The Philosophy of Assassin’s Creed Rogue Remastered – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Assassin’s Creed Rogue Remastered!
Written by: Leo Cookman
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Mark Potts
Motion Graphics by: Dean Bottino
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Assassin’s Creed Rogue Remastered – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared as always. So Ubisoft recently reached out to us about doing something for the newly remastered version of Assassin’s Creed Rogue for PS4 and Xbox One. Lucky for them, we’ve gotten a lot of AC requests over the years, and lucky for us, Rogue has a unique perspective on eternal struggle between the Assassins and Templars, and how it relates to the complicated nature of freedom. Throughout the series the value of freedom is placed above all else. “How else will we ensure freedom for the human race?” The assassins, we’re told, are fighting the good fight against those devious Templars who are trying to rule the world with an iron fist. While freedom is nearly universally celebrated in society and media, cue the legally safe William Wallace knock-off, “FREEEEDOM!” through its protagonist Shay Cormac, Assassin’s Creed: Rogue asks an interesting and unique question: when does freedom go too far?
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Assassin’s Creed: Rogue. And, as always, some minor spoilers ahead. First a quick recap. Rogue takes place around the numerically challenged Seven Years’ War and somewhere between Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed 3. We follow fledgling Assassin Shay Cormac, a trouble maker who begins to question the Assassin Order’s methods. “Laurence Washington is dead” “You look disappointed” “The sickly way that man looked. He’d have been dead in a month anyway.” He continues to struggle with defending his creed until halfway through the game, he is given an assignment to find a Piece of Eden an ancient object said to bestow God like power and wisdom. “Be careful Shay, Pieces of Eden are powerful relics.” When Shay tries to retrieve it, he triggers the infamous Lisbon earthquake of 1755 that killed thousands. “What’s the next city you want me to smite. What happened in Haiti happened in Portugal a great earthquake! Thousands dead!”
He confronts the Assassins who deny culpability for the earthquake, even though they were aware that the same thing had caused the devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince five years earlier. Shay argues that, “Who are you to decide what city falls next,” but the Assassins argue that, “We have the responsibility!” So Shay flees the Brotherhood. After being injured in his escape he is nursed back to health by an elderly couple who turn out to be Templars. Shay is then recruited by the Templars, and sent to kill his former Assassin bretheren. In most Assassin’s Creed games we’re told the Templars are evil because they oppose freedom, and the Assassins are good because they fight for freedom, which is best embodied in their mantra: “Nothing is True, Everything is permitted.” But AC Rogue, by showing the inner workings of both sides, explores the paradoxical nature of freedom, and the shortcomings of the Assassin’s belief system.
Sure, the Assassins seem noble; after all, you don their mantle as you fight against the corruption of the church and history’s other bad-guys. But just how benign is the saying “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted?” When you consider the events of Rogue, the Assassins’ disposition toward absolute freedom starts to look a bit questionable. We can best understand why through the concept of positive freedom. Positive freedom is the freedom to do something, and to self-determine what that something is. It’s the freedom to choose to blast weird German techno whenever you want That’s different than negative freedom – the freedom from certain external forces, like the freedom from your roommate Brad telling you to stop blasting weird German techno at 2 AM. Or Brad commandeering your stereo. “The problem with unlimited freedom is that it often comes in conflict with the rights and freedoms of others. While you may be the master of your own fate, what if your actions limit the freedom of others? What if Brad can’t be the master of his own destiny because he hasn’t gotten any sleep after the unceasing onslaught of Autobahn every night until 2AM? And, if you reject any limitations on the freedom from outside interference, or negative freedom, who’s going to step in to help Brad get some sleep?”
If “Everything is permitted” then people might not agree with when and how I want to listen to music. The Templars address this problem of freedom by negating it altogether. They, in essence, don’t believe in the value of positive freedom, that people can make their own decisions, or negative freedom, that they should be free from despotic control. Their philosophy is, essentially, that the freedom of one person will ultimately end up rubbing against someone else’s, and so such freedom must be restricted. Philosopher Isiah Berlin highlights one way in which the self-determination of positive freedom can have horrific results. Freedom, for Berlin, can often be defined collectively with others. Groups, tribes, or even nations can set out to define their own destiny. And that’s where things get a little tricky, since in the name of a collective freedom many have decided to repress minority groups – the German people collectively yearned for the freedom to determine their national destiny, but, well, we all know how that turned out for certain groups in Europe. Obviously the assassins and the nazis are about as similar as Motzart and Fred Durst, but the assassins are willing to sacrifice the freedom of some for the sake of freedom for everybody.
