Miles Desmond, in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, sitting in an Animus: a machine that enables you to revisit ancestral memories and travel through time. But how to represent the experience of entering ancestral memories in fiction?
Over the summer, I was debating what kind of new short story I should write, when I found myself gravitating towards the technical challenges and experimentalism that the Assassin’s Creed franchise might inspire in fiction. What really got me thinking was how to represent the experience of entering an Animus in fiction.
The Animus machine in Assassin’s Creed splices two consciousnesses. Tracing ancestral memories through a subject’s DNA–an intriguing bit of pseudoscience–an animus can make you re-experience the memories of distant ancestors. In the game, the modern-era protagonist Desmond Miles revisits worlds of Crusade-era Jerusalem as his distant ancestor Altair, then sees Renaissance Italy through the eyes of Ezio Auditore, before experiencing the American Revolution through the eyes of Connor, a Mohawk.
There are certain rules to the Animus. For example, the bleeding effect: too much time spent in the Animus can cause your visions of the past to appear, ghostlike, in the present. This can lead to madness, as it does with Subject 16 in the game. Also, it is (or should be) impossible to view later memories of an ancestor, if he or she conceives or bears the next child in the subject’s bloodline. The child’s DNA would contain the ancestral memories of both parents, but later memories of his or her parents would be lost, since chromosomes are obviously not given to children after conception. The possible conflicts inherent in this conundrum are not explored in the game. In fact, they are outright ignored in Revelations.
The synchronization bar is the life meter in Assassin’s Creed.
Thirdly, there is the entire concept of “synchronization.” In the game, Desmond’s DNA grants him access to certain early memories, but only through completing memory sequences can he uncover later, or even repressed, memories. Synchronization is an organic way to explain why Desmond must progress through a series of “levels” in the game. But is Desmond passive to Ezio’s memories, or does he engage actively with them? Most of the time, it seems that Desmond is only seeing through Ezio’s eyes what happens. However, if you kill a civilian, fail to complete a level, or die in the game, you “de-synchronize” with Ezio’s consciousness. Desmond has to repeat all the actions Ezio performed in real life. But he does them in a kind of liminal space between history and the player’s failures to “synchronize” perfectly. For example, when you die in the game, especially by doing something stupid like falling off the top of a church steeple, a common reaction is to sarcastically groan, “And so that’s how Ezio died…” and slam the controller on the ground. The skill of players–and Desmond himself–must coincide with Ezio, or all is lost.
Ezio Auditore conspicuously breaks through a crowd in Piazza San Marco, Venice, in Assassin’s Creed II. To what extent does Desmond control what Ezio does?
Connor, a.k.a. Ratonhnhaké:ton: the first Native American Assassin
All this to say, there is a nonlinear nexus where Ezio’s actions can coincide with Desmond’s or not, a kind of free, Matrix-like world created in the universe of artificial experience that the animus creates. This space not only causes us to ask, “Is this the real world, or just an illusion?” but even makes us ponder, “Is Ezio’s history real, or is the world created by the Animus itself, only an illusion, like a computer game?” (Perhaps Abstergo Industries, the all-powerful organization that invented the Animus, controls perceptions of the past in this way. THAT would make waves. A dilemma never addressed in the game.)
Now that those who may be unfamiliar with Assassin’s Creed have an idea of how the Animus is supposed to work, let me address my initial question: how can literature represent the unique consciousness of a subject like Desmond in the Animus? Two minds vying for the same stream of consciousness make it a challenge to write well–even omitting the whole paradox of synchronization.
Dumbledore extracts his memories through magic, to store in a pensieve.
Before I get into my analysis, I must clarify that the challenge of the Animus POV extends much, much farther than the world of Assassin’s Creed and its novelizations (none of which use experimental language). One common science fiction and fantasy trope, to cite one example, involves aliens and other creatures who are able to share memories instantly with other organisms, at touch. I believe Vulcans and Na’vi fall under this category, neither of which are limited by the paradoxes of the Animus technology. Furthermore, a fantasist can imagine an infinite number of other ways in which memories can be stored inside inanimate objects and reproduced in the character’s consciousness when activated. I recall Harry Potter’s adventures in the pensieve, for example–not to mention Kimberly Ford’s flashes of Seer insight in Fionavar Tapestry. The great virtue of revisiting memories is that you can make characters re-experience backstory and elide much of the drawl of re-telling history.
