The following contains spoilers for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a to-do list. It’s a pirate-themed gmail account, a collection of icons that go away after they’ve been opened. That’s why I like the game – it hits all of my obsessive-compulsive impulses – but it does foster an unusual existential crisis.
Black Flag feels like a job. But it remains wildly, intoxicatingly fun largely because the typical day job is so boring by comparison. It’s perfect escapism because it provides a look at how fulfilling our lives could be if they weren’t so routinely miserable.
The thematic core of Assassin’s Creed games has always drawn on the tension between libertarianism and benevolent paternalism. The Templars think they’ve figured out what everyone needs and plan to deliver. The inquisitive Assassins think the Templars are arrogantly and dangerously misinformed.
The series holds together because those broad concepts have taken many forms over the centuries. Early games framed the debate religiously. Assassin’s Creed III did so politically.
Black Flag phrases the debate economically. What actions are justifiable in the quest for self-sufficiency?
Tellingly, Black Flag is the first game in which you have a profession other than Assassin. Sure, that profession happens to be ‘pirate,’ but there are nonetheless distinct reward tiers that measure your progress within the field. The game itemizes everything you’ve accomplished, offering validation in gold and tonnes when you pull a humpback whale out of the ocean.
Every action feeds directly into main character Edward Kenway’s well-being. If you spend the day plundering sunken treasure, you can rest assured knowing that you have the coin to purchase as much rum as you’d like. If you spend the day harpooning large marine mammals, you’ll stave off starvation while ensuring that there will oil for the lantern come nightfall.
Who’s to say you’re lazy as long as those basic needs are covered?
Black Flag is so absorbing because it offers an ideal. Success is measured solely through accomplishment, while work–life balance is achieved as long as you work enough to live.
THIS ISN’T WHAT I WANTED WHEN I GREW UP
What’s frustrating is how easily that same balance has eluded me throughout a real life collection of odd jobs in restaurants and offices and call centers and theatres. I’ve often been paid more for doing nothing than for anything that generates profit, usually while noting that many tasks – like updating databases that nobody uses – never needed to be done in the first place.
Unfortunately, a full day is still 9-5, and anything less is viewed as less than industrious. Yet rather than push for a more flexible work environment, we make people feel guilty for breaking the façade, to the point that we’ve created entire industries (TMZ, Zynga, Twitter, Facebook) to serve an audience that needs to look busy. We’re expected to feel fulfilled simply because we’re present for the full eight hours, even if we’ve only done five (or four or zero) hours of work during that time.
For me, that attitude never made sense because those lost hours are wasted, and I don’t like knowing that I’ve contributed absolutely nothing of value to myself or to society. Spreadsheet cell 27B is pointless, soul-crushing busywork, and there will be no accolades if I put in the effort to get it right. We both know it, so why can’t I spend that time doing something I’d actually like to be doing?
Black Flag provides more meaningful feedback because every action leads directly to a tangible reward. All of the grime that would have made life in 1715 far more trying has been carefully stripped away, leaving only the employment equivalent of refined heroin. It’s enticing because it’s pure, an alternative without mundane problems like congestion and taxes that typically define professional subsistence.
Black Flag eliminates such routine troubles, and what’s left makes me realize that I want what Edward Kenway has. I want people to trust me to recognize what needs to be done. I also want them to trust me to do it. “Everything is permitted” within those parameters as long as the work gets done and nobody gets hurt.
Of course, Kenway is a pirate assassin, a homicidal fantasy birthed from the wet dreams of aquatic ninja fan fiction. People do get hurt, and often. In fact, the Templars are seemingly in Black Flag mostly so we don’t feel too bad about all the theft and corpses.
The Templars play the part of villain to the fullest. As violent as they are, the Assassins act as advocates of equal opportunity. Everyone can kill. The Templars, meanwhile, want a monopoly. They want to be able to use violence without fear of reprisal because no one else has access. They’re the one percent of carnage.
In that context, I’ll side with the Assassins, not because I approve of murder – I don’t and I’m hoping you knew that – but because I resent being told what I should and should not value. As with work, I want to be trusted to reach my own conclusions. The Templar philosophy amounts to intellectual brutality because it posits that stability is the only end that matters. All other normative values – happiness, love, equality, etc. – are frivolous distractions not worth pursuing.
That’s exactly how it feels to be a low-level employee in 2013. Managers tell you what your time is worth and dismiss your own priorities as irrelevant drivel because they aren’t informed by the corporation’s specific (and often arbitrary) set of profit-oriented values.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but that logic has always made me chafe. I resent being told to do something ‘just because,’ and I suspect that’s one of the reason’s I’ve always enjoyed the Assassin’s Creed games, and Black Flag in particular. The promise of “Everything is permitted” is seductive. Kenway eventually concludes that the Templar’s quest to enslave all humanity is a far greater crime than any isolated acts of piracy he’s committed. I’d be inclined to agree, given the alternatives.
If the Templars are real, they’re still the one percent.
