the significance or meaning behind what happened). Sure, Machiavelli was alive during this period, and had interactions with Cesare Borgia – interactions that, if we take The Prince straight*, left him in admiration of the warlike bastard. But to place him on the Assassin’s side, i.e., the ‘good’ side, of a fictional political divide is an inaccurate representation of the man who wrote the following with admiration of its agent:
When the duke [i.e., Cesare] occupied the Romagna he found it under the rule of weak masters, who rather plundered their subjects than ruled them, and gave them more cause for disunion than for union, so that the country was full of robbery, quarrels, and every kind of violence; and so, wishing to bring back peace and obedience to authority, he considered it necessary to give it a good governor. Thereupon he promoted Messer Ramiro d’Orco, a swift and cruel man, to whom he gave the fullest power. This man in a short time restored peace and unity with the greatest success. Afterwards the duke considered that it was not advisable to confer such excessive authority, for he had no doubt but that he would become odious, so he set up a court of judgment in the country, under a most excellent president, wherein all cities had their advocates. And because he knew that the past severity had caused some hatred against himself, so, to clear himself in the minds of the people, and gain them entirely to himself, he desired to show that, if any cruelty had been practised, it had not originated with him, but in the natural sternness of the minister. Under this pretence he took Ramiro, and one morning caused him to be executed and left on the piazza at Cesena with the block and a bloody knife at his side. The barbarity of this spectacle caused the people to be at once satisfied and dismayed.
Again, this is the admiring tone of one who approved of Cesare’s machinations – and who urged Lorenzo de’ Medici to imitate Cesare’s example and unify Italy to free her from the yoke of the ‘Barbarians,’ i.e., the French and other, more powerful European states of the time. He writes glowingly of this hoped-for unifier: “Nor can one express the love with which he would be received in all those provinces which have suffered so much from these foreign scourings, with what thirst for revenge, with what stubborn faith, with what devotion, with what tears. What door would be closed to him? Who would refuse obedience to him? What envy would hinder him? What Italian would refuse him homage?” These words are incommensurate with the Machiavelli in Assassin’s Creed II, who would stand against the possible saviour of Italy for the sake of vague notions about human freedom.
Just to be clear, I am not merely criticizing the series for placing Machiavelli in a historically inaccurate position – the conflict between the Assassins and the Templars is the conceit of the series, and so that detail must be judged on its own terms. What I am criticizing is the way in which this conceit is managed: without any regards for the actual beliefs, in context, of the figures it uses. Historical accuracy is not merely a question of the place of the people, but the cohesion of their belief systems as well. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall takes care to place the peculiars of contemporary conflicts at the fore of the protagonist’s mind: Thomas Cromwell is deeply concerned not merely with the affairs of secular politics but also with the conflict between the Catholic Church’s emphasis on a theology built upon tradition and Luther’s emphasis on sola scriptura, along with either’s more personal implications. In essence, it presents Cromwell as fully in his context, while Assassin’s Creed II presents Machiavelli as completely alien to it.
The problems regarding the series’ portrayal of one historical figure ties to its overarching weakness. If Assassin’s Creed II, as historical fiction, is intended, like all good historical fiction, to present the period of its choosing with accuracy or authenticity, then it has completely failed. The characters are simply moderns, with modern viewpoints regarding human agency and social constructions, awkwardly forced into a period where the ancestors of these ideas were being formed. The best example of this ham-fisted approach is Ezio’s speech after the death of Savonarola:
“We don’t need anyone to tell us what to do; not Savonarola, not the Medici. We are free to follow our own path. There are those who will take that freedom from us, and too many of you gladly give it… Choose your own way! Do not follow me, or anyone else.”
