Critical Distance is proud to present this Critical Compilation of Ubisoft’s Assassin Creed III, curated by Gilles Roy. A history scholar with game design training at Montreal’s INIS, Gilles is also co-editor at Play the Past. You can follow him on Twitter @gillesroy.
In releasing the remastered edition of Assassin’s Creed III (AC3) in March 2019, interactive entertainment giant Ubisoft also delisted the original installment of the game from digital distribution platforms and services such as Steam and Uplay.
Perhaps it made commercial sense for Ubisoft to do this; such a move also prevented new players from encountering AC3 in the raw, with all its original blemishes. Alas, history is a “warts and all” affair. If remastered editions bring correctives to flawed design and rushed production, the inability for new generations of players and critics to access and compare successive editions of video games (as one can with books in libraries) remains a testament to the game industry’s ambivalence, if not hostility, toward the construction of a public memory around its creations.
The critical compilation that follows will focus on so many “direct” encounters with the original release of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed III. Readers who have played the original may compare notes with the many commentators and critics who have enriched our understanding of gaming beyond “mere entertainment”, and check with their own play experience. If you do not have access to the original edition of Assassin’s Creed III, you can still read ahead and reconstruct the experience, like a historian chasing down echoes of past events from fading footprints on the ground.
“The child grew inside me. And then he entered the world. He had his father’s features, but enough of me that he did not appear a stranger. In the end it mattered little. My people loved him as their own. I miss Haytham sometimes. He may have even loved me, in his own way. But his eyes… His eyes were ever fixed on the future – one in which he and his Templar brethren controlled all. My greatest fear is that one day I shall look into the face of my son and see the same dark hunger there.” — Kaniehtí:io (Ratonhnhaké:ton’s mother)
In the lead-up to E3 2012, Ubisoft announced to the world that Assassin’s Creed III would be centered around Ratonhnhaké:ton’s story, a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) man struggling to protect his people from colonial intrusions during the time of the American Revolutionary War.
For many AC fans, the premise of a Native American hero for Ubisoft’s next major installment of the Assassin’s Creed franchise was an entrancing proposition. Not only would the story of the American Revolution be told from the standpoint of an “outsider”, this outsider belonged to a culture group that ended up losing nearly everything as a result of said conflict. In other words, this protagonist was a walking critique of mainstream history! And his every move was the essence of badass (video link with autocaptions).
By the time fans got their hands on the product, their response was a little more mitigated. For one, if AC heroes and villains got a subtle rewrite in AC3, Ratonhnhaké:ton-turned-Connor-the-trained-Assassin turned out to be a master of misplaced idealism and emotional deadpan. The main protagonist’s characterization thus elicited many mixed responses. Nick Cowen at the Guardian:
[Ezio’s] replacement, Connor Kenway, a half-Briton half-Native American with a tomahawk to grind against the British (and the Templars) replaces all of the charisma of his predecessor with a furrowed brow and not much else. In his narrative arc, during which the player controls him first as a child, then a moody adolescent and then an even moodier young man, Connor sees his village and his mother obliterated by evil British Templars, before he hooks up with the last remnants of the Order of Assassins on an estate just outside of Boston.
Whereas Altaïr was a bit of a cipher, his character largely defined by his stubborn adherence to the dogma of the assassin’s code, and Ezio was all swagger and swashbuckle, Connor is a naive idealist filled with righteous fury, having been caught in the conflict between both the assassins and the Templars, as well as between the European colonists and his own people, since before he was even born. Connor’s uncompromising sense of honor and justice serve Assassin’s Creed III well as it plunges him right in the middle of the American Revolutionary War.
“Naive” and “idealist” were oft-used terms, by both AC3’s critics and the game’s actual script, to describe Connor’s single-minded pursuit of the creed of the Assassins and the cause of the Patriots. But Connor’s simple motives often clashed with the complexity of the characters that crossed his path, thus hindering player identification. As Shubhankar Parijat at Gaming Bolt surmised: “you just never feel as attached to [Connor] as you did to Ezio. He really isn’t that much of a character – there’s very little intimate moments to give you insight into who he is, and very little development of his bitterness towards everything that has happened to him, so much so that sometimes, his motivation feels amiss.” G. Christopher Williams at Pop Matters remarked on the estrangement effect of Connor’s overdrawn revenge motive:
This assassin is on a years long mission for vengeance, but for God’s sake, he does have to think about something else once in a while. Again, this seems like what the Homestead missions are intended to do, yet, Connor’s basic inability to grasp any kind of common emotional response or behavior in the sorts of people that might allow us to see that he is more than a slow talking, stoic killer distances him further as a character rather than provides the player with any insight about him […].
If Connor came across as righteous, helping the Patriots also diluted his cause. As Mike Williams at US Gamer pointed out, “even once Connor is a full assassin, the character doesn’t get a chance to shine. His personal motivations are subsumed by the stronger personalities that surround him.” Many thought that Connor’s particular zeal for freedom was dissonant with his background story. In “A Stranger in His Own Land, or ‘Assassin’s Creed III’ and the Alien”, G. Christopher Williams noted that AC3’s rehashing of the “Luke, I am your father” trope ironically provided insight into Connor’s personal vulnerabilities:
The most effective moments in the game actually exist in the main story missions, when Connor finally meets his father, a man who is also a Templar, the mortal enemies of the Assassins. Connor’s struggle with the fact that, despite being on opposite sides, he isn’t far different in character than his own father (both are driven and unrelenting in their desire to complete their missions) or whether or not he likes or hates this man who abandoned him are better moments, more human moments. Regardless of all of the fantastical conspiracy-laden plotting of the rivalry between Templars and Assassins, the fact that this guy isn’t sure how he feels about his own father is something that I can get, that feels like something real people feel confused about.
Some commentators felt that Connor’s apparent emotional distance should not be read the wrong way. Aloofness might in fact be appropriate for an “othered” outsider who finds himself pulled in a struggle which ultimately only benefited a select group of insiders. Kevin Van Ord at Gamespot: “In some respects, Connor is a vessel for ideas more than a force of nature in his own right […]. Noah Watts’ unsure voice acting keeps Connor at arm’s length, emotionally–though in some respects, the distance is appropriate, given Connor’s uncertain path through a complex political landscape.”
Brave New World Design
If Connor baffled (some) players and critics, Ubisoft’s stunning recreation of colonial-era Boston and New York, and the wilderness vistas of indigenous lands of the North American Eastern seaboard brought an immediate sense of gratification to AC fans and critics alike. Peter Nowak at the Globe and Mail, for one, waxed poetically on the verisimilitude effects made possible by AC3’s reworked game engine, AnvilNext:
In Assassin’s Creed III , the game’s recreation of Colonial America […] is a living, breathing ecosystem that is so convincingly done, you might believe it continues to click and whir even after you’ve shut off the console. The forests teem with wildlife while the cities bristle with people going about their daily business. Seasons come and go; the frontier forests and cobblestone streets are equally impressive when bathed in warm sunlight, under a blanket of snow, or facing the brunt of a hard rainfall or thick fog. One of the best ways to take it all in is to stand atop a church steeple in northern Manhattan and look south. You can see tiny people scurrying about below in a sort of randomized order. Jump off the tower into a haystack below and you’re suddenly up close with those tiny ants, who are now fully realized individuals. It’s these sublime moments that made me appreciate Ubisoft’s accomplishment and contemplate the coming singularity.
For Liam Martin at Digital Spy, AC3’s departure in tone and style from previous AC historical settings made its own distinct impression:
America, while not as spectacular as the likes of Jerusalem, Venice and Rome in terms of architecture, is made up of taverns, huge dockyards, villages and glorious countryside, all of which looks incredible bathed in bright sunshine or under the cover of thick snow. The keen-eyed gamer will always find new crevices to explore, whether delivering letters, chasing manuscripts or liberating areas of the city in the name of the revolution. Cities are packed with people going about their everyday lives, from town criers and protesters to gangs of feral street kids and even animals.
