Assassin’s Creed: What Went Wrong? – Wisecrack Edition
“Nothing is True. Everything is Permitted.” If you’re an Assassin’s Creed fan like us, you’ve probably heard this phrase parroted by the Assassin’s Order numerous times. Does this motto reveal something essential about the Assassins’ ideology? Or is it just deliberately cryptic nonsense? In this Wisecrack Edition, we dive in to the book from which the mantra was lifted, Vladimir Bartol’s 1939 novel Alamut, to explore how the philosophical backbone of this classic translated to the Assassin’s Creed franchise in a rather confusing manner. This questionable handling of philosophical material isn’t enough to hurt the games, but it ends up REALLY hurting the movie. Find out how!
Written by: Thomas Ambrosini
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Edited by: Mark Potts
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Dean Bottino
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
Assassin’s Creed: What Went Wrong? – Wisecrack Edition
What’s up, everyone? Jared, again. Here at Wisecrack, we adore Assassin’s Creed. Ubisoft’s hallmark series combines our love for history, science fiction, and fast-paced action all into one package. Sure, some games have been hilariously glitchy and depressingly underwhelming, but overall, the series has remained a steadfast favorite of ours. So when many of you asked for a “Philosophy of” video, we were really, really tempted. But there’s just one problem: while the games include historical titans like Machiavelli and Benjamin Franklin, there’s really not much in the way of philosophy, here. Of course, there’s the Assassin’s mantra, “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” But no matter how far we dive into the series, this idea is never really developed through the plot. Instead, it’s more or less just lip service that serves as a background for a game about killing popes, redcoats, pirates, and so on. Yeah, it is insanely fun. This slightly changes with the arrival of the Assassin’s Creed movie. Unlike the rest of the series, the vague philosophy of “everything is permitted” has no gameplay to hide behind. And when the movie tries to make sense of this mantra — “Todo esta permitido.” Well, it doesn’t quite work.
So, sit back and let us tell you the story of how a 1939 Slovenian novel became the philosophical backbone for Assassin’s Creed — sorta. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Assassin’s Creed: What Went Wrong (Mostly the movie.) And of course, spoilers ahead! “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” If you’ve played any of the games, you’ve heard this phrase, and it probably got your philosophy sense tingling. To explain how this mantra makes little sense in the games, and no sense in the movie, we first have to consider where the game lifted it from: Vladimir Bartol’s relatively obscure book, “Alamut.” As it turns out, “Alamut” is the most translated Slovenian text in the world, and honestly, we can’t recommend it enough. It is a gem, full of rich characterization and deep philosophy. The novel centers around the eponymous Iranian castle of Alamut in the eleventh century, controlled by the Ismaili prophet, Hassan-I Sabbah. While Ismailism is a real branch of Shia Islam, and Hassan a real historical figure, Bartol chose to fictionalize both. In the book, Hassan’s followers believe he possesses the literal keys to Paradise, but Hassan himself believes only in rational thought and empirical truths. In order to control his followers, he deceives them by drugging them with opiates and delivering them to artfully constructed gardens and harems meant to emulate Heaven. In doing so, Hassan has created a fervent army of “hashshashin,” or as we know them today, “assassins.” Hassan’s guiding belief? “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” This mantra is the supposed philosophical underpinning of the entire Assassin’s Creed franchise.
See, the series explores the age-old conflict between two ideologically opposed, fictionalized groups: the Assassins and the Knights Templar. Whereas the Assassins venerate free will, the Templars are obsessed with enslaving mankind. To this end, the groups vie for control over the Apples of Eden, remnants of a lost, higher civilization that supposedly contain the origins of man’s free will. The Assassins want to safeguard the Apples, while the Templars want to use them to make mankind obey their will. We have a similar situation play out in the film, when convicted murderer Callum Lynch wakes up in the Abstergo Foundation’s laboratory, a modern day front for the Templars. With the help of a machine called the Animus, “Prepare the Animus.” Cal must relive the life of his fifteenth century ancestor — an Assassin named Aguilar — and find the Apple. For such a rich concept, one might be wondering why the Assassin’s Creed film is such a train wreck, or why the original trilogy of Assassin’s Creed games had such an underwhelming ending. While many of you might chalk it all up to bad writing — “There’s an open menu, but we do recommend the chicken.” — which is definitely part of it, we think there’s something more going on.