Taken as a defining moment in Ezio’s characterization, it works well enough. It represents the moment when Ezio moves on from selfish vengeance and towards a grander, more selfless vision of purposeful assassination. This transition reaches its climax in the confrontation with Roderigo Borgia, and in Ezio’s refusal to murder the Pope – though, of course, the superficial, extra-narrative reasoning behind his moment of mercy is historical: Alexander VI did not die in 1499, but 1503. But as an example of historical fiction the sentiment in this speech is utterly anachronistic. This kind of personal agency, as we moderns understand it, simply did not exist at this time. Certainly there are aspects of this kind of autonomy in the spirit of the times – such as in the Renaissance Neoplatonics and Hermeticists reconfigurations of the great chain of existence – but certainly not in the precise manner that the Creed (“Nothing is true, everything is permissible”) presents it.
This anachronistic problem is not unique to the Assasin’s Creed series. We can see something similar at work in the myth surrounding Christopher Columbus, that supposed free thinker who went against the commonly-held belief that the world was flat and, as a result, discovered the New World. The myth is utter nonsense: Europeans had known that the world was round since the Classical era – Dante’s Divine Comedy makes this understanding explicit. They even knew the approximate circumference of the globe thanks to Eratosthenes. Columbus purposefully chose a different, smaller measurement in order to argue that it would be possible to make it to India without running out of food and fresh water. But the myth is easily maintained because it supports a way of understanding our modern world and its relationship to the past: that we are the culmination of history, the climax of the past attempts at sorting out what was right, both factually and ethically. We can see this kind of egotism in our treatment of previous scientists: Newton is brilliant because he discovered gravity, and we can claim an intellectual lineage to that moment of genius. Sherwin Nuland’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci is frustratingly conventional in this respect: the brilliance of da Vinci lies in how accurate his anatomical notes were when checked against our contemporary understanding. The degree to which we celebrate these figures is predicated on how of ourselves we see in them. Hence our fifteenth-century protagonist apes a modern sentiment.
That the persons most commonly celebrated tend to be natural philosophers, proto-scientists, or people who made some great discovery about the natural world is no coincidence. The binary true/false nature of scientific truth makes it very easy to celebrate different figures for the simple fact that they were “right,” against those who were “wrong.” And because we built our contemporary scientific apparatus around those who were “right,” we claim them as our own, our intellectual ancestors, and so make them into figures like ourselves. We can see this rewriting in the game itself, near the end of Assassin’s Creed II, where the Leonardo examines the Apple of Eden, and says “I could no more explain this than explain to you why the Earth goes around the Sun!” Mario then intervenes, “You mean the Sun around the Earth?” Why else give him a view that would not be reintroduced until Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in 1543?
But this is a superficial view of the history of what we now call scientific knowledge, as it renders the development as mere plot: Galileo came along and discovered that the Sun was at the centre of the solar system, and then came gravity, and then came evolution, and so on right up until today. It all plays out like the tech tree in Civilization, with innovations and discoveries coming out like plot twists in the grandest detective drama of all time. But it completely discounts the reasons behind why our predecessors believed, or accepted as truth, what they did. That there were good reasons – empirical, theological, and developmental – for believing in the geocentric model of the universe is lost in the face of mere “wrongness” and the idea that our legitimacy can travel back and claim a select number of elect thinkers. Simply put, the whole apparatus is a frustrating reduction of all sorts of details for the sake of a superficial presentation of “who,” “when,” and “what.”
To bring a pointed tangent to a close, Assassin’s Creed II is bogged down by this kind of superficiality. Different historical details are brought up in order to provide the period-appropriate equivalent of window dressing: Antonio de Magianis (the chief thief in Venice) drinks coffee, but it is brought up as a sort of cheeky wink to the player, as if to say, “Look, here is an early instance of something so dear to our modern world!” Chronologically appropriate paintings are available for sale as a way to improve Ezio’s villa, but these are included only for a sense of visual authenticity. Most problematically, the game tries to shoe-horn an ethical version of the deterministic narrative of scientific development I touched on above: the good guys are the ones who stand for our own understanding of human freedom, as though the game’s writers had merely wanted to read into the past a deterministic narrative regarding agency and value.
