Simulation, Death vs. Desynchronization, and Historical Trauma

Assassin’s Creed easily has the most confusing multiple level narrative I’ve ever encountered, whether in a game, a television show, a movie or a book. Picking up where my last post left off, the game hinges on the fact that this entire adventure is a simulation.

Desmond Miles

We, the player, are about three steps removed from any sort of “real” gameplay–we are only animating the in-game character Desmond Miles (later another person from Abstergo Industries steps in), who is using a device called the Animus to relive his ancestors memories. He is the descendent of the line of Assassins starring in each game, and is initially forced into re-experiencing their memories and missions for the benefit of Abstergo Industries, the front company for the Assassins’ rivals, the Templars. After an escape and conflict between Desmond and Abstergo through AC: II and AC: Revelations, he dies at the end of Assassin’s Creed III. Abstergo finds his body and extracts the DNA it needs to continue reliving his ancestors memories, which have been genetically imprinted in his DNA.

I explain this to show the extent to which in the series, the gameplay the human players experience is minimal in comparison to its role in the larger world of the game. This is a world in which a virtual present-day human was kidnapped and used for his DNA, sparking a race between Desmond and Abstergo to find what Abstergo was looking for in his genetic memory, and eventually involves a sacrifice for the greater good of humanity. I am being purposely vague since I have already spoiled enough plot points in this blog post, but Ubisoft creates an entire backstory to reinforce the fact that the game is a simulation.

It is also worth pointing out here that three of the five major games in the series centers on a major, world-defining war–with the exception of the second game and the fourth game, which are during the Italian Renaissance and eighteenth century piracy respectively, we go from the Crusades, to the American Revolution, to the French Revolution in the forthcoming fifth game. Taking the idea of trauma writing itself onto the body to its fullest extent, Desmond’s ancestors’ memories of war and revolution were literally crystallized in the body, a genetically imprinted database that multiplied with each successive generation. The intergenerational trauma here is not a hauntological one, but a physical and material one. The game is able to continue precisely because these memories repeat themselves with the help of the Animus, and as we learn after Desmond dies it is not even the specific body repeating the memories that matters so much as the memories themselves, crystallized and living in the then-extracted DNA.

The Animus, in action

But even within this repetition, the game does not let us forget that nothing we are experiencing is “real”–the human player is not only one step removed from the “real event”, the step constituted by the television and game console, but is about four steps removed from what the game considers “real”. What matters is that the events of the game are not real in this moment, although they were once real to someone long dead. We are not playing with history, only re-living it, and because the history has already happened there is no way it can change.

Connecting to my previous post on AC: Freedom’s Cry, perhaps one of the best known novels written by prolific speculative fiction writer Octavia Butler takes up the same question in relation to enslavement. In Kindred, the protagonist Dana, a black woman, is transported back in time and across space to what she later realizes is the plantation of her great-great-great-grandfather, a white man named Rufus. Through the course of the novel she must save him from numerous near-death experiences, so that he can commit the final act that will ensure the existence of Dana’s family–the rape of her great-great-great-grandmother, a black enslaved woman named Alice. Not only must Dana relive the history of her ancestors, inhabiting the past world as a randomly-appearing enslaved woman so that she can protect Rufus, but must relive every painful moment until the point that the trauma has occurred, the trauma that creates her family, literally writes her DNA.

Kindred, by Octavia Butler (1979)

There are many ways that the novel makes clear the fact that Butler is not creating a simulation of enslavement–every beating and every escape Dana must make are real–but the book still takes up the question of reliving a traumatic history to ensure that it happens again, leaving no room for change. The major difference, as I pointed to at the end of my previous post, is the difference between death and desynchronization. It is a very real possibility that Dana could actually die or kill someone else, and her time travel finally ceases when she kills Rufus (by this point, Dana’s great-great-grandmother has been born, and Alice has committed suicide because she can no longer bear the pain she has experienced). This moment in the book could lead down an endless and important rabbit-hole of questions about the fabric of space-time, whether or not there was a Dana-figure who killed Rufus and disappeared (to the future or elsewhere) when these events first happened in the 1800’s or if these events are happening concurrently and Dana is not moving backwards in time but instead across it (so then what happens to the 200 years in between?), what would have happened if Dana had not killed Rufus, etc., and thankfully Butler mercifully does not lead us to the edge of the hole. The point here is that Dana makes a choice, and there is a 50% chance that she did change the course of history in doing so.

The Assassin’s Creed series, however, does not allow us to make that choice. As we saw last week, no matter the situation, no matter the trauma, no matter the real-world choices we could make (i.e. letting ourselves drown, as countless enslaved people chose to do during the Middle Passage), the game forces us to keep doing it until we do it right. This is okay, of course, because its not real. The visual effects of the game might feel real, and a player with a knowledge of history might know that the events in question were once real, but what we are experiencing through the lens of two machines and three people is simply not real. This raises a number of questions for me about who the game is or is not real for, who is or is not supposed to not be experiencing the traumatic symptoms of repetition, which will probably serve as my jumping off point for my next post. But for now, even for Desmond, who like Dana has the trauma of his family written into his DNA, re-living his ancestors’ memories isn’t real. By taking away the player’s agency through the framework of simulation the game seems to be giving us an easy way out, if only the player can get to the exit soon enough.


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