Whitewashing Secret History: Assassin’s Creed’s Failed Promise

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This editorial is filled with spoilers of various degrees for the entire Assassin’s Creed franchise, as well as for the first episode of the third season of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. And I suppose Showtime’s The Borgias, probably?

In 2007, Assassin’s Creed was merely Ubisoft exec Jade Raymond’s exciting and ambitious new historical IP, one in which you play a Syrian bro named Altair Ibn La-Ahad who lives in the Middle East during the Third Crusade.

Oh, and Altair happens to belong to a group called The Assassins, made up of other Arabs, and whose foe is the Knights Templar, a historical group of white dudes from Europe.

Yes, a Western publisher really made that game, and put loads of cash into it. They pushed through an idea for a game that featured not only a non-white protagonist, but also carried the promise of some intellectually interesting and even challenging storytelling. Ubi was poised to deliver an experience that wasn’t safe and crowd-sourced.

Except it was never as cool and interesting as my description makes it sound, because Ubisoft whitewashed the hell out Altair, giving him the face of modern-day character Desmond, Altair’s descendant/white guy. And then, instead of also giving him Desmond’s voice (that of actor Nolan North), Ubisoft further confused the issue by having him be played by a totally different American-sounding white guy.

And so players wander through Maryaf and Jerusalem and Damascus and Acre, and have morally relativistic debates with brown people with Middle Eastern-sounding accents and white people with French accents, and so on. Sure, Assassin leader Al Mualim doesn’t exactly sound local either, as played by Peter Renaday, but at least he wasn’t white.

The effect of this is that white folk don’t look at Altair and think, “This guy is not from the same place as me.” That, I’d say, defeats the entire purpose of making a game about a guy named Altair who kills Crusaders in Jerusalem. Not that exploring the Crusades from a more balanced perspective is necessarily super-subversive at this point — Fox spent $130 million on Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven a decade ago, but even that had Orlando Bloom in the lead — but squarely taking the side of Arabs against Westerners does weird some people out.

By way of example, see the Season 3 premiere of the SyFy Channel reboot of “Battlestar Galactica” (SPOILERS), which saw humans — the heroes — being subjugated in an occupation of their city by the robotic Cylons, and resorting to suicide bombing. That event was notorious for turning a lot of politically conservative viewers against the show.

Granted, Altair is probably half-white, given his mom was named Maud, or so the lore goes (this might be a retcon, as that was revealed in an AC novel in 2011). Regardless, what Ubisoft did was make Altair look as much like the folks they were aiming the game at — white people — and had him, and only him, present an accent shared by the largest segment of white people who would buy the game — Americans. Thus, in a game that never explores any facet of Altair’s past, we lose all signifiers for who he really is.

In a sense, Ubi course-corrected in Assassin’s Creed 2 by making it about an Italian guy who also wears Desmond’s face and mostly kills other Italian people like members of the Borgia family. Sure, it’s weird that the entire cast speaks English with an Italian accent, but at least it’s consistent. And while mapping a conspiracy tale around Ricardo Borgia — he’s the Templar Grand Master — is a pretty great idea, and it’s a well-told tale, Borgia, still a well-known villain in real life, also being a villain here. You get the feeling that “What if Borgia was a Templar?” is supposed to add some layers to his character, but mostly he’s still just a huge dick, just like in real life.

In Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, however, Ubi brought back Altair with a different actor and accent. Now we’re getting somewhere, as Altair becomes a character with a history and distinct ethnicity. Ezio, too, finally gets some more layers, as he pulls some s–t that does not befit an Assassin. Progress. At that point, while we may have been sick to death of Ezio after seeing him featured in three games in as many years, it started to feel as if Ubi was gradually getting back onto the topic it had begun when it told us it was making a game set in 1191 about a guy named Altair.

And then we came to 2012, which gave us two full-fledged Assassin’s Creed experiences – Assassin’s Creed III for consoles and PC and Assassin’s Creed: Liberation for Playstation Vita. Both are about non-white protagonists. This is it, we thought. In ACIII, protagonist Connor is the Native American son of a Templar leader in the New World during the Revolutionary period, and in Liberation, Aveline is a free black woman in New Orleans at the same time.

Much of the plot of Liberation involved Aveline working to free slaves, and the game’s events tend to be rather matter-of-fact that sort of thing. Most importantly, it didn’t gloss over the racial makeup of the people involved as the original game did. It feels authentic in its presentation, but even here slavery is merely a part of the setting. This is still a story of Assassins vs. Templars, not an attempt at tackling issues.

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8 Comments on Whitewashing Secret History: Assassin’s Creed’s Failed Promise

Tiagonal

On December 20, 2013 at 5:50 pm

So… anyone up for making a cross-game mod to make Assassin’s Creed the mini-game of Total War it shoud be?

