How to Read Assassin's Creed: Revelations and What It Meant for the Series
Within four years, Ubisoft has published four Assassin's Creed console games (not to mention handheld spin-offs, books, movies, and other tie-ins). The franchise has proved a commercial smash as well as a critical hit, but the reception amongst gamers has started to fade. Revelations, the latest game in the series and the end of Ezio Auditore's story, has been criticized for being more of the same formula that defined the previous three titles, but from a story perspective, that's exactly the point. Revelations is not a grand finale for Ezio and his predecessor Altair, but a subdued, bittersweet reflection upon the series and the more ambiguous elements of its morality.
In previous Assassin's Creed games, the moral structure was very black and white, or at least black and grey. The Brotherhood of Assassins were vigilantes who murdered those they deemed unworthy of life, but their Templar targets were always the most reprehensible monsters imaginable. In the first game, Altair was sent after only those who abused their power to oppress and kill innocent citizens, and their "Last Words" sequences gave them only pathetic attempts to justify their sins. Five hundred years later, in Assassin's Creed 2 and Brotherhood, Ezio was motivated by revenge against the machinations of Rodrigo Borgia, easily one of the most despicable villains in video game history (as well as in real history). Ezio joined the assassins shortly after the Borgia murdered his father, older brother, and twelve-year-old little brother just to make a point, and his campaign of vengeance was also a necessary liberation of Italy from a tyrannical regime.
Assassin's Creed: Revelations, on the other hand, places Ezio in an unfamiliar environment where the Brotherhood's methods aren't so successful. Entering his fifties by now, the aging Ezio is already starting to question what he's accomplished in his life, and his fight to defend Constantinople from the Templars. However, the struggle there isn't as clear-cut as Ezio's battle in Rome. The Assassin's Brotherhood helped put the existing Ottoman Empire into power in exchange for help against the Borgia, but by doing so they enabled the Ottomans to conquer and ransack many countries. The Templars capitalized on the displaced Byzantines' justified anger to acquire more agents. Even if the Templars are much less clean than the Brotherhood, a war still requires two parties, and each has some culpability for the lives caught in between.
Ezio is on terra incognito on Revelations, away from his familiar Italian comrades. Meanwhile, the Templar characters are a bit more sympathetic. The designated villain, Prince Ahmet, is motivated by the desire to create peace, and believes that the artifacts within Altair's underground library will allow for that. Ezio argues that peace through control is not worth the cost, but his actions in the story rob him of the moral authority to make that claim. Over the course of Revelations, Ezio brutally slaughters countless enemy guards, incites a riot amongst the people in order to create a diversion, and even kills a man who turned out to be on his side. By the end of the game, it becomes unclear if killing Ahmet was best for Constantinople — the new candidate for king, Ahmet's brother Selim, seems just as harsh and oppressive. The only reason Selim exiles Ezio from the city instead of killing him is due to Ezio's friendship with his son, and Ezio wonders how much good he actually did.
This questioning of the Assassins' effectiveness is reinforced in the sequences where Ezio accesses the memories of his predecessor Altair. In the original Assassin's Creed, Altair started as an arrogant upstart, but later he became a more thoughtful and compassionate warrior. But his faith in the Brotherhood never wavered, and he built the city of Masyaf into an even stronger and more imposing military state, while building his family around his work. This doesn't end well when his rival Abbas takes his place, murdering one of Altair's sons and getting his wife killed. While Altair defeats Abbas after twenty years of exile, but by that point Abbas has run Masyaf into the ground with his corruption and incompetence. Ezio later comments that the Brotherhood subsequently organized into underground cells so that they would not become the kind of consolidated, oppressive power against which they often fought.
Yet Ezio's Brotherhood is hardly spotless, and a dispersed collection of Assassin cells still accomplishes the same ends as an imposing mountain fortress of Assassins. Still, this is the one game where Ezio's focus goes beyond revenge. As he works in Constantinople, he researches the works of Niccolo Polo, and he gets the help of the young Italian bookkeeper Sofia. Ezio quickly falls for Sofia, and the attraction goes beyond her physical beauty. Sofia has a passion for knowledge, the search for truth that the Brotherhood touts as their goal. However, Sofia's interests aren't lost in the war between the Assassins and the Templars, and she seeks knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Ezio realizes that it would be wrong to drag her into this conflict and maintains a level of distance for most of the game.
In the end, after his exile from Constantinople, Ezio and Sofia (who was placed in harm's way during the climactic battle) leave together and start a relationship. Ezio's realized that his time as an Assassin has passed, and spends the remainder of his life as a civilian husband and father. The short film Assassin's Creed: Embers offers the definitive conclusion to the character arc, as we see Ezio ten years later in an increasingly decrepit state. He is confronted by a young Assassin from China who seeks his advice, and at first he refuses, desperate to put that life behind him. Yet Ezio eventually sums up what he's learned for her: that the best things he accomplished were not motivated by vengeance, but by love, the desire to unite people towards a common goal and protect those he cared about. It's a fitting summation to Ezio's storied life, acknowledging the good he's done as well as the ill.
Ezio's story concludes as he dies in the piazza where his family was killed so long ago, but the Assassin's Creed story continues in next fall's Assassin's Creed III. The new game features yet another jump forward in time, in this case to the American Revolution. It's unlikely that Assassin's Creed III will be as subdued and contemplative as Revelations, since it needs to establish itself as a new start for the franchise and can't dwell on past continuity or symbolic implications. Revelations serves a vital role in the larger series, and not just for concluding the story of Ezio Auditore. It asks hard questions about the morality the series puts forward, and while it does offer satisfactory answers, the complexity will hopefully influence the way future Assassin's Creed games are designed and played.
Neil Kapit is a freelance writer, cartoonist, and "La Li Lu Le Lo" agent based in Los Angeles. His work can be seen on www.therubynation.com.
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