Historical tourism thus made a splendid return in AC3, thanks in good part to the combined efforts of art design, technology and historical attention to detail. So much so that the traditional designer disdain of the color brown was given a pass, for the sake of historical fidelity. Erik Sofge at Slate Magazine:
Assassin’s Creed III offers the best of all possible worlds: a precise, truthful recreation of the late 1700s that’s so rich in minutiae that you can practically smell the moldering fish markets and freshly dropped horse manure. Walking the cobblestone streets of Boston means maneuvering around pigs, dogs, and street urchins, down lanes and alleys that are unrecognizable even to a longtime Boston resident like me. Town criers belt out news of shots fired in anger in other cities and of troop movements, first by the French and later, as the revolution sets in, by the British. There are bonnets and britches and tricorn hats, and most of the small talk and bickering you overhear doesn’t come with Boston’s infamous accent but in slang and jabs imported from England, Germany, and the rest of the Old World. If this sounds a little unpleasant, that’s because it is. Colonial Boston is boldly, fascinatingly ugly. It’s relentlessly brown–the docks are brown, as are the fences, the wood-sided buildings, and the clothes on most passersby. “The irony is that the game you see is far less brown than it was,” [AC3 Creative Director] Hutchinson says. “We spent a lot of time telling the art director, ‘Everything’s brown,’ and he would say, ‘But everything was brown.'”
Proof that the devil is in the details, Michèle Dykes from the University of Witwatersrand (Johannesburg) (pdf link) analyzed fabric simulation and costume design in AC3. In Dykes estimation, despite the occasional need to suspend disbelief, AC3’s details and textures also acted as vectors of storytelling and historical immersion:
In Assassin’s Creed III, fabric simulation is integrated into the design of the game world and is important for the believability of the game. […] For example, on the ship to North America, there are linen curtains blowing in the wind, hemp sails on the ship and multiple characters wearing detailed historical clothing. Then, during battle scenes, not only are the uniforms important in identifying the characters but the flags that they raise are essential to show the patriotism of the characters and therefore the grand ideals of the war. We can refer back to [media theorist Henry] Jenkins’ theory on environmental storytelling, as the world that the game designer builds up here is essential to immersing the player in the character. […] Just as they would in a period film, all of these fine details make the game believable as a historical piece. A player can invest belief into the represented 18th century world when playing a game where every detail is believable.
Many commentators also thought that wilderness gameplay was a centerpiece element of AC3, though perhaps not reaching the heights of Red Dead Redemption’s (2010) frontier world. Nevertheless, when players were finally let loose in AC3’s wilderness frontier as young Ratonhnhaké:ton, they could discover the joys of tree-jumping in an environment that was primed for movement and discovery. For Nick Cowen at the Guardian, AC3’s oft-decried tutorial sequences seemed to provide a perfect introduction to the frontier:
Depending on how quickly one acclimatizes, one may spend a half hour or so scaling trees and looking for the next hand hold. Once players realize the frontier environments are large free-running playgrounds, they’ll be running along logs, kicking off boulders and leaping from tree to tree in no time. The fact that the developers have made this progression feel so intuitive is astounding.
Liam Martin at Digital Spy, for his part, played the wilderness open-world practically mouth-agape:
The Frontier is full of breathtaking vistas, huge lakes and thick forests, which can be navigated from above by a lead character adept at climbing and free-running, which is handy considering that horses are a little heavy-handed and hard to navigate in tight environments. It’s easily one of the most visually-striking games we’ve ever played, despite the occasional dodgy texture here and there.
All said and done, despite players’ fond memories of the baroque city environments of the Third Crusade and the Italian Renaissance of previous AC titles, AC3’s colonial-era cities and frontier environments were accepted on their own terms. Voicing the feelings of many, Keza MacDonald at IGN expressed gratitude at how AC3’s technology and design immersed players in a believable historical universe:
As a technological achievement, Assassin’s Creed III is astounding. Its excellent opening in a London opera house is a showcase for the new and improved animation, crowd physics and freedom of movement, but as soon as you hit the New World it is all about the great outdoors. Assassin’s Creed III’s story spans decades and over that time you get to see the gorgeous forests and nascent cities of Connor’s homeland covered in heavy snow, gleaming in autumnal morning mists, and blooming in the summer. It can be stunning. Walking the streets of bustling Boston, full of people and noise and activity, you can’t help but be in awe.
Whose Revolutionary War?
AC3 is not the first video game to pick the American Revolutionary War as its subject and setting. Nevertheless, because of its alleged “blockbuster” status and Ubisoft’s choice of a Mohawk protagonist, AC3 attracted plenty of attention around its presentation of that important historical event.
Initially, announcement trailers (video link with autocaptions) seemed to indicate that the “outsider” protagonist angle was a cover for an old American tradition of Brit bashing. When Ubisoft released its “Connor’s Story” trailers in the US and the UK though, many noticed Connor killing colonial troops in the UK trailer (video link with autocaptions), and only hostile redcoats in the shortened US version (video link with autocaptions). In this regard, Carol Pinchefsy at Forbes mused that the UK trailer was “more historically accurate”:
It’s unsurprising that Ubisoft left out that part [Connor killing bluecoats] in the US trailer. After all, many Americans still consider the American Revolutionary War to be a battle between the United States vs. the British Empire, rather than the actual battle between the United States, the British, our Native American allies, their Native American allies, our European allies, their European and Canadian allies, our freed/enslaved African Americans soldiers, and their freed African American soldiers.
It’s safe to say that Ubisoft’s post-colonial take on the American Revolution was noticed by every commentator who cared to write about AC3. Should audiences expect the War of Independence (video link with autocaptions), minus American exceptionalism? Writing for the Sixth Axis, Peter Chapman noted that nationalist retellings of the “Birth of America” often failed to take into consideration the inter-imperial context of late 18th-century conflict and report on the War of Independence’s many “losers”. Stu Horvath at Unwinnable assessed that at least the winners of the war were not given the moral sanction of their victory in AC3: “Regardless of the outcome of Connor’s conflict with the Templars, history tells us that the Patriots win. Unfortunately for Connor, we also know things didn’t go very well for the Mohawk and other native nations once they did. To them, our secular saints were devils.”
In debates over historical truth, the writers of AC3 seemed to have taken sides with those unwashed, unheard, huddled creatures: actual historians. Erik Sofge at Slate Magazine noted:
And as nifty as it is to bear virtual witness to infantry firing lines in the Boston Massacre or the Battle of Bunker Hill, the more surprising Revolutionary War moments come in your dealings with the Founding Fathers. I had no idea that George Washington had ordered the torching of Native American villages. And while Benjamin Franklin is well-known as an unapologetic horndog, hearing his thesis on the merits of bedding older women–they’re eager to please, less likely to get pregnant, and do looks really matter in the dark?–reveal him as the crass, proto-douchebag historians have been describing for years. The point isn’t to shock, really, but to reanimate a period of history that’s been sadly mummified. The architects of these United States were like the country they founded: vibrant, inspiring, and sometimes a little despicable.
At Nightmare Mode (archived link), Reid McCarter and Jordan Rivas appreciated that the major belligerents of war were both shown to have questionable morality in AC3. As an American, Rivas was shocked to witness Washington’s actual words and deeds around the 1779 Sullivan expedition: “I don’t think [American] secondary school curriculum includes Washington’s note to Sullivan about the total destruction and devastation of Iroquois settlements. I think that kind of specificity can stun some Americans, to know that the man they view as the father of the nation was that ruthless, that he specifically said he wanted no talk of peace.” Rivas and McCarter agree that the idol-breaking presentation of George Washington in AC3 would likely not have come from an American developer, or publisher. In brief, if AC3 did not shy away from inspiring players with American Liberty, it also openly criticized themes and tropes of nationalist historiography. For Arthur Gies at Polygon:
Ubisoft Montreal has done a fantastic job of painting the American Revolution as more than the white-washed right vs. wrong conflict of high school U.S. History classes. The well-known figures of the Revolution aren’t saints. They’re slave owners and drunkards, disgraced soldiers and commanders guilty of awful sins amid the Seven Years War. They’re men willing to use the power of the printing press to sell the public a version of events like the Battles of Lexington and Concord designed to rally revolutionary spirit, regardless of whether that version is true or not. Neither side of the conflict is clean, and the effort to paint human characters with well-developed motivations is obvious.
Equanimity of treatment aside, AC3’s story premise did not sit well with everyone. “To suggest indigenous peoples rallied to the side of the colonists in their fight for freedom grotesquely twists the facts” wrote an indignant editorialist for the Globe and Mail in the wake of AC3’s release. For the Globe, the alignment of a Mohawk warrior with the cause of the American patriots was “a distortion of history”, since most Mohawks sided with the British during that conflict by necessity of protecting their land from American intrusion. Worse, AC3 may have perhaps even refined American exceptionalism by showing Native Americans as “collateral damage” to the historical struggle for liberty and the rights of man.
