The latest trailer for the upcoming Assassin’s Creed movie, starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Irons, hit last week. I’ve been playing the games, in order, since 2013 and from what we’ve seen of the film so far, it looks to be a fun, pretty faithful adaptation. There’s historical locations, conspiracies, ancestral DNA-based virtual reality systems, hoodies, stabbing, jumping off tall buildings. That’s pretty much the Assassin’s Creed recipe.
But for a game best known for its signature hoodies, jumping, and stabbing, there’s a surprising amount of backstory to the Assassin’s Creed games—and a surprising amount of that backstory seems to feature prominently in the movie. So, with a wide-band spoiler warning firmly in place, I’m going to take you through a quick tour of what I think we’re being shown in the trailers and through the principle tenets of the series. Welcome, newcomers! Find a nice cathedral to climb, put your best hoodie on, take a minute to reflect on the fact that Ezio was the best leading character ever, and get ready to take a leap of faith into the middle of Assassin’s Creed…
Let’s talk about the character of Callum (played by Michael Fassbender) for a minute. He’s a newcomer to the franchise but his path is the same as a lot of the previous protagonists. Here’s how it goes: a test subject is identified by Abstergo Industries (we’ll get to them) and brought in for testing. Once it’s confirmed that the subject is a modern day descendant of an assassin, they’re placed in an Animus (more on that further down, too) and regressed back to the life experiences of their ancestor. Then they must work through the ancestor’s life as an Assassin (keep reading!). The longer they do this, the more the ancestor’s memories and experiences bleed through and overlap with their own. That’s why we see Callum and his ancestor (Aguilar de Nerha, also played by Fassbender) in the same place in some shots and also why, at the end of the trailer, Callum and Team Hoodie are glimpsed in the modern day, in captivity but with their assassin skills very much sharpened and ready to go.
The Assassin Order
Founded around 465 BCE, the best way to describe the Assassins is as extremely violent, careful societal gardeners. Where the Templars (explained below—I promise we don’t have much more of these!) want to build a perfect world, the Assassins want us to find that perfect world using our own free will. The two groups have been at war down throughout human history and their antagonism can be perfectly summed up in the Assassin’s Creed itself: Nothing is true, everything is permitted.
Assassins can be drawn from any walk of life, any ethnicity, and from any point in the gender spectrum. While the lead of the original trilogy, Desmond Miles, is a white American man, you also play as his ancestors, which include the Syrian assassin (and later mentor to the Order) Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, Florentine playboy Ezio Auditore di Firenze, Ratonhnhaké:ton (also known as Connor), the son of an English nobleman, as well as Kaniehtí:io, a Kanien’kehá:ka woman from the village of Kanatahséton in the Mohawk Valley. Female assassins have been a part of the games from an early stage and two later games, Liberation and Syndicate, feature female protagonists (that said, the franchise’s record with female characters has not been stellar at times, as Googling “Assassin’s Creed Unity female character” will demonstrate…)
Assassins tend to be descendants of the First Civilization (see below), which means they have boosted senses and tremendous natural athleticism. The closing shot of Assassins leaping off roofs in the trailer? That’s the Leap of Faith, a colossal free fall that’s used as a mark of someone becoming part of the order and at times serves as the trigger to activate their abilities. It also looks AWESOME.
In all cases, Assassins work in Bureaus, gathering intelligence and assassinating targets in specific areas, often as members of teams. Most notably, Ezio Auditore and Edward Kenway from the Assassins Creed II trilogy and Black Flag, respectively, made extensive strategic use of allies. Although, in fairness, Kenway’s allies were usually shouting at him.
These people are tasked with stopping the Templars from controlling the world, a task which often involves stopping the Templars from acquiring pieces of Eden (this is the last blank I’ll need to fill in here, I SWEAR).
Yes, those Templars, the knights, who would go on from their medieval beginnings to form a vast conspiracy that spans the military, government, industry, medicine, and everything else. Abstergo Industries serves as the Templars’ public face. Essentially, once they realized that military force wouldn’t do the trick, they decided to take over and control the world through capitalism, and that went pretty well.
