“Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”
What do we look for in historical fiction? We might want to be educated about history, or to get an accurate recreation of it. To be immersed in a certain time and place, to be thrilled by a romanticized or stylized depiction of it, to turn past events into an accessible story. We might even want to find something in the past that makes us think about the present.
Assassin’s Creed seems to be trying to do all of these things. The result is overstuffed, at odds with itself, frequently aggravating, often silly, but also unique and memorable, gradually revealing itself to have a clearer vision than it seemed at first. And, as it turns out, a work which has a complicated approach to history.
This article will be about my experience playing Assassin’s Creed. But it will also be about my experience delving into the history behind it, and trying to understand how the game dealt with that history.
1. Historical Fiction
Assassin’s Creed is a stealth action video game that was released in 2007, the first game in the franchise of the same name. The game is set in the Syria-Palestine region in 1191. It’s the time of the Crusades, and there’s an ongoing conflict between Arabs and Crusaders, who both control parts of the land. But you’re not taking part in this war – not directly, at least; you act in the shadows. You are Altair, an assassin and member of the Order of Assassins, who is sent to assassinate a number of powerful people across the land.
… Except you’re not. It turns out you’re ‘actually’ playing as Desmond, a present-day man born into the Order of Assassins. Desmond’s been kidnapped by a shady corporation, who use his ‘genetic memory’ to plug him into a simulation of the life of his ancestor Altair, so as to gain knowledge of those events. So when you play as Altair, you’re actually playing Desmond playing Altair.
This is a bad decision, in which I find no redeeming qualities. So I’ll do in this article what I’ve done in the game, and ignore it completely except when I have no choice but to acknowledge it.
I ended up liking this game quite a lot; I think it’s fun and unique and has a compelling vision. But it was a hard time getting there, and for a long while I had trouble enjoying it. The main reason being that this is kind of a weird stealth game.
You play as an assassin, and the game is primarily built around assassinations, with everything else leading up to them and being in service to them. Each time you travel across the land to one of three major cities – Damascus, Acre or Jerusalem. You investigate your target and his location in different ways (including eavesdropping, pickpocketing, interrogation, and informants). Then you find a way into his compound, reach him, kill him, and escape. All the while you need to avoid attracting attention, blend into the crowd, and hide yourself if you are caught till you regain your anonymity.
Despite all this, the game doesn’t really let you be discreet in a convincing way – instead it felt like coolness was prioritized over stealth. You wear a bright white-and-red outfit even though you’re supposedly trying to remain unnoticed; you can blend in by pretending to be a scholar, as they also wear white robes, but you only vaguely resemble them (especially with all those weapons visibly strapped to your body). It doesn’t matter much, since the outfit and weapons only rarely attract much attention from the guards, and the same is true for sprinting through the streets, or climbing up the sides of buildings in plain sight. And when you do get chased by the guards, one of the ways you can hide is by jumping into a hay pile – from dozens or even hundreds of feet up; somehow no one notices this and also you don’t die. All of this made it hard to get immersed in the game or take it seriously.
It certainly doesn’t help that the controls take some getting used to; that it takes a long time to gain a lot of your abilities, including some basic ones; that it’s not at all clear at first what’s the point of anything you’re doing; and that Altair is a pretty unlikable protagonist.
But eventually I found my way to enjoy the game. I decided to suspend my disbelief about the things I couldn’t take seriously, and just play the game on its own terms instead of poking holes in it all the time. I also started to figure out how to play in a more immersive way; a bunch of decisions that basically amount to me being a part of the game’s environment: I started to look for sources of information on foot (after finding out where I should look), rather than just climbing up to viewpoints so that their locations would show up on a map. I tried to spend more time in the streets than on the rooftops, so I could really feel like I was hiding in plain sight and becoming part of a living city. I turned off the HUD, which suddenly allowed me to breathe in the world, and led me to learn from my environment and react intuitively rather than relying on the minimap, compass and weapon icons. As an added bonus, by this point I had gotten a lot better at the game, and gained some abilities that made things feel more natural (like being able to grab onto the side of a building if I was falling down).
