Thursday, March 1, 2012

Analyzing Narratives: Ezio in Assassin's Creed

          Welcome to the first of a six-part series dedicated to analyzing narratives in video games. It wasn’t long ago when games didn’t have stories; instead we would be moving a block up and down to play a simple game of pong. Now in the current generation, stories have become something rather fascinating. In an industry that thrives off of showing great production values, it’s hard to avoid not putting a big budget into telling a tale that’s worth sharing to gamers. In fact, many of the games you know and love have good stories or stories that capture your attention. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Lost Odyssey, and L.A. Noire are only some examples where the stories stand above the narratives of other video games. What makes them so special? I’m here to reveal to you the elements in video games that really drive an immersive experience, and why it does.

            An important aspect of a great story is the cast of characters. In this segment though I’m going to focus on one character in particular and why he is so unique in video games. If you’ve kept up with the Assassin’s Creed franchise then you may know that Ezio Auditore da Firenze is the protagonist for Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood, and the recently released Revelations. Ezio has three games to himself making it a trilogy, something that’s commonplace; however, what makes him special is what happens in each of those games. Where many trilogies, such as Halo and Mass Effect, cover only a short period of time, the player has the opportunity to see Ezio at the various stages of his life. Ezio was a teenager and a young adult in Assassin’s Creed II, a fully-grown adult in Brotherhood, and an aging man in Revelations. For the sake of developing a stronger case I’m also going to add the short film Embers that was released with Revelations.

The face of a teenage Ezio Auditore da Firenze

            It’s a rare instance that a player gets to experience a character’s life from beginning to end. Let’s begin with Assassin’s Creed II. Ezio starts as an average teenage boy living the life in Florence, Italy. He is quite content with his life picking fights with his enemies, helping his family run errands, and of course flirting with the women. It’s all normal and when the world comes crashing down on him you feel all the more sorry. Ezio watches as his brothers and father are hung right before his eyes and joins the Assassin Order to avenge their deaths. With each assassination Ezio realizes more about himself. It’s at this moment you get an insight of the young Ezio’s mind and his rationale. Driven by extreme hate to put down his family’s murderers, Ezio wonders what it means to be an Assassin but at the same time to be a man. As a person I begin to sympathize with Ezio’s situation. As I continue to watch him grow I build a connection. As the connection grows stronger, the more Ezio impacts me as a person and not a character.

Mario, a mentor and uncle, looks after Ezio as he journeys in Assassin’s Creed II. Mario teaches Ezio to be compassionate, even to his enemies, because if he doesn’t then he will turn into the very thing that he hates. Turning into an adult is hard enough but Ezio must also don the hood of an Assassin, something that he was forced to become. Ezio cannot return to his old life in Florence nor can he be a normal teenager. Having no choice, Ezio IS an Assassin despite his wishes.

I am Assassin

            It’s hard to notice the change at first but when you look at the entirety of Assassin’s Creed II and how Ezio has progressed, you realize that he has matured into a wise, compassionate, and strong man. Throughout his journey Ezio learns that revenge is not as important to him as he once thought it was, rather it is more important to let go. Eventually he gives up his quest for revenge entirely and accepts the situation that he is in with great optimism. Character development is essential for the compelling story that Assassin’s Creed II is trying to tell. Ezio was a brash, emotional, weak, and volatile teenager but at the end he becomes something so much more. The assassinations teach him to reflect on his actions. Each ally helps him to understand that he is not alone. The threat of death gives him the optimism that he needs in order to survive. Each segment helps to mold Ezio to be a fully grown adult.

An older Ezio guides the Order
However, this isn’t the end for Ezio. In Brotherhood, he is now 41 years old and has proven himself among the Assassins through his action, skill, and wisdom. Throughout his entire life of being an Assassin, his uncle Mario has always been there for him. When the enemy attacks the Assassin headquarters and his uncle is killed, Ezio is absolutely devastated. However, how Ezio reacts to the situation is very different. In the past he was driven to destroy his enemies for revenge, but now Ezio strikes back because the enemy poses a threat to the Order’s safety. This is the first major change from II to Brotherhood as Ezio is putting all that he has learned into active use. Furthermore, Ezio goes through further change in Brotherhood as he begins to understand the responsibility of being the new leader of the Order as well as being an adult. Ezio journeys to destroy the enemy, the Templars, but he cannot do so by himself. Ezio has taken up the task of seeking allies rather than being sought out like he was in Assassin’s Creed II. He learns the responsibility of taking care of his allies, mentoring them, and guiding them. While he has held these responsibilities before he hasn’t done to the point of leading an entire organization by himself. Brotherhood allows for Ezio’s character to be refined and polished instead of changing.

A leader. A teacher. An adult.

Ezio also struggles with trust. In Assassin’s Creed II, Ezio din’t struggle trust others because they were much older; mentors if you will. In Brotherhood, they are now his peers. Trusting someone older and much wiser is simpler because they tend be more experienced. Ezio is conflicted with another leader of the Order, Machiavelli, because their individual stances are different. The clashing of perspectives is not something that you see in a growing teenager. But now as an adult Ezio learns to accept his peer’s perspective and use that to mature himself even further. Once again Assassin’s Creed shows us the power of character development as Ezio becomes something much more than what he was in the beginning of Brotherhood. By the end of the game Ezio learns what it means to shed all the things that do not matter and lead his apprentices in the most practical and efficient way possible.

