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.
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?
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.