In Defence of The Animus

Assassin’s Creed is a game that is criticised a lot. In fact, it might be one of the most criticised games in the modern market. That’s to be expected from a series that is so insanely popular and so prominently present in the media. But apart from the familiar tendency of getting flack for being popular, it’s also the creative choices of the team behind it that have not always been received positively. In fact, the game goes through a never ending rollercoaster of praise and harsh critique. One of the most controversial elements till today has been the famous “Animus” – the in-universe device that allows to read the genetic memories of each game’s protagonist.

Prince of Persia

The concept of the Animus comes from the same train of thought as the storytelling concept in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. The developers wanted to break with the classic game mechanic of dying and magically being revived again. So they came up with two tricks to avoid it. First of all there was of course the famed time turning mechanic, through the titular sands. Then there’s the whole plot element in which almost the entire story of the game is a flashback as the Prince is telling Farah what happened. Whenever the player dies, it’s narratively explained as the Prince making a mistake in his retelling. “No, that’s not what happened”, you can even hear him say.

The first Assassin’s Creed game wanted to follow through with that philosophy and came up with an idea of their own. The game’s story was supposed to be the memory of someone’s ancestor. By adding a sci-fi element to the game, the developers allowed themselves a modern day subplot in which they could add the futuristic Animus machine. The Animus reads the genetic memory of the subject its technique is applied to. The person inside the Animus is not just passively watching their ancestor’s memories like a movie though, but has to link loose flashes of memories together in one coherent strain. The game explains this as synchronising a series of memories into a single sequence by reliving key memory points. This is of course the product of pure imagination, combined with some pseudo-science and a good stash of speculation.

Genetic Memory?

Genetic memory is dismissed by science, in the sense that specific memories can’t be genetically passed on through generations. It’s speculated that certain genetic traits can be dispositional; for example how a reflex reaction to environmental stimuli can be ‘learned’ through genetic encoding. This phenomenon is actually referenced in the original Assassin’s Creed when Warren Varric muses about the instincts of an animal, for example a bird knowing how to fly south and a prey being naturally afraid of predators. A good example is the experiments that were performed with mice and aceton. The animals were stimulated with electroshocks while getting to smell aceton. The experiment proved that the mice learned to fear aceton because it reminded them of the electroshocks. And curiously their offspring learned the same. The rudimentary fear of that smell was left as a genetic imprint. However, the specific memories of an individual person do not transfer through genetic code. This is the little hijinx with reality that Ubisoft pulls. But for a proper reason.

Apart from finding an original twist on the revival game mechanic, it goes a bit further than Prince of Persia and also takes on the old health bar and medikit trope. A lot of games are bound to a system where the protagonist has a health bar that decreases when they are hurt in combat or from environmental hazards. Assassin’s Creed tried to tackle this trope by representing the health bar as synchronisation of a memory and the actions of the protagonist to synch, as a way to increase its value. Original Assassin Altair didn’t have to hunt medicin flasks or the like, but had to perform actions that strengthened the correct sequence of memories. The person inside the Animus had to direct the memory in the correct order by doing things his ancestor had done. This included climbing on top of towers, performing side missions and successfully performing combat actions. What they tried to get across was: we can’t let the Animus read out the exact memories we need for our research, but we have to let you synchronise a memory by linking smaller moments together. This provided an explanation why the team just couldn’t cut to the chase: in real-life because then the game would be way too short, and in-universe because the memory sequence was ‘unstable’ and had to be approached by ‘synching up’ memories leading up to it. In the first game this very specifically explained by Altair doing stuff like eavesdropping and pickpocketing: not because we control Altair and that’s what he does, no, we control Desmond who controls Altair and he relives those memories to synchronise the sequence. It’s complicated but it makes sense and it’s a fantastic, multifaceted and imaginative concept by the creators of the first game.

The Association Game

The association that Ubisoft tried to convey was how we in real life try to remember something by tracing back our steps and recalling things by association. “Where did I put my car keys? Wait, I went to bedroom.” This triggers a visual memory of the room, we see the bed and the wardrobe and we recall putting a stack of laundry on top of the bed. “Oh yeah, I put the laundry there so I had to use both hands. So I had to put the car keys somewhere.” We then mimic the motion of absentmindedly putting the keys somewhere, to free our hands. “I put them on top of…” Performing this, we remember the motion, and remember the outline of the bedroom, and.. “Oh of course, they must be on that wooden stool in front of the window because that’s the nearest surface when I stand near the bed.” In a similar fashion we recall thing by associating them with other strong memories. Think about a particular smell that brings you back to your schooldays, a piece of music that triggers the memory of a certain period in your life. Fictitiously applying these logics to the sci-fi concept of reading specific memories stored in one’s genes is what became the core of the gameplay in the first Assassin’s Creed and the example I gave earlier of Altair pick-pocketing and climbing towers. 