Ubisoft, of course, would not stand idle in the face of such accusations. In an official response to the Globe editorial, Ubisoft’s Marie-Claude Bernard clarified that AC3 was a piece of historical fiction that did its best to honor different historical interpretations of the American Revolutionary War. Ubisoft showed its commitment to historical truth by hiring a historian for the duration of the project’s development, and a consulting team from the Kahnawake community (on the south shore of Montreal, Canada) to ensure fidelity of representation of Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) culture and experience. On the issue of Connor helping the patriots, Bernard pointed out that native alignment “with” the British was anything but obvious, as evidenced by Pontiac’s War. As a rule, key events of the American Revolutionary War had to be present in the story, alongside lesser-known ones, such as the Braddock Expedition. The AC3 story would also shine a light on how some Native Americans were deceived by their “circumstantial allies” in the colonial forces, with a story sequence depicting Washington’s 1779 scorched-earth military campaign against “British-aligned” Iroquois.
This official Ubisoft response prodded a final, more in-depth discussion in the columns of the Globe that examined the issue of historical representation in video games. In “Are Video Games like Assassin’s Creed Rewriting History?”, journalist Ian Brown interviewed AC3’s creative director, Alex Hutchison and lead writer Corey May on the “uses of history” in AC3. May clarified that AC3 writers employed a set of protocols for writing historical fictions (video link with autocaptions), in which gaps in the historical record were exploited for their counter-factual potential. Historian Maxime Durand, hired by Ubisoft to produce source materials for the development team, indicated that “while most Mohawks were British allies or neutral, there are documented exceptions.” Prof. Marc Egnal of York University, however, wasn’t convinced of the legitimacy of Ubisoft’s counter-factual exercise:
“It isn’t just that a Mohawk fighting for the Americans is ‘very unlikely.’ If they wanted to get it right […] they should have made the hero from one of the smaller tribes in the south, where fighting for the Americans was more common. But ‘Mohawk’ is a better sell.” By way of analogy, [Egnal] points out that a very small number of African Americans fought for the South in the U.S. Civil War. To depict that as a norm “would be a gross distortion of history,” he says. In real life, Connor’s allies in the game (Thomas Jefferson among them) went on to commit genocide against aboriginal people. Doesn’t that fact deserve mention? It’s hinted at – native villages are burned, George Washington betrays Connor, and one of the last things our hero witnesses in the new land of the free is slaves being sold – but that barely compensates, in Prof. Egnal’s mind, for what he refers to as “the broader ideology” in which, morally, a lot of culprits get off scot-free (Connor the assassin included).”
In the wake of AC3’s release, educators also showed apprehension over historical distortion in mass entertainment products. As Ian Brown noted: “As game-makers use history to reach a wider audience, they undermine conventional history’s authority. This makes a lot of people very nervous.” Which raises the question: who gets to define how we “make” history, especially when works of historical fiction employ the services of professional historians?
Vincent Boutonnet, Marc-André Éthier and David Lefrançois (link to PowerPoint presentation) argued that Ubisoft marketing positioned AC games as a historical panorama to be experienced, as opposed to a history lesson learned from books. Erik Sofge at Slate also thought that history in AC3 should be understood as an aesthetic: “History [in AC3] isn’t a footnote […]. It encroaches on and defines your experience. It’s richer than you’d expect for a video game and handled with more honesty and sophistication than anyone has a right to expect from a teenage-skewing piece of entertainment.”
How then to consider the AC3 player experience from an educational standpoint? Educators Wade Berger and Patrick Staley claimed that AC3 could help cultivate an investigative urge in students, through the enticements of world design, side-quests and “100% synchronization”. For Berger and Staley, AC3’s “loose yet productive” relationship with historical fact encouraged in students the same higher-order cognitive functions historians used when evaluating historical evidence. In the collectively authored book E-Teaching History, Vincent Boutonnet also argued that educators needed to be attentive to the appeal of “historical agency” contained in the AC fantasy for its pedagogical implications:
[On game forums], we can observe how the player takes what he learned about the Boston Tea Party (“they dressed up as Natives [and] did it in the silence of the night”), compares it to what the Animus tells him and how he just likes the new experience provided by the game. There is no doubt[ing], no critical interpretation, everything makes sense, it is fine. Yet from a historical agency perspective, that player really likes the involvement in the event. Even though Connor is a fictive character, the actions the player simulates within the game could lead us to a new way to make history. But, again, we do not know if those actions performed in the game changed the historical representation for this player.
Standing on the deck of faux-East India ships at Boston harbour for an Ubisoft promo event, Sean Clancy at Paste Magazine wondered if AC3 and other forms of “edutainment” could potentially enlighten audiences in areas that footnoted texts kept traditionally unexplored and unexploited:
Obviously, there was no timed battle at the real Boston Tea Party. And, akin to the Boston Tea Party Museum, there’s not much point in taking the game to task for historical inaccuracy (this is the series where you find aliens in the Vatican, after all). While the idea of a half-English, half-Indian assassin defending Paul Revere with a tomahawk falls well within the “fictional” end of historical fiction, the essence of the moment remains intact. The Tea Party comes off, rightly so, as an act of defiance planned in secret and carried out in plain sight of the British. More so, the segment nails the feel of a crowd gone wild, that double-edged sense of the mob as both aimed and aimless, controllable yet ultimately uncontrolled. Like the best myths, the mission is a lie which still illustrates a truth.
Traipsing about the AC3 holodeck, Stu Horvath at Unwinnable was for his part impressed that a video game got him perplexed about one of the Revolution’s star events:
In my recollection of the school days version of the story, the colonists were suffering draconian taxes levied by a corrupt and distant king. Pushed too far, they rebelled, eventually winning their independence. […] Agitation for war began in earnest in the area of Boston, Massachusetts, thanks to the Sons of Liberty. Often the subject of romantic tales in the years after the war, the Sons were actually a loose knit underground organization of middle class merchants bent on defying British tax laws. They did this by inciting riots, destroying property, tarring and feathering public officials and, in one case, torching a ship of the Royal Navy. Imagine a similar organization running rampant in Boston today and you would call them terrorists and criminals, but that is just the other side of the heroic coin.
Best not think too much about redcoat corpses piling up when throwing tea in the harbor, though. As Daniel Giere of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich argues, the presentation of the Boston Tea Party in AC3 made no sense from the Patriots’ point of view. The whole point of the action taken against the East India Company by the Sons of Liberty was to arouse sympathy from the colonists against oppressive fiscal and commercial policies coming from the home country in the wake of the 1773 Tea Act. For Giere, the violent turn of the Boston Tea Party (BTP) mission in AC3, while in contradiction with Sons of Liberty goals and methods, could be explained by the affordances of the action-adventure genre, and how narrative is conveyed through its “laws of action”:
The exemplary analysis of the BTP in Assassin’s Creed III shows the strikingly high influence of the game structures regarding the historical narrative. This leads to a peaceful event in history being converted into an excess of violence. […] An opportunity was missed to implement a hearing and justification for the actions of the Sons of Liberty due to their personal interests. Nevertheless, the game — besides all of the counterfactual representations — shows the radicalism of the Bostonians and provides a starting point to reflect upon the appropriation of land beyond the Proclamation Line by colonists after they had won the War of Independence.
Connor’s presence at every major milestone of the revolution may have seemed an appealing fantasy, it didn’t always gel with the rules of historical fiction. Connor throws tea off the ships. Connor rides with Paul revere. Connor chats up George Washington. Kirk Hamilton at Kotaku got a little fed up with AC3’s the Forrest-Gump-like approach to history:
You say Paul Revere went on a famous ride? Well actually, Connor rode with him! You say the British won a bloody victory at Bunker Hill? Well actually, Connor was there, and snuck across the enemy lines! You say the Colonials held the British at the north bridge in Concord? Well actually, Connor commanded the troops and told them when to fire! Why did he do this? Because the Colonial commanding officer decided to trust this random guy with the task. […] In order for a video game to occupy a place in history, it doesn’t necessarily have to place characters at the very center of historical events. It would’ve been possible to put Connor into Paul Revere’s ride, or the Battle of Bunker Hill, without making him an integral part of each one. And I worry that as the series progresses into even more recent history, that the Gumpyness will only get worse. I want to live through history, but I don’t need to rewrite it.
