The Son of The Revolution

Sunday 28 April 2024

Just like the exquisite gem Assassin's Creed: Syndicate (an article about this one is also in the works), Assassin's Creed: Unity can also be considered a cultish treasure already, albeit for different  reasons. I know, because I initially had this impression myself, that Unity can feel confusing and infuriating when you start playing it for the first time, what with its exhaustingly frustrating map, its weirdly designed gameplay and its problematic combat system. But once you get to know it better, and believe me, it's all worth the while, it rewards you with a brilliant story and some of the most memorable characters that you will ever come across in video games of this kind.

Assassin's Creed: Unity takes place during the years that preceded and followed the French Revolution, focusing on Arno Dorian, a young man whose evolution as an Assassin is anything but conventional. Arno was born in a noble family but he was doomed to carry a heavy load from a very tender age, after witnessing his father's shocking murder. On the same day, he met Elise, a girl of his age, with whom he connected instantly and who was destined to become his childhood companion and his love interest later on, as her father, Francois de la Serre, took him under his protection and raised him alongside his daughter as his own son. What Arno didn't know was that Elise's father was the Grand Master of the Templar Order and since his own father had been an Assassin in life, theoretically they were enemies. De La Serre, however, was a fair and open-minded man, in spite of his status, and he even considered truce with the Assassin Brotherhood, something that was extremely frowned upon within the Templar Order. Although de la Serre knew who Arno's father was, this did not prevent him from taking the little boy under his wing and offering him protection and education without ever attempting to convert Arno into a Templar, instead encouraging the boy's freedom of will. 

At an important soirée in Versailles, de La Serre is killed by two mysterious men and Arno, who happens to witness the crime, gets unjustly accused of the murder. He is sent to the Bastille, a literal Hell on earth during those times, where he comes across Pierre Bellec, a fellow prisoner and Master Assassin, who used to be a close friend and mentor of Arno's father. Arno had not been aware of his own special traits until then (namely his eagle vision and high intelligence) and it is Bellec who, after an eventful first meeting, makes him realise the truth about himself.

Coming across Bellec looks like a blessing for Arno, as when the Revolution breaks and they manage to escape, he is accepted in the Paris Brotherhood thanks to his new friend who also becomes his mentor. As it turns out in due course, however, Bellec has a very specific view on how the Brotherhood should function, which comes to direct conflict with the late de La Serre's wish for truce. Fearing that Elise, being her father's successor in the Templar Order, would possibly follow along the same philosophy as him, and, most importantly, being horrified by the sentimental influence that she might have on Arno, he goes as far as to attempt to frame Elise for the murder of Mirabeau, the leader of the Brotherhood, whom Bellec himself poisoned because he shared de la Serre's radical views. This is a very crucial plot point, because after the events take this dramatic turn, Arno is forced to kill Bellec, essentially against his own wishes, and from that moment and on, he finds himself constantly facing the Brotherhood Masters who had always been sceptical about him, but Bellec's trust in the boy worked as a guarantee for Arno towards them. With Bellec gone, Arno becomes more responsible for his own actions and decisions, which, albeit not being always the right ones, nonetheless bring him each time closer to a higher level of emotional and spiritual maturity.

Such Bildungsroman elements are not uncommon in story-rich video games; and Arno seems to be a character who, by definition, would be an ideal protagonist in a tale like the one that Unity narrates. Arno's activity is set in an environment that originates in the epic novels of Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, something that is evident not only in the most obvious aspect - the setting - but also in its story and, most importantly, its characters, both main and secondary. Le Roi des Thunes, Aloys La Touche, Marie Levesque, Frederic Rouille, carry this fascinating heritage of literary heroes who were born from the inspiration of those classic novelists and everything about their appearance, attitude and development is directly connected to it. 
Cunning criminals (the dreaded King of Beggars with the painted face) or individuals who were either deceived and were forced to abandon a decent life for the sake of a much more esteemed position in the underworld of Paris (ex tax assessor La Touche who became a cruel, pitiful  henchman), or who slyly threaded their way in high society so as to gain money and status (the cold and ruthless Marie Levesque), or who were disappointed by those whom they thought friends and resorted to extremities so as to establish themselves as saviours of the people (the murderous and bloodthirsty Rouille), these characters form a sensational background for the story that unfolds at the forefront. Historical figures like Maximilien Robespierre, Napoleon Bonaparte, Comte de Mirabeau, Louis Michel le Peletier, le Marquis de Sade, play important roles in the story, their real-life actions cleverly blended with fiction, as is always the case with the Assassin's Creed games.

There is something brilliantly twisted about the story of Unity and its development, and this is directly connected to its protagonist - it even seems to stem from him. Arno combines the charm of an unpretentious carelessness with a deep and conscious sense of altruism and a constant longing for happiness in life. He is also very adaptive, and can cleverly thread his way when needed, but at the same time his sentimentality can sometimes cost him a lot. This combination of opposite elements that shape him as a character somehow define and determine not only the development of the story but also the reactions of the people he deals with. We can see how Bellec is instantly attracted to Arno - on a metaphorical, symbolic level - the first time he sets eyes on him in the prison cell. Bellec is much older, far more experienced, has been through thick and thin in his life, but Arno's social innocence captivates him so much that he finds himself forced to progressively tone down his aggressive attitude for the sake of a more appropriate fatherly approach towards the boy. Arno's instinct assures him that Bellec's aggressiveness is nothing more than a not so well-covered expression of love and caring, which is why he never talks back to the man and just obeys him with respect. This lack of an equally aggressive response from Arno's part is subconsciously interpreted by Bellec as a weakness and a sign of a potential future sentimental and practical submission, leading to him softening his own manner towards the boy, but at the same time giving him too much self-confidence when the time comes to demand from Arno to choose sides. 