See, the series never fleshes out the Assassin’s motivations or what really lies behind their conflict with the Templars. These issues are really just symptoms of a larger problem: the franchise’s confused handling of the philosophy behind “Alamut.” First of all, where “Alamut” sees this mantra being spouted by a guy trying to enslave people, Assassin’s Creed decides to assign it to the Assassins, who are allegedly fighting for freedom. And it’s not exactly an uplifting code to live by, especially for the supposed “good guys.” “Where other men blindly follow the truth, remember…” “Nothing is true.” “Where other men are limited by their morality or law, remember…” “Everything is permitted.” If this seems extreme to you, that’s because this, on the surface, seems like an argument for moral nihilism, in which all moral judgements are false because there’s no underlying truth to them. “We believe in nothing, Lebowski. Nothing!”
Want to push Grandma down the stairs? Sure, go right ahead. Nothing matters! Although the franchise uses this quote to establish a conflict between free will and slavery, that’s not what this quote is referring to. If the whole “everything is permitted” thing strikes you as a belief that a villain should hold — well, there’s good reason for that: it comes from Hassan-I Sabbah, the Ismaili prophet and chief antagonist of “Alamut.” Hassan is ultimately a tragic figure, a man whose intellect and ambition have robbed him of happiness. Taking a page of from Descartes, Hassan believes that emotions, truth, and even God are all misunderstandings born out of man’s imperfect senses. This crippling realization leaves him feeling empty and alone. The only thing that can make him feel alive again is gambling his own fate and the fate of others, which is why he built his army. To Hassan, nothing is sacred, and therefore, there is nothing he won’t do in his pursuit of power. So, what does Hassan do once he discovers that nothing is true? He comes to the conclusion that religion is just the intentional manipulation of the masses for their own good. Prophets like Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad recognized man’s frailty and, out of pity, crafted concepts such as heaven and paradise to comfort them. Mankind, according to Hassan, cares nothing for justice or truth – only their own comfort and convenience. Consequently, he believes that he’s entitled to use religion to deceive and control his followers, and in the process, do good by them.
Now, the problem here is that this is the exact credo of the Templars — control the masses for their own good — even though it’s the Assassins that are parroting Hassan’s motto. These muddled motivations may not matter too much in a game, but it ends up really mattering in a movie, where the audience needs a clear division between protagonist and antagonist. And at the end of the day, why are the Assassins the good guys? Aside from the cult-like ritual that opens the film and the constant repetition of their one-line philosophy, the Assassins Brotherhood isn’t explored as an organization at all. After a two hour film, we don’t know anything more about them than what we learned from the floating text given to us at the movie’s start: the Templars are bad, and the Assassins are trying to stop them. This is the only way the movie tries to convince us that the Assassins are the good guys – by making sure we know that the Templars are definitely the villains. And boy, are the Templars evil. Here is a secret, ancient organization disguised as the multi-billion dollar Abstergo Corporation. It’s got all the trappings of an elite villainous super group: a modern, concrete facility complete with white halogen lights, higher-ups who refer to themselves as elders, “Our work belongs to the elders. This is their finest hour.” some cookie-cutter lines about controlling the masses, “The threat remains, while free will exists.” and a leader played by Jeremy Irons.
