A retrospective on three games with Ezio and my opinion on the character’s role in them: Part III.
So after three games that centered around Ezio’s life, we get to Assassin’s Creed: Embers, a short movie and basically the epilogue of the Ezio trilogy that Ubisoft deemed absolutely necessary to make. It basically follows Ezio’s final days, because it is somehow important for the overall plot that involves a solar flare in the year 2012 to see some Renaissance man pass away, like people tend to do after approximately 60 to 80 years.
As you can probably gather from the above sentence, I didn’t like it much. I guess that at least in part, this is because it continues the story of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, which I consider the worst game in the entire franchise. I also admit it probably has to do with the fact that at this point, I was more than sick of spending time with Ezio. Still, it also goes a bit deeper than just these two things.
First off, the animation is rather unimpressive, though frankly, that’s a very minor issue. The only reason that I actually noticed it was simply because the previous shorts by the franchise, Assassin’s Creed: Lineage and Assassin’s Creed: Ascendance, were particularly beautiful in their own styles each. So after stunning life action and a lovely story of minimal animation, seeing very average CGI was a bit of a letdown. Still, that didn’t have to ruin things. Bad (or in this case mediocre) animation can easily be overturned by a great story. Which is pretty much where I felt this movie fell short.
Again, just like with Revelations, the writing just isn’t very good. Like Revelations, it’s feels like a schizophrenic experience where it’s demanded of the viewer to alternately feel sorry for Ezio and find him awesome, again in an often blatantly manipulative or obnoxious manner. Yet, unlike the game, it just seems to lack focus and in an effort to make sure “exciting” things happen, we often don’t see the things Ubisoft clearly wants us to see. I think the problem with Embers is the big discrepancy between what it wants the viewer to surmise and what the viewer actually gets to work with to make those conclusions. In fact, throughout watching it, I have never found myself saying the phrase “for all we know” as often in my entire life as I did viewing this short. I will get to what I mean by that in a minute.
As before, the trailer once again felt like it tipped me off to some things I would dislike about it and later turned out to feature some false advertising as well. It already bothered me that Ezio isn’t back in Monteriggioni nor do we hear anything about the town. This town, the main stronghold of the Assassin order and the home of the Auditore family, was torn to pieces by Cesare in Brotherhood. What kept him from rebuilding the place? Sure, it’s understandable he may not want to live there anymore now he has retired (I wouldn’t blame him after all that happened), but is it really too much to rebuild it for the sake of the Assassins in Tuscany, whom he claims to still care about? For the sake of his family and their memory? For the sake of the people who lost their homes in the attack and for which Ezio, as the ruler of the town, was responsible? Not at all. Ezio is fed up being an Assassin at this point and thereby seems to be automatically cleared of any matter of responsibility. Again, the character is completely indulged in his own wishes and desires without any repercussions, unless we have to assume his condition of hypersensitivity pneumonitis (wine grower’s lung) throughout the short is some form of karma for this neglect.
It’s narrated by Ezio, who, in the tradition of Revelations, complains about how difficult his life is:
”When I was a young man, I had liberty, but I did not see it. I had time, but I did not know it. And I had love, but I did not feel it. And I know that at any moment, someone could come for me. For my family. I worried I didn’t have enough time to do everything. Now I worry I don’t have enough time to do anything.”
Let’s first get the false advertising out of the way. No one came for Ezio nor for his family. The Imperial Soldiers came after Shao Jun, to capture her and return her to China. So if Ezio and his loved ones ever had a target on their backs, it was as collateral damage. Besides, why would anyone even want to kill him anymore? He pretty much killed every Templar who had a grudge against him and, as he loves to point out throughout this whole film, he’s an ex-Assassin who no longer opposes or even cares about Templar business. He’s not a threat to them in the slightest. It’s not like his luxurious Tuscan villa is that hard to find either, so if the Templars didn’t kill him over a decade ago, they’re very unlikely to kill him now, unless they have an awful lot of spare time on their hands as well as skewed priorities. Still, I guess Ubisoft simply put this in as trailer fodder, while the rest of the things mentioned in this trailer just ring untrue.