In his reworking of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poetic tribute to Paul Revere, Dan Golding at Crikey Mag payed tribute to AC3’s “Gumpyness”, by celebrating Revere’s sadly overlooked companion during his mythic horseback call to arms to the Patriots on the night of April 18, 1775:
Listen my children and you shall hear:
Of the midnight ride of the assassin Connor Kenway
(and his lesser known accomplice, Paul Revere)
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five […]
Kenway was to ride that night and learn,
That his friend Revere would be on his horse’s rear,
Giving GPS directions in the manner of turn-by-turn
And warning should the redcoats come near. […]
And so our riders went swiftly through the night
With Revere giving directions towards the good fight,
When suddenly, without sure prediction,
It seemed a bug emerged with strong affliction
Revere was stuck helplessly in a dialogue cycle;
“Yes! This is exactly where we need to be!”
Historical clichés (and the occasion robo-script) may be part and parcel of historical fiction, but how did AC3 weave the Assassin vs. Templar premise into American history? Perhaps it was the “subaltern” angle to history that forced the writing team to address the underpinnings of the Assassin/Templar conflict. Nick Cowen at the Guardian: “The story in which [Connor] takes the lead is easily the best and most layered offering Ubisoft Montreal has produced to date. Here, the aims of the different factions are by no means clear-cut; the Templars are no longer carnival villains and it’s questionable that the Assassins are entirely on the side of the angels.” In AC3, Assassins and Templars continued to struggle in polar opposition – “control” vs. “free will” – but their antagonism was shown to be complementary, instead of zero-sum. Arguably, the most dramatic part of the story remained its dénouement, where Connor faced the unraveling of his relationships and overturning of his loyalties, as a “tool” for the cause that once put fire in his belly. As Nick Dinicola at Pop Matters argued:
Unlike Ezio, Connor does follow through with his revenge but gains nothing from it — not for the Assassins and not for himself. After the war is won and all the Templars are dead, Connor watches as a group of slaves are paraded out on the docks of Boston, being prepared for sale. Later, he returns to his village only to find it abandoned: the land sold, his tribe fled. In these moments, he realizes that he was duped, not purposefully or maliciously, but duped nonetheless. While he fought for the freedom of all men, the Patriots fought for themselves, and in this aftermath, Conner sees the futility of his fight and the Assassins’ fight.
Despite AC3’s anti-colonial accoutrements, Adrienne Shaw asserted that the AC3 story could not deliver emancipatory narratives because its “realism” served up a teleological view of history, in which Native Americans were swallowed up by an “inevitable” historical process involving their defeat and dispossession: “The game ends ambivalently; all of Ratohnhaké:ton/Connor’s (and the player’s) work in the game didn’t accomplish much for him. The ending was most certainly realistic, but why did it have to be that version of realism?” Be that as it may, Erik Sofge at Slate also understood that AC3’s writing team wanted to cast off the simplistic view of historical struggle that dominated previous AC titles, and expose history’s underbelly:
If there’s a driving moral imperative in AC3, it’s not a flag-waving desire for independence from a distant, fickle imperial power. It’s the desire to defend those original Americans, specifically the Mohawks and Iriquois [sic] in the Northeast, who watch this white man’s conflict unfold. The game’s hero is a Mohawk (he’s half-white but raised in and accepted by the Mohawk community), and inhabiting his point of view allows you to watch long-standing, formalized tribal alliances shatter as groups align with the Brits and the colonists. But whoever wins, it’s clear–the Native Americans are going to lose, and lose everything.
History thus showed its path of destruction in AC3. But in giving voice to the subaltern, AC3 writers also helped players pay attention to the way stories from the past could emerge from the texture of the daily lives and struggles of ordinary people, no matter who they ended up fighting for, or against. Tom Chick at Quarter to Three:
The story that has pulled me through Assassin’s Creed III […] is the real story of America, outside the textbook beats of this game’s facile historical perspective. It’s the story of a country hewn from the wilderness, built out of ideology, industry, fortuitous historical accidents, and a varied assemblage of regular people. Assassin’s Creed III is about the mythology of America, as surely as Once Upon a Time in the West, or The Godfather, or Armageddon, or Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s about America without being about America in the sense that the storyline parades you through the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Valley Forge, and so forth. […] The story of America in Assassin’s Creed III is [also] in the ancillary characters in the wilderness, at sea, in the nascent cities, telling ghost stories around campfires on the frontier, having babies, planting grain, and even falling into dopey teenage love with each other. It’s like your party in a Bioware game, but writ larger and broader, as befits the birth of a nation.
The Politics of Race and Representation in Assassin’s Creed III
“So here we are, it’s 2012, and maybe the world is ending. Or maybe we’re waking up. Maybe things are betting better. At least that seems to be the case with indigenous representations in video games,” mused Elizabeth La Pensée in a video presented by Aboriginal Territories in CyberSpace, a Concordia University (Montreal) initiative for promoting indigenous voices in digital media production.
As Jared Newman of Time Magazine reported in September of that same year, cultural representation in popular works of fiction are known to have real-world impacts on ethnic minorities. Thus, when the AC3 development team decided to take the plunge with the “Native outsider” perspective on the American Revolutionary war, it had to contend with a legacy of misrepresentation and stereotyping of Native Americans in popular culture. Care and caution was therefore taken to ensure fidelity of representation of Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) culture in AC3. To this end, Mohawk consultants Akwiratékha Martin and Teiowí:sonte Thomas Deer were hired by the developers to verify every significant detail of the game, from language, to dress, to daily life patterns, to song and dance, and way of war. As Newman wrote:
The consultant, Thomas Deer of the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center, helped steer Ubisoft Montreal away from errors. When the team asked about including ceremonial masks in the game, Deer warned them that any visual depiction of the sacred masks is considered offensive. He advised them on which types of clothing and jewelry to use and which types of spiritual music were off-limits. Even Connor’s name had to be cleared for use–in Mohawk culture, each name must be unique–and Ubisoft’s lawyers agreed not to trademark it. “It seemed like they went above and beyond in trying to get the community involved,” Deer said in an interview, “and I don’t think it was really so much to cover their butts, just that they wanted to have a real, authentic product that stood up.
An upshot of this consultative approach was the removal of potentially harmful stereotypes from the game, such as the alleged historical Iroquois practice of scalping dead foes. AC3 also sought to convey Native spiritual values and relationship with the natural world, in ways that were congruent with gameplay. Elizabeth LaPensée appreciated that “the [developers] even reinforce indigenous ways of knowing in the game environment. For example when you kill animals, you can collect all of the parts [as you express gratitude to the dead animal’s spirit].”
To be sure, Native American themes and characters were not new to video games in 2012; what was new with AC3 was the attempt to disavow stereotypes and promote nuanced representation of Native Americans. One need only compare with another contemporary game that shared narrative affinities with AC3 to notice the difference. In “Narration and Narrative: (Hi-)Storytelling in Video Games”, Angela Schwarz analyzed the treatment of Native American characters in two fictional retellings of the American Revolutionary war: Age of Empires III: The War Chiefs (AE3), and Assassin’s Creed III. In AE3, the player also played a half-Iroquois, half-European Nathaniel Black. In his struggle to defend his people, Nathaniel was made, like AC3’s Connor, to take sides with the American rebels. Though, with an important difference: “In all his words and deeds, Nathaniel Black provides a textbook example of America’s master narrative of the desire and struggle for freedom that culminated when the country won its independence.” AE3 was indeed marketed to a predominantly American audience, using U.S. nationalist tropes not altogether unfamiliar to those familiar with the Assassin vs. Templar conflict of “freedom against tyranny”.
AC3’s story appeared to have a similar starting premise to AE3’s. However, since the AC3 player only controlled a single character at a time in the game, the story ended up being told more cinematically. While the master narrative of America’s War for Independence was reinforced in AE3, in AC3 it was being “pointed at”. Indeed, skepticism directed at the lofty ideals of the American Revolutionary War ran through AC3’s script and cut-scenes – though Schwarz added the caveat that despite its sophisticated presentation of history, AC3’s presentation of slavery was weak:
Ultimately, Connor’s involvement seems to be useless no matter whether he is fighting for the revolutionaries or the crown, and something that at best is simply delaying impending injustice, a fact that Connor sees as a sign of his own failure at the end of the game. The complexity of the character and his interactions within the adventure thus enable a balanced portrayal that diverges from the [game’s] narrative and the [nation-building] success narrative. Yet instead of adopting a stance that opposes injustice in general, Achilles, the Afro-American, only hints at it with his relatively cautious words, “everything is better than me.” In other words, the producers could have done much more to make this character denounce the discrimination and dehumanization of the African American population.