MIke

On December 20, 2013 at 8:10 pm

Weird, have you played the original AC recently? Cause you were killing guys on both sides of the war, Crusaders and Muslims, not just white guys, but individuals of multiple skin tones that wanted the war to continue. Not to mention the head of the Assassin’s was actually a Templar once. Or miss the undertone in AC 3 that the whole revolution would have fallen apart if the abolitionists hadn’t given way on the slavery issue before the country had even been formed (it was North vs South even then). I had to chuckle at the many instances of revisionist history in AC 3 in their portrayal of the Founding Fathers, who by most (REAL) historical accounts were some of the most brilliant men of their age, especially Washington. I actually think it would be awful if the series went in the direction you want it to. The game is already shaky in its attempts at historical accounts, and worse of all, it would come off as just plain preachy, which would be bad for business.

-_-

On December 21, 2013 at 5:10 am

This article would have been a lot more interesting and valid if it wasn’t for the obvious racism (or reverse racism, whatever) of the author. I guess it’s going to be a white guilt Christmas at the Owen household. Then again, those inclined as Owen are would probably criticise the game if it was too close to the truth for portraying Arabs/Native Americans etc as stereotypes. The white man can’t win in the eyes of the neo-liberal.

The irony is that most people didn’t notice this, because they’re not racist. The only people who would even raise an eyebrow at this stuff are people who judge things based on racial make-up, and are by definition racist for doing so. Most people just thought Assassin’s Creed sucked because it was repetitive, and the sequel was better because it was more varied and faster paced. People may well have criticised the historical accuracy of the events themselves, but not in how they’re represented by Westernised interpretations of real life characters. People like Phil Owen seem to think that the West is the only place that does this, or that whites are the only people capable of racial insensitivity, when if he’d actually travelled a bit he’d know that this is so untrue it borders on delusion to suggest that it is.

Assassin’s Creed is not better or worse for being Westernised. It could only be seen as worse for it if it was advertised as 100% historically accurate, which it never has been. This article takes an issue that doesn’t exist and criticises Ubisoft for not providing a solution to it.

Patches

On December 21, 2013 at 8:36 am

Says the guy who predicted the end of the PC…

No need for AC Serie to fall into the Political Correctness BS… Too many games (and other medias) already have, and lost their soul in the process…

MPSewell

On December 23, 2013 at 4:17 am

The abject Euro-centric, pro-white racistm of -_- and Mike.

Why? Because I actually study history. I have for a good chunk of my life, and I have done so with honors.

Mike: according to even the most generous of actual historical accounts, the “Founding Fathers’ may have been brilliant (FOR THEIR TIME) but they were not the pure-heroic figures you make them out to be. They had massive flaws, not the least being their (surprise) unadulterated racism and subjugation of non-whites.

-_- – Where do I even begin with you? With a “whit men can’t win” quote I can’t help but see you as whining that actual, historical depictions of the depredations, misery, and horror inflicted on people by Europeans and whites in history makes you squirm and whine about “reverse” racism (Whatever the hell that nonsensical phrase is supposed to mean). If you are looking for villains in the Crusades, you are looking at the Europeans (and the Knights Templar would be at the top of that list). If you are looking for villains in the New World, you are looking at Europeans. From Bartolome de la Casas’ descriptions of the Destruction of the Indies right up to the Sandcreek Massacre and the mass slaughter of native children because (as my own ancestor said) “Nits make lice”.

You can whitewash history all you like, but the truth remains the truth, and the misery, death, destruction and horrors inflicted on Natives, Africans, and Middle Easterners by those of our skin persuasion is beyond comprehension.

Unless, of course, you’d like to make an excuse for tying a man upside down and sawing him in half from groin to throat for backtalk.

michael

On December 27, 2013 at 12:10 pm

In all seriousness they should stop making these recycled games. Watchdogs is going to be the same as well.

Evening llama

On March 18, 2014 at 8:16 pm

MPSewell, how pathetic can you be?

Mike said,at most, that the founding fathers were ahead of their time. He did not make them out to be any kind of pure-heroic figure.

-_- makes a very good point. If you can’t figure out what he was trying to imply by reverse rascism, oh well :)

The problem with rascism today is the fact that people just don’t drop the damn issue and treat each other equally instead some some flawed political correctness inferring that minorities should be treated the same and different at the same time.

-_-

On March 19, 2014 at 4:31 am

You can’t really expect anything sensible from MPSewell when it comes to social issues, just as you can’t expect anything sensible from a writer who tried to claim that Deus Ex was racist because black people are in it.

Racism has unfortunately become the go-to, trendy topic for self-loathing saddos who want to give themselves a pat on the back for being better than the worst people in the world, even though most of the time the so-called racism they’re referring to isn’t even present in what they’re analysing unless they warp it beyond comprehension.

As Morgan Freeman said, racism won’t go away until people stop banging on about it. Unfortunately, too many people have their entire belief systems set on a myth of the white man being the root of everything bad that’s ever happened in the world and an endless debt we owe to others. The only thing we owe is to treat everyone with fairness and respect, a thing we should also expect from everyone else.

Tolerance, unity and trust are everyone’s job, not everyone else’s job. It’s time the sneering PC thugs who perpetuate this prejudiced white guilt nonsense learned that.