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.