Ignorance of historical events can leave us ill-prepared for the future. That’s why historians strive for accuracy and stress accountability in their historical narratives. To simplify complex moral political relationships does a disservice to the men and women who lived in the past.
It’s with these truths in mind that I am disappointed with Assassin’s Creed III. Having played the first four Assassin’s Creed games, it seemed Ubisoft Montreal had a keen eye for history and a respect for the source materials. But I guess I was wrong.
I’m a student of history – that comes with the territory of a theology and philosophy degree. When I read, watch, or (in this case) play historical fiction, I expect at least a modicum of accuracy in portraying the original events. You can place an imaginary character in a real setting, but he has to act as if he belongs in that setting. Otherwise, you’ve placed a messiah into your world, plumped up with modern social standards irrelevant to the time period and released them into the wild.
In the previous games, Altair and Ezio were not divine heroes sent from the heavens; they were ordinary people caught up in historical forces beyond their control. They had to rise to the occasion and their circumstances. The Crusades and the Renaissance, in effect, were perfect settings because they were times of tumult and change – both cultural and intellectual. Human civilization would never be the same.
That’s what excited me about the Revolutionary War; just the announcement was enough to make me swoon. The latter half of the 18th century signified a time of change and upheaval – a perfect environment for the main conflicts of the series. By making the protagonist Connor Kenway, an American Indian hero, the developers showed us that they truly cared about the setting by including an often neglected party in the great struggles of that period. I had confidence that Corey May, head writer for Assassin’s Creed III, would treat these various historical actors with respect.
But Connor Kenway turned out to be an American exceptionalist who was co-opted into a historical period where he shouldn’t exist. He appears to believe that colonial America exists as a unique nation in human history, or at least begins to believe it through his assassinating exploits. Apparently, American exceptionalism is the Creed of the Assassins.
The game does manage to show the Founders as fallible humans, rather than fake caricatures of American history. Ben Franklin is appropriately sexist (and a womanizer to boot). George Washington vacillates on tactical decisions and isn’t as confident (or deified) as he has been in both real life and in modern times. The others can sometimes seem like horrible pragmatists willing to do anything to accomplish a specific purpose, especially Samuel Adams.
The Native American adherence to principle and faith remains quite close to the local Iroquois of the Northeast, “the people of the longhouse”. When the Iroquois are pushed out of their home region by Charles Lee’s actions, it shows that Connor’s people cannot be innocent bystanders in a war without incurring any consequences. Connor’s objective, to keep his people safe, eventually evaporates as he sees the futility of that task. He must sacrifice something in order to help the revolution succeed. May’s success in displaying the complexities of the political situation should be commended.
Obviously with this kind of historical narrative, there’s an expectation of accuracy – but not at the expense of the player’s enjoyment. Ubisoft does not appear to believe that moral decision-making, or the possibility of the protagonist being “wrong,” could work in a video game. Thus, you can’t have a complex protagonist; he’s not allowed to be “wrong” in the general sense, and things must work out for the player character. If I am not living out an adolescent American power fantasy, how could the game possibly achieve its goal? Thus, Connor is always “right”. In Connor’s training, he is taught the “true” nature of reality. Assassins, supposedly, are schooled in all sorts of knowledge, but what knowledge?
What the Assassins believe to be right is that America (the America of the colonial residents) is exceptional, not only because of its founding (by republican government), but because of the principles behind its founding: individualism and egalitarianism principles far more prominent in the 20th century than they were in the 18th. As a result, Connor comes across as a pretentious, anachronistic critic of the Founders. Apparently, because Connor’s the son of an American Indian and a British man, we have all the justification we need to accept him as an objective observer.
Ultimately, Assassin’s Creed III is a failure in offering up a true representation of the time. The game, more often than not, shows a one-sided view of history that becomes skewed through its protagonist’s actions and speech. American exceptionalism pervades the experience, refusing any concept of compromise or nuance. Connor, the champion of liberty, never entertains a single alternative to his own moral codes. Assassin’s Creed III simplifies a complex time period to everyone’s detriment.