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