If we are all free to do whatever the hell we want, and the Assassins don’t mind earthquakes killing thousands, then is absolute Freedom really the ultimate good? The Templars seem to understand this problem with positive freedom, with people being their own masters, so they actively try to suppress it in the name of a better world. “What marvelous destruction captain, I saw the smoke all the way from the Morrigan” “That should put a stop to those miscreants. New York is safe for now,” And, as Rogue shows, they’re not as misguided as one may think. Paradoxically, certain rights and freedoms can be enhanced with a heavy hand from say, the government or the Templars. So for instance, by limiting someone’s freedom to enslave another person, law can instate a better version of freedom not predicated on owning other humans. We see this conundrum in other AC games, such as Black Flag where the British templars crack down on the Pirates you play as in the name of safer seas, and liberty for would-be pirate victims. The Templars believe they know best and that order can be achieved through guidance and rule, but this isn’t exactly a perfect ideology either. The total control of individuals for the sake of the greater good leads to your typical Big-Brother dystopian nightmare. So while causing earthquakes, stealing fortunes and slitting throats is okay if “Nothing is True, Everything is permitted,” the polar opposite is that we should all be thanking our masters for living under a jackboot. But hey, at least they’re open about it.
What makes Rogue unique is that Shay distances himself from the dogmatic belief structures that characterize the protagonists of previous games and embraces a rationally informed moral choice. But does Shay make the right choice? To figure that out, we’ll need help from one of the big dawgs of the European Enlightenment- Immanuel Kant. During the Enlightenment, Kant formulated a way to ground morality in reason instead of religion or custom known as the ‘Categorical Imperative’. So let’s see how Shay’s decision stacks up. “The first formulation: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can… will that it should become a universal law,” sort of boils down to ‘Do Unto Others’. So, if you want to know if killing people and then searching their bodies for loot is moral, you should consider what will happen if everyone follows this rule. The second is to “Act in such a way that you treat humanity… never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” This essentially means, life is the highest value in and of itself, so never harm others or exploit them as a mean to achieve some “bigger” goal. The final rule says that “the will of every rational being” should be thought of “as a universally legislating will.”
Which ties the first two together and suggests that there is a universal reason or logic that we can all access through our own rationality. It also offers a framework that includes a sense of freedom – since every person is capable of participating in this kind of moral reasoning – without some of the dangers of the Templars or Assassins, where people become freedomless pawns to their grand plans, even if, paradoxically, freedom is part of that grand plan. According to Kant, no action or morals are ethical if they contradict these three rules, so let’s see how Shay scores against the Assassins. Shay defects because he believes that by causing an Earthquake and justifying it as part of their ‘responsibility’, the Assassins have done a grave injustice. This act violates the first formulation because it implies killing thousands for your own ends, which could never be a universal ethical act. One point for Shay. zero for the Assassins.
The Assassins are also saying those lives are acceptable sacrifices for their greater goal, a violation of the 2nd principle, because using people as a means to an end is a big no-no. Another point for Shay. And finally, through their belief in total Freedom, the Assassins are trampling on people’s legislative will by ignoring their own agency and literally destroying their homes and autonomous lives, which contradicts Kant’s third formulation. Shay wants no part of it. So 3 points for Shay. Zero for the Assassins. So what can we learn from Shay’s decision? That fighting for freedom is not so simple. By pursuing their own freedom, the assassins have destroyed the freedoms of others. But by rejecting the indoctrinated philosophy of “nothing is true. everything is permitted,” Shay could be the few ethical heroes of the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
Unfortunately for Shay, the Templars aren’t exactly model citizens either. In the name of regulating freedom for the greater good, the Templars do plenty of deplorable things. While we see them helping local people in various places, “Now let’s use some of that money for the good of the city,” and stopping the Assassins from committing what amounts to a war crime. “There is an abandoned factory nearby holding a dangerous poison.” We also see them lie, maim and kill in the name of their own creed. In the end, the same sense of moral dubiousness follows the Templars as much as the Assassins, “When I’m issued new recruits burdened with regerets, I tell them the surest way to lost them is with gunpowder,” with them both contradicting Kant’s Imperative by using people as a means to their own ends and killing those who stand in their way.
AC Rogue’s more nuanced exploration of freedom, good, and evil is a welcome addition to the series. Shay’s decision to betray the Assassins brings the philosophies of both factions under scrutiny and makes the player view each in an entirely new light. Was this moral ambivalence about freedom always there? Have we been playing as the ‘Bad Guys’ all along? Here’s to hoping this complex question gets explored in future installments. But until then, be sure to check out the remastered version of Assassin’s Creed Rogue out now on Xbox One and Ps4. Thanks to Ubisoft for giving us this opportunity, and as always, thanks for watching.