Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos: Assassin's Creed and the Power of Representation

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Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos: <em>Assassin's Creed</em> and the Power of Representation

“Wow.”

My mother’s no stranger to the fast evolution of games. We had an NES in the house when I was 5, and with the exception of a Turbo Grafx 16, we had seen pretty much every console come and go through our house up until I moved out at the peak of the PS2/Xbox era. Now, I write about games, so every time I go down to see her, she asks what’s new in the gaming world. I show her whatever new system I have on me at that moment, and she gets to marvel at how far Castlevania or Mario or Sonic have come. So, she’s seen photoreal graphics. She’s seen storytelling in games advance. She’s seen game trailers evolve from Poochie The Dog, spiky-haired Xtreme dudes shilling Genesis games in the ‘90s to the full-fledged cinematic events they are now.

During one of my tactical strikes down to New Jersey for a press junket last year, my mother and I huddled around a smartphone screen and watched a game trailer show her something she had never seen before, something that awed a characteristically talkative retired high school history teacher to the point that she could only utter one word: “Wow.”

Until that trailer, she had never seen a black man as the hero of his own game.

The trailer in question was for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag’s only major campaign DLC, Freedom Cry. The trailer tells the story of Adewale, Edward Kenway’s Trinidadian quartermaster, in Zack Snyder-y slow motion. We see him, as a boy, taken from his mother, sold into slavery, escaping by brutally killing his new master, running for his life, and then flash forward to see him fully grown, destroying pirates with pistols and a machete, before pulling up his assassin’s hood and walking towards the camera like it’s no big deal. This was a black man, of coal black skin and a commanding baritone, blatantly fighting against injustice, in one of the deep, dark spots in humanity’s history. For the first time, blackness had been flaunted with the utmost dignity. Adewale was not a stereotype. He was not an antihero with questionable motives. He was just a hero.

I doubt Ubisoft had “appeal to the sexagenarian history teacher crowd” as an initiative when they hashed out their DLC plans for Assassin’s Creed IV, but even if they had, I don’t think they could ever grasp how much weight it would carry for someone with even a glancing perspective on their own racial history. My mother’s 65, and grew up down South, so she saw racism on a scale I can’t even conceive. She was part of the Civil Rights Movement. She was a Black Panther. She still has a police record on file from getting arrested at protests in the ‘60s/’70s. She can tell horror stories about being unable to leave home during the Newark riots. From my side of things, I was a black kid who grew up in the ‘80s, and started to really get aware of the world around the same time Spike Lee and Public Enemy were our greatest voices. Even me, a chipmunk faced nerd who consciously rejected rap in favor of classical for the longest time, couldn’t help but absorb what was happening. If you were black then, you were black and proud, and for a pretty amazing period there, black culture would reinforce that back at you at every turn.

It wasn’t until further down the road, when I started interacting outside of my own ethnicity, that I realized how little of all that made it to the larger zeitgeist. Mention Do The Right Thing, or It Takes A Nation Of Millions… in mixed company, and it still gets you a sea of puzzled faces, though you might get lucky and find someone who at least associates “Bring The Noise” with Anthrax, or knows Flavor Flav because of mindcrimes inflicted upon us by VH1. What made it out to the mainstream was gangsta culture, not black culture. And why wouldn’t it? Issues of identity, systemic racism, undoing centuries of internalized and externalized subjugation? That applies to a niche. The never-ending glory of blingy opulence? Universal appeal.

Needless to say, heroes—the real and imagined figures who set the bar on all that is good in the world—have always been short in supply if I wanted to see someone who looked like me. Sounding like me was even more impossible. I have a caramel complexion, a basketball player’s height, a football player’s build, and a writer’s vocabulary. I am a stereotypical giant black guy, until I speak. I’m generally considered physically black, but vocally white, which is a whole other can of worms, really. I am a mysteriously scarce anomaly in pop culture. If we go all Crisis On Infinite Earths with it, where every TV show, every film, every book’s universe is mashed together to exist in the same space, I am a rarity. If I do exist outside of fringes and subcultures, I am a punchline. I am a sellout. I am a magical solution machine. Or, I’m Morgan Freeman.

