Why Hard Work Gets You Nowhere in Assassin's Creed

By Zsolt David on at

Video games, even those "designed, developed and produced by a multicultural team of various beliefs, sexual orientations, and gender identities," present a certain worldview. That quotation preceded the original Assassin's Creed and its subsequent sequels but, like anything made by human beings, games carry ideological connotations because they are socially and historically situated objects: what we might call a product of their times.

Consider how, for example, work activities are viewed through the lens of capitalism. Capitalism needs workers and therefore work itself is considered a moral good, self-improving, and the means for social advancement. These ideas gain an extra layer of meaning in video game worlds where the player is, ostensibly, in control. In a paper called ‘The Ideology of Interactivity (or Video Games and Taylorization of Leisure)’, Matt Garite suggests that “by repeatedly demanding user input, video games lock players in a self-replicating, integrated circuit of instructions and commands.” If that makes you feel like a hamster on a wheel, brace for the next part: “video games embody one of the primary contradictions of consumer ideology whereby, under the guise of freedom, discipline encodes its other.”

In other words, Garite is saying that video games often subject players to work-like activities while, at the same time, providing an “unprecedented degree of freedom and control.”

So it isn’t surprising, for example, that what we call ‘grinding’ in MMO games is so polarising. Players love it or they hate it. Walking simulators are unpopular in some circles, because by omitting systems from popular genres that players have been conditioned to expect, these experiences reveal the amount of work that movement entails. Open-world games often combine the two into trivial tasks involving lots of movement and navigation: that is, labour under the guise of freedom.

The Assassin’s Creed series is emblematic of these capitalist dynamics. From the second instalment forward, the player-centred economy encourages buying items to the end of 'self-improvement' and accumulation of wealth. In Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, for example, the player is tasked with renovating Rome as well as taking the city back from its oppressors. Each game signals that, given enough time and effort, the player can achieve individual success and solve systematic issues. The means by which the player triumphs-through-work matters little, only that they do triumph. We may be reminded of the series motto: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

The first Assassin’s Creed, however, doesn’t subscribe to this romanticisation of meritocracy. Instead, it explores how this belief about work and freedom is exploited.

Assassin’s Creed starts off like most video games: with a brief narrative exposition and a tutorialised section introducing the protagonist, Altair, and his capabilities. Altair is a master assassin at his prime who subscribes to the idea behind the cult’s motto in its purest sense: that is, if “everything is permitted”, then only his own capabilities can restrict him.

Many video games reflect this outlook. They teach players through tutorials and via less explicit means to the end of self-improvement, where success is only a matter of effort. The player is primed to succeed, regardless of the player character’s social status or other disadvantages.

Assassin’s Creed gestures towards something similar. It introduces the player to Altair’s capabilities one-by-one in the tutorial section. But when given the chance to try out his abilities in the first mission, we fail to retrieve the mission item, kill an innocent person, and lead death and destruction to our companions.

Altair’s failure is palpable, not only in the public humiliation of his demotion, but in showing how his status and worldly belongings are so tied to his sense of self. By stripping Altair of his weaponry and status, the ability to fight and climb is also lost to him.

The rest of the game is about atonement. Altair has to carry out tasks for the cult’s leader, Al Mualim, to serve the collective interest of The Brotherhood, rejecting his self-centred beliefs and re-learning the cult's ways. The Brotherhood is fictional secret society from the twelfth-century Holy Land that aims to advance society to new heights by means of subterfuge: eliminating and replacing political figures with opposing ideals. Altair’s role is to assassinate nine leaders as a public display.

Each assassination involves a long preparation phase. Altair has to beat street preachers, kill guards and engage in theft to acquire information for the assassinations. This is preceded by exploration, where climbing high structures is the best way to observe the city. To climb and move around, the player not only has to use the left analogue stick, but has to hold down two buttons with her right hand – Assassin's Creed's controls are oft-described as simple, but our hand-capacity and thus attention is fully occupied in the act of movement.

No wonder that several critics describe this repetitious process as dull. Yet by comparing the activities to chores and labour, they capture what the routine tasks and tactile controls invoke. And inadvertently gesture towards another activity characterised by repetition: learning, which Altair does as he redeems himself and grow as a person.

In each city, over and over again, Altair engages in eavesdropping, theft and coercion before the killings, and is shaped by the experience. He grows stronger after each assassination. He learns to be more effective at murder by carrying out murder. And he’s aided by the leader of the cult, who rewards each successful assassination with better gear and a promotion within the ranks. But receiving rewards for individual success undermines Altair’s personal mission of redemption, while deadlier weaponry runs against The Brotherhood’s stated goal of avoiding violence.

Most notable is that Altair’s killings do not improve life in the cities. Civilians are constantly harassed on the streets, whom Altair can save, but doing so comes at a great cost of lives. Altair has to kill the harassing guards to rescue civilians, but it only helps the individuals and himself, since they reward him with manpower to deceive and intercept the city guard. It does not stop other guards harassing other citizens: the systematic issues remain.

These contradictions largely remain invisible to Altair, and to the player. Altair is led to believe that he’s fighting a just cause, and is blinded by his drive to reclaim status and belongings. The player, meanwhile, participates in the game’s work to unravel a story about improving society and to gain new capabilities and weaponry.

Altair’s rise to power culminates in the final levels. Gone are the large cities and sprawling vistas. The level leading up to the main antagonist is a suffocating, narrow valley, filled with smoke and dead bodies. Enemies with different colours and beliefs come in droves, but it takes two or three counters to kill an enemy. Gone is the graceful intimacy of assassinations, instead you slaughter the soldiers like animals.

Altair’s massacre leads to the main antagonist, Robert de Sablé, against whom counter-attacks are useless because he and his guards are capable of breaking Altair’s defensive stance. We are forced to become the aggressor.

The game doesn’t end after this butchery. With his dying breath, Robert reveals what some might by now suspect: that Al Mualim used Altair for his own ends. Which lead to more bloodshed en-route to confront, and then murder, the cult’s leader.

It’s uncommon for video games to frame aggression as something negative, because excessive violence often serves a purely utilitarian purpose. Altair’s violence, however, is motivated by an ideology: that by acting in the way he does, people will have the same chances he had for achieving status and power. This belief is based entirely on Altair’s personal experience, where individual effort is rewarded according to merit. But while Altair climbed the ladder of private enterprise, his superior’s power increased tenfold.

By the final encounter, Assassin's Creed moves from its more grounded enemies into full-blown symbolism. Al Mualim doesn’t have to walk or take a single step, because he can teleport around freely. He doesn’t have to fight, because he can summon his servants to do his bidding. Al Mualim has such power that he can completely paralyse us, if he desires.

He doesn’t, because the game reduces Al Mualim to a moustache-twirling villain who's intoxicated by his own power. But Altair’s bloody triumph over his superior is overshadowed by the reality of his overall achievements. Hundreds and maybe thousands of people are dead by his hand, and the cities are in even worse shape than before because of his actions.

Altair’s tragedy is a stark contrast to the usual romanticisation of player achievement in video games. The tragedy is both his and ours because, through him, we climbed and ran for hundreds of virtual kilometres. We confronted the people who needed confronting, put in the work for a just cause, and did what the people we trust told us to. But the comforts of individual power make us inflexible, ripe for exploitation, and the true drivers of this world are exposed far too late for any real redemption. It makes this game about the Holy Land in the 12th century feel, in its way, like a more effective modern satire than anything GTA has managed.