In “From the Periphery to Center Stage: The Effects and Exploitation of the Other in Titus Andronicus and Assassin’s Creed III”, Marco Antonio Rodriguez also engaged in a comparative case study of two fictional protagonists, Aaron the Moor of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Ratonhnhaké:ton of Assassin’s Creed III. Rodriguez: “Both [AC3 and Titus Andronicus] contribute to an ongoing discussion pertaining to nationalism and colonialism. [What] both genres have in common is the use of the outsider to not only represent internal political strife but also the effects of imperial advancement.” Despite narrative affinities between Aaron and Ratonhnhaké:ton, as “othered” outsiders who achieve some degree of insider status in their struggle, both characters occupied a different place in their respective plots, Ratonhnhaké:ton as a protagonist and Aaron as an antagonist. Rodriguez nevertheless insisted that both Aaron and Ratonhnhaké:ton operated in a “personal-struggle-within-a-larger-struggle” scenario that ended up with their betrayal and disillusion:
Both Aaron and Ratonhnhaké:ton cannot fully be part of either side of the conflicts they are observing. They will be othered […]. Aaron’s intelligence is appreciated and helpful, but he is only an advisor and part of the Goths’ entourage rather than an important representative. Ratonhnhaké:ton’s aid to the Colonist is appreciated but he is nevertheless a mercenary or soldier who can be given orders and not considered an important tactician or military leader to give orders. Both Aaron’s intelligence and Ratonhnhaké:ton’s aid, though significant, are not enough to enable both characters to be fully accepted into their respective cultures.
Bearing no illusions about AC player demographics, Samantha Blackmon at Not Your Mama’s Gamer was curious to see “how Ubisoft [was] going to make the murder of white men (British and American alike) by a Native American palatable to a predominantly white, American audience.” Driving Blackmon’s enthusiasm for Ratonhnhaké:ton was the overtly anti-colonial tone of AC3 story trailers. Though Blackmon mistakenly attributed the transmission of the “Assassin lineage” from Haytham to Ratonhnhaké:ton, she correctly pointed out that Ratonhnhaké:ton assumed his Assassin identity by blending into the white man’s world as Connor. If fighting the Templars was intrinsic to being an Assassin, Blackmon argued that Ratonhnhaké:ton ultimately “lost the plot” in his quest for justice for his martyred people:
I know why Haytham [Kenway] just sticks in my craw! He is the personification of the infamous letter of authenticity that precedes every slave narrative. Yes, I recognize that Connor is neither African (American) nor a slave, but the feeling is still the same. Connor, as Ratonhnhaké:ton, is unworthy of being an assassin. He is tainted. He can only be an assassin (and avenge the deaths of his Native people?) as Connor Kenway, the son of a white man and not the son of a Native American woman. While Ubisoft tries to play up his Native heritage he is another instance of the great White savior coming in to save/avenge the lowly savage. As the game unfolds it becomes clearer and clearer that their representation of Ratonhnhaké:ton was never going to be as problematic as I thought that it was going to be.
At Play the Past, David Hussey pointed out that the strongest female character in AC3, Kaniehtí:io (Ziio), ultimately served as a “vessel” for AC3’s main protagonist, Ratonhnhaké:ton – as his mother. Echoing Angela Schwarz, Hussey also noted the neglect of the realities of slavery in AC3:
There are only a few mentions of the Atlantic Slave Trade in the story of Assassin’s Creed III. The two most prominent times are when Connor confronts Samuel Adams on his ownership of slaves and again during the epilogue when Connor watches from afar as slaves are sold near the port in New York. Beyond this, Connor and his mentor Achilles (an African-American) discuss the latter’s difficulties dealing with society. The game does make mention to what became a vile and cruel part of America’s history but as a player it felt glossed over. That is not to say that slavery needed to be a major theme in the game but it still felt like it did not go deep enough when addressing slavery in Revolutionary America.
In his parallel study of Titus Andronicus and AC3, Marco Antonio Rodriguez made the case that racial prejudice was a key part of getting players to enter into Ratonhnhaké:ton’s world:
Ratonhnhaké:ton, though not taken into slavery, has his name changed to fit in with the world of colonial New England. He is told that “Your skin is light enough to pass off as one with Italian or Spanish blood. Better to be thought of as a Spaniard than a Native”. Even though Ratonhnhaké:ton is helping the revolution, his “Native” heritage is stereotyped into being a negative characteristic. Ironically, Ratonhnhaké:ton’s mentor is a Black man who was an Assassin at some point, but even though a Black man and a Mohawk are aiding (and even winning) the revolution, they will not have the same rights and privileges as George Washington or John Adams. However, that is exactly the point of the story. Even though a majority of the population is educated on the American Revolution, the untold stories are what this game is about–how even though the nation has won its independence, there are some stories that are not told and that could finally give the subaltern a voice.
In developing AC3, the Ubisoft writing team made much hay about “not taking sides”. The final product, however, still presented the Revolution as a familiarly canonical set of themes and events (video link with autocaptions), in which Ratonhnhaké:ton spends most of his fighting moments killing red coats and riling up anti-British Bostonians into scuffles with the occupying army. As Tom Dawson at Ontological Geek pointed out (archived link), patriotic American retellings of the War have played a large part in stereotyping Brits as excessively refined, elitist, and downright indifferent to human suffering. The character of Sean Hastings in AC3, for example, may have provided caustic commentary on American interpretations of the war and the American social scene, but his characterization was itself a chockfull of British stereotypes. Ditto for that classy charmer, Hatham Kenway, who turned out to be a typically British arch-villain. Dawson:
As the world opens up and the Database begins to fill with entries it becomes clear that Shaun is what some writers apparently consider to be very, very English. He’s positively vitriolic toward the French, snobbish towards the Americans, and seems incapable of mentioning tea in a tone less than worshipful. It’s akin to reading a history book by Al Murray’s stand-up character, the Pub Landlord, unable to resist insinuations of English cultural superiority at every turn. He never wastes a chance to mock or belittle, or to slyly hint that the modern United States would be a better place had England won the Revolutionary War. When forced by the story to acknowledge military victories by French or American forces, he does so with extreme bad grace, usually acting as if such an acknowledgement genuinely pains him to write and offering excuses for the English army.
“AC3 assumes that players are most interested in unpacking the British-Patriot conflict. Ratohnhaké:ton/Connor […] allows them an ‘outsider’ perspective to critique aspects of that conflict, but this means that what he is expected to do in the game always feels out of sync with who he is”, wrote game studies scholar Adrienne Shaw on First Person Scholar. Shaw argued that despite AC3’s sensitive portrayal of Native Americans, the main story was still framed within a hegemonic historical paradigm because the core audience of players was assumed to be non-native. This might have something to do with Ubisoft distancing itself from the portrayal of slavery in AC3, because its inclusion might “force something into the public discussion that [historically] wouldn’t become a very public issue for several more decades”. As a result, as Shaw insisted:
[AC3] doesn’t actually engage with how race might shape Achilles’s or Ratohnhaké:ton/Connor’s interactions with others. […] Visual details, like soot marks behind wall sconces or trees’ shadows on the forest floor, contrast sharply with how Ratohnhaké:ton/Connor’s visual appearance does not matter much to the gameplay. Although this gives the player a lot of ludic agency in terms of what they might do to reduce the chance guards will chase them down, as a historical figure Ratohnhaké:ton/Connor would not have much agency over how he was perceived. The game assumes the intended audience will not find this particularly troubling or unrealistic–it is just a game, after all.
All things considered, how did Native Americans react to seeing a sister culture and brother protagonist take the lead in a 21st-century big budget video game?
Calling AC3 “a critical success and a cultural milestone”, the Indian Country Media Network gave praise to the AC3 writing and design team for its respectful treatment of historical Native American communities, and its non-jingoistic retelling of the American Revolutionary War:
The payoff of Ubisoft’s efforts […] is something that stands out among not just games but also movies and TV as possibly the first mainstream look at Native American history that isn’t pandering or offensive. The high marks for the game, both as a game and as a window onto history, make clear what many Native gamers and moviegoers have thought all along: that it’s possible to make good entertainment without dragging out the same tired stereotypes. And perhaps abandoning those stereotypes is one of the touches that is the difference between a good game and a great one.
At Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, Elizabeth LaPensée wrote:
[AC3] remedies several typical missteps of past Indigenous representations in videogames […] Most importantly, Ubisoft collaborated with Indigenous peoples. […] Thomas Deer, a cultural liaison officer at the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center, directly consulted with Ubisoft on Iroquois traditional knowledge to inform game assets like buildings, music, and non-player character behavior. [With respect to female agency in Native American cultures], Kaniehti:io (Connor’s Kanien’kehá:ka mother) is an intelligent, suspicious, and tactical woman who helps to free enslaved “Natives,” arranges alliances across Indigenous nations, and saves the life of Haytham Kenway (by being totally badass and strong herself). Ubisoft does still occasionally get iffy, like the Clan Mother who gets too close to the “Mystic Savage” trope in her shamanistic powers and tone. However, given the Assassin’s Creed series’ science fiction time traveling storyline, the elder’s knowledge of the “portal” adds an element to the growing recognition of Indigenous science fiction.
A Massachusetts native and long-time resident of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Joe Flood at Kill Screen witnessed local reception of AC3 by Pine Ridge’s Emergency Management Team (EMT) during a “discovery” play session of the game. EMT staff attitudes seemed on the whole positive and upbeat to the depiction of a Native American protagonist in a major video game title, and forgiving of some of the details they felt the development team didn’t quite get right:
We’ve finally entered the the advertised part of the game, the Hero With a Thousand Faces-esque rise of future-Assassin Ratonhnhaké:ton, aka Connor. At the ambulance depot, the reactions to the Connor assassinsroman is solidly positive. The Mohawk language is the biggest hit–no one knows how to speak it, or how well it’s being spoken here, but language revitalization is about the most uncontroversial, unadulterated good that can be done on a reservation, so everyone’s in favor. The village looks accurately done (longhouses, not típis) and most of Connor’s fellow tribesmen have as much flesh and bone to them as any one-off video game characters can be expected to have.
The game’s storyline finds a way to tie several historically important events to a Mohawk. Sometimes, this is reasonable – like the Boston Tea Party, which did involve native disguises [referencing Mohawks] – sometimes, it’s more of a stretch, like the Battle of bunker Hill. Nonetheless, there’s nothing more satisfying than facing your colonialist father, and taking him and his associates down. […] The game is overall anti-colonialist in tone. Even the bad guys are self-reflective about their Wendigo nature.
Despite the shortcomings of its alleged critical stance toward mainstream history, Reid McCarter at Nightmare Mode (archived link) thought AC3 to be praiseworthy for making a compelling story out of the Kanien’kehá:ka/Mohawk experience of the American Revolutionary War:
I hope, with time, there are more articles written about the game’s portrayal of Native history. So far, the only ones that stick out in my mind are discussions of how AC3 painted Connor as a “noble savage” or compromised too much by having him be the son of a white father […]. There’s probably a bit of validity to these points, but they’re maybe too condemnatory when the game is actually attempting something fairly bold. Critics are responsible for ensuring that developers are kept on their toes in regards to cultural, political and historical sensitivity/responsibility, but it’s also important that writers give credit where credit is due. […] I think Ubisoft has accomplished something really remarkable with the character and their willingness to tackle Native American history in a largely uncompromising manner. Connor’s Kanien’kehá:ka/Mohawk childhood friends are not idealized, their inevitable suffering isn’t the result of naivety, but of deception and the “use” of Indigenous soldiers by British and Patriot forces alike is fairly well represented.
“Assassin’s Creed III is Disappointing”
Maybe it was despair about the impending apocalypse that took hold of the spirits of the gaming press’s best and brightest in late 2012. Whatever the case, our study of the critical reception around AC3 revealed strenuous efforts in not throwing out AC3’s game baby with its end-of-the-world-story bathwater.
In truth, 2012’s most thrilling cinematic game experience was turning out a little bit too cinematic for many. In post-release discussion, disappointed players had a field day with AC3 core design features. Ubisoft was attentive to fan complaints, and tried to address design issues with patching. But beyond the steady noise of grumbling fans was a more complex social dynamic at work. As Jonathan Church and Michael Klein argued at the 2013 DiGRA conference (pdf link), public displays of disappointment could be understood as “discursive moments” in the wake of a game release in which players displayed their “gaming capital” (i.e. depth knowledge of game franchises, world lore, game design analysis, etc.), and comment on the perception gap built up by hype. Official critics had for their part to contend with their own complicated reactions: a game as big and complex as AC3 forced one to put on many thinking hats. Analyzing AC3 was not going to be a straightforward affair.
First question: despite being touted as an action-adventure open-world sandbox history simulator, to which genre did AC3 belong? To be sure, AC3’s core cinematic identity de-emphasized overt video game tropes and mechanisms in favor of streamlined controls and “fluid gameplay”. Astute observers tried to take apart the implications of this design philosophy. For Harrison Lavin at Game Design Patterns:
Assassin’s Creed III is, first and foremost, a movie masquerading as a video game. One would not need to look much further beyond the cinematic flourishes added to all its actions, and heavy separation of player control and avatar actions to find evidence for this claim. Exemplified by the game’s free-running modes, players mainly interact with the world either in broad strokes input or by Quick-Time Event prompts.
Lavin noted that QTE’s or manual movement controls were not implemented around avatar controls because they would break up the flow of movement. Therefore, the decision was made to automate movement and allow the player to guide the avatar in open space, or “from node to node”. Within each movement mode (walking, running, climbing, horseback riding), the node-to-node navigation produced a different feel, based on the environment the player found herself in. Overall, movement mechanics seemed to have been tweaked in favor of kinetic affects.
With regards to combat mechanics, the “assassin” part of Assassin’s Creed may have suffered a few debilitating blows. Tom Bramwell at Eurogamer: “One thing that is consistent, at least, is the feeling that this is no longer a series about a silent predator. The majority of the time, Assassin’s Creed 3 is a full-on action game; it just happens to star an assassin.” Despite the improved fluidity and spectacular takedowns, the new combat system wasn’t any more challenging than combat in previous AC titles. Stanislav Costiuc at Farlands also noted that the AC3 combat system was ill-suited for duels.
All said and done, AC3 managed to successfully blur the boundaries between action games and movies in its navigation and combat mechanics. Sadly, the fun factor seemed to take a nosedive in AC3 with stealth gameplay. For Joseph Bernstein at Kill Screen the biggest design flaw of AC3 was that it never properly implemented one of the AC franchise’s core pillars, social stealth. The free-flowing navigation may have felt kinetic, fine-tuned movement tended to make the player stick to surfaces “like velcro”, because environments were tweaked for traversal.
Kirk Hamilton at Kotaku found iffy design at work in AC3 social stealth. Camera controls and positioning made it difficult to see NPC’s within detections range; player’s did not enter and leave stealth mode with controls, and did so instead with features in the environment; enemy line of sight was often unrealistic, which made the player “play against” detection status indicators rather than visible NPCs; crowd stealth was erratic at best, with poor player feedback; the hired helpers that gave players a modicum of control over social stealth in AC2 (and sequels) were removed in AC3; wilderness environments were also better designed for navigation than stealth, and players typically had to resolve their quickly-detected status with brute force. In the final analysis:
Dishonored, […] Mark of the Ninja [and] Hitman: Absolution […] have built-in systems that dovetail with the level design to make sneaking empowering, interesting, difficult, and fun. By contrast, Assassin’s Creed feels like it has a stealth game’s punishments without any of its necessary tools. It feels so clumsy. Connor is a constantly-spotted rube, a guy standing on a rooftop being yelled at by a guard.
Aside from poor implementation of stealth mechanics, AC3 also suffered from a unique kind of ludo-narrative incoherence (to borrow Lana Polansky’s terminology), because of the protagonist’s social status in the simulated game world. As Adrienne Shaw asked, what does stealth gameplay even mean in a world in which the main protagonist’s racialized identity makes him instantly visible to colonial onlookers?
In these moments, where Ratohnhaké:ton/Connor’s position in the colonial world is made unexceptional despite the fact that the game uses his “outsider” perspective to tell the story, it does represent the limits of representation offered in AC3. Gamemakers presume that the imagined player does not want to play a stealth game where being stealthy is limited by the body they inhabit. They assume the imagined player will not even realize how impossible such invisibility would be likely because they have largely never had the experience of being hypervisible because of their race.
