Assassin's Creed and the Heroic Arc

I’m going to talk about the ending of Assassin’s Creed III.
You have been warned.

I just finished Assassin’s Creed III late last night. Don’t ask, “How late?”

I felt uneasy with this entire final installment of the franchise. The ending was satisfying, from a story-telling standpoint, but terribly, terribly sad. I’ve been trying to pin down the causes for the sadness. They are many, and multi-layered.

Before anyone gets weird on me, yes, I’m aware it’s “just a video game.” But it’s a video-game medium for telling a story, and stories can certainly make me cry. Indeed, stories are the things that make us feel the most.

The sadness first appeared for me when Connor made his appearance, and persisted. With Connor — the half-breed son of Haytham Kenway and Kaniehti:io — I felt a rush of exactly the same sadness I felt in the three prequels of the Star Wars series, and for much the same reason. It was the sadness of knowing that the story ends in blood.

At some point in the past, I picked up the soundtrack for the Star Wars prequels, and listening to them, I noticed something that I hadn’t noticed at all in the films. Everyone knows John Williams’ The Empire Strikes Back theme: bum bum bum bum pa-dum bum pa-dum. If you say those syllables out loud, you can hear the theme in your head. Darth Vader’s theme. Powerful. Militaristic. Soulless. Cruel.

Get the soundtrack to the first prequel, and listen to Anakin’s Theme: Anakin Skywalker being the child who eventually becomes Darth Vader in the story. I cried when I first realized what John Williams had done in this music, because Anakin’s Theme is exactly the same melody as Darth Vader’s Theme. But it is innocent, gentle, completely without guile or evil. You search for the roots of Darth Vader’s soullessness in Anakin’s theme, and it simply isn’t there. The only foreshadowing in the music is a touch of sadness.

That sadness runs through the three films of the prequel. We know that Anakin is fated to become Darth Vader, because we’ve seen the future. Every victory in the prequels is hollow, every happiness is tinged with sadness, every momentary joy is clouded with horror. The Jedi are to be murdered and scattered, no matter how valiant they are. Anakin’s romance with Princess Amidala is doomed from before they ever met. Senator Palpatine will not be defeated by any of the heroes, nor by Anakin, nor by Yoda himself — he will become the Emperor and the symbol of all power-sought-for-the-sake-of-power throughout the galaxy.

I think this was the reason American audiences could not tolerate the Star Wars prequels — apart from Jar-Jar Binks, of course, who was intolerable in his own right. But even without Jar-Jar, the weight of doom hung over all three prequels: we knew how it was going to end. Not happily.

This was what I felt from the moment Connor appeared, because I knew how the tale of the American Indian turns out. Well, not really — the tribes exist to this day, and will likely outlast the descendants of Europeans in this land. But that lies in a future that I cannot see. The future that I could see — the future for Connor’s 18th-century character, and his people — was bleak. His quest to save his people was hopeless from before the moment he was conceived. He did not know this. But we — the audience — do.

Patricide was prefigured in his birth.

This struggle against Fate is a frequent subject of the ancient myths, and of the deepest stories of Western Civilization. Our modern conceit is that stories have happy endings. In the older stories, this is rarely the case. Cassandra is consumed by madness. King Midas starves in the midst of wealth, alone. Hector and Achilles are slain. Oedipus slays his father and takes his own mother to his bed. The Gods of Asgard face Ragnarok, and they lose. King Arthur is slain by his own son, and Camelot is lost.

The makers of Assassin’s Creed III captured this well-nigh perfectly in the final cinematic sequences of the game.

The assassination of Charles Lee over a shared bottle of whiskey was a masterful touch, playing out a relationship not unlike the relationship between The Batman and The Joker in Bruce Miller’s Dark Knight vision. They were all that either had left in a world that had moved on. Charles Lee, disgraced, sidelined, washed-up, important only in the ravings of the elder (deceased, defeated) Haytham Kenway, a Templar who had clearly lost his connection with the real world; Connor, a half-breed native whose heritage was nothing more than a vile epithet in the mouths and minds of the people now taking the land. The abiding hatred between these two men was the strongest bond either of them had left: indeed, in that last scene, they were closer than brothers, forehead-to-forehead. In the end, Connor had to kill Lee, but only because he had vowed to do so. There was nothing else left. No hatred. No fear. No resistance. No passion. Just a vow to be fulfilled.

The moment when this all came home for me was when Connor cleaned out the basement of the Davenport estate, and threw it all in the fire. At this point, everything is gone. Everything. His friends are gone. His enemies are gone. His people have left their land. And now, even the memories of the plots, the schemes, the characters, the victories, the defeats: all are put into the fire. All he has left is the pain of old injuries.

Even his name is gone: the final resting-place for the all-important amulet he has taken from Lee is buried in the grave of Connor Davenport — not his own grave, but the grave of the child after whom his mentor had named him, a detail that appears only at the end of the story. Even his name is taken from him: it never belonged to him at all.

This is the arc of the heroic journey. Joseph Campbell wrote about this in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell discusses the hero-journey at length and in detail, but at the end, the hero must return to his people, only to die, ultimately to be forgotten.

My first full introduction to this arc — I must have been in junior high school when I read it the first time — was The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, and it remains my favorite story. Tolkien handles this return gently — certainly more gently than Assassin’s Creed — but it is exactly the same arc. Even Frodo and Sam, and Merry and Pippin, who have engaged only as small people in a much larger world, must come home again to a still smaller world: a world where they almost no longer belong. In the end, Gandalf and the High Elves and much of the magic of Middle Earth set sail to the True West, never to return. Only the lesser beings may remain. Sam, and Merry, and Pippin. Aragorn, mortal and last of a dying line of heroes. Arwen Evenstar, who has given up her immortality.

You. And me.

The fate of all successful heroes is to become irrelevant, and to be forgotten.

I was much less moved by the intellectual conceit of Juno and Minerva as machine-bound intelligences from an earlier age. It was an interesting ending, in that Desmond chooses to allow Juno to go free and rule the world: this seems inconsistent with the radical individualism of the Assassins, but so consistent with what I have to call the sentimentality (combined with hubris) that pervades modern US American ethics. As Desmond says in as many words, “We’ll figure out some way to stop her.”

He clearly does not understand the powers of a Djinn.

Of course, the Ubisoft folks were setting themselves up for their next project, which will doubtless be a futuristic dystopia in which Juno rules and a small band of rebels — Assassins, maybe, or a Templar/Assassin united underground — seeks to overthrow her onerous rule. To take Minerva’s route and let the world die would be to kill the franchise completely. Ah, sweet Mammon….

Connor’s story was not touched by the franchise requirements. His is the more authentic story, and the sadder because of it.

This entry was posted in General.

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