Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Should Catholics be offended by Assassin's Creed?

I just finished my umpteenth playings of Assassin's Creed 2 and Assassin's Creed Brotherhood.  To say that I love both games is an understatement.  The graphics and attention to detail that went into creating virtual Florence and Rome circa 1500 is amazing, so much so that I played both to get myself geographically prepared for my visits to both cities this past spring.  The gameplay, plots, and voice acting of both are excellent, with the possible exception of Casare Borgia, who comes off less like a threat and more like a whiny brat.  But I digress.

Both Assassin's Creed 2 and Assassin's Creed Brotherhood take place during an uncomfortable historical period for a proud Catholic (not just Catholic .. ROMAN Catholic! All the way back to the ROMAN EMPIRE!!! JULIUS CAESAR, baby!!!) ) like me.  The Catholic Church during the High Middle Ages and Renaissance was riddled with corruption, with no better example than Pope Alexander VI, whose real name was Rodrigo Borgia, his son Cesare and daughter Lucrezia.

Indeed, the Borgias are the chief villains of Assassin's Creed 2 and Assassin's Creed Brotherhood.  Rodrigo (played so well by French-Canadian actor/singer/comedian Manuel Tadros that I don't think anyone else will be able to even match it) murders his way through Assassin's Creed 2, but moves more into the background in Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, where Cesare does most of the devilment.

Manuel Tadros as Rodrigo Borgia, later Pope Alexander VI.
Some Catholics have taken offense with the plot of Assassin's Creed 2 and Assassin's Creed Brotherhood because the bad guys are heads of the Catholic Church and their henchmen.  As a student of history, I do not.  The Borgias were incredibly bad people, some of the most vile to ever walk the face of the earth.  Such people were much more common in the early and middle Church than they are now.  The Church was born with Christ, but gained prominence when it was adopted by the Roman Empire.  As such, the aristocracy who could not influence the Empire through its bureaucracy went into the Church and to influence the Empire there.  And in many ways they did good work -- they helped protect the Roman people from predations of the barbarians, for instance.  And they kept the flicker of civilization going after the fall of the western Empire. 

But aristocrats out for influence and power tend to be more corrupt than people who go into the priesthood to minister to spiritual needs.  The Borgias are simply the most extreme examples.  I have no problems with them and their supporters being portrayed and treated as villains.  Then again, as you probably have guessed given what I've gone through this year, I have a pretty thick skin and don't offend easily.  I don't look to be offended.  As a Catholic, I take my share of insults, both direct and otherwise.  Knowing that in many ways the ROMAN Catholic Church is the continuation of the Roman Empire -- a very important point for me -- allows almost all of it to roll off my back.

Nevertheless, as much as I love Assassin's Creed 2 and Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, they both make me uncomfortable.  Not the plot, mind you.  Both games contain a database of famous landmarks that you will come across in the course of the games.  They give some good background and are actually pretty educational.  Usually.  They sometimes take a snarky approach to the entries.  That's fine.  But they also  ... well, I'll show you an entry, this one about St. Peter's Basilica:

Basilica di San Pietro
The original Saint Peter’s Basilica, built in 326, as opposed to the epic basilica that exists today, was constructed in the form of a Latin cross. An atrium, called the Garden of Paradise, stood at the entrance beckoning followers through the main doorways of the church.

Unlike pagan temples, which were lavishly decorated, the facade of Saint Peter’s was plain. Thankfully, Catholicism got over all that when they made the new Saint Peter’s. Of course, the downside was that the religion became incredibly corrupt, but, hey, beauty has to come at a price.

The Basilica was built on top of the old Circus of Nero, but before you start pulling out your popcorn and cotton candy, this wasn’t a modern circus. The Roman crucifixions of Christians was the main act. Saint Peter, among many others, was hung up to die there. The Basilica was built on top of this anti-Christian site, as almost an intentional modification of history by Emperor Constantine, because if it no longer exists, it never happened, right?
The shots at the Church here are simply gratuitous.  "Catholicism" got all over that? Don't they mean "the leadership of the Church?" And the "religion" became incredibly corrupt? Again, couldn't they have just said "the leadership of the Church?"  Now, the institutional Church definitely has had its corruption, and still does.  Most Catholics, like myself, separate the religion from the institutional Church.  This entry takes shots not at the institutional Church, but at the religion itself.  Twice.  And needlessly so.  I find this insulting.

Not to mention, what is so bad about turning a place of death -- the site of the execution of St. Peter -- into a place of life.  It's not a denial of history as much as a magnification of it.

Here is another one, on the Castel San'Angelo:

Castel Sant’Angelo
Built between 135 and 139, as the tomb of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, the Castel Sant’Angelo was designed to be slightly larger than the Mausoleum of Augustus, because, as this database has shown time and again, size does matter.

The building was converted into a military fortress in 401 and was promptly sacked by Visigoth looters in 410, who scattered Hadrian’s ashes everywhere. What was left was recycled, i.e. stolen by the Vatican.