When did Ezio have liberty? The last time I checked the series when he was young, he was hunted by practically every Templar in Italy. He was in a “kill or be killed” situation. Either he’d spent his life running or he’d stand up for himself to protect himself and his remaining family. The only time he truly had a choice was at the time of Revelations when he wasn’t exactly a young man anymore. And who was it again that deemed it so necessary to go to Istanbul? It wasn’t the Brotherhood, but Ezio himself because he had a midlife crisis to deal with. For all we know, this character has developed a craving for going on suicide missions and then complaining how everyone is always depending on him and how he can’t ever live his own life.
Secondly, time for what? Time to start a family? Do whatever he wanted to do? Start that vineyard he has now? Leave a legacy? Again, he was getting revenge for his family and saving his own life in the process. He didn’t really have any time to do any of these things and doing them wouldn’t have been responsible since back then, someone would actually be there to want to destroy everything he had. The only time when he seemed to have “time” wasn’t when he was very young anymore either. It was after the events of Brotherhood, which he wasted, and after Revelations. For all we know, he’s wasting that too, as instead of seeing him enjoy that life, he’s mostly complaining to the viewer about everything he missed out on.
Then the last one: love. What love didn’t he feel? The two characters the franchise desperately wanted the player to believe Ezio was in love with, Cristina and Caterina, were pretty much featured in that way and most of the material we got out of these relationships was actually Ezio’s wailing about how much he loved them. So how didn’t he feel anything? Also, he didn't actually ever have love since Caterina turned him down and he barely even saw Cristina, who, for the record, dumped him too later on. The only other conclusion that leaves is that this feeling extents to Sofia as well and that doesn’t paint a pretty picture either. If anything, it leads to the unpleasant implication that only today, at the start of the movie, did he wake up and realize he has been married for over a decade and conceived two children along the way, which probably didn’t make him a delight to live with for his loved ones. Even if this is likely just clumsily written and nothing else, we don’t see a whole lot of interaction between him and his family that indicates he’s a very devoted father or husband. He just politely smiles at them, talks to them about his own horrible life and tells them to go places, which may either be because he cares about them or he simply wants to secure a legacy (except in the ending dialogue, which I will discuss later on). We don’t even see him interact with his son at all. For all we know, he’s an absent-minded, terrible father and husband and seeing how Sofia was totally fine with nearly being killed due to him, neglect almost seems like a lesser offense and one she’d suffer from him without even saying a word.
This is pretty much what I was getting at with the “for all we know” line from before. There’s just a lot this short wants you to conclude, mostly on account of Ubisoft still insisting that this character is a wonderful person, but between the clumsy writing and what we actually see, you can either assume one thing for the other. You can take from it that he’s once again the amazing person Ubisoft wanted us to see or that he’s a very unlikable individual.
This usually doesn’t work for storytelling. If the creator really wants the viewer/player to have a certain opinion of the character or conclude things about their personality, they have to make certain they have obvious clues to pick up these things. Again, I’ll take Altaïr, Ezio and Connor from the first Assassin’s Creed, Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed III as an example. In their case, whenever the writer wanted us to pick up on something about the character, they made sure it was presented well, both in dialogue and in how the character acts. In Altaïr’s case, it had to be established that he was haughty and self-confident, so we got to conclude that from the way he spoke to others, his blasé tone and the way he rushed into things. In Ezio’s case, it had to be established he was a hotheaded womanizer, so we saw him get angry fast and constantly flirting with every pretty face. In Connor’s case, it had to be established that he’s standoffish unless he considers you a friend, so we saw him act cold to most other characters yet warm and familial with the people in the Homestead. The player gets clear material, both in words and in actions from both the main character and its environment, to draw their conclusions about what the character and their situation is like. In Embers, however, you can’t always paint that picture well. As before, perhaps that can be blamed on the length of the short, the animation or the fact this was simply made as a quick side product without too much effort put in, but it’s still a pity since this is supposedly the epilogue to a very beloved character’s life.
So what does this epilogue contain? Not much of value, I personally think. It’s mostly Ezio contemplating his life, picking grapes, trying to help out Chinese Assassin Shao Jun who’s infinitely more interesting than him and some desperate attempts to show he’s still “awesome” by putting him in situations no supposedly smart person would put themselves in.