And all of a sudden, the game started to feel natural – I knew what to do and how to do it, and I was moving smoothly from one action to the next on intuition and experience, like a stream of consciousness. And now I could enjoy and appreciate the game a lot more. Investigations became a really engaging process – getting the initial lead of where to look, finding my way through the city just by learning its streets, locating the people whose knowledge I needed, learning who my target was bit by bit, putting together a plan, all by immersing myself in a city and uncovering its secrets. Assassinations started to become exciting stealth puzzles, where I implemented all the knowledge I’d gained, found a way into the site, reached my target and killed him – and also planned in advance how I would escape. And then escaping the guards was just thrilling, running across the streets and rooftops I’d gotten to know so well. All three segments together became a great sequence of planning, execution and improvisation.
I was also able to appreciate things I hadn’t thought about before, like how they genuinely made it feel like being inside a living city and how much you gain from learning that environment. And I could even enjoy things that I had trouble taking seriously, such as climbing up the sides of towers to reach viewpoints, which is pretty silly but also pretty fun.
As if to complement this, the story gradually became more engaging too. Altair, it turns out, has a character arc and actually becomes compelling to play. As he learns humility and accountability, and starts to question his choices and motivations, and those of others, he comes to have a more contemplative view of the world and of what he’s taking part in. He stops just acting like a tough guy who doesn’t care about anything, and starts to care deeply about what he and others are doing. This is driven by Altair’s targets insinuating that things might not be so black and white, and by Altair’s master Al-Mualim challenging him to really think about what he and his enemies are fighting for. Through all of this the game starts to explore some ideas about freedom, morality, and wisdom. Questions such as – what motivates people, and what could open their minds to new ideas? Do the ends justify the means? Could enemies be fighting for similar ideals? It never becomes a particularly deep story, but it does give a philosophical undercurrent to what’s happening, which makes it all feel more meaningful.
So ultimately it was a cool game that I had fun playing. And it’s because I came to be so engaged with it that I started to become more so interested in how history was presented in it.
Now, going into Assassin’s Creed I had a feeling that it was probably going to significantly alter history; and I knew this might be a problem for me. Over time it’s come to bother me when a story changes history. In part this is simply because I want to see what actually happened, not something made up; and on some level it almost feels insulting to the real events and the real people, to change them so much. Plus, history is usually more interesting than a fictionalized version of it, especially in the many cases where they take out most of the good stuff so they can make a cliched and predictable story. Finally, I’m concerned about misinformation. I don’t think art has an obligation to educate the public, but it might have some obligation not to miseducate them – to lead them to think certain things happened when what really happened was radically different. 1
True enough, when I played the game I discovered that it takes some major liberties. The overall setting seems to stay true to what the past was like, but the details get a lot more creative. We get both the assassinations – nine major figures in the region killed within weeks of each other; and the Assassins and Templars being shadowy conspiracies who are secretly behind a lot of events throughout history.
But the game did start to feel like one of those cases where I’m okay with the changes made to history, or at least where I don’t mind as much. For starters it felt like they still stayed true to the heart of the history. In this case, the political and military situation, and the religious and national motivations of both Arabs and Crusaders, as well as the presence in the region of both the Assassins and Templars. It also didn’t feel like the usual case of reducing history to a cliched story. Rather, the focus on assassins lets them explore an uncommon narrative, and the philosophical side of the story adds more complicated morals and motivations.
As for my concerns about misinformation… well, this is weird, but the game kind of addresses this? In a curious moment2, Desmond raises the question of why the events he’s experiencing in his ancestor’s memories are so different from the history he’s been taught. Vidic, who’s in charge of probing these memories, says that we can’t trust recorded history, as it is often full of lies and distortions, and that now they have an opportunity to see the truth of it directly. Desmond remains unconvinced, and says they can’t know for a certainty that it’s true, since there’s always room for misinterpretation.