In the 14th century, the tomb was converted into a castle for the popes and connected to St. Peter’s via a covered passage called the Passetto di Borgo. Reflecting the delightfully sadistic side of Renaissance papal rule, the castle contained both sumptuous apartments and a prison. Giordano Bruno, the famous scientist and Hermeticist, was held there for six years. Executions were carried out in the small interior courtyard for the Pope’s enjoyment.
The cruelty of the Renaissance popes is duly noted.  I take no issue with that.  But "stolen by the Vatican?" Again, another gratuitous shot.  And untrue.  Much of it was used to defend against barbarian raids.

One more, not so much aimed at Catholics, but at the first Christian emperor:
Castra Praetoria
The Castra functioned as the ancient barracks for the Praetorian Guard of Imperial Rome. After Constantine’s victory over Maxentius in 312, he destroyed the barracks. Although the Guard had been the Emperor’s protectors for centuries and were simply doing their job defending Maxentius, it appears Constantine was unable to forgive them. They were disbanded forever.
Talk about a bad day at work.
Talk about an inaccurate shot at Constantine.  The Praetorian Guards were notoriously corrupt.  They had raised and deposed emperors for centuries, sometimes basically or even literally selling the throne to the highest bidder.  I'm not totally certain why the Castra Praetoria (or Castro Pretorio) is even in the game, since it was supposedly destroyed by Constantine some 1200 years before the events in the game.  When I was in Rome I saw the site of the Castra marked -- it is considered a neighborhood of Rome -- but there was no castra, so to speak.

There are other database entries of this type in Assassin's Creed 2 and Assassin's Creed Brotherhood.  I'm not trying to cause a stink here; I LOVE both games.  But these gratuitous shots make it a bit uncomfortable.  And there was no need for them.  Apparently, I'm not alone in feeling that way, either: the Assassin's Creed Wiki contains a different (maybe "corrected") database entry for St. Peter's than the one in the game, which is why I had to link to another site.  The original entry for St. Peter's is difficult to find on the Web.

So, should I be offended? Normally I'm not, but it's hard not to notice the shots I've just shown, mostly because they are needless and inaccurate.  Am I wrong here?


  1. You've made a good argument, and I agree completely. These same points really annoyed me as I played it. Of course, the worst part of ACIi was bashing up the Pope. I know he wasn't the best of men, but he was still the Pope, and the production team really didn'tthink that one through too well.

  2. Understand that there is a difference between disrespecting the office and disrespecting a particular occupant of that office. Disrespecting the Borgias doesn't necessarily mean disrespecting the Papacy. Indeed, I think the Borgias did more to disrespect the Papacy themselves than anyone. The Renaissance Vatican was certainly not a point of pride for the Catholic Church. But agree with you that the designers of Assassin's Creed took it too far.

  3. It clearly states at the start of the game that the game was created by people with different beliefs and races. It's just a video game. Because the guy was the pope and he was poisoned, it's taking it too far, even when he was an evil man himself? How much more would you excuse him with? I understand you're religious, but at some point you have to use your brain and not blindly follow everything someone says on the basis of a book 1500 years old, written by around 40 men and translated from Hebrew to Latin to English.

  4. Just because the game says it was "was created by people with different beliefs and races" doesn't excuse gratuitous shots at Catholicism. And if you re-read the post, you'll notice that I specifically said I have no problem with villainizing the Borgias, but attacking the religion is another matter.

    And I'd be careful about dismissing the authenticity of the Bible so easily. They dismissed the Iliad for a long time ... and then they found Troy. Such pieces of lore may distort, they may exaggerate, they may misinterpret, they may mislead (intentionally or otherwise), they may gloss over, they may skip over. But they rarely, rarely lie.

  5. I liked the 1st game but the 2nd game towards the end seemed one sided where all the bad guys where Christian Catholics. Even had you in missions where you assassinate monks and priest while they were praying. I didn't bother with Botherhood and won't return to the series until it isn't so one sided to bad guys=Christain Catholics. Anyway nice write up on the game and some issues brought up.

  6. Just discovered this blog. Pretty good stuff. If you're looking for some more information on Alexander VI and his dealings, I recommend the book The Bad Popes by ER Chamberlin. Alexander VI isn't nearly the villain so many think, at least he wasn't after he became pope. He made some serious efforts to improve. Lucrezia was more a person to be pitied than anything else. Not much to say about Cesare. He was a villain.

    Most of the myths surrounding the popes of this era were the product of Protestant revisionism seeking to set up dead bad guys that people could hate and therefore side with the Reformation. The real era of papal corruption was the Pornocracy, but it had been 400 years gone by the time the Reformers came along. They needed more recent targets.

    Don't expect much honesty from secular sources about this timeframe. I've only played Assassin's Creed at a colleague's house, so I'm not familiar with the historical comments. If I was to guess, though, they probably are about as well-researched as a Dan Brown novel.

