The amazing (real) history behind the Assassin's Creed franchise
- Posted August 17th, 2013 at 16:42 EDT by Richard Archer
The Assassin’s Creed series has been rightfully praised for its intricate gameplay and rich worlds populated with historical figures. But just how accurate has Ubisoft been when taking ideas and people from history to use in these games? Read on for some answers that just may surprise you.
We’re going to take a look at a real assassins guild, the humble beginnings and violent end of the Knights Templar, and more as we see how the past influenced the present from the first Assassin's Creed game to the yet-unreleased fourth installment.
So let's start with the first game in the Assassin's Creed series, which sees the player assume the role of Altair, a twelfth century assassin who resides in the city of Masyaf in the Holy Land during the time of the Third Crusade. But is this fact or fiction? Well, it's fact that during the Third Crusade (1189-1192), history records indicate there was a guild of assassins based at the castle of Masyaf, where they had been active for many years.
This actual assassins guild was founded by Persian missionary and philosopher Hassan-i Sabbah. To protect the interests of his order, he used the assassins to target leaders and politicians whose death, it was felt, would cause people to think twice before acting against Hassan. These assassins were well-read, as well as trained in the martial arts as, just like Altair, they needed to blend in to be able to gather information on their targets before they struck. Sometimes, they didn't kill, but instead left a threat such as a dagger on a pillow. This gesture was often enough to bring folks around to Sabbah's way of thinking.
So, there you go--there was an assassins guild just like in the original Assassin's Creed, but what of their sworn enemies, the Knights Templar? Well, history tells us the Knights, like the assassins, came to prominence during the Crusades, but their origin starts some time before that.
The Knights were originally a charity set up to escort pilgrims to the Holy Land. Like all charities, word spread of their good deeds and they gained a tax break from the Pope of the time. This was the turning point which allowed a disorganised charity to rapidly grow into an elite military order and it was only natural that, at the time of the Third Crusade, they should throw themselves wholeheartedly into the fighting.
Altair's journeys across the Holy Land in Assassin's Creed, where he sees the distinct white coat and red-crossed surcoat of the Knights Templar nearly everywhere, would have been quite historically accurate. Templars had roles such as guards, bureaucrats, and doctors, and gave threats to the local populace to keep them in line.
However, while Assassin’s Creed sees the Templars expand after the Crusades, the real Templars fell from grace and, due to a mixture of politics, money, and greed, many were captured, tortured to confess to numerous false crimes, and then burned at the stake. The order disbanded, and while conspiracy theorists would have it that the Templars are still active today in a fashion similar to their devious workings in the Assassin's Creed games, history can neither confirm nor deny this part of the Templar story.
Moving on to Assassin's Creed II, which is set in Italy at the time of the Renaissance in the fourteenth century. Here we find the assassin Ezio facing off against the Templars, who are led by the corrupt Pope Rodrigo Borgia. Rodrigo is not only Pope, but also the head of the Templars, and his papacy is one based on the tenants of corruption and violence.
Yet again, when we look at the history of the time, there was a Pope called Rodrigo Borgia whose papacy began in 1492. History tells us that the real-life Rodrigo was just as bad as his in-game counterpart.
The real Rodrigo was said to have bought the papacy with bribery and vote corruption, and as soon as he took office, he began elevating his family to positions of power (or, if no such position existed, creating it for them). Rodrigo's time as Pope was spent (according to his enemies) murdering rivals, promoting war across Europe, and siding with anyone who could help him consolidate his power. At one time, the King of France invaded Rome determined to bring the papal authority down, but Rodrigo gave a cardinalship to a man who had the King's ear and brought the matter to a peaceful conclusion.
So, Rodrigo's reign as one of history's worst Popes continued until, in 1503, at the age of 72, he dropped dead. Poison was suspected but never proved, though if it was used, it was a fitting end to a man who history would have us believe was more violent and corrupt than even his video game counterpart.
Now let's look at Assassin's Creed III, which sees the action move to colonial America where the assassin Connor sets out to free his land from the tyranny of the Templars who have settled there. Connor is half Mohawk, and shares his heritage with a tribe of Native Americans who are resisting the British colonial forces and supporting George Washington, the American force's leader.
To include such a strong historical figure in George Washington was a bold but logical choice for Ubisoft. He who charted the fate of the United States has a real history just as exciting as the in-game character.
Washington is famous for being the first president of the United States of America and for being commander-in-chief of the American forces during the American Revolution. He is rightly named as one of the country's founding fathers. His real life is filled with so many interesting facts that, for the purposes of this article, I am going concentrate on just a few of the major landmarks in his life and how these are reflected in Assassin's Creed III.
Notably, history doesn't record that Washington suffered numerous assassination attempts, but his many victories against the British in battle, the betrayal of Benedict Arnold, and the arrest of Charles Lee after the Battle of Monmouth are all real events that play out in Assassin's Creed III, much as they did historically.
Of course, things didn't always go Washington's way. He was responsible for giving the order to carry out a scorched earth war policy that saw 40 Native American villages destroyed (and which would see him come into conflict with Connor over the order). Still, Ubisoft chose wisely in giving focus to a historical figure that represents the Revolutionary War and the forging of the United States. Having a fully realized George Washingon in Assassin's Creed III allows the player to feel like they are taking part in, and making, history.
Finally, the much-anticipated Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag promises us action on the eighteenth century Caribbean Sea, set in a period known as the golden age of piracy.
Ubisoft have again raided history to bring us the in-game counterpart of real-life pirate Blackbeard, but his exact Assassin’s Creed IV role at this time remains unknown. Now, Blackbeard, or Edward Teach as he was known, is an ideal character to get the Ubisoft historical makeover. You see, Blackbeard was an English pirate who, according to records, terrorized shipping endeavors across the Caribbean from 1716 to 1718. His ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, was armed with forty guns--a sight that put fear in any merchant unfortunate enough to cross his path.
One of Blackbeard's favorite tricks, we are told, was to put gunpowder charges into his beard and hat, then light them as he boarded an enemy ship--but don’t be fooled into thinking he was a certifiable maniac. Merchant ships attacked by Blackbeard would be treated leniently if they put up no resistance. This was a smart move by the pirate, as it meant the authorities were less likely to hunt him down or put a reward on his head.
In fact, at one point, Blackbeard was pardoned for his piracy by the British government, but then decided to blockade and ransom an entire port, landing him back on their hit list. Blackbeard became incredibly rich, but kept plundering and pirating until the British authorities in the Caribbean could ignore him no more. It still took two ships armed with soldiers to bring just the single ship of the mighty Blackbeard down, and his head was stuck (rather ingloriously) on the prow of his vanquisher’s vessel as they sailed back to announce their triumph.
Blackbeard really was the quintessential pirate, and it's no wonder Ubisoft picked him to appear in Assassin's Creed IV. We can only hope the Blackbeard of Black Flag sticks dynamite in his beard at some point in the story.
If you enjoyed this walk through history, tell your local school to put away the dusty textbooks and set its pupils in front of Assassin's Creed. I know I'd have paid more attention.
For more history lessons, check out The Real History of BioShock: Infinite, and stay glued to PSU for more original content.