Mourning the Non-Existent

The life of Ezio Auditore da Firenze – and it is a life, fuller than any other character in videogames to date – raises an interesting question, namely: why do we care?

When Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was first announced, it filled me with dread. Every sequel to Ezio’s story that Ubisoft released meant he would get older and older, increasing the likelihood that I would have to play an increasingly infirm hero. Worse, I quickly became accustomed to the idea of having a new adventure in Ezio’s Renaissance world every December, making that character and setting dangerously concrete for a series that seemed designed to be infinitely mutable. The easiest way to divorce players from their increasingly beloved hero would be to kill him off definitively. I played through first Brotherhood and then Revelations with that sword of Damocles dangling overhead the entire time, waiting for the string to break.

What does it mean when we deeply share the sorrow of a person who we know has never existed?

In his essay, “Some Remarks on Fictional Characters,” Umberto Eco asks, “What does it mean when people are only slightly disturbed by the death from starvation of millions of real individuals – including many children – but they feel great personal anguish at the death of Anna Karenina? What does it mean when we deeply share the sorrow of a person who we know has never existed?”

It is a fair question. I had an incredible amount of emotional energy tied up in Ezio, not to mention dozens of other characters I have played as, read about or watched over the years, yet the very real and horrible things populating the news on a daily basis elicit barely a shrug. Eco’s explanation for this is simple: narrated fact, within the context of a fictional world, is absolute and therefore more comprehensive and compelling than facts in the real world, which are always subject to revision. In other words, the things the narrative tells us are incontrovertible because the narrative is the entirety of the world. Historical facts, however, can change in light of new evidence and interpretations because the real world has no singular author.

He explains, “I know Leopold Bloom better than I know my own father. Who can say how many episodes of my father’s life are unknown to me, how many thoughts my father never disclosed, how many times he concealed his sorrows, his quandaries, his weaknesses? Now that he is gone, I shall probably never discover those secret and perhaps fundamental aspects of his being…I muse and muse in vain about that dear ghost, lost to me forever. In contrast, I know everything about Leopold Bloom that I need to know – and each time I read Ulysses I discover something more about him.”

This only works, of course, so long as you are willing to suspend disbelief. If a reader decides to question everything, or if the world of the narrative is poorly constructed, the engine of fiction will fall apart. For me to have forged a connection with Ezio, I first must accept that there has been a secret war between the Templars and the Assassins since the dawn of time and that they both have technology that allows people to experience the ancestral memories encoded in their DNA.

Eco says, “According to a tacit agreement routinely made by readers of novels, we pretend to take the fictional world seriously. Thus, it can happen that, when we enter a very absorbing and captivating narrative world, a textual strategy can provoke something similar to a mystical raptus or a hallucination, and we simply forget we have entered a world that is merely possible.”

But Assassin’s Creed is a videogame, not a book, so experiences derived from it take on some unique features. Just as Desmond is plugged into an Animus machine and re-enacting the life of his ancestor Ezio, so too am I, as a player of the game, inhabiting the assassin (and Desmond too, for that matter).

This creates a synthesis of Eco’s two poles. The major narrative facts are still absolute – Ezio was born, his family was decimated, he fought the Borgias – but the details are subject to revision according to the whims of the player – I stealthily assassinated that Templar instead of bullrushing in, I opted to run across the rooftops instead of skulking through the sewers. This personalizes the experience in a way that is impossible in other narrative media. But it is also an illusion, for even a character driven by the invisible hand of a player cannot overcome the inexorable.

Eco concludes, “The devastating experience of finding that, in spite of our best wishes, Hamlet, Robert Jordan and Prince Andrei die – that things happen in a certain way, and forever, no matter what we yearn for or hope for in the course of our reading – makes us shiver as we feel the finger of Destiny…The compelling nature of the great tragedies stems from the fact that their heroes, instead of escaping an atrocious fate, plunge into the abyss – which they have dug with their own hands – because they have no idea what awaits them; and we, who clearly see where they are headed so blindly, cannot stop them.”

By the end of Revelations, if we have suspended our disbelief and the fiction engine has done its job, we have invested enough of ourselves in Ezio that we have no choice but to watch his final coda in the film Embers. We can’t stop ourselves.

So, when Ezio sat down on that bench in the Piazza della Signoria, I was sitting next to him. When he was unable to breathe, I could feel the tightness in my chest. When he looked at his wife and daughter, I understood the strange mix of happiness and sadness that passed over his features. And when he died, so too did the small piece of myself that had inhabited him on his journey, my three short years, his sixty-five long years.

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Illustrations by Amber Harris. She can be contacted for commissions at AmberHarrisArt@gmail.com.

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Amber Harris, Commentary, Feature, Gaming, Stu Horvath
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