Assassin’s Creed is a historical action game series set around a conflict between two groups called the Templars and the Assassins. You can probably guess which side the player character is on from the title. The premise is that the protagonist Desmond is strapped into a machine called the Animus which allows him to, through the power of Mr. DNA, experience the lives of his ancestor Assassins and learn their skills and the ‘true’ history of the world. So over the course of the series we’ve seen the Crusades, Renaissance Italy, and an Ottoman controlled east. In the latest game Desmond sees the American Revolution through the eyes of Ratohnhake:ton (or Connor), a Mohawk who generally fights on the side of the Americans.
To begin, a disclaimer: I don’t care much about Desmond or the silly modern time plot all that much. The appeal of this series to me is to be able to run around doing crazy stuff in places and times more interesting than a football game in Brazil. Playing as Ezio in Renaissance era Italy and then moving onto an Ottoman controlled Constantinople gets me right in the Roman-obsession-gland of my brain. The only other groups that I read about as much as the Romans are the Natives Americans.
Keep in mind while reading this that I did, in fact, really enjoy this game and playing as a Native protagonist (that isn’t a stereotype like Turok) is a pretty nice change of pace. Prey was the last game I recall that had a native protagonist but that was more about alien abduction than anything else. Also, the gameplay and mechanics in this release felt better refined than in any of the previous Assassin’s Creed titles. My issue is with portrayals.
The third major installment in the Assassin’s Creed series mostly takes place in the early years of the American Revolution but it starts out a bit before. If you haven’t played the game I won’t spoil the big surprise at the beginning and will instead proceed to talk about Connor.
Aside from things like forcing Ratohnhake:ton into taking a white name for convenience of players and making him act like a stereotypical ‘angry indian’ the game does a reasonably good job of getting the details of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois is a French term based on a Huron/Wyandot term) society they use correct. They just don’t use very many. Some of the people you encounter on your first trip into town are a pair of men arguing out whether the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) were a ‘tribe’ or a Confederacy. They ham it up pretty good but, before descending into blows, they explain very basically how the Confederacy is made up of a number of nations.
Unfortunately, they don’t go into any real depth (in-game, I’ll get to this caveat in a moment) and you visit the town Connor was born in maybe twice. As Connor you don’t really deal with other native groups (except to knock out and kill your childhood friend) which is odd for a member of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. There’s a line in the game where one of the Bad Guys tries to turn you against Washington by talking about his campaigns against the natives (he wasn’t given the name ‘Town Destroyer’ for nothing) but all that warrants is a boring and exceptionally easy mission where you stop the natives who were trying to get the drop on some soldiers. You unlock a brief text about the Sullivan Expedition, written by the character Shaun who is English, and that’s that. I think they used the term half-breed once and there’s practically no racism directed toward your character at all.
Connor gets angrier and angrier during the whole game (when he shows any emotion at all) and I’m honestly surprised he didn’t up and have an aneurysm at the end of the game. Connor has had a rough life, he does have a reason to be angry but, if you’ve ever talked with a Real Life Native you’d realize they’re human and have more emotions than ‘mad’ or ‘stoic.’ His mother dies, he gets angry and not sad or depressed. His father attempts to convince him of the error of his ways and eventually Connor kills him which again makes him angry. He doesn’t really stop to contemplate his actions or consider (or ask) what turned his father down this path. He just stabs him a few times. He kills his best friend from childhood, someone he has known his entire life, and gives him as much (or really, as little) regard as the English officer he killed and didn’t know at all. The weirdest reaction of all, in my view, is at the end when his town is abandoned and a settler has moved in. The settler explains that Connor’s people’s land has been taken and they’ve been forced west and Connor just says ‘thanks’ and the cut scene ends.
Compare this to Ezio who over three games grew up, fell in love a few times, lost family and friends, grew old and managed to show an entire range of emotions during all of these events. Perhaps you can just chalk it up to lazy writing and short deadlines but I swear we had more emotional range out of Washington and I think his total time talking was less than three minutes. Compared to Ezio, Connor is a very one-dimensional character who is hardly developed over the course of the game at all. In contrast just about every American historical figure is given more personality than Connor is.
Also odd is how little the native involvement in the American Revolution is addressed. The French get a bone thrown their way towards the end of the game but it’s bizarre to me that England’s most powerful ally in the war is entirely ignored. The Haudenosaunee nations largely sided with England but two of the nations, the Oneidas and Tuscaroras, sided with the American rebels. This would be a lot like the American South siding with one side in a Mexican civil war and the North siding with the other. The way the game presents the revolution you’d think the natives were off in the distant west and Connor’s town just hadn’t yet received the memo that they were expected to disappear. On another note, we have plenty of colonial and English historical figures so where are Cornplanter and Red Jacket?
The game is like a historical action movie (think The Patriot) about a crazy group of conspirators trying to take over the world using high-tech weaponry from the distant past with the eras they’re set in being little more than window dressing. That makes glossing over events and shrinking cities for time and game constraints understandable but there’s no real reason for Connor and his people to have no depth to them.
Now you might notice I pointed out that Shaun (the character who provides you with the historical text notes) is from England earlier on. I’ve read a lot of comments from fans who think that the game is extremely pro-American and generally shows England in a bad light. My concern with the English fellow doing the writing is that people can dismiss a lot of the criticisms in his texts (which are, of course, written not by a virtual Englishman but by living developers) as a sort of fleshing out of his character. He’s providing an English view of what in many ways was a British civil war. So if you’d care to learn more about the native involvement in the war there’s some books I’d recommend:
‘The Iroquois in the American Revolution’ by Barbara Graymont and the fifth chapter of the book ‘The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca’ by Anthony F.C. Wallace.
Wallace’s book is excellent for a post-war picture of how the natives adapt to a changing political environment but since it’s about the Onondowaga (Seneca) and not the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) I’ll only include the fifth chapter here.
Now with that said, I think Ubisoft is doing a good thing with this series. This is the series that has shown the Islamic world in a better light than just about any other western media. Especially in France (where Ubisoft is from) this is a big deal. The very fact that we have a native protagonist as well researched as Connor is in AC3 is evidence that, hey, video games are growing up. Slowly, painfully, and sometimes kicking and screaming but there it is all the same. There’s plenty of room for improvement, yes, and I’d hope in the future they go beyond the little out-of-game write-ups that try to fill in the players on the characters and cultures they’re seeing. I’m not sure if this series will ever see another native protagonist but hopefully the writers will get back to making human characters and not just caricatures.