Assassin’s Creed III: A Thrilling, Hyperdetailed Exploration of the American Revolution. (There Are Also Aliens.)

The art of play.
Oct. 26 2012 11:38 AM

The American Revolution: The Game

Assassin’s Creed III is a thrilling, hyperdetailed journey to the Colonial era. There are also aliens.

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In Assassin’s Creed III, The Beggar's Opera sets the stage for the political upheaval to come, when Britain's colonial power would be not only defied, but, for the first time, rolled back. It's the farce before the storm, a cultural rejection that forecasts the armed revolution. But Hutchinson admits to a perverse glee, too, at jamming opera—what he calls the most maligned art form—into one of gaming's most mainstream franchises. "I love the idea of making 10 million kids listen to an opera for half an hour. This is stealth history, the songs people are singing, the jobs they're doing around you, it's all just happening. You’re not singing in that opera, you're not part of the line infantry, but you see it, it surrounds you,” he says.

And as nifty as it is to bear virtual witness to infantry firing lines in the Boston Massacre or the Battle of Bunker Hill, the more surprising Revolutionary War moments come in your dealings with the Founding Fathers. I had no idea that George Washington had ordered the torching of Native American villages. And while Benjamin Franklin is well-known as an unapologetic horndog, hearing his thesis on the merits of bedding older women—they're eager to please, less likely to get pregnant, and do looks really matter in the dark?—reveal him as the crass, proto-douchebag historians have been describing for years. The point isn't to shock, really, but to reanimate a period of history that's been sadly mummified. The architects of these United States were like the country they founded: vibrant, inspiring, and sometimes a little despicable.

This is a degree of complexity and honesty that shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with the Assassin’s Creed franchise, but that should relieve its most hard-core fans. When Ubisoft announced in March that the series was heading to America and to that most American of conflicts, many gamers were understandably worried. Just how much rah-rah was Ubisoft going to inject in order to appeal (read: sell out) to a U.S. audience?

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But if there's a driving moral imperative in AC3, it's not a flag-waving desire for independence from a distant, fickle imperial power. It's the desire to defend those original Americans, specifically the Mohawks and Iriquois in the Northeast, who watch this white man's conflict unfold. The game's hero is a Mohawk (he's half-white but raised in and accepted by the Mohawk community), and inhabiting his point of view allows you to watch long-standing, formalized tribal alliances shatter as groups align with the Brits and the colonists. But whoever wins, it's clear—the Native Americans are going to lose, and lose everything.

While everyone in the entertainment industry claims to be culturally sensitive when dealing with Native Americans, Ubisoft Montreal didn’t just go through the motions. The game’s makers filtered every relevant plot point and line of Mohawk-language dialogue through Thomas Deer, the cultural liaison for the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center in the Mohawk territory south of Montreal. The studio hired an additional consultant to deal with translation—that time-honored Hollywood tradition of having old-timey Native Americans speak to each other in heavily accented English is notably absent in AC3. When the studio wanted to add background chatter to a village scene, Deer set them up with a local immersion school in his territory, where they could record Mohawk children playing during recess.

It's hard to express the cumulative impact of all that seemingly spot-on Mohawk language and culture. Sure, the hunting sequences are videogamey and oversimplified, and the recurring visual of a Native American driving a hatchet into a white man’s brains isn't the most obvious path toward reversing centuries of racist stereotyping. But even so, AC3 manages to be not only one of the best, most visceral examinations of the history of the Revolutionary War. It’s also possibly the first mainstream look at Native American history that isn't pandering or offensive.

Assassin’s Creed III is no dry history lesson. It's possible to enjoy this game and not care one bit about the fact that Boston is modeled on period maps and on topological data that nails down the elevation of every hill and down-sloping street. You can certainly stalk targets through old New York City without considering the research that went into recreating the distinctive flat Dutch facades that concealed gabled rooftops. And you may well get more excited about the game's present-day crisis, which involves aliens and the world's impending, fiery doom. Yes, AC3 is filled with history, but it's also a swashbuckling sci-fi rip-snorter.

But history isn't a footnote, either. It encroaches on and defines your experience. It's richer than you’d expect for a video game and handled with more honesty and sophistication than anyone has a right to expect from a teenage-skewing piece of entertainment. And if there's any doubt that Ubisoft is fearless in the way it addresses this barely explored, though strangely sacred period of American history, consider this: The first downloadable add-on that’s been announced for AC3 is a counterfactual sequel in which George Washington solves the postwar turmoil by becoming a tyrannical monarch. Hutchinson describes it as a kind of magical realist take on the birth of the nation. That's one way of putting it. But here’s perhaps a better way to describe both the add-on and Assassin’s Creed III as a whole: history, only far more badass.

Erik Sofge is a contributing editor at Popular Mechanics.

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