When Assassin’s Creed III was in development, the game’s Canadian developers regularly quizzed Americans about their knowledge of the Revolutionary War. Who were the leading lights of the era? What did Boston look like? Just how deep would Ubisoft Montreal’s writers, artists, and cultural consultants have to dig to tell a story that felt fresh and surprising to Americans?
Not all that deep, it turns out. Alex Hutchinson, the game’s creative director, says Americans were as likely to identify Christopher Columbus and Billy the Kid as Colonial-era figures as they were to cite George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. In addition, some assumed that cities like Boston were little more than frontier campgrounds, with tiny communities huddling for warmth in tents.
You might argue that these sorts of answers reveal how ignorant Americans are about their own history, and you might be right. But they’re also a consequence of the dearth of popular depictions of this period. When Assassin’s Creed III comes out on Tuesday, millions of gamers will be exposed to the American Revolution for the first time. (Perhaps tens of millions—Assassin’s Creed II sold more than 9 million copies.) What they’ll find is the most accessible reconstruction of the Revolutionary War era that’s ever been made. That’s because of the painstaking research and astonishing sense of historical responsibility that AC3’s makers poured into the project. But the game also stands out because it’s the first of its kind: Nobody in mainstream entertainment has ever tried to capture 18th-century American at this level of detail.
Whereas a steady stream of movies and TV shows about imperial Rome has given us a sense of what it was like to howl for blood in the Colosseum, the Revolutionary War is nowhere to be seen on the big or small screen. You can count on one hand the number of big-budget movies set during the Colonial period. Actually, you can count them on one Maine lobster claw. There’s The Patriot (2000), which focused on the Revolutionary War, and The Last of the Mohicans (1992), set almost 20 years before that conflict during the French and Indian War. There’s also the HBO miniseries John Adams, which won 13 Emmys in 2008 but wasn’t exactly a popular sensation. And for all its considerable merits, the seven-part miniseries didn’t have the budget (or the desire) to present the day-to-day of American life under British rule or the major battles that ended it.
Though Hollywood isn’t known for its accuracy—The Patriot’s passing glimpses of colonial life are far too idyllic to be taken seriously—even a wildly incorrect depiction of an era can transform a litany of names and places into something seductive. Assassin’s Creed III offers the best of all possible worlds: a precise, truthful recreation of the late 1700s that’s so rich in minutiae that you can practically smell the moldering fish markets and freshly dropped horse manure. Walking the cobblestone streets of Boston means maneuvering around pigs, dogs, and street urchins, down lanes and alleys that are unrecognizable even to a longtime Boston resident like me. Town criers belt out news of shots fired in anger in other cities and of troop movements, first by the French and later, as the revolution sets in, by the British. There are bonnets and britches and tricorn hats, and most of the small talk and bickering you overhear doesn't come with Boston's infamous accent but in slang and jabs imported from England, Germany, and the rest of the Old World.
If this sounds a little unpleasant, that's because it is. Colonial Boston is boldly, fascinatingly ugly. It's relentlessly brown—the docks are brown, as are the fences, the wood-sided buildings, and the clothes on most passersby. “The irony is that the game you see is far less brown than it was," Hutchinson says. "We spent a lot of time telling the art director, ‘Everything's brown,’ and he would say, ‘But everything was brown.’ "
Whatever battles were fought in Ubisoft Montreal's corporate offices, the resulting decrease in brown leaves behind a game that's still almost completely brown. But this is a commendable sign, one that’s revelatory of the developers’ intellectual honesty: Once they committed to the setting, they didn't shy away from its inherent challenges or create a stylized fever dream of old New England. They embraced the monotony, and it makes the game’s brighter moments that much more alluring. When you climb to the top of Faneuil Hall, the view is stunning, with a forest of ship masts enclosing the city on one side and actual forest crowding in against it on the other. And when it snows, the sea of low, sloped rooftops may not be as majestic as the skylines of cities like Florence, Rome, and Constantinople—the settings of previous games in the Assassin’s Creed series. But it’s a uniquely American postcard panorama.
For all of that brown, the game itself is not at all monotonous. Stomping through Boston are the surly, snarling redcoats, who, with their diverse garb (knit caps here, bandit-style face scarves there) and guttural cockney (or close to it) accents, have almost nothing in common with the patrician dorks of our imagination. And then there's the highly varied world outside of Boston, from the Mohawk villages walled in with towering wooden palisades—a vision of Native American civilization that we've never seen on TV or film—to the game's first playable scene, which takes place during a performance of The Beggar's Opera.
Let's talk about that opera, the best example of AC3's fearless approach to historical scene setting. This was essentially the first populist opera, set in London's Newgate Prison, with all the prisoners inexplicably behaving like testy aristocrats. It skewered the ruling class, as well as Italians (in part by being in English and by featuring the 18th-century equivalent of top 40 hits). This is wacky musical theater, really, filled with timely digs and zingers too obscure to tickle even the geekiest of history postgrads. Yet it certainly tickled Hutchinson and Ubisoft Montreal, who didn't simply pipe in a previously recorded performance. Rather, they put out a casting call for actors to come in and perform portions of the opera live for the studio's audio engineers.