The Pursuit of Life and Liberty In Assassin's Creed III

Games Features Assassin's Creed
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You’ve probably known them your entire life: the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, the Battle of Bunker Hill, Ben Franklin’s Kite Experiment, George Washington and the Cherry Tree. They’re the stories of the American Revolution and those who led it, semi-mythological tales of a war and a time period so integral to America’s understanding of itself that any stateside schoolchild can explain why Washington was honest, why Franklin was brilliant and why Revere was daring—as if they’d known the men themselves. They’re the stories that we Yanks invariably fall back on when we’re asked to explain who we really are. And they’re the stories that have brought me to the deck of a faux-1700s merchant vessel in Boston, watching alongside camera-slinging press and Canadian game developers as a handful of our number—at the behest of a be-accented rabble-rouser in a tricorn hat—upend a tidy row of “tea chests” into the Fort Point Channel. Huzzah.

I’m at the Tea Party Museum on Congress Street in my adoptive home city of Boston for a three-day Assassin’s Creed III press event. It’s mid-September, just a few weeks after the start of the school year—fitting, because while this “mixer” is ostensibly a chance for the assembled press to get familiar with the Ubisoft developers and their game, it’s just as much a history lesson to familiarize us with the Revolution itself. Hence the Tea Party reenactment, preceded by our being assigned the roles of renowned Revolutionary figures for an earnest but repeatedly fourth-wall-breaking speech in the Meeting House, and followed by a tech-heavy summary of the early days of the Revolution (like that tour bit in Jurassic Park, but with patriots!). Oh, and some drinks after that, too.

It’s all lighthearted role-play, and despite my reservations about being cast as a nobody like Nathaniel Bradlee (but really—who?), the Tea Party Museum is exactly the sort of cheery, all-in edutainment that gets you grinning in spite of yourself. No one’s going to win a Pulitzer for fact-checking a tour that counts moving, holographic portraits of George III and Sam Adams among its main draws. Besides, this is all for a video game. Isn’t role-playing a nobody (albeit a badass, lethal nobody) exactly what we’re all here to do?

Enter day two, the day we get to play the game. The results are in: Assassin’s Creed III plays (wait for it) very much like Assassin’s Creed II, and, by association, Assassin’s Creed. In the three-plus hours of play available, I guide new protagonist Connor Kenway through an odd assemblage of missions both side and main, all the way to a climactic battle to defend the patriotic Sons of Liberty from waves of British troops as they dump tea into Boston Harbor. Yes, it’s the Tea Party, again, in deliberately marked contrast to the lame, fully supervised happenings from the night before. Here, there’s much brew that needs be dumped, and only so much lifebar to do it in. And what happens if you fail, and Paul Revere gets ganked? NO REVOLUTION. That’s what.

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.

And yet the moment also demonstrates a conflict at the heart of Assassin’s Creed III. In the mix of real history, fake history, Assassin’s history and myth, just what kind of truths do the lies illuminate? And do they still extol the same traits—honesty, intelligence, bravery—we associate with the Founders? Matt Turner, writer for Assassin’s Creed III, spoke with me about the difficulty in navigating those spaces.

“It really is a mythology,” he said. “Mason Locke Weems, he was basically Washington’s personal herald, but self-proclaimed. He just loved Washington. He wrote that story about the cherry tree because he wanted to canonize Washington. That was his life goal. Another one is ‘The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.’ The popular perception of how that went down is actually based on a song written to galvanize the people of America before the Civil War. That wasn’t even a real account of what actually happened.”

Turner says part of the team’s goal was to “cut through” those inaccuracies. (Of course, that could only be to free up room for the more exciting inaccuracies of modern writing.) As for his take on the Boston Tea Party Museum, and considering his research on the period: “Having the exposure that we had to the information that’s available, even watching some of that stuff [at the museum] was kind of like, ‘Uhh… I don’t know about that.’ But that’s part of making it a product.”

For his part, team historical researcher Maxime Durand thinks period accuracy is a key part of what defines Assassin’s Creed. “We didn’t try to fit history within the game,” he said, “we just built a game with history. Of course with events like the Boston Tea Party, we have to respect history. So that’s why we also try to stick with events that people knew a little less, because we wanted to transgress the history.”

Funnily enough, both Turner and Durand were quick to defend the game’s Templar faction, denying that they’re true “villains”, and that the casting of historical figures as Templars was more nuanced. As Turner put it: “One of the things about Assassin’s Creed is ‘shades of gray,’ right? The Templars aren’t necessarily villains, they just have a different means to an end, and that’s where the conflict is between the Assassins and Templars.” Durand, more bluntly, noted that Assassins aren’t exactly heroic. (“They just stab people in the face.”) To him, the conflict between the groups is about “ideology” and “freedom versus regularity.”

And that’s the odd thing about this most recent Assassin’s Creed. If the endearing, but patently false, myths and legends of the Founders spoke to the importance of truth, transparency, knowledge and bravery, then the mythology of Assassin’s Creed III speaks to the necessity of lies, subterfuge, secrets and manipulation. “Some of the founding fathers, some of the Sons of Liberty, these were guys that would be enhanced by the Revolution,” says Durand. “These guys were middle guys. What they wanted was to be on top.”

Back to day one. The tour is over, the accents and period trappings dropped, and a contingent of Tea Party Museum actors files out, now inconspicuous and unremarkable in their civvies. I’m talking with a trio of journalists from Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu, and the conversation turns to the difference between games in Japan versus the West. Japanese culture, I’m told, is more geared towards following someone else’s preset story, while Western games are more about forging your own tale. It’s a matter of freedom, we decide, and we’re certainly not the first to make that distinction. And yet a title like Assassin’s Creed III, which is so puzzlingly concerned with history on one hand and conspiracy on the other, does much to cast doubt about what “freedom”—in game or IRL—really means, and if that meaning from America’s oft-romanticized birth is still relevant today. Maxime Durand put it best on the final day of the press event. “I’m not going to lie to you,” he said. “George Washington died at some point. He’s not a god.”

Sean Clancy is a freelance writer in the Boston area and a frequent contributor to DigBoston.

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