Crusading and crusader figures are often drawn upon in videogames. Yet how accurate are depictions of crusaders? By analyzing four games: Dragon Age, Assassin’s Creed, Medieval II: Total War, and Knights of Honor, the validity of accurate gaming tropes regarding crusaders will be analyzed and common misperceptions will be debunked. Specifically, politics, religiosity, and Templar figures in crusading games will be examined.
The Role of Military Orders and Templars in Games
Summary: A number of games adequately recognize the piety, obedience, and elite military prowess of the Templar Order. However, an increasing emphasis on questionable actions taken by Templars in games has given rise to imaginative conspiracy theories and negative views of Templar figures.
From Demon Slaying to War Waging
Firstly, the Dragon Age game trilogy features non-playable Templar characters that further the progression of the story’s plot. The game’s main conflict revolves around a periodic war between mages and the Templar Order. The Templar Order is the military arm of the Chantry, the game’s primary religious organization. The primary duty of Templars is to protect the world from magic and demons. Mages in the game are not inherently evil, but their abilities are a result of their strong link to the Fade, a realm where demons lie. Mages are perceived as a threat by the Chantry because unlike the world’s normal inhabitants, their bodies are prone to possession by demons. When a mage becomes possessed, demons are able to leave the Fade and physically manifest themselves throughout the game world. Mages are not persecuted if they renounce their magical abilities and personal freedoms, reducing them to shells of their former selves and confining them to Templar-governed communities known as the “Circle of Magi.” Joining the Circle of Magi and renouncing magic in order to avoid death is analogous to the conversion of Muslims to Christianity during the Crusades. Additionally, Templars justify their violent actions in the name of the Maker (the game’s equivalent of God). The in-game Templars must renounce wealth, are discouraged from marrying or raising children, and swear vows of obedience and piety – similar to their real world counterparts.
Additionally, “Templar” is a specialization for playable characters in the games. A “specialization” is a set of customizations that determine your character’s abilities, which are called “talents.” Some talents throughout the three Dragon Age games include:
“Cleanse Area”: “The templar purges the area of magic, removing all dispellable effects from those nearby.” This talent enforces the belief that templars were blessed warriors with the ability to remove evil from the world – whether it be mages and demons in the game or Islam and the devil in the real world.
“Mental Fortress”: “The templar has learned to focus on duty, gaining a large bonus to mental resistance.” This talent supports real Templar emphasis on strict obedience and their ability to refrain from worldly temptations by practicing chastity, thereby maintaining their mental fortitude.
“Holy Smite”: “The Templar strikes out with righteous fire, inflicting spirit damage on the target and other nearby enemies.” The templar’s piety and relationship to God is emphasized by his ability to smite enemies as he literally wields the power of the Holy Spirit.
“Blessed Blades”: “You rally all of your nearby allies to fight with greater strength, especially when facing demons.” This ability highlights the blessing of swords in Mass during the real crusades and the belief that violent actions were done with God’s blessing, for God supposedly imbued crusaders with the power to victory.
“The Last Sacrifice”: “Even if should you fall, you give your allies strength to fight harder in your name.” Your Templar character’s death makes him into a martyr. In the game and the real crusades, death during combat was equated with a beneficial, Christ-like sacrifice.
Video Showcasing some Templar talents in Dragon Age: Inquistion:
The Chantry’s perception of mages as demonic beings who must be killed or reformed, in the name of the Maker, is analogous to Church rhetoric against Islam during the Crusades. The actions of in-game characters and descriptions of players’ abilities show that Templars follow a strict code of obedience and servitude to the Maker, as was required of the real Templar Order.
However, mages often invoke sympathy in the player and players frequently decide to side with mages over the Templars. In fact, Templars in the game are often portrayed as religious fanatics and the player can choose to reject their beliefs by becoming a mage him/herself. Although demons pose a serious threat, selfish motives and an addiction to a magical substance known as “lyrium” frequently dictate the actions of Templars in the game. At the end of Dragon Age II, one of the commanders of the Templars even crafts a magical sword that drives her to insanity. This magically enhanced Templar commander serves as the final boss battle of Dragon Age II and it is impossible for the player to not engage in combat with her. Despite seeking out the destruction of mages, Templars hypocritically rely on mystical artifacts in order to power themselves.