Especially these last few things particularly bothered me. Let’s first get to his interaction with Shao Jun. Ezio is a dick there. There’s no other way around it. I understood his initial aggression when he saw a complete stranger talking to his daughter; he doesn’t know who she is and she might be a threat to his young child. Then he learns she’s an Assassin and suddenly, he turns into the world’s biggest douchebag. He yells at Shao Jun, whimpers about how he left the Assassin life behind him (as if we didn’t already know at this point) and then unceremoniously demands her to leave.
This really annoyed me. Let’s first point out the very reasonable fact that Ezio is afraid to put his family in jeopardy by aiding an Assassin again. So in that aspect, he’s right to not want to help her. Still, that’s no reason to treat this complete stranger, who is polite, respectful and practically begs him for help, like a piece of rotting roadkill that’s delivered on your doorstep. Even Achilles was nicer to Connor in Assassin’s Creed III by comparison. At least Connor was a stubborn teenage brat that refused to leave. Shao Jun is a polite person who doesn’t want to cause any trouble; how hard was it to simply say “I can’t help you. Go to (insert Assassin here) and talk to him/her about it. Tell him/her I sent you.”. She likely would’ve complied and even if she didn’t and still asked for Ezio’s help, he’d at least seem a lot more sympathetic since he actually tried to give her other options. Instead, he acts like he can’t believe the gall of this girl to acknowledge him as one of the greatest Assassins who ever lived, to think of him as a wise man and to consider his opinion invaluable. He just sends her away, apparently not giving a damn that she traveled halfway across the world to meet him or even about what might happen to her. Because once more, now that Ezio is no longer an Assassin, he now no longer has to feel any sense of responsibility or sympathy for other people or Assassins and their problems. Thankfully, at this point, Sofia shows to still have a glimmer of a voice of her own left (rather surprising seeing how she was okay with nearly dying at Ezio’s hand and giving up her home in Istanbul, which she ran away to because she preferred it over Venice, the moment he asked her to) and tells Shao Jun to stay because she had a long journey. At least it’s a relief to see that her husband’s antisocial behavior hasn’t rubbed off on her.
When Ezio finally begrudgingly decides to help her, he realizes that the possibility of putting his family in jeopardy is now an inescapable reality. This is only emphasized when he and Shao Jun are attacked in the streets of Florence. So after the very sensible decision of sending his family away, he decides to simply wait at his house for Shao Jun’s pursuers. Who does he bring to fight these highly trained assassins of the Chinese court? No one, except Shao Jun and himself. His brittle, old and stiff self, with wine grower’s lung and the stamina of a drunk snail.
Clearly, Ezio is supposed to be heroic, tragic and noble here, but it’s actually nothing short of stupid. Going by how the Brotherhood is organized in the previous installments, I’m sure there are other Assassins in Tuscany and especially in big cities like Florence. So why doesn’t he ask them for help? Shao Jun is an Assassin and unless all other Assassins are as selfish as Ezio, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind helping out a fugitive Sister in need. They were already in Florence when they were attacked, so it’s not like it was that much of an effort to try and pop by the local headquarters and ask for help.
Yet this seems to be the main problem with Ezio since Revelations. In an effort to keep Ezio both “awesome” and dramatic, he’s constantly placed in situations that are hard on him, yet it are always situations that easily could’ve been avoided with a bit of logical decision making and common sense. As a result, the protagonist looks anything but heroic, but rather unwise and almost seems to develop a martyr complex. This is especially clear in the conversation between Ezio and Sofia when they look at their children while they’re sleeping. He laments how his past never lets him go, but he seems to blatantly disregard the possibility he could’ve sent Shao Jun to other Assassins at any time, yet chose to deal with it himself. As I mention above, it’s almost as if he likes to risk his neck and then complain on how he’s always needed by everyone. He’s like the college roommate that always cleans the house and then whines about how everyone is taking advantage of him, while all he has to do for someone else to tend to the house is ask someone else to do it or not do it at all.