The narrative itself is, of course, equally thin. Its very essence is that of a conspiracy, a conflict between two hidden powers – one powerful and tyrannic, the other the noble underdog – over some secret power. That this kind of narrative is threadbare is not because it’s overdone, but because the grand secret tends to be factual, or a detail of the plot. In Assassin’s Creed II, this ‘secret’ is a rewriting of history: mankind was created as a slave race by superior beings, and the power both sides are fighting for are the relics of this extinct civilization. To put it another way, the secret is simply plot based: the hologram makes the grand reveal, and everyone is shocked. Dan Brown did something similar when he had the grand secret of The Da Vinci Code be the ‘fact’ that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married, and that this bloodline was covertly cared for as it ran down the generations. In both there’s the sentiment that “this changes everything!” But what does it really change, aside from the plot that masks for history in these works? The detail is simply thrown down onto the table, briefly glanced at, and then things move on.
At the end of Foucault’s Pendulum, the main character, Casaubon, returns to his friend’s hometown after watching that same friend’s death at the hands of occultists who are absolutely convinced that the secret history the three publishers have been spinning together is literally true. Once he’s there, he discovers a different kind of secret about his friend – and this is the moment where the reader says “this changes everything!” – but here secret’s underlying meaning is explored: at the end of World War Two, Belbo, the friend, at twelve years bears witness to the burial of two anti-fascist partisans and volunteers to play the trumpet at the graveside. He knows neither Taps nor Assembly, but instead plays three notes (mi, sol, do) and stretches out that last note until he has an experience that transcends the common tongue of appearances and data, an experience that can only be grasped by symbols or metaphor:
No one had yet told him that the Grail is a chalice but also a spear, and his trumpet raised like a chalice was at the same time a weapon, an instrument of the sweetest dominion, which shot toward the sky and linked the earth with the Mystic Pole. With the only Fixed Point in the universe. With what he created, for that one instant, with his breath.
In this example, the secret behind Belbo’s pursuit of a conspiratorial past is revealed, and it’s the desire to recapture that one moment of sublimity he experienced at the gravesite of two partisans in the final days of World War Two. It’s the hope that this moment is recapturable, the hope that some sense of greater meaning can be restored to his otherwise small and inconsequential life. The grand secret he has been hiding is not merely plot-related, but is a symbolic moment that underpins the entire story.
The secret conflict between tyranny and personal freedom that drives the Assassin’s Creed series is an attempt at trying to construct the same kind of quest for meaning via a narrative of both the development and righteousness of human freedom against those who would seek otherwise. But the way in which it is approached by the series is entirely superficial: what is the grand struggle but an attempt to establish our own modern values retroactively? How is it expressed, other than through a renaissance or medieval tableaux? What are they working towards, if not the self-congratulatory assertion of the validity of what we now assert is right and true?
Taken at first glance, the manner of historical fiction that the Assassin’s Creed series tries to present is a fine way of presenting the past. But if it is to be taken seriously, first it must present these themes in a nuanced manner, and not through the facile construction of an anachronous narrative. But even this false history could be forgiven if they did something more than use the simplistic conflict of good versus evil – of freedom versus power – to drive the momentum of the story. I am not arguing that Assassin’s Creed II fails in its goals because it is historically inaccurate; I am arguing that it fails because it presents a superficial understanding of history: as merely the events that happened and how they can be divided simplistically portrayed.
*I did not want to get into a discussion in the main body of the essay as to whether The Prince is meant to be read straight, as a pointed satire, or as sabotage masquerading as well-meant advice. Depending on how you read the contradictions with his Discourses on Livy, where, to give one example, he advises against maintaining fortresses while speaking in their favour in The Prince, you can come to something resembling a clear conclusion. But I am not a Machiavelli scholar, and regardless, the whole game of nuances flies right above Assassin’s Creed’s ideology.