I think it’s interesting that the writers were thinking about their own approach to history, and decided to basically make that a part of the story. Just for a moment, it becomes a game about exploring history, rather than just a game set in the past. And by addressing this issue in the game, they are effectively telling the audience, “this isn’t what really happened in the past; it’s just a story”. And I like that I finally found a work where the storytellers decided to make it clear that they’ve changed history a lot, rather than leaving the audience in the dark about that. 3
Ultimately it’s not this game, but the rest of the franchise that really bothered me. Every game after the first one continues to focus on the Assassins and Templars, but each in a new time and place. And that act of detaching them from their real-life roots felt wrong to me the moment I really started thinking about it. The first game, no matter my criticisms, at least features the Assassins in the geographic region, social sphere, and timeframe when they were active in reality. The other games, by removing them from that time and place and having them exist everywhen and everywhere, effectively strip them of their identity and turn them into little more than a title and an aesthetic. The setting in which they actually existed becomes just one more background for their adventures, and the focus is no longer on exploring that particular history, but rather on using the general idea of them to make games about silent killers in all sorts of historical settings.
As to the first game, though, I ended up having a mixed but generally positive opinion about it. It felt like they respected the history they were working with, and even when they changed things they were still trying to use history as a foundation for something interesting.
2. History Behind Fiction
Now, eventually I realized that I need to actually know what I’m talking about here. If I want to talk about how they changed history, I need to know what the history actually was. So I went and looked it up. My sources were… well, mainly Wikipedia if I’m being honest; I know, I know. But I did later read through some of the articles as well, to make sure that what I was learning was accurate.
Well, roughly speaking, it was about what I suspected – the game stays quite true to history in the broad strokes, while taking many more liberties with the details. The land really was divided between the Ayyubids led by Salah a-Din who controlled most of the land, including Jerusalem and Damascus, and the Crusaders led by Richard I who were reconquering some of it and already controlled Acre. In addition, the Templars operated freely throughout Crusader lands, and the Assassins held some territory in Syria and carried out assassinations in the region, with their main base in the region being Masyaf. (Even the leader of the Masyaf stronghold at the time, Rashid al-Din Sinan, appears, though not by name, as Al-Mualim.) And each of these organizations really was something of a ‘nation within a nation’, with the Assassins achieving de facto autonomy in the middle of enemy territory, and the Templars receiving Papal authority to act freely throughout Christian lands. In addition, the layout and appearance of the cities is a generally accurate recreation of what they were like back then.
The details, on the other hand, are in large part made up. None of the assassinations really happened, about half of the assassination targets didn’t even exist, and the ones that did are radically changed (though to be fair they did all die around the time the game takes place). The Assassins did have conflicts during these times with both the Ayyubids and the Crusaders, but not simultaneously – they had fought against the Ayyubids previously, but had allied with them by the time of the Third Crusade, and their conflict with the Crusaders only really started at that point. And while the Assassins and Templars clashed on occasion, there was nothing anywhere near the bitter ongoing conflict we see between them in the game.
On the other hand, there were a lot of details that I didn’t like and assumed were added for plot convenience, but turned out to actually be based in history. For example I didn’t like that the Order have this big fortress and everyone knows where they’re based, instead of keeping their existence and location secret – but this was the case in real life, and in fact they had a lot of fortresses. Or how all of the assassinations take place in view of other people, rather than finding a way to do it quietly and get away without being noticed – but in reality they preferred to kill in front of other people, so as to increase the political impact and deterrence of the assassination. (I’m going to take this as a lesson – I’m as likely as anyone else to find a story less satisfying if it commits to historical accuracy.)
The thing I find most interesting, and most troubling, is the portrayal of the Assassins, which draws inspiration from their real-life beliefs even as it strips them of those beliefs at the same time. Because the Assassins are shown to simply be a mysterious order with a unique philosophy, but in reality they were first and foremost a religious movement.