Below is a video showing the end of Dragon Age II, if the player sided with the mages over the Templars. Note the religious language that Knight-Commander Meredith of the Templar Order uses throughout the final conflict: “I will be rewarded for what I’ve done here, in this world and the next.” “Maker, your servant begs you for the strength to defeat this evil.” “Maker, guide your humble servant. Please tell me what I must do. What if… I’m not doing the right thing? What if this is all madness? No, I must remain vigilant.”
Whereas Dragon Age draws upon crusader themes and imagines a fictionalized form of crusading in a fantasy world, the first Assassin’s Creed Game, released in 2007, was actually set during the Third Crusade. The rest of the series is based on a fictional rivalry between the Templar Order and a brotherhood of Assassins (based on a historical group centered in Masyaf, Syria). The series spans a history encompassing the Third Crusade, Renaissance Italy, 18th century North America, Paris during the French Revolution, and most recently, industrial London. Elements of the modern world are thrown into the mix in order to connect the game’s historical elements with the fictionalized, continued existence of the Templar Order and the Assassins in the modern world.
The original Assassin’s Creed game focused on an assassin named Altair ibn-La’Ahad, an Arab, but not a Muslim, who was orphaned and taken in by the Assassin order at Masyaf. Throughout the game the player encounters many historical figures, such as Robert de Sablè and Richard the Lionheart. The player also encounters a few Muslim characters, although the game’s primary focus is on Frankish soldiers, the emergence of the Templars, and the control they began to exert while searching for a mystical artifact which would allow them to impose their beliefs across the world through mind control. The overall story of the game follows Altair’s life as he is sent on missions throughout the Holy Land (playable cities include Jerusalem, Acre, Masyaf, and Damascus) by the leader of the Assassins to eliminate high profile figures in the hopes of crippling this highly fictionalized, conspiracy theory version of the Templars (some of whom are historical, real members of the military order though), thus saving the world from forceful domination.
The subsequent games, and deeper lore associated with them, are where most of the deviation in the portrayal of “Templars” from the true historical order happens. In the games, the Templar order was supposedly started by Cain, the Biblical figure who killed his brother, Abel. Throughout the game’s version of history, major changes of power in large empires have been attributed to the group that came to be called the Templar Order. There is a bit of a gap in the game narrative regarding how this actually originates in Biblical times, but in the story of the game, historians are not prevalent and thus a fully fleshed-out world is not presented to the gamer. The attempted destruction of the Templars in the first game merely drove them underground and they became a secret organization with the same amount of secrecy as the Free Masons. The underground Templars are still trying to retrieve mystical artifacts for world domination, while fighting off the underground Assassin order that attempts to ensure humanity can keep its free will. After the end of the first game, no antagonists in any of the following games share any association with historical Templars, despite keeping the “Templar” name and sigil of a red cross. In some cinematic sequences, such as in the screenshot shown below, a red cross concealed under a Templar’s clothes can be seen falling from the dead Templar:
Assassin’s Creed is consistent in representing the cross imagery of Templar attire, while Dragon Age substitutes a flaming sword instead. Although both games depict perceptions of mindsets that may have governed the Templars’ actions (some of which have more historical merit than others), they focus less on the explicit historical warfare that the Templars engaged in. Medieval II: Total War and Knights of Honor are more effective in the militarized historical capacity.
Medieval II: Total War is a real-time strategy PC game that is centered on the Third and Fourth Crusades. The game presents the opportunity for a player to meticulously construct an empire, building up infrastructure and trade networks while amassing large armies, in order to defeat the other factions present within the Holy Land. The game has five main playable factions that are headed by a “hero” who the player controls, along with his armies in battle. The Kingdom of Jerusalem faction is led by Richard the Lionheart, the Principality of Antioch faction is championed by Philip Augustus, the Ayyubid Sultanate faction is led by Saladin, the Seljuq Empire faction is headed by Nur ad-Din Zangi, and the Byzantine Empire Faction is led by Manuel Komnenos.
The campaign begins in 1174, several years before Pope Gregory VIII called for the Third Crusade. As the campaign progresses into the Fourth Crusade, three new unplayable factions are inserted into the gameplay. The Mongol Empire begins invading the eastward areas of the game map, ships belonging to the Republic of Venice deposit armies on the coastal west, and the Mameluke rebellion of 1250 upsets gameplay near Egypt.