  7. After reading some of the reactions here, i think at least some of the people responded here should think about this for a moment:

    A person may be considered holy, but not by definition innocent!

    "I know he wasn't the best of men, but he was still the Pope"

    "Even had you in missions where you assassinate monks and priest while they were praying."

    This is a very dangerous way of thinking!

    A person is not by definition innocent because he has a title or follows a religon?

    On the same note, this is a work of fiction, and anybody has the right to use whoever as "the bad guy" for a storyline.

    This has nothing to do with disrespect, it has all and only to do with imagination.

    I have no religious background and after passonately (!) playing AC 1,2, 3 and recently 4, i have no changed opinion about Christain Catholics.

    "I didn't bother with Botherhood and won't return to the series until it isn't so one sided to bad guys=Christain Catholics."

    Come on.. when you see a german as the villan in a (war) movie, all germans are bad guys?

    People, no matter where, simply had, have and will have good and bad ones, in any religion, race, color, etc.

    Don't blindly follow what you have been thought, but make up your own mind and conclusions.

    Maybe that particular pope was a bad guy, maybe he was a good guy, it doesn't matter.
    It is a fictional story in a videogame, and should be treated as such.

    By evading a story like that, you treat it as reality and for you, that makes it truth instead of fiction :)

  8. Inbetween the short time of writing my reply here on December 17, 2011 8:05 PM, i finished (yes i really did :) AC 4 Revelations, and i felt the need to add this one :)

    Although i am not religious myself, i did grow up with the stories, lessons from the bible and the meaning of the christian religion.

    I dare to say, that if you'd play the games all the way trough the end of AC 4 Revelations, you'd come to the same conclusion as i did:

    In my opinion, the whole story is one of the best i have ever seen in it's genre, and, is closer to the true meaning of the bible and it's teachings than you may realize.

    It's called Revelations for a reason, and it's a very, very well chosen title.

  9. I believe that you are reading too much into things. You say there are more shots, and I believe you, but the three you listed all have faults. Saying "The leadership of the Church" became corrupt instead of "religion" is really just a matter of semantics, and in the end they both mean the same thing. When Nixon was in office, you could say that the president was corrupt, or that the presidency was corrupt because it was filled with corrupt people. Both were accurate and basically meant the same. It is a simply matter of how you word it, but I sincerely doubt they were trying to imply something.

    Now, I'm NOT a student of history, but you said that saying the Castel Sant’Angelo was stolen was untrue because it was used to defend against barbarians. I don't claim to know the history, but you are not contesting the claim that the church took it. If I steal your house, then use it to defend my family, that does not negate the theft.

    Similarly, your final argument is that they take a shot at Constantine for killing the Praetorian Guards, which you say is "inaccurate" because the guards were corrupt. The game doesn't talk much about the nobility of the guards, other than that they were defending the emperor. If you were corrupt, and I killed you, and someone said that I killed you, your level of corruption would not cancel out the truth of their accusation.

  10. I feel compelled to mention that Shaun, the person creating the databases according to the story is, simply put, an asshole. That is his character. A sarcastic, rude, yet surprisingly knowledgeable, asshole. He is rude and blunt to everyone on the team, why would he all of a sudden turn PC describing events? I think it is important to keep in mind that these accounts aren't supposed to be indifferent encyclopedia accounts, but a guy doing the research and presenting it in his own snarky manner. He continuously mocks Americans and Brits in AC3, but I'm not offended by the fact that he did that because of some national pride, I just accept the fact that that is his role. The makers of the game aren't expressing their own opinions through the database. They made a character with a certain way of expressing himself, and for him to start going polite and nice at certain moments would be as ridiculous and odd as you randomly spouting Luciferian propaganda at random times...

  11. To be honest I think its like Resident Evil 5; it wasn't intended to offend anyone, I think the historical hyperbole's were just made to make the story interesting, but I think the game should state that it was not mean't to be bigoted nor insensitive.

  12. Pope Alexander VI to Lucrezia Borgia:

    "Do people say that I am both your father and your lover? Let the world, that heap of vermin as ridiculous as they are feeble-minded, believe the most absurd tales about the mighty! You must know that for those destined to dominate others, the ordinary rules of life are turned upside down and duty acquires an entirely new meaning. Good and evil are carried off to a higher, different plane.

    To be honest, i do not think the Pope of Rome would be to bothered if he was found to be a villain in a fictitious video game. He certainly did not care for rumour and the crimes he was rumoured / involved when he was alive.

    The Catholics who criticise the game have to accept the fact that people who are powerful, unrelentless, machiavellian will be selected for video games baddies. Alexander in his papacy was a gent who fit this criteria by having these traits and being the most powerful man in all of Europe, his word made and broke empires. In reference to the original post: '...But aristocrats out for influence and power tend to be more corrupt than people who go into the priesthood to minister to spiritual needs. The Borgias are simply the most extreme examples.'; hence he and his family they were selected to make villains.