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My Turbulent History with Assassin’s Creed’s History

Assassin’s Creed II sent me into therapy. The video game series didn’t inspire a deep fear of the secret world government and the eternal war between Templars and Assassins. Its twisted, convoluted plot didn’t offend my writer’s brain so deeply that I had a breakdown. It was because I couldn’t figure out a damn jump puzzle and got so mad I threw my Xbox controller at my nice, new, flat screen TV. I realized I had some issues. Thanks to therapy, I worked through a lot of personal psychology, adopted some useful cognitive processes, and life got better. Only my deep issues with Assassin’s Creed remained unresolved. Why was this the game, of all games, that pushed me over the edge?

It wasn’t just the frustrating jump puzzle that pissed me off. It was the fact that I could not figure out what the game wanted me to do, so I kept failing. Hard games don’t enrage me. Games that don’t work the way they’re supposed to enrage me. I find this true with all software. Recently, the power supply in my PC made a loud POP! and the screen went black. I didn’t get angry, I didn’t want to shout. It was broken in an obvious way, so I knew what I had to do next: replace the power supply. That same week, I was putting a slideshow of pictures in chronological order, and for inscrutable reasons one of the pictures kept appearing out of sequence no matter what I did. I didn’t throw anything, but I yelled at the unblinking void of my monitor. I was doing what I was supposed to do, and it wasn’t responding the way I expected. Thus, rage.

Assassin’s Creed II was frustrating my expectations in two ways. First, it had a poorly-designed puzzle (The answer turned out to be that I was supposed to use a maneuver the game hadn’t taught me I could do yet.). Second, it was making me play a dream sequence in Medieval Acre during the Crusades, when all I really wanted to do was romp around Renaissance Italy. While the bad puzzle was the proximate cause of my broken TV, the deep dysfunctional roots lay in the series’ annoying habit of making players suffer through long sections in eras other than the main attraction.

The games are built on the premise that people, maybe only certain special people, carry the complete memories of their ancestors in their DNA. In the near future, special machines can access those memories and allow people to relive them. So in the game, you play a character lying in a science chair with science strapped to his body while he relives (and replays) his much more interesting past life as a Medieval Assassin, Renaissance Assassin, American Revolution Assassin, Pirate Assassin, or French Revolution Assassin depending on which Assassin’s Creed game you’re playing. Annoyingly, sometimes you play as the character not strapped into the science chair, and wander around talking to boring modern people and being stupid. Or something. I don’t like those parts.

When I broke my TV, I was already annoyed not to be playing as the charming Ezio in Renaissance Italy. The dour Altair from the first Assassin’s Creed game does nothing for me, but I spent many months of my college career in Italy. I know some Renaissance history, and I recognized some of those ancient buildings I was climbing around on in Florence. To me, all of this was super charming and nostalgic. It had been over fifteen years since I’d been in Italy or seriously studied Italian history. I was sure they were taking lots of liberties with the truth, but then again, the game ended with ancient aliens and the sequel had you in a fistfight with the Pope, so I wasn’t expecting scholarly excellence. The Italian scenes, which made up the vast majority of the game, matched my impressions of the era. It had beautiful art, crazy sword fights, sexy Italians, Borgia poisoners, and Medici schemers. One new TV later, and I was able to revel in the rest of Assassin’s Creed II and all of its Renaissance Rome sequel, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, with only occasional annoyance at annoying modern-era sequences.

When Ubisoft announced that Assassin’s Creed III was going to be set during the American Revolution, I started to dream. There were so many possibilities: Freemasons, spies, fraught issues of class and race and loyalty. Revolution! At the time I was reading book after book about the American Revolution, especially focusing on the decade leading up to 1775. I had such wondrous plans for the fun I’d have with ACIII. The game did include most of what I’d imagined, but little of it fired my imagination. Instead, I found another dour protagonist and tiresome new learn-by-dying sub-games. Okay, whatever, I was here for the history, but the history was so wrong! My TV-cracking frustration rage stayed away, but my historian’s indignant outrage took its place.

The Boston Massacre featured prominently in-game as I had expected. I didn’t expect my character present in it to make it less interesting than real history. I found the game’s conspiracy narrative dull and contrived compared to the fraught tension of the actual event. The Boston Tea Party sequence was even worse—the most famous non-violent protest in early American history was transformed into a bloodbath of wave-based point defense as I slaughtered scores of British soldiers in-game, when in history there wasn’t a single Redcoat in Boston at the time. I just stopped. I didn’t care. I was supposed to be reviewing it for a podcast, but I let my co-hosts carry the weight of having endured the entire ahistorical mess. One of them, who, like most of humanity, was not deeply immersed in 18th-century Colonial history, liked the game a lot. I think it made his best-of-the-year list, while at the same time, sitting atop my worst of the year.