So once again, the Templars are bad, but why are the Assassins good? This is the question we keep coming back to, and it goes back to the philosophy informing the conflict between Assassins and Templars. Because, as the movie reveals, the two are, ideologically, very similar. Both sides are just reflections of Hassan-I Sabbah’s ideology. Although we’re being a little generous to the Assassins here, since the movie doesn’t really bother to give them a clear motivation outside the motto they lifted from Hassan. In the film, we see the Templars controlling the masses just like Hassan did. They use the Spanish Inquisition as a front to solidify their power and commit some truly heinous crimes: raiding houses, murdering innocents, and torching people alive. Hassan did the same thing, using the Ismaili doctrine to create a fanatical army that literally tortures its captured enemies. And while the Templars no longer use religion to control the masses, they use something else: a corporation. “For centuries, we’re tried — with religion, with politics, and now consumerism — to eliminate dissent.”
That’s right, Templars control the masses through consumerism and ease of life. But even this is another reflection of Hassan’s dangerous philosophy. The Supreme Commander of the Ismaili faith frequently compares his religion to a machine, one which turns food, shelter, and comfort into a deadly army. Having both a protagonist and an antagonist with the same motivations isn’t just boring, it’s plain bad. Of course, as the movie’s chief source material, the games are guilty of this as well. And perhaps, nowhere is this more evident than in Assassin’s Creed 3. In the game, Desmond Miles has escaped control of Abstergo, but is still using the Animus to access the memories of his 18th century Ancestor, Haytham Kenway. For the first couple of hours of the game, we go through the all the familiar motions: climbing on buildings, stabbing people with our hidden blade, and chatting with our comrades about how “The Order” is going to make the world a better place. The twist? Well, this Order is actually the Order of the Templars. “Wait, what?” Yep, Haytham is actually a Templar.
But because the Assassin’s ideology, and their motto, is so vague, we couldn’t tell the difference between whether we were playing a Templar or an Assassin. Or, in the first game, Desmond is forced to relive the memories of his 12th century ancestor, Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad. Altaïr is a high-ranking Assassin who disgraces himself and is forced to redeem himself by assassinating high-ranking Templars. The twist, here, is that Altaïr’s boss and the leader of the Assassins, Al Mualim, has been working with both the Assassins and the Templars to acquire the Apple of Eden for himself. Like the chapter with Kenway, this shows us how ideologically indistinct the Assassins are. Without any real moral or ideological substance behind their motto, Al Mualim was able to convince the Assassins, and the player, to kill his enemies by simply labeling them as Templars. It’s almost as if the Assassins, here, were like the Ismaili faith being manipulated by Hassan, except they inexplicably hold the same view: “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” So here’s the big question, guys and gals. We have a franchise whose central conflict is kind of a mess. So, why do we love scaling some of the tallest buildings across Europe and the Middle East, while we nearly pulled our hair out watching Fassbender deliver another uninspired line?
Well, the best we can come up with is the difference in agency between films and video games. In films, we’re not active participants, so it’s mainly the narrative that keeps us interested. Sure, choreography, lighting, set design, and a whole host of other factors keep us tuned in, but ultimately, it’s the story that we watch for. As such, films mostly live and die by the quality of their narratives. Whether it’s The Shawshank Redemption or The Bee Movie, a film primarily succeeds by having a dynamic protagonist whose journey has a beginning, middle, and end. Video games, however, are different because we play them. They don’t need a story to be engaging, as long the gameplay mechanics are enjoyable. Wonder how a game like Flappy Bird can become a worldwide sensation overnight, generating $50,000 a day in revenue? Simple, stupidly addictive gameplay. Which means we’re naturally more forgiving when a video game slips up. Don’t want to watch the plot unfold? Push A, skip the cutscene, and go back to slashing throats.
This is why we think the Assassin’s Creed franchise stands up so well as a game, when it falls right on its face as a film. In the movie, we couldn’t care less about Cal or Aguilar scaling buildings or assassinating priests, precisely because the film doesn’t bother to create an engaging narrative to hook us. Would I rather watch two emotionally dead-eyed characters hop between buildings like a Chinese acrobat, or would I rather control a character, and do it myself? I think the choice here is obvious. So, while the games will forever remain a favorite of ours, we think we’ll pass if they ever make another Assassin’s Creed movie. Until next time, stay good, guys.