An aging Ezio with a grizzled beard

In the final installment of Ezio’s trilogy, Revelations, Ezio travels to Masyaf, the home of the Assassin’s many centuries ago. Having never chosen the path of an Assassin, Ezio wishes to learn more about the Order as well as the role he has to play. Ezio is a 52 year-old man showing clear signs of age. He has grown a beard and white hairs are beginning to appear everywhere. At this point Ezio is also the Grandmaster Assassin of the Order in Florence. While II focused on maturity and Brotherhood focused on responsibility, Revelations focuses on purpose. While I wouldn’t say it’s his dying moments, Ezio is getting to the age where he questions the meaning of his life. Part of youth and growing up is not really knowing everything but charging ahead with vigor. Ezio is no longer that way. Instead, Ezio thinks more than he does act. Instead of doing, he questions. Instead of following, he wonders. In a letter to his sister, Ezio mentions that he is tired, wary, and curious. He wonders what his purpose is in the world as well as what meaning it holds.

Revelations is also where Ezio meets his true lover and future wife, Sofia Sartor. Ezio’s pursuit of women tend to be shallow and when it is meaningful it ends in tragedy. His previous relationship with Cristina, a girl he loved since he was a teenager, only resulted in her death. Because of this Ezio has been scarred and attempts to keep the women he cares about at a distance. This is a conflict that Ezio must overcome as he requires the assistance of Sofia but attempts to keep her out of his business so that she won’t be harmed. As he spends more time with Sofia, Ezio begins to develop a genuine love for the woman and is conflicted to be with her. This development is something that the previous titles didn’t bother to venture. Ezio was always occupied with being a leader or learning to be an Assassin and as a result it was hard to see his personal life, one other than being an Assassin. It’s a sight to behold because the player has the opportunity to see a side of Ezio that hasn’t really been discovered. Despite his occupation, Ezio is still human and wishes to connect with a woman that he is interested in and develops feeling for over time. This relationship truly fleshes out Ezio as a man of compassion trying to hold on to the things that are dear to him. It’s rare that a video game bothers to tell a story of a character that’s so old and as a result, the impact from Revelations is strong.

The romance of Ezio is one of duty and passion

As Ezio continues to journey to find the meaning of the Assassin Order and his place in the world, he realizes that it is far beyond him. Rather than serving one purpose, Ezio is one of many people that are part of a bigger picture. In a way Ezio is a medium for others to grow and he realizes this as he leaves behind the life of being an Assassin. The role of the Assassin Order is to protect and carry on the legacy of those that no longer live. The meaning of Ezio’s life is to be a piece of the puzzle that he alone cannot fathom. At last, Ezio comes to grips with the reality that’s in front of him. It’s a very satisfying ending for the players, and for me as well. To see a character kneel down and accept the revelations of the world is a powerful moment, one that changes how Ezio lives the rest of his life.

The last narrative segment of Ezio’s life is Embers, a short animation taking place years after Revelation. Ezio, a 65 year-old man, is now married to Sofia and has two kids living peacefully at a farm. Picking crops, playing with his children, and loving his wife are what Ezio does. It’s a very stark change and you see a side of Ezio that wasn’t shown before, one of solace and simplicity. Knowing he doesn’t have much time, Ezio lives in desperation and wants to make sure that every second he spends is valuable and precious. Ezio wishes to leave behind a letter to Sofia before passing away, something that he struggles to write everyday because he wants to say the perfect words to her. In his final words to Sofia he writes, “When I was a young man, I had liberty, but I did not see it. I had time, but I did not know it. And I had love, but I did not feel it. Many decades would pass before I understood the meaning of all three. And now, in the twilight of my life, this understanding has passed into contentment. Love, liberty, and time: once so disposable, are the fuels that drive me forward. And love most especially mio caro. For you, our children, our brothers and sisters, and for the vast wonderful world that gave us life and keeps us guessing. Endless affection, mia Sofia. Forever yours, Ezio Auditore.” The dying Ezio came to terms with everything in his life. As death came closer to him, Ezio understood that all three together gave meaning and cannot stand exclusively for him.

It was hard to watch Ezio die. He is a monumental character not because he’s awesome or because he is the protagonist in one of the greatest franchises this generation. Ezio is amazing because he is human and portrayed so realistically. As a player, you not only control Ezio but journey with him from his birth to his death. Never does a video game portray a character’s life so vividly and splendidly. I watched Ezio, a youth who knew nothing of the world, mature into a fine leader. This fine leader then began to question the meaning of his life and his place in the world. Lastly, his final journey would help him to completely understand the world and feel content. As I watched Ezio die in Embers I couldn’t help but feel heartbroken. It’s like a close friend that you’ve known for your whole life die right before your eyes. You’ve seen through his good times and through his struggles. You know the ins and outs of his character and you’ve spent countless years with him. Ezio is a monumental character because of the relationship that he builds with the player from Assassin’s Creed II to Assassin’s Creed: Embers. Ezio was an Assassin. Ezio was a teenager. Ezio was a leader. However, Ezio was first and foremost a human. Requiescat in pace, Ezio. 

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