Hiding in Plain Sight: Cyclical Love in Assassin’s Creed

Without it Altair is weak, aggressive, he costantly seeks approval and clings to everyone within his reach (Al Mualim, a father figure then Adha, idealized object of fatuous affection).Caring and support that he gets from Malik and Maria help him become a true leader and regain inner balance. They mean a world to him. He needs them desperatly and their death drives him into deep depression.Think for a moment about hours or even days that Altair spent in the library alone, waiting, no longer motivated by his duty, determined to die.This was the message conveyed through the Masyaf Keys. Ezio understood it after watching Altair’s memories. He finally decided to lay down his sword and declare his feelings to Sofia. 

Acclaimed early-20th century writer Gertrude Stein once said, “This is the lesson that history teaches: repetition.” I say Gertrude Stein must’ve been an Assassin’s Creed fan, because Ubisoft’s award-winning action-adventure pseudo-stealth series has, over the years, made great use of repetition through history to intertwine the lives of its titular assassins.

I can see my hovel from here!
That intro was bad and I should feel bad.

Assassin’s Creed has built its entire story on the back of repetitious elements in the lives of successive assassin generations, recreated through the magic of technology and experienced by chosen one modern-day assassin Desmond Miles. Events that transpire in Desmond’s life reflect others borne by his 12th century Syrian ancestor Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, and 15th century Italian forbearer Ezio Auditore da Firenze.

While each of the three assassins’ lives is unique, certain elements reoccur in each of their stories to emphasize their cyclical connection. The lip scar shared by Altair, Ezio and Desmond is a nice visual of that idea, and from a design perspective, the fact that they share the same face makes this association about as subtle as a sledgehammer through a china cabinet.

Or Altair’s assassinations, whichever.

One such element deals with loss, guilt, and second chances in regard to romantic love, and is represented in an enduring pattern throughout the series: each assassin falls desperately in love with a woman, is peripherally responsible for her death, and is wracked with guilt over his involvement until years later, when he meets the woman that will become his wife.

Early in their respective chronologies, Altair, Ezio and Desmond each meet a woman who plays a formative role in their lives—a sap may be inclined to call them “first loves.” For Altair, this woman is Adha: a mysterious, beautiful creature, she commands the fascination of both the Templar and Assassin factions, and could possibly be the descendent of Jesus Christ. Cristina, a Florentine noblewoman who goes from bit character in Assassin’s Creed II to the focus of her own subplot in Brotherhood, serves this function for Ezio. Lastly, Desmond finds his beau in double-agent Lucy Stillman, his only friend during his confinement in Abstergo Industries. While hairs can be split over the nature of Desmond and Lucy’s relationship (largely unsuccessfully, given this dialogue, but split away), no such question exists with Altair and Ezio—Altair expresses his love for Adha in dramatic and uncharacteristic displays of emotion (not to mention blatantly in his Codex) and an entire subplot of Brotherhood revolves around the rise and fall of Ezio and Cristina’s relationship.

Unfortunately, being the first love of an assassin is apparently fatal, because all three women end up dead by some means that their lovers are unable to prevent. When Adha is kidnapped by the final boss of Assassin’s Creed: Altaïr’s Chronicles, Altair viciously fights his way to the villain’s ship in order to save her, only to find that she is actually on another boat. When he finally catches up with them, he finds her dead at the hands of her captors.

Assassin’s Creed: gritty Mario reboot.

Ezio experiences similar loss when Cristina (from whom he has been estranged since her marriage to another man) is mortally wounded by attackers moments before Ezio neutralizes them. She dies in his arms, wishing she had had a second chance for a happy life with him. Desmond, meanwhile, is perhaps the most active in the death of his lady love, though not of his own volition—possessed by Juno, Desmond is forced to stab a defenseless Lucy, killing her and putting him in a coma.

Each assassin feels intense guilt for his inability to protect the woman he loves, and it continues to affect him for years afterward. In the seventh piece of Altair’s Codex, he explains how the loss of Adha haunted him long after he had taken revenge on her killers:

I remember the days and nights during which I chased her Templar captors across the sea. I almost got to them in time. Almost. If I had only been faster. Instead, I held her lifeless body in my arms – saw the terror reflected in her fixed, unblinking eyes…I hunted each man – one by one – until all responsible were gone from the world. But there was no joy in this. No satisfaction or release. Their deaths did not bring her back. Did not heal my wounds.

Ezio expresses similar sentiments in regard to Cristina, telling his sister that he has been unable to feel love for another woman since he failed to save her. Desmond is also deeply affected by Lucy’s death, literally collapsing when he remembers his part in it.

However, given that the entire premise of Assassin’s Creed rests on the assassins passing their badassery on to future generations, this guilt-induced celibacy doesn’t last. Eventually, they (or two of them, at least) come to find that there are plenty of fish in the sea and each meet a woman that they love just as much, if not more, than their first. For Altair, this woman is Maria Thorpe, a steadfast and brusque soldier who once swore allegiance to the Templars, but deserted after much soul-searching, eventually marrying and having children with him.

Also the occasional bout of tower sex.

Utterly lacking in subtlety, Altair draws a direct parallel between Adha and Maria in his Codex, noting that, “After [Adha’s death], I was certain I would never again feel for a woman as I had for her. I am fortunate to have been wrong.” This passage is followed by a sketch of Maria several pages later, to solidify the point. Altair and Maria remain together until her death thirty-three years later.

