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I Really Miss The Philosophy Discussions With the People You Murder in the First Assassin's Creed

I Really Miss The Philosophy Discussions With the People You Murder in the First Assassin's Creed

Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise has a lot of interesting ideas and fun concepts to play around with, whether they be surviving very long falls by landing in a bale of hay or meeting (and killing) famed historical figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Richard I, Charles Darwin, the Chevalier d'Éon, Karl Marx, Cleopatra, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Anne Bonny, a couple of gods probably, Maximilien Robespierre, George Washington, George Washington’s brother, and so on and so forth — you get the idea. However, my favourite aspect of the Assassin’s Creed world has got to be the deathbed conversations.

In most of the series, when the player Assassin kills a target, both the killer and the killed are transported to an odd liminal space called the Memory Corridor where they can have one final conversation as the target slowly dies. This has been a consistent aspect of the entire franchise, even having made its way into other titles merely crossing over with Assassin’s Creed, like Watch Dogs: Legion, but the actual style and usage of the Memory Corridors tends to change from game to game. In my opinion, the discussions had in the first Assassin’s Creed were the best part of the experience, hands down, but it’s rare for any of the later games to reach that title’s heights in this regard — though not unheard of — even while the majority of them beat this first instalment in every other category. So then, what happened?

First off, I should probably go into why I loved these specific Memory Corridor scenes so much. Throughout most of the first Assassin’s Creed, the game is an interesting, if flawed, stealth action experience with a slightly clunky control scheme and an honestly rather intriguing framing device with modern-day sci-fi corporate espionage. The player character in the past, Altaïr Ibn-LaʼAhad, is tasked with assassinating a series of foes that share a dark purpose in the Templar Order and a deep interest in a powerful artefact. For each of these powerful men, Altaïr must explore a section of a given city and learn all that he can to plan out his murder as cleanly as can be. Throughout this investigative progress, Altaïr and the player can learn a variety of interesting things about the targets’ motivations and desires, but everything learned is second hand and it’s rare for anyone to speak directly about the force these people serve behind the scenes. That’s not so bad, since these targets are ultimately meant to be killed and moved on from, so the player wouldn’t necessarily need to learn too much about them.

However, once Altaïr has killed a given target, the two of them get that chance to speak, turning their clash of blades into a clash of ideals. What caught me here was how willing the dead men were to speak, to present their points of view to Altaïr and support their arguments with reason and rhetoric. On occasion, they even seem right in a way, like when they point out that Altaïr, as a man who is blindly following orders to kill them and who believes that this evil deed of his is in fact just due to his following of a grander design, has no grounds with which to judge their deeds.

Nearly all of the conclusions that these characters reach still ring hollow as they use their desires for justice, peace, ideals, and happiness to justify their facististic search for power and order, but it’s not impossible to see when they do actually have a specific point and where they went wrong. Like, yes, it’s important to stock food for lean times so that it can be properly rationed out and feed everyone for the sake of survival, but doing so by stealing the people’s food and refusing to elaborate on why in a public forum only really leads to those same people starving and becoming willing to do desperate things for the sake of getting food. Yes, leaving the poor and suffering to wallow in the streets and prisons is undeniably a bad thing, but so is attempting to perform medical experiments on them in an attempt to “fix” their minds while only offering them aid if they take part. In many of these discussions, the targets point out real societal problems, like neglect, hypocrisy, or discrimination, but the ends they choose to seek instead reveal that the utopia they’re after is one where they are in control. What does it matter if your city has no crime if the way you got there was by performing state-sanctioned brainwashing on every single person you thought could be a problem?

Assassins Creed Sibrand Death

Being able to explore these conversations and interrogate what these men say and think is deeply interesting to me, especially with how it allows Assassin’s Creed to really delve deep into its themes. With it taking place in that liminal space between life and death, it feels as though these enemies and Altaïr are at their most honest with each other and sharing a final connection that surpasses their bloody ends. However, what is truly special here is in how Altaïr develops as a character after each death scene. He starts the game as a braggart who has bought into the Assassins’ ideology completely, but he comes to question certain aspects of how he is meant to use his Creed and live in society, taking in his enemies’ points of view, internalising their good points and ignoring their bad ones until he becomes capable of understanding how he has been lied to by people within his own organisation that have been using their ideals for the sake of that very same grab for power. It’s not always the most clear story, but I love the deeply philosophical bent that Assassin’s Creed has. Both Altaïr and the Templars he kills are excellent orators, even when speaking lies, but I still came away from the game mentally engaged in a way that makes me feel like I’ve been in a philosophy course for an hour. The discussions are far from perfect and don’t ever truly fully explore their concepts, but it’s a great jumping-off point, especially with how even Altaïr’s perspective is shown to be flawed.

Yet, in many of the titles following this first Assassin’s Creed, these discussions turn from interesting and thought-provoking to simple and mechanical. Assassin’s Creed II, for instance, is more interested in exploring new protagonist Ezio Auditore’s feelings and viewpoint outside of these conversations, leaving the Memory Corridors for one-liners, interrogations of physical details like where a given item or person is, and the ever-repeated phrase “requiescat in pace.” In this game, it’s not so bad, since the various targets get their preview scenes summarising who they are and what they’ve done as well as the special voiced letters obtained after slaying them. With these aspects, it’s clear that Assassin’s Creed II is going for a different style that works better for its protagonist, though it does often leave the targets feeling more hollow. This is then only worsened in Brotherhood, where it’s rare to get anything out of a Memory Corridor death scene other than “requiescat in pace,” and when there is something else said, it is too short to be worthwhile.