Looking into a pensieve, you can revisit your own memories or those of others, walking through them as if through a world that doesn’t see or hear you.
My method of representing the Animus viewpoint is as follows: I wrote a story where I began with one consciousness that exists in normal circumstances, made it pass through a transitional phase through the Animus, and then found some way to represent the nexus of consciousnesses within the Animus itself. First person “I” and third person “he/she/it”: these pronouns each create a certain effect when used with either the present or past tense (I left out ‘you’ because the second person is too experimental and thus an unstable ground on which to test this already-experimental strategy). Perhaps it is best for Desmond’s consciousness to be distinct and separate from Ezio’s, which would be a clean, clear reading experience. If we want to experiment with synchronization, however, we might try to keep Desmond’s mind somehow in dialogue with Ezio’s viewpoint, like some kind of self-conscious narrator in Ezio’s story. A happy in-between may also be possible…
If you try to combine the first person with the third person perspective, then make both either present or past tense–and then repeat them again, to form the total number of possible combinations–then you end up with 16 possibilities. These combinations do not employ the synchronization paradox (that, later), but some have the benefit of clarity. I have included the list of aesthetic effects I observed below:
Desmond – Ezio
I am – I was: This combination causes Desmond’s viewpoint to become lost in an ancestor’s voice, who retells his story in the past tense, as though it has already happened. The voices are distinct, but the perspectives do not synchronize.
I am- I am: Smooth transition from POVs. Immediacy, in-the-moment. Subjective, so close to a direct experience. Desmond is perfectly synchronized to the second POV to the point where he seems to transform into Ezio and acquire his sense perceptions.
I am- He was : I found that this combination distanced Desmond from Ezio. Desmond ends up describing Ezio’s viewpoint after-the-fact, as though he left the animus and is now explaining what he saw. Or perhaps the narrative’s camera follows the ancestor over his shoulder.
I am- He is: Really postmodern effect. The character loses control of his own narrative, stops telling us his direct experience, and another unknown, possibly non-participant narrator begins telling his story from above.
I was-I was: This effect is like ‘normal’ literature. Desmond is simply revisiting a memory in his own past, in a flashback where he imagines himself revisiting his past experiences.
I was -I am: Decent synchronization effect, and a reasonably smooth transition. To my ears, at least, it did not feel so much that Desmond’s POV became Ezio’s or that Desmond’s POV was replaced by Ezio’s, but that Desmond was wearing the skin of Ezio for a while, as though he was playing his part, a bit like an actor. Not perfect synchronization, but does present an interesting effect that can absolutely work.
I was -He was: There is no direct synchronization, Desmond watching Ezio from a detached, almost God-like or narrative standpoint. Unless explained in the text, we do not necessarily understand their minds to be melded in one; he could simply be watching a video of Ezio moving.
I was – He is: Like ‘I am-he is,” the character loses control of the narration of his own story. However, the transition between past tense to present, which is a bit arbitrary, threw me off and sounded clunky. Not recommended.
He was – I was: Ezio ends up speaking about himself, but it runs a bit clunky. Not immersive: there are two viewpoints being juxtaposed.
He was – I am: Tense difference can be choppy, but it requires the ancestor to have a distinct, immediate voice.
He was – He was: Like normal literature. Desmond is simply reliving his past.
He was – He is: An interesting effect. The synchronization is such that it feels like though Desmond is playing Ezio’s role, (as in “I was-I am”) only it is told with more distance, so the effect of role-playing is reduced. Also, since the Ezio POV is so immediate, it is not necessarily true that it is presenting a linear narrative–only a series of immediate sensations and experiences. This can enable you to scramble the order of the ancestor’s story.
He is – I was: The effect of this is like a retelling in Ezio’s journal. It is strange to use to create the illusion of synchronization, but still viable as a technique. Desmond’s experience of Ezio seems second-hand.
He is – I am: Feels more synchronized than if past tense was used. Ezio ends up speaking about himself in a separate viewpoint, but a clever person might be able to make it clear Desmond is somehow integrated into Ezio’s consciousness, since the experience is in the present-tense with both characters.
He is – He was: Feels like Desmond is visiting his own memory. But the difference in tense makes it awkward, like a failed transition into a normal flashback.
He is – He is: Perhaps the easier, most viable, though one of the least experimental, of these options. The present tense makes it immediate and the consistent third person makes the transition smooth. It is almost as if Desmond has physically turned into Ezio. In fact, this point of view might be effective for metamorphosis stories. Unless we are reminded that Desmond’s own body is still lying in the animus, it will seem to be a complete transformation.