Name a conspiracy and the Templars will have been behind it. Their war with the Assassins is one that weaves through and defines history itself. Every major historical event we know of has a shadow behind it, and in that shadow, Templars and Assassins go to war. Assassinations, outbreaks, wars, technological innovations—all of it is tied to the struggle between free will and the ultimate big government. Those scientists that we see Callum talking to in the trailer? They’re from Abstergo Industries.
The First Civilization
Buckle up, this is where it gets chewy! I will also be straight-up amazed if any of this is in the movie.
So, we’re not the first civilization on Earth. Just the latest. The originals, The First People (sometimes called the Isu or Those Who Came Before), were incredibly technologically advanced, almost immortal, and knew that “almost” was not close to good enough. A catastrophic solar flare wiped their civilization out and destroyed almost all trace of them.
The reason they weren’t completely wiped out is…well…it’s pretty grim.
You see, first off, the world was ending. A colossal solar flare had been predicted and the First People were frantically looking for ways to save the planet, or at least themselves. One such idea was to use humanity, who they kept as slaves, as biological “back ups.” They were intended to keep the DNA of the First People’s legacy alive. Unfortunately for The First People, the humans also turned out to be immune to their technologies. Adam and Eve attempted to escape and Eve would later lead humanity’s rebellion against their oppressors. This war would carry on through the devastation of the solar flare, which left only about 10,000 humans and far fewer of their opponents alive.
So, ancient advanced race, humans kept as slaves, war for the planet, and imminent destruction of life on Earth. Everyone caught up?
Great! Now let’s talk about…
The Pieces of Eden
First People technology has catastrophic effects on humans. It can control them, kill them, allow their nervous systems to be “hacked” by the First People, sense other First People tech and individuals, and cause incalculable destruction
The First People are (mostly) gone but their technology survives. One “apple” in particular is central to the Desmond Miles games and is ultimately the key to saving the world from a second solar event. Countless other objects have been recovered over the years and Abstergo is obsessed with finding them—to the extent that the Animus Program was used, initially, to do just that. I strongly suspect that Callum and his fellow test subjects are being run through the Animus to locate a Piece of Eden in the movie. We don’t see anything that confirms this possibility in the trailer but that’s Abstergo’s most common use for the Animus—at least at first…
Buckle up even harder, because this is where it gets…chewy…again.
That huge robot claw that seizes Callum in the trailer? That appears to be the movie’s version of an Animus rig. The original version is a clinical couch with consoles attached to it and it’s interesting that the movie has gone for something more dynamic. I’d guess the reasoning behind the change is that it allows us to see Callum reliving his ancestor’s past—and also that spinning robot claws look cooler than departure lounge couches.
Reverse-engineered from First People technology, the Animus allows its user to slide down the genetic history of their families and access the memories of a specific ancestor. They see, feel, and experience everything the ancestor does and are free to make choices within the simulation of the past they’re experiencing. Abstergo initially used this technology to find Pieces of Eden and vital intelligence on Assassin Bureaus. Then, they realized they could market it.
Remain firmly buckled in.
Abstergo have monetized the Animus to create immersive, VR-like experiences that they sell as entertainment. Liberation and Black Flag in particular feature modern day plots that revolve around your character farming their ancestor’s life as movie fodder. This does three really smart things all at once: emphasizes just how dominant Abstergo have become, shows how they’re using First Civilization tech to control the world, and gives the games a chance to poke fun at their own internal construction. It also, with recent games Unity and Syndicate, sets up a different type of battlefield. In those games, the player plays the player (still with me?) of an Abstergo entertainment system that the Assassins then hack. That cleverly levels the playing field again: Abstergo have the tech, the superior numbers, and the culture. But the Assassins’ smaller numbers mean they’re almost impossible to kill off and they can use the same tools the Templars can.
And that’s the Assassin’s Creed series. It’s the oddest AAA gaming franchise I’ve ever encountered and one that can be infuriating, repetitive, jaw dropping, touching, and hilarious, often all at the same time. It’s a huge world and the games have included the truth about the Apollo landings, Leonardo Da Vinci as an Assassin weaponeer, the real version of the American War of Independence, and one of the best pirate stories you’ll ever play. I have no idea where Callum Lynch and his friends fit in. I do know I’m looking forward to finding out.
Assassin’s Creed will be out in theaters in the U.S. on December 21st, and in the U.K. on January 1st.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.