Earlier yesterday, we got our first look at what could be the protagonist of the hotly anticipated Assassin’s Creed V in a blurry cell phone image taken deep inside Ubisoft Montreal. Of course, the existence of a follow up to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was never in doubt, given the surprising success the game had with critics and fans alike. Caribbean piracy, it turns out, is really damn fun.
Rather, the question is what the question always is with the Assassin’s Creed series; where and when the hell is it going to take place? The general bend of the historical settings of the series has been moving further and further westward, from the Middle East to the Caribbean, and I think Ubisoft has a little more interest left in them in the bleaker annals of Western history. And for a while, I was pretty convinced of where they were going to go. But that image has derailed my thoughts because of one crucial detail; The man in the assassin’s hood appears to be a white man.
Yeah, the image is blurry as hell, but the fellow looks like a Caucasian man to me. And that sucks, because I was totally sure Assassin’s Creed V would place you in the shoes of an American slave.
I have nothing more than empirical evidence to back up this errant thought I had a few weeks ago after a night in which I digested Steve McQueen’s masterful film 12 Years a Slave and decided to continue the theme and jack my friend’s copy of Black Flag to play through the Freedom Cry DLC. One of the most common components of Ubisoft’s design tenets is to try out the mechanics of their next AC game in the current AC game. Has this only happened once, with the naval stuff in AC3 appearing in Black Flag? Sure, but shhh, I’m making a point here.
So, a story DLC following Adewale seems to hint at Ubisoft further experimenting with a black protagonist in an Assassin’s Creed game. Combined with western-leaning story settings, it led me to that fascinating possibility. A big budget franchise installment video game that put you in on the ground floor of the darkest hour of our history, American slavery. So…what might that look like?
The most important thing necessary to getting an Assassin’s Creed game about slavery done correctly is tone. These games are, at heart, rollicking adventure stories set in the great moments of history. That is, frankly, incredibly difficult to pull off, seeing as the African enslavement in America is absolutely not as rollicking as the Renaissance. But it’s not impossible; Quentin Tarantino did so with aplomb in Django Unchained, making an incredible action film alongside a damnation of slavery. But I don’t think an ACV could simply start that way. It has to begin by fully and completely immersing you in the horrors of that time.
So, you should start the game as a slave. Not an Assassin, not someone escaped; the game should begin with a two or three hour prologue that subjects its main character and you to the torture endured by the slaves during the peak of the South. This is necessary for the purpose of historical accuracy, because simply beginning as an escaped slave would reek of horrible ignorance and cowardice
Of course, there is an escape. If we assume the story is told in five “chunks”, this is chunk two; a journey along the Underground Railroad. Since this is an AC game, you could dot this whole epic journey with various historical figures and young future abolitionists as those along with you, simply trying to make it to a safer place, i.e. Canada. You would be, as real escaped slaves were, constantly hunted by groups of men under the command of plantation owners. Perhaps here they could introduce a running antagonist, one hired by the plantation you escaped from and would encounter throughout the story.
This third section is the North; perhaps here, our protagonist could learn the beginnings of the ancient battles between Templars and Assassins, but he should not become one until, I would say, the final chunk. Becoming an Assassin should be a mark of accomplishment, not something granted to you 4 hours in this time around. This Northern chunk could introduce you to some of the major characters you will see again come the Civil War. Here, you could be aiding future Abolitionists (think Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass), discovering hidden pieces of history, whilst still dodging the Southern posse looking for you (they did look this far North).
This chunk could be ended like so many real stories were; being put on the run by someone revealing your status as an escaped slave. You are forced westward, and into chunk four; an Assassin’s Creed take on the Wild West in the era of the Gold Rush. This is where classical Assassin’s Creed historical revisionism comes into play; there is so much to work with during this era. Native American legends? Check. Ongoing tensions between Spain and America tying into Assassin/Templar battling over artifacts? Sure. Hell, they could even open the gateway to a China set game by utilizing those old stories of Chinese naval ships landing in the Americas, carrying with them the truth of the way the world is. And here is where our hero would become an Assassin for real. Even better, our protagonist would be doing this on his own, not with the aid of a white hero like Black Flag had. This part of the game could span years, charting our protagonist’s journey from slave to badass action hero just in time for chunk five; the American Civil War.
This critical event in American history should be the climax of the game. This is the settling of all of our protagonist’s demons, a chance for revenge. You could dig back into those historical battle mechanics from AC3 to give you the sense of controlling an army. You could take part in some of the most famous battles of the Civil War. You can get into the inner circles of the prominent Assassins of the day, like Abraham Lincoln, and witness some of his most remarkable moments. You could go South on secret spying missions on the Confederate leadership. And absolutely, you can go get some righteous pay back, freeing your old plantation and confronting that running antagonist.
But you would absolutely have to see the brutal historical honesty of Lincoln, that he did not solve all of the nation’s problems with the Emancipation Proclamation, that racism did not just end with the war. You would have to see the horror that was Sherman’s March to the Sea, burning cities to the ground, and find that maybe the Assassins and Templars are not so different in their means. You would have to see the absolutely devastating effect modern technology of the era had on ancient military tactics. And when it comes to freeing your old plantation, you would have to see that nothing has ever changed, and a lot of those you knew at the beginning, friends and family, are more than likely dead or God know where. It would be fun, but you would have to see a brutal historical honesty that no other Assassin’s Creed has ever really attempted. A historical honesty that no other game has ever attempted.
And to me, that is what is so exciting about a game set in this time period. It is an era that no one in gaming has ever truly touched, for fear of not treating it correctly. One of the biggest obstacles facing gaming as an artistic medium is our fear of tackling subjects that do not immediately lend themselves to gameplay or may be morally challenging and difficult. But we have to fight past those fears, and show that we do not limit ourselves purely to what is easy to do. That we can tackle things like this with honor and respect, to the game, the story, and the horrible history behind it.
So, how about it, Ubisoft? An Assassin’s Creed game that is both fun and honest with the dark side of American history and adds well needed diversity to the ranks of video game protagonists with a strong African-American hero? Make it so.