HERE BE SPOILERS
The great irony at the heart of Black Flag is that Kenway doesn’t get what he wants until he opts into the system he fought against. The last scene of the game places him at the theatre with his children, a man of society with his own private box in England. The one thing he desires most – a stable and comfortable domesticity – is astonishingly similar to what the Templars would have offered.
More importantly, it’s an existence that is only possible with guided oversight. You need constables and contractors and lawyers to build the infrastructure that makes such leisure possible. Those people will fight to protect that infrastructure whenever someone threatens it, as Kenway does whenever he enters a restricted area as a pirate. His ideals allow him to go to those places. They don’t entitle him to a warm reception.
Kenway ultimately ends up constrained, first as an outlaw and later because he realizes that many of the things he wants are antithetical to his pirate lifestyle. By the end of the game, he pays tribute to the swashbuckling mentality, but he doesn’t truly live it. He’s given up his independence in order to enjoy the benefits of civilized culture.
The key distinction is that he’s chosen to walk that path. He can also look back at the trail of dead friends and breathing enemies and understand how and why he got there. The conclusion is more satisfying because he has that deeper appreciation for the chaos he’s left behind.
So what about Abstergo Entertainment, the exaggerated proxy for Ubisoft? Abstergo is a Templar corporation, so we know the suits want to subjugate everyone in the company. They want to subjugate everyone, period. The internal memos are nonetheless kind of brilliant, satirizing the external pressures and impossible crunch deadlines associated with video gaming’s intern ethic.
And yet Abstergo still seems like a decent place to work, aside from the doom bunker in the basement. (Let’s call that a creative exaggeration.) The interiors are bright and airy, you get cool pirate figurines to decorate your cubicle, and your direct superiors – while possibly duplicitous – seem to believe that you’ll be more productive if you like your job.
In most contexts, that’s enough to ensure a tolerable work environment. One of the many lessons I’ve learned after years in the restaurant industry is that it’s a hell of a lot easier to offer good service than it is to pretend to offer good service, and the same is true of employee satisfaction. Trappings like gyms and cafeterias and free coffee – even if offered disingenuously – are often indistinguishable from real, practical benefits.
The game implies that Abstergo is only being nice because it wants to squeeze productivity out of a gullible work force, but it’s co-opted the language of libertarianism in order to do so. Abstergo wants you to choose work. The company therefore behaves as if personal fulfillment contributes to a more efficient workspace, allowing you to enter the Animus and snoop on your co-workers with little direct interference.
The aforementioned doom bunker eventually gives the lie to that laissez-faire benevolence, but the token nod is still a damning admission for a secret society that attempts to run roughshod over individuality. It acknowledges that different people respond to different motivations. If you want people to fight for your goals, you have to give them relatable reasons to care about your preferred outcome. That’s next to impossible if no other objectives are regarded as legitimate.
LIKE A BOSS
Oddly enough, Kenway’s liberation depends on countless subordinates. He’s the CEO, the captain of his own ship, and we don’t hear much about his crew. They cheer when you board your ship, and they follow orders when you issue them. Just as the Templars and Assassins envision remarkably similar civilizations, both philosophies have clearly defined hierarchies that govern social interactions.
The difference is that the Templars have a much more rigid understanding of the status quo, and that might be why the franchise has been having the same fight every few hundred years. The Assassins take people as they are, recognizing that those at a disadvantage historically haven’t responded well to coercive limitations.
After all, Edward Kenway heads to the Caribbean to make a fortune after all avenues are blocked at home. Everything that transpires – all of the violent unrest that overwhelms the Caribbean in Black Flag – occurs because those with power denied access to a peasant like Edward Kenway or a slave like Quartermaster Adewale.
Those dynamics haven’t changed in the interceding 300 years. The Templars want to keep it that way, perpetuating class conflict through Abstergo. And while I doubt it’s Ubisoft’s official company line, you could interpret the manifestations of Occupy, WikiLeaks, and Wall Street as current analogues to that fictional struggle.
Given the right circumstances, I might want to work at a place like Abstergo. I’ve played Black Flag voluntarily for more than 30 hours. How enthusiastic would I have been had Abstergo paid me a living wage to do the same? I’ve certainly held worse jobs, so I could decide that the corporate life represents my best opportunity for happiness.
But I’ll never be satisfied if you never open Door Number Two. Maybe it’s better. Maybe it’s not, as Kenway discovers. I just want to figure that out myself, and telling me that there’s nothing there makes me wonder what you’re hiding. It’s an explicit power imbalance – you have more knowledge, options, and access than I do – that happens solely because you’re too paranoid to trust that we can work together.
Kenway’s crew at least enjoys a fair portion of the plunder. Speaking as an employee, you’ll get better results if you treat me with respect, because I just want a job that makes me feel like an ordinary, valuable human being.
In Black Flag, Abstergo has started to realize that, but imposed, artificial encouragements can’t manufacture personal investment. The Assassins’ creed recognizes that the journey is just as fulfilling as the destination, and that’s what makes the adventure so damn entertaining.