Arno is an open book; he never hides his feelings and is always sincere and honest. Him being a bit too emotional is quickly balanced by his thoughtfulness and sense of justice. With the bright red, dark blue and glorious white colors almost constantly on his outfits, he is essentially representing the free spirit of France which is always attractive and sensational. Superior forms of all kinds want to conquer it and suppress it, and Bellec, having a higher rank in the Brotherhood than Arno, is one of them. Arno is pure, honest and unaffected by the evil around him, something that captivates Bellec partly because it reminds him of his own younger self, but also because he sees in Arno someone whom he can shape and educate through a fascinating emotional growth. Arno's passion can never be tamed, but his insight guides him to employ it only to do good. Bellec, on the other hand, although equally passionate and devoted to his cause, seems to have been unable to resist a fair share of brainwashing and corruption that led to him to progressively see himself as the Brotherhood's saviour. In his mission to clean the Assassin ranks, he wants Arno to accompany him, essentially demanding that he renounces everything and everyone and join him without having second thoughts.

Although technically on the side of Good, Bellec is however the kind of person who will easily resort to violence and will not hesitate to put anyone whom he considers dangerous for the brotherhood's cause out of the picture, no matter the means. Killing Mirabeau is a great example of this, but framing Elise is the most characteristic and extreme. On a allegorical level, Bellec yearns for Arno and by extension for what he stands for: the ever-charming, free-spirited and proud people of France. There is a subtle hint of physical attraction from his part as well, if you notice certain nuances in his speech and his eyes on specific occasions while he is talking to Arno, something that works symbolically to further highlight Bellec's urge to have his way because he believes that it is the best for the Brotherhood and France. Both on a personal and a symbolic level, he longs to conquer Arno's free spirit and own control over it, by attempting to make him succumb. Bellec is a very interesting, multi-levelled character who may be essentially Arno's mentor and guardian, but at the same time he is trying to patronize him and make him reject whomever diverts him from his course, essentially Elise. In Bellec's eyes, Elise, being a Templar, is an enemy by default but mainly she is the only one capable of taking Arno away from him. And this is exactly where Bellec makes the biggest mistake, when he attempts to turn Arno against Elise and when this fails, he even goes as far as to threaten to kill her before Arno's eyes, not taking into consideration that Elise is a person not only very dear to Arno but she also grew up with him and they learned to love and care for each other with a very special bond which cannot be easily broken, and which essentially goes beyond the two of them belonging to opposite sides.

If Arno represents the spirit of France, Elise stands for France as a notion, nodding to Marianne, the symbol of the French democracy. Regardless, being a Templar, Elise is considered an enemy because France has many times sided with not so good forces for a purpose. As an individual, she is somewhat frivolous, and even got to the point when she consciously cheated on Arno. Arno, as the people, is always pure and faithful to her - and, by extension, to his homeland - and will choose to consciously forgive her unfaithfulness. Just like Kyra in Assassin's Creed: Odyssey, Elise is on the hunt for the man who harmed her family and she is driven by her desire for revenge. But unlike with Kyra's case, which is very personal, in Elise's case things are far more complex. In the end, Elise leaves Arno to die so as to kill Germain, the silversmith who was revealed to be the Grand Master of the Templars and also the man who had her father murdered, and Arno is saved only thanks to his will to rush and help her. Because people are always ready to die for their homeland, but the homeland does not always  appreciate this sacrifice. Being an allegory of France both as physical presence and spirit, Elise cannot exist without Arno, therefore the people of France; when during the dramatic finale of the story Elise decides to act alone, her fatal choice leads to her brutal and untimely death. While Arno - the people, therefore the spirit and soul of the nation - manages to survive and subsequently move on.

But Elise had shown signs of controlled cruelty before, when during hers and Arno's encounter with Robespierre she did not hesitate to heavily wound the latter by shooting him in the face, resulting in him being unable to defend himself and subsequently getting arrested. We know that this is something that Arno would never do, but this spot-on scene is exactly and essentially where we clearly see the line that is drawn between the Templars and the Assassins in the saga's lore. No matter how fair and just De La Serre was, no matter how well he raised Elise, both he and his daughter never ceased to be Templars. As an Assassin, Arno would have resorted to less violent means to extract the truth from Robespierre, more so since they needed him alive in order to be able to give them the information they were seeking.

Unity is very unique in its universe because it takes place during a particularly dark and grim period of history, and this is something that, although it had potential to have been explored even more thoroughly in the game, is still a well-depicted element that exists both in the story and the overall atmosphere, hovering like an ominous aura. The overcrowded streets of Paris look stressing and painful to navigate, especially when you are in a hurry, but at the same time this feature highlights the tension, anguish and excitement of the revolution, additionally giving off a constant feeling that things can very well shoot up to extremes at any given moment. There is an overwhelming uneasiness in the central streets, coming to contrast with individual scenes of leisure in high-class cafes and forgotten secluded suburb yards, all this accentuated by the constant presence of swarming crowds around crucial areas of political and social interest, with random scenes of high society citizens getting abruptly arrested by extreme patriots, civilians carrying heads on pikes and parading in the streets, soldiers in panic trying to restore a long-lost order the idea of which has already become too complex and vague, as Arno wanders around a Paris that never ceased to be battered by a succession of extremities - first an absolute, relentless and cruel monarchy, then the explosion of the Revolution and its unavoidable aftermath, followed by the bleak, gloomy years of Robespierre's Reign of Terror.