This post will contain spoilers for Assassin’s Creed 2.
I did not like Altaïr. Despite what challenges the game threw at him, despite epiphanies that destroyed the world he knew, he was always an arrogant ass who knew that he would succeed. He was completely and utterly static. Iconic, badass, and static.
Ezio does not have his style. He is bumbling, capable of mistakes, cocky and yet insecure, and a womanizer. He is brash, but has a personal investment in the events of the story. Sure, so did Altaïr, but his was never developed, it was just told and given to us without any real scenes to show why. I didn’t like Ezio, but I felt interested in his story (moreso than the metanarrative, whose premise just made me shrug and tell myself it’s a game–an excuse I hate).
The opening of Assassin’s Creed 2 is perhaps the slowest and ill-paced, but it sets the groundwork for why I cared enough to collect 100 feathers; why I was struck by the fact that Ezio matured physically (even if it was really only growing a beard), but no one else did; and most importantly, why Ezio struck me in a way many other videogame characters do not. Hope. I saw a glimmer of something I liked, and wanted to see if it developed as I hoped.
Physically, Ezio changes dramatically from a spoiled brat in breeches and a very stylish vest to a downtrodden assassin attempting to hide. He is garbed in the traditional white that we saw on Altaïr, updated for this time period, but that doesn’t quite fit in the lush environment we are presented. The game reflects a few truths in the changes from his appearance, and the ability to shift beyond the white.
The first is that the game you are playing has now altered its rules, or at least how we may think about them. You are given new freedoms (the ability to unlock weapons), responsibilities, and hurdles with your new outfit. A plot threshold has been reached. This is further reflected with the capes, which serve as beacons of safety and danger depending on the mixture of cape in city–Ezio has a chance to show his colors. Officially, you have made the leap from the lengthy tutorial to that of being an assassin and having more freedom in what you do (in a linear plot).
Second is the fact that this reflects a nod to history. The history of fashion is fascinating, particularly as populations grow, certain industries blossom, and new technologies develop. Each of these facets allows for more variety and options for people with less money, and yet, is constrained by notions of a particular time period. While people are always wearing what they will, and probably deviating from the norm, there is a reason I can say Victorian and have people think of certain costumes (even if they don’t know enough to ask which part of the Victorian era). It is a game mechanic, but considering how large a part the (fictionally altered) history of the game plays, it is something I felt worth noting (we are talking about the Renaissance, which saw a shift from a view of the collective to that of the individual).
Third is the fact that you have stepped into the iconic view of the assassin. Now you are not just Ezio Auditore, a kid who just lost his family, but have taken on an entire persona to exact your revenge. Literally and metaphorically, Ezio is adopting the mantle of his father to complete a task, meanwhile marking himself as different, as breaking the rules, and donning that distinctive hood.
This last point also highlights the problem that the focus is purely on Ezio as someone who sees change, meaning any other character is left to languish and be wholly undeveloped. A weak supporting cast only strengthens to undermine your main character. Throw in Machiavelli and just have him stand there as you mull over the fact that he was an assassin (who apparently wrote a treatise on how to conduct war and yet ineffectually handled the Templars). Have da Vinci in the game, mention his homosexuality, and then just delegate him to vehicle sequences (I hate vehicle sequences that aren’t part of the core game) and upgrades. Introduce a strong mother who vaguely reminded me of my own, and then just shut her up for the rest of the game–for years. It is also reflected in having the assassination missions be far less interesting, having them serve as milestones for progression of plot and story, but not actually being a goal toward which you worked.
Ezio himself, however, sees change. It is often shallow, and is something to be found in a not particularly well-written young adult novel, but the intervening years of the game do reflect that he has grown up past being a (wholly) brash youth to being someone who contemplates his past, reflects on his tasks, and is able to ponder at the inevitable conclusion toward which he is hurtling. Had he been able to chew a bit more on whether or not this was his fate, I’d likely start drawing parallels to a more action-soaked Hamlet (though Ezio is far older than the Dane).
Unfortunately, what the game does not do well is reinforce this notion through its gameplay. These are scenes relegated to the non-interactive sequences, just telling me this information and forcing me to be passive. I had interest in his story, and wanted a hand in it, but was firmly told no. In doing so, these cutscenes also detracted from most of the gameplay elements I enjoyed. Instead of interweaving a graduated system whereby Ezio reflects his pensiveness or reluctance, the gameplay gives me parkour (which I enjoyed) and repetitive combat that felt like a chore.
I would like to argue that Ezio is a compelling character, full of flaws, triumphs, an arc, but it means very little in this game. Even the ending sequence when Ezio reaches Minerva, he is succinctly told to shut up after he expresses confusion–this is not meant for him. At this point I actually frowned because I felt sorry for Ezio. This could have been his story, but really, it wasn’t.