Take all of TV and film’s worst tendencies with diverse representation and condense them. That is videogames. If I don’t exist in pop culture at large, I might as well be an ancient myth in games. There are, of course, black protagonists, and after 40 years of games, you can count on two hands the number of them who aren’t streetwise, gun-toting, blatantly “urban” tropes or ridiculous expressions of exaggerated black features. If you take away Valve characters, you can probably do it with one hand. Much of gaming is meant to be a power fantasy, the laser-shooting, street-fighting, lightsaber-swinging dreamland of magic we all adore. In this fantasy, you can find 200 guys who act and sound like Dr. Dre to every one that acts and sounds like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and none of the above are what I’d call “celebrated”. Even as games keep trying to sidle up to movies in terms of how they express bigger ideas, they’re still unique in their ability to apply instant empathy. How do you reinforce basic empathy for the vast beautiful tableau of experiences on Earth when you’re never given the chance?

For all its numerous flaws as a AAA gaming franchise, Assassin’s Creed has excelled at bringing me and millions of others to places I’ve never been. It’s taken me to the Middle East at a time when that felt dangerous both in games and in real life. It’s taken me to Renaissance Italy. It’s taken me to Turkey in the time of the Ottomans. It has let me see the American Revolution through the eyes of an American Indian. And even before they let me play as Adewale, with much quieter fanfare, they also brought me to New Orleans, in the shoes of a black woman.

Assassin’s Creed: Liberation had the rotten luck of being exclusive to Playstation Vita up until earlier this year, when it finally got a proper standalone release. Set in New Orleans, just as the French started handing over Louisiana to the Spanish, it starred Aveline, the daughter of a freed slave, and a French father through a placage marriage. When her mother disappears, her father remarries and raises Aveline as a woman about town, grooming her to become a businesswoman in her own right. Secretly, however, Aveline has been trained as an assassin by an escaped Haitian slave named Agate, and runs around causing havoc for the Templars puppeteering the Spanish into power.

assassins creed liberation screen.jpg Assassin’s Creed: Liberation

Now, as a game, Liberation isn’t a terribly great entry in the series. It ’s extremely buggy, and the story runs roughshod over what should be a much slower, languid tale of Aveline’s double life. For what it’s worth, both of those factors can likely be blamed on the game being relegated to Sony’s poor, neglected little handheld to begin with, and the console port does little to fix that. But it might be the most important full-fledged entry in the series. It uses the backdrop well, with the particular place and time offering the perfect opportunity to present Aveline as being able to have agency. But even more than this, Liberation is a power trip on three fronts: It turns Aveline’s cultural inferiorities as being black, being a woman, and being a slave right on their heads. If being able to leap from tall buildings and shank Templars for great justice felt great before, imagine knowing about your inferiority in real life from birth. If you’re black, in a black neighborhood, being taught at a predominantly black school, there’s a chance you know about slavery before you even learn Martin Luther King’s name. You end up watching Roots, or someone brings it up in casual conversation, or you see someone blame affirmative action on it. So imagine, for a brief time, getting to play as a black woman, where slavery is nothing but a Clark Kent disguise for a no-nonsense businesswoman, and a cunning, clever avenger of wrongdoing. White soldiers attempt to attack you in the street for no other reason than being black. And with the push of a button, the tables turn. The sugarcane machete you used in the fields now cuts down oppressors in an insane feat of acrobatics. The whip you were beaten with now disarms and disables anyone who dares cross you. And then you can walk off to your office, and organize a deal through the game’s business rivalry system that screws their rich, slave-owning friend out of their business. This is not an experience that can be had anywhere else on the planet. This is more than power, this is more than the elucidation of pain. This is catharsis.

It’s catharsis beyond the one gamers usually think of, of having a shitty day, taking it out on virtual puppets with extreme prejudice. It is having your racial identity, the large scale identity as a minority validated, and given the freedom no slave ever did. It is the ability to exert power over a cultural past that has and continues to affect us to this day. It is not begging for someone to give us, us free. It is taking it by right and force.

Freedom Cry’s strengths lie in the same area, though it’s working off of Black Flag’s solid foundations, and has all the power of the next gen fueling it to boot. It also has more to say on its surroundings. The larger plot of Freedom Cry involves Adewale being shipwrecked while attempting to sink or burn a Templar ship, and ending up on Saint-Domingue, the island that would eventually become Haiti. Adewale’s own goals get put on hold when he finds out about a Templar-backed plot by the French to secure complete military domination over the island, and teams up with the Maroons—the very real group of revolutionaries who do end up liberating Haiti in the years that followed—to put a stop to it all.