At the “macro” level, critics often wondered if AC3 was a single game, or many games in one. For Matt Miller at Games Radar, “it’s a mistake to think about the game in terms of a critical path of core missions. Instead, Assassin’s Creed III excels by providing meaningful story-based content everywhere you turn.” The meaningfulness of said content, though, may not have been obvious to everyone. If anything, Tom Bramwell’s recap of a typical AC3 play session at Eurogamer exemplified how AC3’s overfull open-world routinely challenged players’ ability to construct a coherent narrative out of their play sessions:
You consult the world map to pinpoint something you want to do. Perhaps it’s visiting a Frontiersman icon, where you’ll hear a fireside ghost story that sets you on the trail of a Bigfoot legend or mythical sea monster. But on the way there you’ll spy a feather icon greyed out on your mini-map, indicating that it’s above you, so you’ll discard your horse and clamber into the canopy to collect it. Then you’ll swan-dive into the nearest thicket, only to spy a magnifying glass icon centre-screen that gives you a clue to some nearby animal activity. There’s a cougar somewhere close, it says, so you lay traps and return to the trees to plot its downfall with bow or hidden blade. But as you approach the tree, a bear attacks! You take it down with well-timed button replies, skin it for its fur and resume hunting. You’ll go back to the Homestead later and process the stuff you’ve gathered to make new goods and earn cash on the trade routes. In the meantime, when the cougar’s finished, you try to remember what you were doing in the first place.
Story pacing seemed to be another recurring complaint with AC3, particularly its lengthy “tutorial” story chapters. Ryan Davis at Giant Bomb: “Assassin’s Creed III has pacing issues, […] spending hours upon hours up front before you even meet the game’s main protagonist, then rushing at a dead sprint towards the end, hastily and underwhelmingly wrapping up story threads that the series has spent years laying out.” Harrison Lavin at Northeastern University also noted that players needed to complete the overdrawn prologue sequences before they could they fully access open-world gameplay, and choose between main and side missions.
Game designer Stanislav Costiuc, for his part, found AC3 missions atmospheric and enjoyable, but often in contradiction with design principles of open-world gameplay. First off, AC3 had issues with railroading players down a critical path, such as in the spectacular recreation of the Battle of Bunker Hill, or in the dramatic near-execution of Connor, spoiled by an anti-climactic ten-second kill requirement of George Washington’s would-be assassin. As for the “assassin” part of Assassin’s Creed, Costiuc noted that the mission in which Connor must eliminate William Johnson was the only mission that exploits all the elements of assassination gameplay: approach, assassinate, and escape.
Less evident to analyze was AC3’s haphazard application of a good design idea: primary and secondary objectives. For Costiuc, “good” full synchronization objectives allowed players to use core game mechanics in flexible ways. For example, the Lexington and Concord mission encouraged the player to rescue civilian hostages from redcoats along the critical path’s flexible waypoint system; in the Hostile Negotiations mission, the player had to keep fellow natives from harm’s way for full synchronization. “Bad” full synchronization objectives removed play options (certain mechanics) from players, requiring players to conform to a given play style. Sometimes they were just plain confusing, such as asking the player to air assassinate a redcoat with a musket in the middle of a brawl, requiring an enraged Connor to slalom around NPC’s in the final chase scene, or the contrivance of disguise in a mission in which such a tactic makes no sense. Costiuc’s rule: “Full Synchronization Requirements shouldn’t really have ANYTHING to do with the precise way you complete the main objective. They should be more like side-objectives.”
Perhaps the biggest “design sin” committed against the player in AC3 was the removal of player agency in decisive moments of the game. For Ben Babcock at Medium.com, AC3 developers were so locked into the story that they couldn’t trust players with key story outcomes. The culmination of this “designer arrogance” over the player was exemplified in Connor’s take-down of his arch-nemesis, and the Desmond saga finale, in which the player had no input at all:
Connor’s final mission and pursuit of Charles Lee is full of padding, including cutscenes, and it is ultimately one last, pathetic attempt by the game to get me to care for this character. There’s supposed to be something ironic about Connor pursuing Lee into a tavern, sitting down at the same table, and sharing one last drink with him before stabbing him. But it left me cold–mostly because I wasn’t the one doing the stabbing. Once again, the game had decided that I, the player, was not important enough to undertake such a task.
Perhaps in compensation to the linearity of the story missions, critics such as Keza MacDonald at IGN thought that the optional missions in AC3 were the real star of the show.
Designed by Ubisoft Quebec, the homestead portion of AC3 in particular seemed to have lodged itself in the hearts of critics. For Tom Chick at Quarter to Three:
There’s an economy in Assassin’s Creed III, as weirdly optional and even more undocumented as leveling up your assassin buddies (who bring with them some cool new abilities this time). It’s not a meaningful economy. In fact, it’s little more than an excuse for you to Creed about in the open world, in the cities, on the frontier, beneath the streets, into the forts, o’er the waves. The basic currency is how much time you’re willing to spend with a godawful crafting/trading interface, which is so steeped in frontier American flavor that I can hardly resist. Helping a miner woo a Scottish huntress so he can find and sell me the ore I need for my seamstress to make buttons for someone in New York? It’s among the most ridiculous things I’ve ever done in a videogame, right up there with becoming dean of Skyrim College’s magic department.
The overwhelmingly positive response to the naval sequences of AC3 by players and critics alike no doubt confirmed Ubisoft in its decision to set the next major AC title on the rolling waves. Until AC Black Flag came out, players could at least enjoy the rollicking good times of sea combat via AC3’s naval side quests. AC3 naval combat seemed to have captivated audiences on sheer atmospherics alone. Steve Hannley at Hardcore Gamer:
Assassin’s Creed III is at its most majestic during its nautical moments. Players take command of large ships, controlling both the weapons and steering. […] Naval warfare is the highlight of sailing, where enemy ships appear from nowhere to engage in battle. Ships blast away at each other with on-board weapons, with the right trigger firing cannons and the left spraying enemies with swivel guns. The ship must be lined up within distance of the enemy vessel to hit it successfully, causing the need to steer ships around in circles […]. Graphically, everything about it looks gorgeous, with crashing waves and stunning animations of ships sinking after sustaining too much damage. Taking to the open seas is blast throughout the game, with enough depth to stand as its own release.
After the sea combat side-missions, AC3’s revamped version of AC:Brotherhood multiplayer also received near-unanimous praise from critics. Arthur Gies at Polygon distilled the AC3 multiplayer experience for novice AC players:
Since Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, the series has had some of the coolest, most unique multiplayer suites around. Descriptions often reference the Turing Test, which is as apt as anything — you play the role of predator and prey amid hordes of AI, attempting to act the part of scripted automaton as you work toward your objectives. It offers a different dynamic than more frenetic multiplayer modes in first- and third-person shooters. It’s more deliberate. Which is part of the fun. […] Wolf Pack [co-op mode] mode gives you and your partners a timer and a specific set of targets (scaled to the number of players). Once you kill enough targets, time is added to the clock and a new “sequence” begins. Each sequence makes the scenario more difficult — targets are spread further apart, or they might be more suspicious, for example — with less and less time to finish your assignments. Bonuses are awarded based on multi-kills, which are multiple near-simultaneous assassinations performed by you and your teammates, and targets of opportunity will often appear that when taken out add time to the clock.
All said and done, AC3 was an unwieldy beast to grapple with, and the critics tried their best to articulate the contradictions that seem to lie at its heart. Alec Meer at Rock Paper Shotgun perhaps best sums up some of the core frustration of players and reviewers with AC3:
[AC3] is an intrinsically mechanical game despite what the open environments would seem to suggest. You can choose, between missions, where to go and what route you take, but there’s no real flexibility of combat, choice of behaviour or option to find your own way out of a mistake. You do it the game’s way or you fail. […] I struggle to understand why the game goes to so much effort with its huge environments only to be so prescriptive about how you may interact with them. If it wants to be a linear action game perhaps it should just be one, instead of teasing us with unmet possibilities.
AC3’s technical achievements, combined with the sense that it tried to be too many things for too many people even got one critic to resurrect the “AC tech demo” trope. For Mike Williams at US Gamer:
The first Assassin’s Creed was amazing at the time, but felt more like a proof-of-concept than a full, enjoyable game. The Ezio trilogy improved and refined that base, but you can consider them separate games from the first title; Assassin’s Creed is slower and more methodical, compared to the high-speed, low-stealth murder fest of the latter games. Assassin’s Creed III, being based on the new AnvilNext engine, is another proof-of-concept to me. It’s Ubisoft saying, “here’s all the different things we can do now!” without fully fitting all the various pieces together.
Desmond’s Sacrifice for the Future of the Creed
Haytham Kenway to Charles Lee: “You are a Templar. May the Father of Understanding guide us.”
Desmond (in the Animus): “Wait, what?!”