I wasn’t going to play Assassin’s Creed IV. Then, they announced it as a title for the new Xbox One, which I’d already pre-ordered. There weren’t a lot of other titles in the launch window. Plus, it was going to be about pirates. Pirates! I loved pirates before they were cool, back when you were lucky to find one book about pirate history at a bookstore, and it was always Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly. I’d read a lot about pirates, about as much as I’d read about the Italian Renaissance. I knew a lot of real names of pirates and piratical places. I remembered a few key events. I loved sea shanties. I gambled on Assassin’s Creed and bought-in one more time. It was awesome. I actually bought the album of sea shanties from the game and still listen to it. I’m listening to it right now. “Oh, I got a sister who’s nine feet tall/Weigh, me boy, to Cuba!/Sleeps in the kitchen with her feet in the hall/Running down to Cuba.” That game is fun.

It’s fun to play and has fun with its characters, setting, and story. Your crew sings to you as you sail. The sailing is awesome. The sailing made its first appearance in Assassin’s Creed III, but I never got far enough to really experience it there because of the Boston Tea Party. Assassin’s Creed IV retained the modern-day goofy science framing device, but there was way less of it, and they used it to make it clear they weren’t even pretending to be historically accurate with this game. They set my expectations to the perfect level of “Don’t think; just be a movie pirate,” so I played the hell out of that game.

Riding high on my time as a pirate, I thrilled to the news that the next game, Assassin’s Creed: Unity was going to be set in Paris during the French Revolution. My interest in the American Revolution grew into an abiding interest in the French Revolution and Napoleon. There are those in my life who might call it a mad obsession with the era. To them I say, nous sommes nés tous fou. When I started playing Assassin’s Creed: Unity, I knew more about Paris in 1789 than I’d known about the Crusades, Renaissance Italy, the thirteen colonies, and the golden age of piracy put together. I was setting myself up for disappointment and disaster.

For most of the game’s press-reading public, Unity was a disaster. It launched with huge, game-breaking bugs that took what seemed like forever to fix. Worse yet, many of the bugs were visually striking, like characters being rendered in the game without skin but with muscles, bones, and eyes. Reviews were mixed at best. There were no exciting new systems like the ships in ACIV. The plot was as murky and meandering as any of the other installments, which means it wasn’t doing the game any favors. The whole thing took place in just one city instead of in a wider world. Granted that city was Paris, and it looked stunning, but that wasn’t enough for many people.

I was lucky. I didn’t suffer any of the terrible bugs that other people reported. My game ran fine, barring a couple of crashes and the odd minor glitch. I was luckier. My arguably obsessive research into the time period combined with past disappointments so that I was sure the game would get everything wrong, and I was ready to take joy in feeling smart for finding its faults. Already the game was doing better than the past iterations I’d hated. The modern-day sequences were basically gone, and the main character was charming enough for me not to mind spending time with.

Sure enough, liberties were taken with history fast and furious, mostly to cram in the game’s meta-conspiracy into the already conspiracy-laden reality of the Revolution. No problem. I was expecting that. It soon seemed clear that the very complicated history of the era was just too much for the developers to make sense of. Even devotees of the period have to think hard when it comes to tracking the rival factions at each other’s throats in Paris. Unity ends up having you jump from side to side without even mentioning or explaining that there are sides. I imagine unfamiliar players took it all in as random French names piled up next to each other and translated it as “people fighting.” It was all kind of a mess.

But I had to change my mind about the developers knowing their history. They knew their history, and they knew the deep cuts. While the broad-stroke events were fuzzy and unfocused, all the little details were there. Hundreds of minor characters from history make appearances in the game. For example, at one point, you have the option of following a multi-part quest to set up a marriage between a young French soldier named Bernadotte and his beloved Désirée Clary, frenemies of Napoleon and future King and Queen of Sweden. None of this has anything to do with the game’s main plot, and none of it bears more than the most superficial relationship to history, but if you know the history, it will probably make you smile. It’s like seeing someone you went to college with have a bit part in a big blockbuster or catching an obscure comic book reference in that latest Marvel Studios movie. It makes you feel a little connection to the material and lets you know that the creators are doing a little bit extra just for you.

Except Assassin’s Creed: Unity does a ton of extra, and it seems like it was only for me. The more I played, the more I wondered who the market for this game was. I’m not so deluded as to imagine that the average or even above-average gamer knows anything about the French Revolution. Granted, the game’s publishers are French, and it had an international release, so there has to be some others out there like me, but not a lot. Assassin’s Creed: Unity was pure fan service for a subject without a huge fan base. It’s a game I come back to time and again, just to run around Paris for a little while, just to visit my old haunts. Even the jump puzzles aren’t frustrating. The out-of-time sequences involve the Belle Époque and then scaling the Eiffel Tower during the Nazi occupation, so no complaints there. Ubisoft spent tens of millions to make a beautiful 18th-century playground just for me. It might not have been the wisest corporate decision on their part, but I would like to take this opportunity to tell them this: Apology accepted for breaking my TV, Assassin’s Creed. Let’s put that ugly history behind us. Moving forward, I expect all our history to be delightful and interesting. If it’s not, well, neither of us wants to see that happen again.

RICK DAKAN is the author of the Geek Mafia trilogy and The Cthulhu Cult: A Novel of Obsession. He has written for and designed video games off and on since 2001, and speaks French almost as well as a three-year old. Find him at rickdakan.com and @rickdakan.

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