When Desmond and Ezio’s scenes are told from either the same tense or same person, it is generally more effective–although there are some interesting effects that can work where there is a difference. Now, there is one last problem: accurately describing the synchronization process–how Desmond’s mind might occasionally conflict with Ezio’s memory. One solution is to elide this dilemma entirely. After all, losing synchronization does not have to be a danger in a fictional world in the way it must be in the Assassin’s Creed video game. Your readers cannot “lose” a story, unless you’re writing a Choose Your Own Adventure. However, if I were to encounter this dilemma head-on, I might write something like this:
“Desmond sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surged up his spine as he closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was no longer in the cave, but in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It was a market day in 1781. Connor felt angry today and Desmond could see why: the man in the blue coat standing near the bench on the other side was Haytham. I don’t have to see him yet, thought Desmond, and walked into an alleyway. His body was not sore, refreshed from Connor’s last fight, so he climbed onto the roof of the print shop when he spotted a piece of Ben Franklin’s almanac flying in the wind.”
Chasing the almanac page is literally a side-quest in the game, translated directly to the page, and threatens only to be a distraction, however. For a tighter narrative, either Desmond would have to search for something important that he would have motivation to find in 1781 New York, or he would go right towards activating the next memory, by speaking with Haytham.
“”Connor,” said Haytham. “You’re late.”
“I came as quickly as I could,” said Connor.
“Follow me. We have a matter at the brewery.”
Desmond remembered Rebecca and Shawn had found something in the Abstergo database about the Old Brewery. He followed Haytham, keeping an eye out as Connor made an angsty sound in his throat, at his father who cared nothing for him. Perhaps he and Connor had more in common than he’d thought–he’d been riled up against his own father, William Miles, earlier.”
If this style of writing satisfies, then my job is done. In conclusion, I have isolated five types of perspectives that can be written, which have resulted from this experiment:
-Split Synchronization (as above)
–Straightforward Transformation of Consciousness: “I am/I am, “he is/ he is,” and “I was/I was,” “he was, he was.”
–Remembrance of things past: “I was /I was” and “he was/ he was.”
–Non-linear/Timeless animus effect: “He was / He is,” “I was / I am.”
–Journal memories: “He is/ I was,” “I am/ he was” “He was / I was” “I was/ I was”
The following are some examples of these last four types, made essentially by taking the first paragraph of Desmond’s above story and changing the tense and person accordingly. Taste the effects like a subtle wine.
What would it be like to be Ratonhnhaké:ton?
Transformation of Consciousness: “I am sitting down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clack over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surges up my spine. I close my eyes. When I open them, I am no longer in the cave, but in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It is a market day in 1781. I am angry today: Haytham Kenway, my father, is standing there in his posh blue coat over by the bench on the other side. He looks restless, expectant.”
Remembrance of things past: “Desmond sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surged up his spine as he closed his eyes.
He was in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It was a market day in 1781. He felt angry today: Haytham Kenway, his father, was standing there in his posh blue coat over by the bench on the other side. He looked restless, expectant.”
Non-linear, timeless Animus effect: “I sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surged up my spine as I closed my eyes.
I am no longer in the cave, but in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It is a market day in 1781. I feel angry today: Haytham Kenway, my father, is standing there in his posh blue overcoat by the bench on the other side. He looks restless, expectant.
Rebecca’s voice in my ear tells me to prepare for step back in time. The cityscape vanishes into blue squares and formless shapes while the Animus knits the world back together. Suddenly it is 1776. I’m younger, staring at my father as he waits below the State House, whispering to Charles Lee. The Boston Massacre is about to begin.”
Journal memories: “Desmond sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surged up his spine as he closed his eyes…
I was angry today: Haytham Kenway, my father, was standing there in his posh blue overcoat by the bench on the other side of the market. He looked restless, expectant. What could I do, if the Templars have a chance of winning this war? Benjamin Church must pay for his crimes.”
Which passage most pleases the ear? I leave that up to you decide…
Connor 2: http://wiiudaily.com/2013/02/assassins-creed-3-wii-u-review/assassins-creed-3-connor-fighting/
Desmond in Animus: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Games/Reviews/acb_360/
Pensieve 2: http://www.thinkboxsoftware.com/krakatoa-in-production/
Synch bar: http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/Synchronization