It’s safe to say that Desmond Miles isn’t the most beloved character in the history of video games. With grumbling acceptance of the AC sci-fi meta-plot, players and critics have, since AC1, played through Desmond sequences with various degrees of reluctance. Thus, AC3 pre-release hype was further compounded when the public learned that the Desmond saga would be coming to an end. The “2012 end of the world” plot finale would at least add frisson to Desmond’s last gasp.
The end of the Desmond saga in AC3 thus signaled two undercurrent trends at work in the franchise: the push to transmedia storytelling, and the diversification of the AC player base. The twin Desmond/Ezio narratives may have worked for the Ezio trilogy and its Eurocentric view of history, but it clashed with the “subaltern” approach to storytelling that AC3 sought to bring to the fore. For Adrienne Shaw at First Person Scholar, the Desmond saga’s lingering place in AC3’s narrative transformed the “outsider” retelling of the American Revolutionary War into an act of “identity tourism”, through which the (assumed white male) core AC player base could vicariously experience the plight of the indigenous hero, all the while holding on to its privileged position “above” the narrative, via Desmond. Perhaps to signal the end of this framework, AC3’s first “offshoot” game, AC3:Liberation would skip the Desmond saga entirely. After all, as Shaw argues, AC3:Liberation was not marketed to the same player base.
Did Desmond’s disappearance signal the end of white male protagonists as “buttresses” to AC’s narrative framework? Hardly. But from AC3 onward, the morality of the Creed itself would come under increasing scrutiny. In the nascent Kenway saga, the Haytham Kenway character was primed to become Desmond’s replacement as “anchor” to AC’s transmedia plots and subplots. For one, as Nick Dinicola argued, Haytham’s uncanny ability to push at Connor’s moral boundaries make his a destabilizing element in the overall Assassin/Templar moral framework:
Haytham is well-spoken; he can better articulate his stance and beliefs and the logic behind his plans. Connor, on the other hand, is so invested in the Patriot cause that he can only repeat what he’s been told. When these two men argue about how to best accomplish their goals, Haytham always sounds like he has the better plan. It’s almost pointless to pit these two against each other in a verbal sparring match. Haytham always comes out the winner, which further erodes the moral high ground of the Assassins.
Media scholar Samantha Schäfer’s (pdf link) thought that AC3 occupied a pivotal place in the AC franchise. By examining the “function” of Haytham Kenway in both AC3 and across the Kenway saga, Schäfer identified a shift in narrative tone and approach in AC3. One key change – the cultivation of skepticism in players with regards to the moral claims of Templars and Assassins, took root in the mode of narration adopted in the opening chapters of AC3, where the player played Haytham unaware of this character’s true affiliations. The other works of the Kenway saga that Schäfer analyzed (AC: Black Flag, Forsaken, AC:Rogue and AC:Unity) could thus be seen as “extrapolations” of the moral conundrums opened up by the Haytham character in AC3. Schäfer:
Haytham’s role as pivotal character is manifested in a variety of aspects. On a micro level, Haytham’s gameplay functions are used to underline his narrative complexity, and on a content level this helps to drastically change the outlook on the storyworld as such, which is driven by the Templar-Assassin struggle. Considering the Kenway Saga on a macro level within the dynamics of transmedia storytelling, this suggests that a character who is not one of the main characters may allow for the possibility of an alternative perspective. He or she can provide enough familiarity to make the consumer feel at home in the series, rather than having a plethora of changing characters and relationships that may not feel entirely connected with one another. […] Even Haytham’s minimal appearance in AC4 or his letters as a placeholder for his character in Unity create a feeling of familiarity and coherence even if the narratives themselves are not causally connected from the start.
This shift from a Desmond-centered to a Haytham-decentered narrative framework may have helped explain the AC3 finale. Ironically, it wasn’t Desmond’s self-sacrifice to save the world that proved the most controversial with players; it was his apparent betrayal of the Assassin ethos, and AC3’s unilateral imposition of this outcome that provoked the most outrage. Ben Babcock at Medium.com complained: “Minerva and Juno present Desmond with a choice, and it is literally the fate of the world. And what do I, the player, get to do? I get to watch. No one asks my opinion. There is no choice system here like at the end of Mass Effect 3.” Shubhankar Parijat at Gaming Bolt felt betrayed by Desmond: “When the game showed Desmond facing a dilemma at the end – should he let the world be ravaged, or should he hand over all control?- I got excited. […] And what does Desmond do? […] He decides to override the free-will engines and gives all control.” For Parijat, AC3’s ending fracas was a huge dud:
The ending really sucked in Assassin’s Creed III. Because it didn’t end. It just stopped. Assassin’s Creed 3 is like a bullet train, running at a solid 300 miles per hour, going at an excellent speed- well, after the lengthy prologue which I have no qualms about – when suddenly, the driver pulls the breaks. It doesn’t take a few minutes for the train to come to a dead stop, not even a few seconds. It suddenly just stops moving. And there’s not even any recoil or jerks or anything. One moment, it’s moving like crazy, the other moment, it just stops moving – it’s just standing there, motionless, and the people inside are confused and angry.
In “The Assassin’s Failure”, Nick Dinicola at Pop Matters examined the philosophical implications of the end of the Desmond Saga in AC3. Dinicola: “How the game resolves its Armageddon conflict is the very definition of anti-climactic.” Why? Because the creed of the Assassins failed to persuade the creators of the AC franchise that its core beliefs could save humanity from its worst inclinations. Basically, the Assassins were “idealists”, while the Templars were “realists” about human nature (of the Hobbesian sort, we might add). And so, as frustrating and farcical as the “save the world with a magic button” finale might have seem, the removal of agency from the player’s hands during this high point of drama served to illustrate the flip-side of the Assassin’s individualist ethos:
A lot of what the Assassins do is based on faith, Altair says as much in his journals in Assassin’s Creed II. They kill with the faith that this death will make the world a better place. It’s not a religious kind of faith, but a faith in the Brotherhood itself and a faith in humanity to rise above its prejudices when given the opportunity to do so. Desmond’s last act is very much in keeping with this faith. Minerva paints a very detailed picture of life post-flare, but Juno gives no details as to how she will rule the earth once given power. Desmond makes his choice on nothing but faith. In this way, his actions are in keeping with the spirit of the Assassin’s Creed, even though he chooses to put his faith in the enemy.
What, then, is the legacy of Assassin’s Creed III? For one, AC3’s release marked important changes in video game writing and open-world game design. The results may have been mitigated, AC3 still brought a lot of new design approaches and ideas into one humongous package deal. And it seems that every major AC title after AC3 would also recreate the same bloated and disjointed mess, with plethoric content vying for players’ attention and conflicting implementations of game systems.
But AC3 was also a departure from previous AC instances, because it forced players to confront the moral assumptions that came “embedded” with AC protagonists and antagonists. And it gave players no real answers. Nick Dinicola summarized the effect as such: “It’s impossible not to come out of Assassin’s Creed III feeling a little hypocritical. In every game the Assassins fight the Templars, and in every game, the Assassins win. However, by the end of Assassin’s Creed III, it becomes clear that while the Assassins may win the physical battles, they lose the ideological war.” Above and beyond, AC3 was definitely treading new ground in mass entertainment by giving the lesser-known voices in human history their rightful place in the grand narrative arc of historical change. As much as we might criticize AC3 for its many flaws and blind spots, as Stephen Totilo at Kotaku reminds us 2019, the original AC3 took some real risks:
I was so thrilled by what I found in Assassin’s Creed III when I reviewed it and in the months following, though, that I kept poking at it. The game was radical. It was radical in its structure, delaying the player’s opportunity to play as Connor by first putting them in control of his father. It was radical in its gameplay, daring to expand the series’ exciting–if sometimes clumsy–free-running from cityscapes to forests. It was radical in theme, repeatedly emphasizing that a man of Connor’s background and skin color would lose out in the new country. […] So many of the heroic actions we commit in video games are overly grand. They involve saving the world. [Playing as Connor], you wind up helping farmers by repelling hooligans while they plant their crops. You pay off or beat up shady government officials who are trying to foreclose on people’s homes. In Boston, you do more traditionally video-gamey things: you attack British prison guards and officials. But in New York, you might as well be Robin Hood or some sort of super-powered soup kitchen volunteer. You do good. Connor feels like a hero for the 99%.
If you’d like to read more about Assassin’s Creed, don’t forget to check out Gilles Roy’s Assassin’s Creed II Critical Compilation.
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