Revelations turns things around a little, but its Memory Corridor scenes, while visually interesting in their darker tones, are mostly speeches delivered by the targets, with little actual discussion that directly pinpoints the errors in their judgement. It also doesn’t help that most of these scenes feature the exact same camerawork.

Assassins Creed Syndicate Memory Corridor

At the same time, some of the later entries actually do quite well with this concept. Liberation, Black Flag, Syndicate, and Rogue all do their own thing, some more solidly than others. I still enjoy them all, but they each have one issue or another that holds them back from being perfect for me — Rogue’s are sometimes too single-minded and don’t give Shay enough time to question his actions, Syndicate’s tend toward the boring outside of a few notable exceptions, Black Flag’s take a little long to actually get interesting (though once Edward actually engages with the conversations, they offer some unique perspectives that I wish I’d gotten to see more of), and Liberation’s best conversations between Aveline and those she kills happen outside of the Memory Corridors (though also Liberation’s Corridors definitely look interesting with their orange glows). There’s also Unity, which went for more of a “reading people’s scattered memories” sort of reward for killing targets. There’s definitely an engaging mystery aspect to this, though it often results in flatter villains, in my personal opinion.

In the more recent titles, these Memory Corridor death scenes have evolved a fair bit further, becoming full-fledged action scenes in Origins and Valhalla that really play a lot with the concept in interesting ways that are incredible in their own right — making their points more through visual metaphor than a direct discussion of ideals, though they still have those sometimes. I don’t mean to discredit these at all though. This direction, while not my personal favourite, is far more immediately engaging and can really do a great job of delving into the inherent horror of death. It’s only that I miss the discussions that were had in the original title.

Of course, that’s ignoring Odyssey, which did away with the death scene Memory Corridors entirely. There are still discussions between the player character and their enemies, of course, but everything is pre-mortem, when the target still believes that they will defeat their opponent and is not yet alone with their ideology and ended perspective. I was worried at the time that these would be gone for good and that I would never see another interesting interpretation, but thankfully, Valhalla has proved me wrong there.

Plus, even though all of these games hadn’t quite nailed these deathbed philosophy debates in the same charming way that the first title had, they had other methods of making stronger characters. This also wasn’t always done with the greatest consistency, but many of them were able to make their villains much more active characters in their plots outside of the brief time the player has to kill them — a fantastic upgrade from the first game, which really holds off on exploring most of its villains until the player meets them in the Memory Corridor.

Assassins Creed III Pitcairn Death

However, while I deeply love the conversations held in the first Assassin’s Creed and have found most of the subsequent releases to not quite scratch the same itch for me, there is one title in the franchise that is a truly incredible successor: Assassin’s Creed III. I won’t go into as much detail as I had for the first Assassin’s Creed, but suffice it to say that the third instalment knocks that game out of the park. The Memory Corridors are as stylish as ever, even if the characters themselves don’t move around as much. The conversations themselves have advanced even further, exploring more interesting questions and concepts that the original’s scenes didn’t get to, even when they are directly comparable.

Heck, even though both feature a target that represents hedonistic desires, I found Assassin’s Creed III’s rendition far more fascinating! In the original Assassin’s Creed, the target Majd Addin reveals that he was driven by a desire for power, claiming that he executed others merely because he could do so and that anyone in his position would do the same. This is an interesting parallel to some players — even potentially Altaïr himself — and can reframe some of the other powerful targets faced before and after then: most of them have cruelly killed the people they are meant to be protecting (especially in highly visible social events), so how can we trust that what they claim as their motivations are really true? Are these dastardly despots not also driven to these dirty deeds by their demonstratable desires for deplorable demises? However, a large part of the game itself inherently involves limiting who the player can or should kill. Only those explicitly marked as enemies and targets can even be murdered without penalty and outside of specifically-marked activities, it’s usually better to sneak around enemies than to kill them. The player does not kill indiscriminately and is really only using violence when asked or ordered to — not a good defence for violence and murder by any means, but far from Addin’s clear abuse of power. Additionally, while that adds a new element to the other targets, it also offers a clear option to assume they are the same as Addin and dismiss all of their justifications and rationale without thought — a dangerous prospect.

Comparatively, Assassin’s Creed III’s Thomas Hickey doesn’t even try to claim that everyone wants the same things as him. He is clear and direct about his desires: he wants to drink and fornicate and he does not care what he does to support that lifestyle. However, rather than simply say, “hey, yeah, I don’t care about any of this; I just want to do whatever,” Hickey actually makes a proper argument in support of his hedonism: the great ideals of the Assassins and Templars are, in fact, too great, with worldwide change being impossible to achieve in a single lifetime, if not in general. So why not merely aspire to tangible, earthly pleasures rather than dream of an end that you’ll never reach? With a thought process like that, I know that, even if I myself cannot agree with his morality, I also cannot deny that Hickey died happy and fulfilled, which seems to be all he ever wanted.

The other assassination-borne philosophy debates in Assassin’s Creed III also tend towards being interesting and thought-provoking, featuring a wide cast of targets that each seem to have their own actual desires outside of their common goal, and I couldn’t be happier with that. Even if every future title continues with the more cinematic and admittedly still incredible death scenes seen in Origins and Valhalla, I’ll still be happy that I got to see what feels like a full refinement of my favourite concept from the original game. I do still really miss the philosophy discussions with the people you murder in the first Assassin’s Creed, but with Assassin’s Creed III around, I think I’ll be pleased enough as it is.

Erin McAllister

Erin McAllister

Staff Writer

Erin is a massive fan of mustard, writes articles that are too long, and is a little bit sorry about the second thing.

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