Ezio, meanwhile, pulls off the abstention act well into his silver years, until he meets the beautiful, buxom and brainy Sofia Sartor in Revelations. While he initially plans to keep his distance from her, enjoying her company and assistance with his work while glossing over its finer points, he is unable to ignore his affection for her; he tells Claudia in his sixth letter to her that, “With every passing moment, I know my chances grow slimmer, and yet I cannot help but linger some days to stay an extra hour with her, to hear her voice and watch her face animate with joy as she speaks of the things that move her.” By his seventh letter, Ezio’s taken a page (perhaps literally) out of Altair’s book, telling Claudia, “I have come to admire Sofia with more affection than I thought possible. After the death of Cristina, something withered in me… But that feeling, that capacity for love, has returned.” In a shocking twist of fate, he ends up marrying Sofia after the conclusion of Revelations, and having two children with her.

Sofia can never be accused of having subtle bedroom eyes.

Desmond is the odd man out on this point. Lucy’s death is still fresh during the events of Revelations, and Assassin’s Creed III doesn’t leave much room for romantic engagement. However, events in Brotherhood suggest that a romantic revival might have been in the cards originally: before Juno forces Desmond to kill Lucy, she notes, “The final journey commences. There is one who would accompany you through the gate. She lies not within our sight.” This dialogue suggests that, prior to creative changes on the part of Ubisoft, there may have been plans for another eligible lady to take up Lucy’s position in Desmond’s esteem. The juxtaposition of this sentence with the one that follows—“The cross darkens the horizon,” universally agreed to refer to Lucy and her true nature as a Templar agent—plays into comparisons of first and final love more effectively than was probably intended.

It’s questionable what this dynamic ultimately means for the series. While it’s an interesting examination of the bloodline consistencies that Assassin’s Creed loves to play with, and presents a thought-provoking comparison between young and mature love, it also seems to create female characters with the ultimate goal of fridging them. To the exclusion of Lucy, who was a prominent character prior to the game in which she died (and was only killed because her voice actress was leaving the project), these ladies seem to exist for the sole purpose of giving the men who love them something to cry over. Altair, for instance, makes an emotional spectacle of himself when he dramatically screams after the ship departing with Adha, a stark departure from his typical, stoic personality.

And many a player wondered when the hell Altair forgot how to swim.

Ezio’s story is perhaps even more melodramatic, as the player works through a series of when-it-rains-it-pours memories of his relationship with Cristina falling apart. After she marries another man, rejects Ezio’s subsequent advances, and is chased down and murdered in the street despite Ezio’s best efforts, her dying wish is that they could have had a second chance at love.

As sad as both of these situations are, there doesn’t seem to be much substance to the relationships on which they are built. Adha appears primarily (and even then, not very much) in an offshoot game for the Nintendo DS, and is mentioned only briefly in the main body of the series. Cristina, too, doesn’t get much screen time in Assassin’s Creed II, and though she gets a much bigger and more thoughtful role in Brotherhood, it is part of an optional mission set where Ezio spends more time rescuing her and desiring her than he does loving her.

Romance, DS-style.

At the same time, the women who come after Adha and Cristina (as opposed to “replace,” which can itself be a problematic notion) seem to be much more active and dynamic characters. Maria has a detailed history outside of Altair, and maintains goals and ambitions unrelated to his own. When they eventually do marry, they continue to work together, and she plays an integral part in their missions in Cyprus and Mongolia. (In addition, while her death does cause Altair guilt and sorrow, it does so in the same way that Malik’s does, and is not her ultimate role in the series.) Sofia also eventually becomes involved in the work of the assassins: after assisting Ezio with uncovering the locations of the Masyaf keys through her translation work, she literally takes up the reins to help him take down the game’s final villain.

That’s when you know she’s a keeper.

It is possible, as mentioned previously, that these relationships say something about the value of a mature connection over brash young love. Paralyzed by Petrarchan infatuation and guilt over the deaths of their first loves, Altair and Ezio are only able to recover once they find someone with whom they can truly share their lives. These attractions are unexpected (one can’t help but doubt Altair expected to marry a crossdressing, English ex-Templar, and Ezio seems surprised to catch the eye of a sweet thing like Sofia after earning his silver fox badge), but ultimately stronger and more longstanding. Even Desmond, who doesn’t get to the good part of the cycle due to some necessary sacrifices (haha, ha), is forced to confront the fact that he didn’t know Lucy as well as he had thought—William Miles, for instance, warns Desmond to be wary of believing she was sincere in her convictions.

Why do you want to hurt me, Ubisoft?

These relationships also inform the pattern of continuity that Assassin’s Creed loves to play with. Even while learning from their ancestors in the form of Codexes, letters, or Animi, each assassin has to experience hardship himself in order to truly understand it. History repeats, concentrations of power cycle, and people deal with the same problems over and over again. True connections are pivotal to making sure those recurrences take place, as is the ability to move beyond past mistakes and accept second chances. Though using women as tools to facilitate expression of this concept can be problematic, it is nonetheless worthy of consideration. It is also one of the most important elements of Assassin’s Creed’s endurance of bloodlines and what happens to the people in them—from scars, to broken hearts.

And then there’s Connor. Poor, sad Connor.

Baby nooooo.

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