With enough resources, the player has the option to construct permanent forts that, even when vacated, will remain in play. Each faction has a single region called their “Power Centre” where their fledging empire is based. If this region is lost, certain units cannot be recruited. However, if a Power Centre is lost, reinforcements will often be sent in to help the player retake the city or region. If the player chooses either the Principality of Antioch or the Kingdom of Jerusalem, they will have access to the Knights Hospitaller and Templar orders, providing them with unique and highly effective fighting units.
The game has both the Templars and the Knights Hospitallers as additions to one’s fortresses/armies. They are both relatively difficult to unlock, requiring a successful crusade campaign that sacks and controls at least one enemy city. After the city is rebuilt/held for a few turns, the player has the option to build one of these orders. (This requires multiple cities to be sacked for both orders to be playable). They are not presented as anything other than an elite fighting force that refuse to retreat. There is no background/ulterior motives given for the orders, unlike in Dragon Age and Assassin’s Creed.
The Templars are depicted as one of the most elite fighting units of the game. In order to unlock the Templars, the player must first go on a successful Crusade (after choosing the option to launch a crusade). After a successful Crusade, the Templar Order may be founded in the captured city for a significant amount of in-game resources. These mounted knights are portrayed as extremely dedicated individuals that are impossible to route/make retreat. They have more fighting formations than the average unit and usually use a cavalry charge in a wedge formation. In the game there is a lack of distinction in control between Templars and regular units, as they are both controlled in the same way when not in combat. The Templars are armed with a lance and a sword, and have a permanent special ability that increases their attack power against Muslim forces. Due to the difficulty of acquiring these units and their ability to shift tides in combat, having and maintaining the Templar Order can give the player an extreme advantage over their enemies and are seen as integral units for a successful campaign. They have a special ability against Islamic forces that increase their attack power, like the Templars’ abilities against mages in Dragon Age. As a RTS game, there is little in-depth background or analysis for the motives behind orders. They are made available through conquest and are an effective fighting force, but there is no additional information given. Military might is emphasized, but human motives are not a factor like in Assassin’s Creed.
Knights of Honor similarly depicts military orders as loyal to the papacy, but their sole function is to serve as an elite armed entity. When the Pope calls a Crusade, one of the kingdom’s marshals (military leaders) often gets the opportunity to lead the Crusade. Upon choosing to lead a Crusade, the marshal acquires a squad of special military units, namely Crusader Infantry, Crusader Cavalry, and Crusader Crossbowmen. Crusader Infantry are similar to Templars, which are powerful units that give many bonuses to an army, such as increased morale. The Crusader Infantry version of Templars are especially powerful, as they are all elite forces chosen by the Pope. Because of this, these units get even further bonuses to their strength, speed, and other attributes. These units are also exclusive to kingdoms that have adopted the Christian religion, just as other military units are specific to different religions.
Besides standard marshals and their armies, there are a few different types of military orders present in Knights of Honor. Rebels, which are generally small, weak groups, can spawn randomly in any location. Random spawning can happen for a number of reasons. For example, if a Crusade is unsuccessful, angry Christians may conglomerate and form a rebellion group. A rebellion could also occur if a province has a religion different than the official religion of the kingdom. This would happen if a Christian kingdom took over a province from a non-Christian kingdom.
In summary, the military might of the Templar Order and their desire to defeat satanic evils has persisted through history and manifests itself in videogames. However, cloudy elements of the Templar Order’s past has resulted in outlandish conspiracy theories that cater towards public desire for drama and the revelation of secrets.
The Role of Religion
Summary: Games widely vary in their depictions of crusades as either religious or military endeavors. Some games emphasize the religious elements of crusading and crusading is depicted as a pious, armed pilgrimage against sinful forces. Other games, however, simply glorify the military aspects of crusading and cater towards gamers’ desire for violent combat and warfare strategizing.
