Assassin’s Creed 3 Could Have Made Us Care About Templars
Warning! This editorial is pretty much all spoilers for Assassin’s Creed 3. If you want your story experience with the game to remain intact, you should just leave right now. Go on.
When you fire up Assassin’s Creed 3 and first enter the Animus, the machine that transports you to the 1700s for the “past” portion of the game, you’re met with an interesting turn of events. Despite the fact that we’ve been hearing about the Native American hero of the game, Connor, for months, you start the game playing a white English dude by the name of Haytham Kenway.
As it turns out, you spend the entire first quarter of the game as Haytham, following him through assassination missions and freerunning as he searches for the temple that Desmond discovers in the beginning of the game. And then the big kicker comes — it turns out that Haytham is the father of Connor, and that he isn’t a member of the Assassins at all: he’s one of the evil Templar. In fact, he’s their leader in America.
Or at least, “Whoa” is clearly what the developers hoped you’d say. In reality, I found myself saying, “Ugh.”
The reason is that Haytham is an incredibly good character, especially in terms of the Assassin’s Creed series. He’s deep, rounded and sympathetic. He’s interesting and driven without being obsessed. He’s clearly intelligent. He’s clearly a believer in his own cause. He clearly is willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals, good or ill.
It’s in the first few moments after we leave Haytham that Assassin’s Creed 3 squanders its best opportunity to tell an awesome story instead of one that’s only pretty good. Immediately after we join up with Connor, the situation changes. Even though we’ve spent a few hours not only warming up to Haytham, but helping him establish his Templar Order in America and growing fond of his allies, we have to start hating them since they’re the mortal enemies of Connor. And so, Assassin’s Creed 3 turns Haytham’s second-in-command, Charles Lee, into a cruel bigot and convinces Connor that Lee (and by extension, Haytham) is responsible for the death of his mother. Connor’s hatred of Lee persists throughout the game and colors his relationship with Haytham when they finally meet up later.
It’s a great dynamic, to have father and son on different sides of this enduring conflict, but while Assassin’s Creed 3 effectively plays with our notions of “good” and “bad” in terms of the Founding Fathers of the United States, they fail to do so with their own story conventions in the Templars and Assassins. The time we spend with Haytham reveals that, while he can be ruthless, he’s by no means evil — he just sees things differently than Connor. This would be a great opportunity to explain to us the Templar point of view and to humanize it; instead of just making one group “good” and the other “evil,” Ubisoft could have made one group “human” and the other group “also human.” It would have been a challenging dynamic.
Instead, it’s a completely botched opportunity.
We get to see Haytham again later in the game, and he’s just as compelling as Connor’s estranged father as he was when we were controlling him. He actually shames Connor by being a much more rounded and interesting character. In the end, however, Connor cuts ties from Haytham without ever having a meaningful conversation with the man, when the poignant question — Why are you doing what you’re doing?! — is screaming to be asked by the game. At no point in the Assassins’ Creed series have the Templars been anything but self-serving egomaniacs.
Haytham is different, though. He was formerly an Assassin and was brought around to the Templar way of thinking. He remains a merciful and just man when he can be one. Though he kills and tortures, he also spares lives and goes out of his way to help innocents. And yet he subscribes to the Templar viewpoint. It was a perfect opportunity for Ubisoft not only to show us what that viewpoint was, but to challenge Connor, and us, as complicit in the murders of many, many Templars over the course of the game series. What if we were doing the wrong thing in killing those men?
Ubisoft even goes so far as to make us wonder as we’re moving through Assassin’s Creed 3. Each of the Templars we assassinate has something to say about what they were planning, and why they weren’t such bad folks. One talks about how he meant to purchase land held by Connor’s Mohawk tribe in order to protect it from the Patriot settlers (who eventually take it from Connor’s people anyway); another claims that his position as a British commander at the Battle of Bunker Hill was to prevent war, not ignite it.
Connor dismisses everything the Templars have to say as lies and deception, and it’s really, really unfortunate that we’re given such an easy out for our own murderous actions and Connor’s murderous decisions. What if the Templars really did have the best solution to the problem? What if they weren’t just reduced to Bond villain status for the sake of giving us a reason to stab some guys?
I’ve said on more than one occasion that I’d love to see a Haytham Assassin’s Creed game, because that character deserves to be explored and utilized. He’s the best thing Ubisoft has yet created in Assassin’s Creed, and it’s a bummer to see him squandered before being summarily executed by Connor. Their relationship was interesting, but could have been the most compelling bit of storytelling in the series. For a game that challenges our notions of our own history and the good of our revolution for us Americans, it seems like an utter shame that the game didn’t take the chance to question our bloodlust and whether wielding the Assassin’s blades have been good for the world they’ve created as well.