The best kind of revenge

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.

Socially unacceptable horse behavior.

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.

Socially unacceptable. But it's what you want.

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.

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11 Comments

  1. My childhood love (and heck, my present day love) of climbing is probably one of the main reasons I play games, if I’m being honest.

    I completely agree that the NPCs in AC are there almost purely to dispense vengeance upon, but doing so was never satisfying for me in the little bit I played. Like you say, the NPCs are very transparently empty, so I never felt like I was doing much at all by stabbing them. The game lets you stab haystacks too, and both actions have about the same effect on the world.

    (I also don’t have a whole lot of rage to begin with, so maybe stabbing NPCs just isn’t for me)

    Reply
  2. I got some enjoyment out of using the hidden blade on large crowds, but then again I try to wipe out everyone I can in games that let me- AC is sadly not one of them with its endless supply of citizens. It wasn’t really for their insults, either, since I always booked it to rise above the chatter (ooh, interactive metaphor).

    I suppose the discipline I received in schools has been so hilariously overblown that remarks about climbing on things hardly have an impact. For instance, I very lightly poked a kid’s shoulder with a pair of blunt scissors in 3rd grade art class and he freaked out and told the teacher that I stabbed him. The teacher even put the scissors on a napkin and said “This was the weapon used,” when she showed it to the folks in the office.

    That was a long personal tangent. Harbour Master is rubbing off on me, apparently.

    Reply
  3. GTA has always been my kind of guilty pleasure because by and large it doesn’t really punish you for being mean to citizens unless you turn psychopath. Saints Row 2, too: some of the pedestrians are so obnoxious. The number of times I’ve been jostled and somehow found a gun in my head, fired off a few shots and walked away coolly through the parting waves of screaming innocents. I don’t fire the games up purely for this purpose though… it’s purely opportunistic.

    For some reason a baseball bat or for Saints Row 2 ANY OBJECT YOU FIND like a dustbin or brick is horribly satisfying when the empty-headed NPCs get you riled.

    Having said that, I don’t make genocide my business on every game map, unlike someone else who has commented in this very thread. =)

    Reply
    • I only do it when it’s in-character!*

      *The first time, it’s always in-character.

      Reply
    • Heh, I refuse to psychoanalyze my actions in video games, probably mainly out of fear of what they say about me. I did not let a single scientist (that wasn’t necessary to the progression) survive in Half-Life 1. My Gordon Freeman was a mute and implacable serial killer, for no real reason other than that I wanted to see what would happen.

      I also really enjoyed Prototype for all its problems just because it was so fun to walk around incognito disguised as an old lady, then suddenly punch a tree down and throw the trunk at a pedestrian who was rude to me.

      Reply
      • You killed every single scientist in Half-Life 1. Okay. I’m not psychoanalyzing that.

        And don’t start making me want to buy Prototype. I decided NO NO NO already.

  4. Those civilians were part of the very reason I stopped playing the ‘Creed. That at the annoying voice acting that insisted on mentioning the title of the game every two minutes.

    Their constant inane comments made me want to do horrible things to every person in the game. I am not fond of that desire unless the game is Manhunt

    Reply
  5. David

     /  December 21, 2010

    I was grinning ear-to-ear reading this article. That said, I don’t enjoy toying with people in AC as much as I did enjoy toying with the guards in the first MGS.

    As to slaughtering NPCs, that was one of the my biggest disappointments in Fable 2. The first game had one little town that you could totally wipe out and it would never recover, but the second game’s town citizens might as well have emerged from a monster closet.

    Reply
  6. So, were the comments that citizens hurled at you off the molten tongues of our primary school teachers a reflection of your in-game behavious, or a reflection of Desmond Miles’ character. Hah, suggesting he has character. ANYWAY. Perhaps these comments were in some way, Desmond’s personal childhood intefering with the way in which he experienced the past. Although, I never noticed that his role in real life really had any influentual role in the game (from what I’ve played). Shame, that.

    /conjecture

    Reply
    • That could make for a fantastic twist, assuming the backstory doesn’t imply that the Animus has been tested to high heavens and is devoid of mystery.

      Reply

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