Military Might and Devout Destruction
Dragon Age does an adequate job of representing the religious focus of crusading and the motives behind the real crusades. The in-game crusades are referred to as “Exalted Marches,” in which the goal is to defeat sinful enemies and mages in foreign lands. The concept of crusading as a holy march in the name of God echoes the real world perception of crusading as an armed pilgrimage. If one dies on an Exalted March, in-game crusaders believed that they would obtain salvation and be “Exalted” at the Maker’s side – thus demonstrating the importance of martyrdom to crusading ideology. The first Exalted March was led by a prophet named Andraste, who was supposedly the bride of the Maker. The characters in the game condone the first Exalted March by describing its leader as the literal embodiment of the Maker’s wife, emphasizing how people believed the violence of crusading was sanctioned by God. A major motivation of the First Exalted March was that non-magical persons were said to have been abused and tortured by the leaders of the mage-controlled regions, just like how the torture and abuse of Eastern Christians in Muslim lands was used as propaganda to rally Christians under the banner of Crusade in the real world. The subjugation of the Maker’s people, whether true or not, became a rallying cry for the Exalted Marches. The First Exalted March was fought to defeat demons and free people oppressed by mages in the mage-controlled Tevinter Imperium.
The other three games do not emphasize religion and crusading primarily serves as a means by which the player participates in military combat. Religion in Assassin’s Creed is a subtle element residing in the background of the story’s events. Since the game is played from the point-of-view of a non-religious Arab assassin, no special attention is given to describing the Crusaders or the Saracen forces as religious warriors and religion is not a driving factor in the conflict. Instead the religiosity is funneled into an obsession with a powerful mystical artifact, named the “Apple of Eden” (alluding to the Biblical story).
In Medieval II: Total War, religion is simply used as a method of deciding what factions a player can make alliances with. There are two religions within the game: Islam and Christianity. The Middle-Eastern factions all follow Islam, while the Western factions all practice Christianity. Having the same religion greatly increases the chances of a successful treaty or alliance with another faction, and it is difficult to have any successful diplomacy with another religion. All Christian factions are allowed to join a Crusade (if a minimum amount of units are present in an army) when one faction calls for a Crusade, which gives the player extra units and bonuses for the player’s generals. Within the Islam factions, there is the option to call a Jihad if they have a high-ranking Imam within their army. Once a Jihad is called, all Islamic factions have the possibility to join it. Armies that have called a jihad have increased movement ability, but if they do not move closer to enemy cities (the Jihad’s target), the soldiers will begin to desert the army. The game does not have too much historical accuracy with religion and its inner-workings, as they blanket the entire region into Christian and Islamic forces. They do not differentiate between Sunni-Shia denominations of Islam.
Knights of Honor also uses crusading as a way to conduct military expeditions, where the religious motives of soldiers are not emphasized. However, religion very much governs what factions the player is able to fight and the influence of the Pope and other religious leaders is incredibly prominent, despite religious views and motivations taking a seat in the background. At the start of the game, the player selects the country/kingdom they want to play as. This ultimately indicates which in-game religion the player’s kingdom will adopt, though a player can convert to another religion at any point in the game. If the kingdom selected is the “Catholic Church” religion, the kingdom has much influence over Europe. There is always a Pope for the Catholic religion, who can perform many actions, such as excommunicating other countries from the Catholic Church, and more importantly, call Crusades against non-Catholic kingdoms. When the Pope dies, a new one is selected. If a player has an experienced Cleric in their Royal Court, it is possible for that Cleric to become the new Pope, thereby giving the player control of the Pope’s authority.
When the Pope calls a Crusade against another kingdom, the player gains access to strong military units, including Templars and Teutonic Knights. If a Crusade is successful, the country which the Pope belongs to will gain a large amount of gold and piety, which are commodified as in-game resources used to further improve the kingdom. The kingdom targeted in the Crusade also remains completely loyal to the Pope’s kingdom, which called the Crusade initially. A failed Crusade lowers the power of the Catholic Church, decreases Kingdom Power, which results in a significant fee, and finally, increases the chance of rebellion in Catholic areas. Islamic empires have the ability to call for a jihad, in a way similar to the calling of a Crusade. This action spawns a strong group of soldiers within the empire that approaches and fights against rebels and intruders from other kingdoms.
Europe is divided into a number of different kingdoms, each of which practice a religion. There are four possible religions to choose from, which are Christianity, Muslim, Paganism, and Orthodox. Each religion has unique bonuses which apply to the kingdoms that follow that religion. Besides these bonuses, religion also plays a large part in relationships between different kingdoms. For example, if a kingdom declares war on a kingdom practicing Christianity, other Christian kingdoms may respond by declaring war on that nation. Additionally, a kingdom of a certain religion may act with more hostility towards another nation with a different religion.
