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

ACIII does attempt to be relativistic, speciically about the war between Templars and Assassins, though it has some storytelling cheats that confuse even that. But at the end it feels like the message we’re supposed to get — one that Connor doesn’t get at all — is that maybe the Templars under Connor’s dad Haytham aren’t pure evil, and maybe their plans will benefit the area, and Connor’s Mohawk village, more than the Assassins’ agenda does.

The game opens with a lengthy prologue in which you play as Haytham, without realizing he’s a Templar until the sequence ends. That was an interesting development that set the relativistic tone; Haytham and his Templar crew didn’t seem like evil bros. It makes you think we’re really going to get into some stuff here, and we do, but only a little bit.

See, Connor adopts a very modern stance on the Revolution: It was about “freedom” for all people in the colonies, he says over and over and over, never even once stopping to discuss that whole slavery thing these supposed freedom-lovers were all about.

And did I mention that Connor’s Assassin mentor, Achilles, is a black guy? Though Achilles mentions early on that he can’t go into the general store in Boston because, you know, racism, none of this ever matters in a story that seems to have the goal of exposing grey areas. Thus it feels like Connor is fighting for the freedom specifically of white dudes who think of him as a savage. Given his entire purpose in the conflict is to preserve his village and its secret from encroaching imperialists, whichever side they may fight for, you’d think Connor would be the last person to forget he’s not some white Anglican. That’s kinda the point — his hopeful idealism getting in the way of the job at hand — but it never goes far enough. There are overt references to George Washington being an idiot and douchebag, for example, but the game is entirely unwilling to examine some of the biggest black spots.

For a story about a Mohawk man and his black teacher to touch on the moral corruption within the Revolution without going near how hypocritical its heroes were for propping up the institution of slavery while yelling about freedom for all — it’s just ridiculous. If you’re going to start down that path, you have to finish it if the message going to mean anything. And to think this is the game in which you’re meant to wonder a little bit if the Assassins are really the good guys.

This year, we have Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, a game about pirates who just want to form a pirate republic in the Caribbean and only fight military ships and never rape nobody, man. Instead of using a pirate protagonist versus a peacekeeping force as a way of further muddying the waters in the moral debate that is the Templar-Assassin war, AC4 just acts like pirates had some kind of just cause that those pesky Old Worlders kept interfering with, and not that the pirates were in it for the gold, gore and sexual assault.

Kenway, while telling anyone who will listen that he’s just in this racket for the money, is actually after said money so he can return to England wealthy and apparently respectable. He just wants to buy some land and get his wife back, you see.

But as the game presents it, the piracy fad was just another (noble?) struggle for independence. Sure, Blackbeard is a real asshole who may shoot somebody he doesn’t need to from time to time, but that’s war, man. S–t happens. It’s not even an Assassins vs. Templars thing this time, because Kenway isn’t an Assassin for most of the game. When he becomes one near the end of the story, though, his mandate is more or less to do exactly what he was already doing, but with purer motivations. Ethical dilemmas are dead now.

With all of human history – not to mention the series’ fictional version of prehistory that goes all the way back to the Toba catastrophe – the Assassin’s Creed series has a vast well from which to draw on in order to explore the themes established from the very first game. The Assassins’ motto, after all is: “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” It is, as Al Mualim says, a trick of a statement, intended to make one into a skeptic who takes responsibility for his own actions. That quote, repeated many times through the series, is unfortunately something the games themselves never seem to want to really dig deep into.

Perhaps the subtext is some grand con on the player being forced to operate within the rules set by the developer. Perhaps what deeper meaning is there has been spread so thinly that it’s been lost. But after hundreds of hours with these games, I’m not seeing a lot of depth. Instead, all I see is a slightly hard-edged, but ultimately inoffensive and entertaining, blockbuster franchise that isn’t all that thought-provoking and avoids any hint of real controversy. This despite characters who constantly debate the merits of absolute order versus freedom from manipulation.

It’s unfortunate that a series which has always seemed to pride itself on exploring ethical quandaries and presenting historical situations not often seen in video games really misses that boat in most of the important ways. Future Assassin’s Creed games could, and should, benefit from jettisoning yet another installment of ‘serious issues window dressing: the series’, and from a willingness to truly dig into the warts and all version of history it superficially appears to be. At minimum, maybe next time Ubisoft should consider making an escaped slave the main character.

None of this means the Assassin’s Creed games are all terrible and not worth your time. But when I look back at the first generation of Assassin’s Creed games from the end of the year 2013, I just see an unfulfilled promise. Perhaps the most next-gen thing Ubisoft could do the next time out is to actually fulfill it.

Follow Phil Owen on the twitterverse at @philrowen

If you wanna hear some more negativity about Assassin’s Creed IV, check out Phil Hornshaw’s review now!

Join the Conversation   

* required field

By submitting a comment here you grant GameFront a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/web site in attribution. Inappropriate or irrelevant comments will be removed at an admin's discretion.

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.