You don’t get more than 10 minutes into Freedom Cry without Liberation’s sense of catharsis. Your first act after washing up on shore is to grab a machete and cut down a man chasing after an escaped slave with a knife. You step foot in town, and the mini-map is rife with jailers, plantations and all sorts of scumbags for Adewale to eliminate with extreme prejudice. The game’s version of Assassin’s Creed’s usual towers and fortresses—the self-contained optional quests to take over territory—are all sugar plantations, run by the French.

assassins creed freedom cry screen.jpg Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry

What you don’t expect is the game’s fidelity to its subjects. My mother may not have ever seen a trailer with a black hero. What no one’s heard in a videogame prior is the hymnals of slaves. It’s the moment I had to literally pause and catch a breath and stop shaking. Realistically rendered plants, animals, sunlight, motion captured people going about their day is one thing, a standard of next gen technology. Something so indelibly part of my own ancestry now streaming through my speakers as part of a living, breathing, explorable experience is another. Putting the goal at hand aside to just walk about these people and listen became almost compulsory. It is beautiful. And it makes the fury that came after, the will to avenge hard-set evils and give these people freedom, all the more righteous. There’s a mechanic built in based on actual historical protocol, where if Adewale is caught and a slave revolt begins landowners will go about killing their workers rather than to see them become educated, powerful enemies. Adewale can move throughout the plantation, and bring his skills to every fight. Every NPC becomes my personal responsibility. Assassins Creed has an ongoing problem where rewards for many of its sidequests are for money you end up not needing after about halfway through. Here, the sidequest is its own reward.

There’s of course problems in the portrayals in both games. The slaves you free in Freedom Cry seem to be taking their changing circumstances with a sort of stride I can’t imagine would be the case in real life. But there’s an inherent justice to be dealt in both titles, a sense of the horrors that created it all, and being given all the tools you need to help end it. It’s a power fantasy with a purpose. It serves the same purpose that Inglorious Basterds serves for Jewish people, and that white people get to find in hundreds of other pieces of media every year. But most importantly, it’s validation. It means that black people, their experiences, their ancestry exist outside of the encyclopedia.

It’s not an end. Just like electing a black President didn’t make the United States a post-racial society, a single black perspective in games doesn’t mean we’re here. There was a study done a while back showing that the stereotypical ideas people have about minorities tend to be reinforced if given the first chance. If your only idea of what black people are is coming from Kanye West and GTA, having games feed that idea back to you with no counterpoint is only confirming that. This is why there are so many minority voices pushing for representation. We are not our stereotypes. Our experiences matter. Those experiences being normalized matters. It takes no effort to simply write a white character, snap your fingers and make him or her black, while making no changes to dialogue, no attempts to shorthand their way into a culture, just like it takes nothing to do the same and make a character Hispanic, or Indian, or gay, or transsexual, or even just plain female, despite what Ubisoft’s said themselves in the past. It is frightening as hell to have a medium so beholden to delivering power fantasies, and that fantasy involving a dearth of minorities. It’s getting better. We are not there yet. Maybe one day we’ll see the interactive equivalent of a Twelve Years A Slave. For right now, we can at least rejoice there’s an equivalent to Django Unchained.

Inclusionism isn’t new for Assassin’s Creed. Remember, the reason we still get a handy reminder that every Assassin’s Creed is “made by a multicultural team of various religions and faiths” is because of how dangerous that first game felt, being a game set in the Holy Land during the Crusades, focusing on a predominantly brown-skinned Muslim cast (albeit with Altair, the single playable character, embarrassingly rendered and voiced as white and American), released during Bush’s War on Terror. But it’s seen as a constant risk. The hope is that one day creators will snap to their senses and realize it’s not. The hope isn’t that white people are left out of every game. The hope is that, like my mother, everyone can look at a game and see something they’ve never seen before: Themselves.

Justin Clark is a freelance games writer living and freezing in Rochester, New York. Formerly at CHUD.com, his work can currently be found at Slant Magazine, Gamespot, and Joystiq, as well as his own blog, Welcome To Class Real. He can be found on Twitter at @justinofclark.