See, there wasn’t actually an ‘Order of Assassins’, per se; the Assassins were a part of the Nizari Isma’ili State, a nation of sorts which existed in Persia and Syria during the 11th-13th centuries. The Nizaris were members of the Isma’ili branch of Shi’a Islam, who broke away from the rest of the Isma’ili’s due to a political and religious dispute.4 They were weak and in danger of persecution, and so under the leadership of their founder, Hassan-i Sabbah, they escaped to the mountains of Persia and started to take over fortresses where they could settle. They became a nation of inland islands – they didn’t control any continuous territory, but rather a series of strongholds scattered across the land, entrenched in enemy territory. Despite this they had a stable power structure, with all strongholds remaining dedicated to the Nizari faith and following orders from the ‘capitol’ fortress of Alaut. Since they were few in number and surrounded by enemies, they had to rely largely on assassination to defend and empower themselves; even if you don’t have a military force that can fight off armies, one man killing a powerful figure can be a strong deterrent.5
Now, the Nizaris are a particularly spiritualist and philosophical branch of Islam. They put a lot of thought into esoteric knowledge, mysticism, human knowledge and understanding, and the hidden nature of things.6 And this clearly served as the basis for how they’re presented in the game. Things like their belief that reality is an illusion and their goal of finding the hidden truth behind it, or their perspective on the nature of knowledge and the human capacity to grow and learn and achieve, are expressed in how the in-game Assassins talk about their beliefs and goals. It was pleasantly surprising, reading about Nizari thought and culture and seeing how much of it was brought into the game. It made what I had experienced in the game suddenly feel a lot more connected to the heritage of the people portrayed in it.
At the same time, it started to make me uncomfortable just how much the Assassins in the game are disconnected from their religious beliefs. There is no mention in the game of them being Nizari, or even Muslim, or even believing in God – they are merely a philosophical order, and their conflict with the Templars is one of ideas and ideals, primarily freedom versus order. It felt like the game had somehow cheapened them, stripping this society of their background, their cultural identity, and their religious beliefs, and reducing them to just a cool group of assassins who have a few thoughts about human nature.
One of the things that came up again and again while reading up on the Nizaris’ history, is how much the ‘idea’ of them was transformed over time into a kind of orientalist legend, with fanciful rumors and lies about them becoming much better known than the facts. And it’s hard not to see the game as continuing that tradition – just one more work that prefers the shallow ‘exotic’ cliché to the more nuanced truth.
So while I came to appreciate some aspects of what the game does, at this point I was mainly uncomfortable about it.
This also made me dislike the direction of the other games that much more. The first game removes the Assassins from their religious background, and then the later ones remove them from their geographic and cultural sphere as well. It all feels, much more than in the first game, as though a simplistic idea of them is being used for convenience. And Origins took it one step further – now they weren’t even formed in the 11th century but about a millennium earlier; so their real history is nullified even more. If the first game detached the Assassins from their roots, the rest almost completely disconnected them.7
I should note that, as someone who isn’t Nizari, it isn’t my heritage being dealt with here, and so my opinion on it shouldn’t be centered. So I wanted to see if I could find any Nizaris’ opinions on what the game does with their history. Unfortunately, so far I haven’t been able to find any. The closest I got was the opinions of several Muslims who, as far as I can tell, are not Nizari Isma’ili; these were generally positive about the game’s historical and cultural representation, which was a bit surprising to me (another reminder to keep an open mind). But I would still be happy to learn what any Nizaris feel about it – are they happy about their history receiving new attention in a major game series, unhappy at how their heritage is portrayed, or something inbetween? (And of course, multiple Nizaris will have multiple outlooks on this.)
3. History of Fiction
Now, since I’m already dealing with history I thought it would be a good idea to know the game’s history, too. That way I can see what the developers thought about the historical setting, how they approached it, and why they made the choices they did. I relied mainly on “Assassin’s Creed: An oral history”, where a few of the developers talk about the process of creating the game and the changes it went through over time.