In summary, although religious motives are not emphasized in the majority of crusade-related videogames, religion dictates what kingdoms are hostile to one another and demonstrate the tension between religious entities during the Crusades. In-game alliances are generally made based on the each warring kingdom’s religious affiliation, which was mostly the case when various nations became unified under the same crusading banner in the real world.
The Role of Politics
Summary: The nature of politics in all four games is extremely similar. Potentially rivaled groups must come together and unite under the banner of religion and under the papacy, like Richard the Lionheart and Philip II did during the Third Crusade.
Pious Politics and Faithful Fighting
In Medieval II: Total War, much like in the actual history of the Crusades, the game involves a significant amount of diplomacy and interaction between the opposing forces. Treaties and alliances come and go as the situations on the ground change. Any faction is allowed to communicate or ally with one other, even if they belong to different religious groups. The two factions must be on at least neutral terms for an alliance or peace to be made, so it is more likely that two related factions, such as the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Principality of Antioch, will become allies than the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Ayyubid Sultanate. The game also employs critical historical figures who hold their own prejudices against rival factions, which can drastically alter the outcome of a successful treaty or alliance.
Different views views of Assassins and how the war between the Saracens and Crusaders should be dealt with is also determined by prominent historical figures and Muslim diplomats in Assassin’s Creed. However, there is less content on the Arab side of history because the focus of the game is primarily between Templars and Assassins. Different factions come into conflict with each other within the in-game Templar Order, much like the factionalization that led to the disorganization of the Third Crusade. The game’s plot is contingent on interactions between alliances between potentially hostile groups of the same religion.
Similarly, though much of the interaction between nations has to do with religion, there are other forms of diplomatic relationships in Knights of Honor. Nations can forge several agreements with each other, such as Trade Agreements, which allow kingdoms to trade with each other for goods or gold. There are also Pacts of Non-Aggression, in which nations agree to not fight. Alliances also exist in the game, where kingdoms support each other in war. A player must take into account their relationships with other kingdoms in each strategic decision made. For example, if Nation 1 breaks a Pact of Non-Aggression with Nation 2, an ally of Nation 2 may declare war on Nation 1. Relationships range from “harmonious” (extremely friendly) to “feud” (hostile), and these statuses can be altered by audiences with foreign leaders, by which players can arrange royal weddings and offer or demand gifts.
Agreements between government leaders and the pope also play a huge role towards the player’s success in games. In Dragon Age, for example, government leaders, such as the Viscount of a city named Kirkwall, often cooperate with the Chantry by providing military forces to serve on the Chantry’s behalf. Because the Templars are a selective military order with a limited amount of soldiers, the Chantry relies on leaders of various, sometimes rival regions to provide and lead their larger armies against demons, as the Catholic Church did during the Crusades.
Motivations for the later Exalted Marches of Dragon Age also took on a political form, despite remaining under the banner of religious war on the Church’s behalf. Fighting became less clear cut because it was not solely against mages and demons. Similar to how the Fourth Crusade repurposed the indulgence to make Constantinople the crusaders’ target, a series of “New Exalted Marches” against non-mage controlled regions were called in years following the initial Exalted Marches. Crusading ideology was repurposed in Dragon Age to include any potentially antagonistic territory to the Chantry’s goals.
In summary, the politics of the crusades are mainly employed by videogames as a way for the player to engage in entertaining, military strategizing. However, the in-game rules that players must abide by are rooted in historical trends and a player’s actions are often dictated by their in-game avatar or faction’s religious affiliation.
Assassin’s Creed. Ubisoft. 2007. Video game.
Dragon Age II. BioWare. 2011. Video game.
Dragon Age: Inquisition. BioWare. 2014. Video game.
Dragon Age: Origins. BioWare. 2009. Video game.
Knights of Honor. Paradox Entertainment. 2005. Video game.
Medieval II: Total War. Sega. 2006. Video game.
The Assassin’s Creed Wiki: http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/Assassin%27s_Creed_Wiki
The Dragon Age Wiki: http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/Dragon_Age_Wiki
The Knights of Honor Wiki: http://gaming.wikia.com/wiki/Knights_of_Honor
The Medieval II Total War Wiki: http://wiki.totalwar.com/w/Medieval_II_Total_War