The Assassin’s Creed franchise has always toed the line between pop and history, emphasizing the most salacious or violent bits and intertwining them with a more nuanced understanding of record. The marketing for Assassin’s Creed: Unity may be focused on the guillotine because that’s the symbol that everyone recognizes, but it’s the smaller details that make the worlds of Assassin’s Creed worth exploring.
The approach has made Assassin’s Creed one of the more entertaining and intellectually challenging triple-A franchises. However, it does raise some thorny questions about interpretation. When dealing with historical fiction, when do you drive towards accuracy and when do you take artistic liberties? Does excellence in one area excuse mistakes in another? And what does any of that have to do with the controversy that has followed Unity since E3?
We’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s talk about political geography.
Unity is thematically similar to Assassin’s Creed III, insofar as both are set during democratic revolutions with shared philosophical influences. But geography matters, so while Assassin’s Creed III takes its personality from rural America, Unity draws on the denser Paris.
“The American Revolution is in the wilderness,” said Ubisoft Production Coordinator/Historian Maxime Durand, arguing that the immediate impact of the American Revolution was not as significant partly because the populace was so spread out. “The French Revolution is a civil war inside Paris and it’s very urban.”
That’s also why it’s fascinating to listen to Durand talk about houses, a conversation that offers a glimpse at the fidelity that Ubisoft strives for with Assassin’s Creed.
“If you want to have an idea of what houses were like in Boston, it’s much more difficult than for France,” said Durand. “In New York, there are three buildings that still exist from the American Revolution. For Boston, we had to look at the Big Dig reports. That’s how we found a lot of stuff that we couldn’t find elsewhere.”
Paris, meanwhile, was already a well-established hub at the time of its own revolution. Extensive records detailed everything from architecture to the day-to-day activities of common vendors and many of those resources are available online. Ubisoft was able to populate Paris with thousands of unique NPCs, each engaged in a different form of urban drudgery.
And yeah, I think that’s pretty cool. Ubisoft had all of its scripts reviewed by a professor at The Sorbonne and brought in another historian to give lectures to the dev team on crowd life in 18th century France. Much of that research made it into Unity, which focuses on the confined populace that fueled the Reign of Terror following the rapid fall of the monarchy.
“The American Revolution didn’t create as much social difference in the United States as it did in France. The monarchic system, the nobility system, had been ongoing for a thousand years, and now you’re changing everything. The middle class is taking over while using the lower class to claim their aspirations,” said Durand.
Unfortunately, it’s possible to screw up even when you try to do everything right, and the more moving parts a project has, the more likely it is that one of them will break. So let’s talk about the elephant.
Ubisoft’s E3 gaffe – where a spokesperson dubiously suggested that adding playable female characters would have doubled animation costs – has already become a go-to reference for the status quo in gaming, and with good reason. It’s uncommon to hear institutional sexism expressed in such unambiguous fashion, to the point that almost everything since – including the announcement of the woman-led Assassin’s Creed Chrnoicles: China – could be seen as damage control intended to mitigate to the backlash.
Yet while the criticism was deserved, the misstep itself was also a little baffling because it seemed so avoidable. Whenever I’ve spoken with a member of the Assassin’s Creed creative team, I’ve always left with the impression that the developers care about representation just as much as the critics. That was equally true during my conversation with Durand, who is well aware that women played a prominent role in the revolution.
“Charlotte Corday and [Jean-Paul] Marat is the most famous assassination from the era. Yes, we read about it,” said Durand, referencing a murder frequently cited as a counterpoint in the wake of the E3 controversy. “But we also want the players to experience something new. You’ll see the same characters, the events, but it’s really more the backdrop.”
Which is to say that the Assassin’s Creed team looks for spots where the historical record is incomplete so it can fill in the details with fiction of its own imagining. Documents can tell us that Napoleon, Louis XVI, and the Marquis de Sade existed. But we don’t necessarily know what they were doing on the first Tuesday in November, which is how Ubisoft can slot the fictional Arno into Unity‘s timeline.
“People wouldn’t have noticed that Arno was there,” said Durand. “We want people to understand that the events unfolded the same way, at least from the perspective of the era.”
That’s why Charlotte Corday – an assassin executed for killing Jean-Paul Marat – is somewhat tangential as a response to Arno. The player character was never going to be Charlotte Corday because Charlotte Corday was a real person, while the Assassin’s Creed protagonists are not.
There is, of course, an obvious point of contention. If the main character is going to be made up, why can’t that character be a woman, especially given the presence of real life inspirations? The most likely explanation is industry inertia. White male protagonists are still the default.
If so, that’s disappointing in a way that makes you wonder about priorities. If Ubisoft is so meticulous with its presentation of houses, why does it not take the same care with its presentation of women?
It’s an important question, though I don’t know how well it applies to Unity without having played the game. Much of the criticism thus far has dealt with media spin rather than actual content, so the cover-up could be worse than the crime. Assassin’s Creed has consistently been one of the more progressive triple-A franchises, with a roster of protagonists that includes women and people of color. That’s been offset with more objectionable moments – the string of courtesan murders in Assassin’s Creed II that was featured in the most recent Tropes vs. Women in Games comes to mind – but I’m at least willing to give Unity the benefit of the doubt.
Even if that faith proves misguided, I feel more confident applying my own analysis because the fact-checking rigor applied to French architecture and social structure can withstand and even invites harsher criticism. That’s what I’ve always appreciated about Assassin’s Creed. The game’s interpretation of history is worth discussing because every deviation has significance, even (or perhaps especially) when those deviations are imperfect.
So to paraphrase Anita Sarkeesian, Assassin’s Creed is a series that I enjoy while acknowledging that certain aspects are problematic. The deliberate embrace of history contextualizes the ongoing struggle between the Templars and the Assassins within powerful political and religious structures, and it’s been fascinating to watch that play out across various historical and contemporary settings.
I’m excited to see how it translates to the French Revolution, and I look forward to debating its merits (or lack thereof) with anyone willing to have the conversation.