In the spirit of popular revelation-analysis like “Fight Club Is Really Calvin And Hobbes” and “Secretly, the Joker Has Homoerotic Feelings For Batman,” I present: “Assassin’s Creed is Really About A Little Child Climbing on Furniture.”
In elementary school, I was addicted to climbing low obstacles. I’ve always had a paralyzing fear of drops and edges, but there was something I loved about clambering along the backs of couches, along crumbly retaining walls, on bookshelves and stair railings. I was, and still am, uncomfortable with merely looking at cliffs, but jumping on furniture was a thrill. Although it still scared me, it wasn’t actually dangerous, so I loved it. Kids seek out these kinds of controlled encounters with fear. They’re important.
This behavior was not very popular with my parents and teachers. I remember getting in trouble for standing on desks, trying to climb out first-story windows, and sitting on high stacks of classroom chairs. Everyone who remembers being eight knows what adults say when they see children doing these kinds of things. Those chiding, deriding warnings have been ground into our skulls, and when we warn children, we use the same words without even thinking about it. Ubisoft was quite right to label wall-climbing “socially unacceptable” in Assassin’s Creed I and II.
Ubisoft also nailed the language of derision. The following quotes are taken from the first game; they’ve always reminded me, rather strongly, of the things I was told as a child, and the things I’ve told to children myself.
He’s going to hit someone!
Is there a reason for this nonsense?
Look at him! He’ll break his neck!
I don’t understand what he’s trying to accomplish!
He’s going to hurt himself And when he does, I won’t help him!
When will he stop acting like a fool?
Does he really have a reason for doing that?
He should stop acting like a child!
Stop acting like a child, indeed! There’s something about the bystanders in Assassin’s Creed which infuriates some of us and makes us want to kill them. The sneering pedestrians who see you riding your horse at anything faster than a walk. The neutral guards’ bemused teasing. The nagging beggar-women who tell you, angrily, that “No, you don’t understand!” It’s sometimes as though the city is made up entirely of angry parents, and you’re the kid, misbehaving. They want you to stop climbing on shit and stay on the floor, like a normal person. They all wish you would just stop messing around.
But this time, you have a knife, and you can throw parents and teachers and angry bystanders off cliffs and into walls and stab their eyes out, if you so please. You can run up sheer walls and vanish like a hero before they’ve even finished talking, and there’s nothing they can do about it. The relationship you have with these bystanders gets even clearer, and more satisfying, in the second game. The opening levels are filled with street heralds who warn their bumbling audiences about how the young men of the cities have taken to climbing on the buildings “for sport.” That, of course, means you. And the herald warns you, over and over again, that “It’s only divertimento until somebody breaks a leg!”
But you know that’s not true. It’s always fun, particularly when you’re breaking your leg, or other people’s legs, and running at breakneck speeds through crowds of screaming idiots who can’t do what you can do. They don’t mean a thing. They’re worthless. You can breeze through the press of people with your ‘pickpocket’ button held down and rob them of a hundred florins in a minute, and they’re so stupid there’s nothing they can do about it.
This sense of avenging your unfair belittlement is a powerful undercurrent in both of these games, both explicitly, in their plots, and implicitly, in the little ways you’re casually treated by the ambient dialog. When I play, I feel like a triumphant child. I’m showing them! That experience is powerful through its own artistry, but it’s important through what I bring to it. You don’t have to be twelve or thirteen to feel that there’s some deep, mighty, mysterious kind of children’s revenge taking place in these imagined streets of the Holy Land and Italy. Like the plot, it resonates through time: the shoppers of ancient Jerusalem sound like my third-grade teachers. Everything, particularly resentment, belittlement, and childish rage, persists.
The only time I’ve ever been disciplined officially by a school was in seventh grade, when I was written up for running in the hallways. I actually sobbed. I’d never been punished like that before, and I felt the injustice very sharply. At the time, when the issue seemed so dramatic and serious, I think I’d have loved to push the responsible authorities off of a roof.
In AC2, you won’t be written up for running in the halls, but you might be laughed at, and if you’re notorious, you’ll probably get stabbed. And you’ll certainly get a chance to throw someone off a roof. For once, you’ll beat your enemies soundly. It’s a refreshing feeling. A dark and bitter kind of refreshment, but refreshing nonetheless.