The only gap between fantasy and reality that had to be breached was that of technology being able to read specific, individual memories from our bloodstream and being able to represent it in a graphical interface like a videogame. The way Desmond Miles navigates his way through the memories of his ancestor Altair Ibn La’Ahad is even explained as “like a videogame” in the opening scenes of Assassin’s Creed. Here is where the game goes very meta, something they dove even deeper into during later episodes of the franchise. The presence of a HUD was explained as part of the Animus interface, and the button mapping based on the limbs of marionette: head, arms and legs. The entire intention of the Animus concept was to break with typical gamey elements and create a suspension of disbelief by incorporating these elements into an in-universe logic. But ironically, for a lot of gamers it created exactly the opposite effect.

Assassin Creed and The Dialectic

As the games continued to come out, Ubisoft broke a bit with their own philosophy. At some point health bars and healing items returned, the story got a more traditional build up again instead of rigid memory sequences and the modern day storyline started to branch out into sci-fi territory. Memories could now be saved and viewed by anyone instead of just someone’s ancestor and said memories could now glitch, be migrated to a server or even be manipulated and digitally edited. At some point they were even shown to be sold as entertainment products.  

This development damaged the already shaky reputation of the game mechanic. The modern day part of the Assassin’s Creed games, and the Animus in particular, are already under huge scrutiny because of its alleged immersion breaking tendencies. As a piece of historic fiction, the modern day storyline and the implementation of sci-fi layer over the core story is perceived by many as a distraction and something that pulls them out of the magic of the historic setting. There is a case to be made for this but the Animus deserves credit too. Apart from an original and unique way of giving a context for typical gamey things like health bars and checkpoints, it also opens up a wealth of opportunities to explore the dialectic part of history. Although to my own experience this potential has not been fully taken advantage of yet.

The dialectic is a philosophical principle mostly explored by big names like Aristotle and  Socrates and later by Georg Hegel and Karl Marx. It deals with an interpretation of events in history through the collision of opposing forces and the continuous effect of their reactions through history, present and future. In practise it’s similar to the famous chaos theory, that observes the lasting effect of change on the entire string of results that follow. Or, in more practical terms, how something that happens in history keeps forming the future as time goes on. The Assassin’s Creed games explore this a little in trying to show how the happenings in the past are aiding our present day heroes to figure out how to achieve their goals. It combines perfectly with the series’ tendency to keep skipping through history with every installment. Although I personally think it could do so in a much more meaningful way, it nicely shows how your actions during one game influenced the state of affairs in the next. A good example is Altair’s writings changed the way the Assassins operate, allowing them more freedom and open mindedness. Or the sequence in Syndicate that shows Edward Kenway’s mansion being in Templar hands because his son Haytham deflected. Or, more materialistic speaking, how the Animus research provided the modern day team with physical locations of certain artefacts. Like the vault under the Colosseum, Connor’s grave in Davenport or the crypt in the gardens of Buckingham Palace.

Sykes-Picot and the War in Syria

A good example of a real life string of consequences through history, is the current conflict in Syria. For that we can go back all the way to the Ottoman Empire. We forget that the current nations of Syria and Iraq and their internationally recognised borders are an artificially created divide, carried out as a direct result of the First World War. After defeating the Turks, the French and the British didn’t want the Ottoman Empire to get a chance growing back to its former power. To prevent this they partitioned the region in a secret agreement, dividing it between the two. Britain got a mandate over Palestine and Iraq for example, France over Syria and Lebanon. This became known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and you can read more about it here. The Russian Empire was part of this secret plan, but pulled out of and it made everything public after the Russian Revolution and the subsequent ending of the First World War. 

This is only one example of how history is an infinite sequence of connecting events instead of isolated events without context. The Animus in Assassin’s Creed provides us with a notion that historic events are not defined facts but part of a pattern that’s always in motion and a tapestry woven by connecting key moments. This method doesn’t have to be immersion breaking, if you see the entire past, present and future as a whole. 

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