The main thing that struck me while reading this, is that this game really was a labor of love. It was full of ambition and creativity, and learning about its creation has made me appreciate it a lot more, including certain things that I disliked. The team wanted to innovate an immersive and living world, full of endless possibility in what you can do (and with a new generation of consoles coming, they knew they could take advantage of the new tech in order to do it). The idea of freedom was central, not just to the story but to the gameplay as well, as they wanted to make a game where you were always free to choose where to go, how to get there, what to do, and how to do it. In the free-running system of climbing buildings and jumping between rooftops, in the multiple options for investigation, in the flexible structure of assassinations, the player was always meant to feel like they could do anything.
There’s even a kind of gameplay-narrative synergy in this, in my opinion. Altair, as an Assassin, is expected and encouraged to develop his freedom of movement and choice, both so he can complete his missions and become a better assassin, and as a philosophical principle the Assassins believe in. And then we actually see his freedom of choice, because we, as the players, are given that freedom. You and he get better at making choices and at seeing things through, as you both free your minds. And this freedom was even present in the development itself, with the team trying to innovate and test the limits of their potential. So there’s a lot of layers of freedom here – the characters, the players, the developers.
And this idea of freedom seems to be at the heart of how they dealt with history, too. I think the developers just have a fundamentally different outlook than I do on how to adapt history. To them, taking elements of history and playing around with them to create something fun and memorable isn’t anything wrong, and in fact it can lead to a lot of opportunities. I’m still having trouble understanding this mindset, but I can appreciate that it comes from a place of genuine passion for the past, or at least in this case it did. And this freedom still went hand in hand with a respect for history – they based their work on genuine research, and put as much fact as fiction into the game.
All in all, this is making me reconsider some of my feelings. Is it really that bad if creators are flexible and playful with history when making a work of art? Especially if they give us something as unique and memorable as AC? Maybe; maybe not. I don’t know. I do think that the kind of work we got, with a structured narrative that held themes and philosophy, couldn’t have happened without straying from historical fact. So I’m more open than before to accepting these sorts of works.
Well this has been quite the journey. I’ve given myself a lot to think about and a lot to reconsider, and I’ve definitely had some of my opinions changed. Going forward I’ll try not to assume that something is as ahistorical as it seems, and while I’m still not a fan of changing history for the sake of the story, I’ll be more open-minded about its benefits, and that it can go hand in hand with respecting history.
Regarding Assassin’s Creed specifically, I’ve come to appreciate it a lot more, both as an innovative and well-crafted game, and as a work of historical fiction. However, I’m still uncomfortable about the decision to get rid of a lot of the heritage of the people it’s based on, and I’m not quite sure what to do with that. Maybe I’ll just let that be something I’m not sure what to think about yet.
I should also mention that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the history of the Nizaris and their nation; if you’ve found the topic interesting I encourage you to read up on it.
So, tell me what you think! What do you think of this game? Or any of the other games in the series, for that matter? Do you have any opinions about historical fiction and its relation to history? If so I’d love to hear them!
History of the Assassins:
Farhad Daftary, The Mediaeval Isamailis of the Iranian Lands [Daftary is considered the foremost historian of the Nizari Isma’ilis]
Encyclopedia Iranica – Isma’ilism, iii. Isma’ili History
Shafique N. Virani, The Eagle Returns: Evidence of Continued Isma’ili Activity at Alamut and in the South Caspian Region following the Mongol Conquests [on the history of the Nizaris in the centuries following the fall of their nation, including various settlements and positions of power they obtained]
The development of Assassin’s Creed:
Richard Moss, Assassin’s Creed: An Oral History
Opinions on the representation of Muslims and Arabs in the game:
Magy Seif El-Nasr, Maha Al-Saati, Simon Niedenthal, David Milam, Assassin’s Creed: A Multi-Cultural Read
Sahar Mesri, Assassin’s Creed Series (from Orientalism in Modern Pop Culture blog)
Shafiqah Othman Hamzah, GeekOut: Shia, Sunni, and Assassins