Either way, after a battle with the Imperial Guards that Ezio wins by the virtue of plot armor, he sends Shao Jun back to China with a box that contains something to save the Brotherhood there (likely the keys of Altaïr). Shortly afterwards, he goes to the market with his family and after a short, rather uninspiring argument with a young Florentine man, he finally dies of old age, while he narrates another clumsily written love letter to Sofia as we fade out.
Initially, I thought this young man was some Templar who poisoned him and frankly, I quite liked that idea. Not that I necessarily wanted to see Ezio murdered, but because there’s something quite sad about the notion. While I already mentioned it indeed wouldn’t make sense for the Templars to come after him only now, the trailer did promise exactly that and there was something fascinatingly tragic about the idea that he avoided being killed by his enemies for so long only to die by a swift, sneaky poisoning as a very old man. Ubisoft, however, has stated that this is not the case, so he apparently simply dies of heart failure caused by old age.
The letter to Sofia fails to me to really be touching or convincing. Like the rest of this short film, it’s pretty clear what the intended effect of it is and what it’s supposed to convey, but the exact wording and what we’ve seen keeps it from having the emotional impact it wants to have.
A sentence like ”Many decades would pass before I understood the meaning of all three. And now, the twilight of my life, this understanding has passed into contentment” doesn’t really seem to indicate much of happiness to me (and it also doesn’t help we see him being grumpy most of the time). If anything, it gives the impression he more or less resigned to the life he has now. Then he comes with a whole speech on how love drives him forward. I’m going to assume that he simply means that loving someone makes his life meaningful (which is definitely true), but while I’m nitpicking anyway, I might as well take this line into question as well. He says love drives him forward. Well, forward through what? Does he still think life is difficult and harsh on him even now? What difficult trials have he face over the last decade? Did his vineyard not grow as planned? Was Sofia’s PMS that bad? Was changing his kids’ diapers unbearable? Did he stub his toe? He even talks about love for his Brothers and Sisters from the Brotherhood, whom, with the exception of Machiavelli, he mostly seems to be negative about throughout the short, which doesn’t really help make it convincing either. The one thing I could think about that would be a real trial is his health, but nowhere does the movie state that his health has been continuously bad or worsening over the last decade, at least not much more than that of the average old man around that time period. Maybe Ubisoft could’ve fixed that if the film was a bit longer or if they had spent more time, money and effort on it, but I guess it is what it is.
Still, was I touched or did I actually cry when Ezio died? The answer, sadly, would still be “no”. I couldn’t. Not even if I tried and that isn’t even because I’m a person to rarely cry about fictional characters. I’m the sappy bitch that still cries about some Disney movies, the ending of Gladiator (even after more than a decade), John Marston’s death in Red Dead Redemption and I’m the one that tears up at the endings of games like Journey and Dear Esther. Hell, I even cried about Altaïr’s death in Revelations. Still, I couldn’t wring out a single tear for this character’s death, not even for the sake of once having loved him in Assassin’s Creed II. I didn’t even have it in me to feel happy about it either. All I could muster at the end of Embers was simply a dejected “Finally…”. At this point, I was fed up to the point of indifference, simply waiting for the Ezio trilogy to finally be over and for Ubisoft to finally stop abusing this character for money so we could at least move on to something new.
To be fair, that’s exactly what they did with Assassin’s Creed III. I initially thought I wasn’t going to like this game as I found the trailer not to be very impressive. I went into it completely biased, convinced I’d hate it, but then I loved it. For all the glitches and things that could be improved, this game finally felt like an actual Assassin’s Creed again. The controls worked well, the inventory system was improved and there’s actually something at stake again. Connor was a new, fresh face and completely different from Ezio. The old conflict of Order vs Chaos between Templars and Assassins was back at the forefront, to the point Ubisoft developed the Templars into actual people you identify with and sometimes agree with more than the protagonist. The world of grays that made this franchise great is back and seeing how the main character with his black-and-white view coped with it was incredibly fascinating. I didn’t have to like him; I just loved him because I was allowed to make up my mind as he was hailed for every triumph and paid for every horrible mistake he made.
Yet above all, one of the finer things in Assassin’s Creed III was that aside from some pictures in the intro, an unlockable costume and a quick mention, there wasn’t a single trace of Ezio in the entire game. At long last, the series had moved on from performing the same (uninteresting) trick again and again and as heartless as it sounds, nothing relieved me more than knowing Ezio Auditore was indeed dead and buried somewhere in the Italian Renaissance countryside, never to appear in a game ever again.
Still, we weren’t entirely in the clear. The influence of the character still lingered in the Present Day storyline of the franchise and the effects there remained rather devastating. It all ran smoothly up to Assassin’s Creed II where everything kicked off into a story with higher stakes than we could possibly imagine. It was clear what had to be done: find the Temple to figure out a way to ward off the destruction of the earth. Then it just stagnated. Instead of going forward with a riveting storyline, Desmond’s story broke down to coming up with new contrived excuses to get in the Animus and watch Ezio again, a character who had nothing more to offer to the series except raking in cash for Ubisoft from his army of raving fanboys and fangirls. This led to huge plotholes and inconsistencies, such as Altaïr’s Piece of Eden and Ezio’s not being the same (so if Altaïr locked away the Apple in Cypres that Ezio gets his hands on, where on earth did he get the other one that he constantly has with him in Revelations? A possibility would be it's the Piece of Eden of Genghis Khan, but this is never explored or mentioned). It also led to ridiculous shoe-horned in plot points, such as Lucy suddenly being a traitor in a Templar plot, that were so half-assed a bad comic book villain would frown at it.
Assassin’s Creed III and its Present Day storyline clearly bore the scars of the previous games trying to delay the inevitable, but all in all, I think it tried its best picking up the pieces. Corey May did work his hardest to plug most of the plotholes and then mercifully took the Desmond story off life support. They salvaged whatever they could and put an end to the storyline, with the intention of starting the next games with a clean slate, free from the influence of a breakout character that ended up overstaying his welcome.
Still, with all this said and done, is Ezio the worst thing that happened to gaming? No. The worst thing that ever happened to the Assassin’s Creed franchise? I doubt it. Ezio himself wasn’t that bad: he was even great initially. It’s Ezio as a phenomenon that went bad. As far as I see it, Ezio is just another classic example of a character that became the victim of its own popularity. A character that was very well put together and became popular for a very good reason. Ubisoft realized this and naturally wanted to make as much money off him as they could, unintentionally to the detriment of both the series and the character. This happens to a lot of franchises and is nothing new.
So what is the final damage? With Brotherhood, we had an unnecessary game with an flawed story that nonetheless revolutionized the series in terms of gameplay and it’s possibly the best game in the series when judged by those standards. With Revelations, we had a cobbled together quick cash-in that wasn’t very good, but in no way would make a “Worst Games Of All Time” list. Perhaps the fandom has acquired a bunch of casual fans and fangirls who think the entire franchise comprises of Ezio’s adventures and have no idea who Altaïr or Connor even are. Again, those aren’t uncommon problems with other game series too and if Assassin’s Creed III proved anything, it’s that Ubisoft can still recover and make an actual Assassin’s Creed game rather than an Ezio game. So frankly, I think we’ll live.
Actually, the franchise has now moved on with a new womanizer and all-around badass in the form of Edward Kenway, Connor’s grandfather, in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. His game was utterly fantastic and after the fiasco of Revelations, writer Darby McDevitt has more than redeemed himself and shown he's capable of writing a good, compelling story and characters. Maybe that's because Edward is actually his baby or he had too little time to write something good for the previous game or couldn't come to an agreement with Ubisoft on where to go with it. Whatever the reason, Edward works on all teh fronts where Ezio previously failed and that is more than enough for me. Add to this that Alex Hutchinson, the creative director of the series, stated he never wants to make another trilogy about an Assassin’s Creed character and I have hope this franchise can still work out.
Ezio, to me, was a first-time character. He was the first character in the series that became really iconic and successful and its creators simply had no idea what their limits and the character’s were. They do now and therefore, they may not experience the same pitfalls as they did with their first hit character.
Edward seems to show signs of this progress and that really gives me hope. And if not, well, it’s a video game series, not something life threatening and there’s always next time and a next character, until Ubisoft finally gets it right again. With a mix of criticism and praise from fans, they're bound to do so eventually.