October 28, 2012

Reviews of Assassin's Creed 3

The American Revolution: The Game

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

By Erik Sofge
[I]f 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 Iroquois 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.

New 'Assassin's Creed' has Native American roots

By Mike SniderThe pair of Assassin's Creed games stretches the standard for what constitutes a video game hero. Most remain white and male, even though some games such as Mass Effect allow the look of the main character to be customized.

Not only is Connor the only non-white main character in a console game this year, "Assassin's Creed III is the only game I can think of with a substantive primary role for a Native American character," says Arthur Gies, reviews editor for Polygon.com. It is also a "step in the right direction for a high-profile title" such as Liberation to have a mixed-race female lead, he says. Ubisoft's one-two Assassin's punch is, Gies says, "subversive, for sure."

Integration wasn't solely at the heart of the design decision to give Connor Native American bloodlines, says Alex Hutchinson, creative director for Assassin's Creed III. Where previous Assassin leads relied heavily on knives and swords, Connor wields a tomahawk, battle-axe and bow and arrow, as well as firearms. "It gave us a bunch of gear that maybe wouldn't be appropriate for an English or French person in this setting," Hutchinson says.

About the heritage of Connor and Aveline, who happen to cross paths in Liberation, he adds, "it just puts your brain in a different space of not just, 'When are we?' but 'Who are we?' What would this person do in this situation?"
And:A new lead character and new entry point could be driving interest in the game, Gies says. "I think the Revolutionary War setting is going to get an awful lot of attention, and initially could lead to great sales."

The franchise is popular enough that a live-action movie is in the works. "It's clear Ubisoft has a hit series in its portfolio," says Dan Hsu, GamesBeat editor-in-chief for VentureBeat.com. "Assassin's Creed is an ideal marriage of a great, marketable name, iconic imagery with its mysterious and cloaked protagonists, and a made-for-gamers theme. Who wouldn't think it's cool to be an assassin?"
‘Assassin’s Creed III’: A Critical Success, and a Cultural MilestoneThe high marks for the game, both as a game and as a window onto history, make clear what many Native gamers and moviegoers have thought all along: That it’s possible to make good entertainment without dragging out the same tired stereotypes.

And perhaps abandoning those stereotypes is one of the touches that is the difference between a good game and a great one.

Could we see more game manufacturers looking to explore producing Indian titles with an authentic feel? Todd Martens thinks so—as he writes in his review for the L.A. Times, “this game makes it clear that there’s plenty of rich Native American gaming story lines yet to create.”
Comment:  There have been mainstream movies and documentaries that weren't "pandering or offensive." And video games games that starred Native characters. So Assassin's Creed III isn't anything new in that regard.

But it's notable for showing how a Native-themed entertainment product can succeed. It's a big-budget affair that respects cultural and historic accuracy. And it's getting a big marketing push from Ubisoft.

If someone put that much money into a Native superhero, sci-fi, or thriller adventure, it also would succeed. That's how you do it folks: write a good accessible story, give it an authentic look and feel, and pay close attention to details.

For more on Assassin's Creed 3, see Assassin's Creed 3's Mohawk Origin and Assassin's Creed 3's Native Heritage.


Anonymous said...

I regard Mortal Kombat's Nightwolf as the most baffling portrayal of Indians in a videogame. Mostly because there are too many coincidences to make it like they didn't do their research, but they still got it wrong.

Regarding Assassin's Creed, there are a lot of familiar tropes. Genocide backfire being the most obvious one.

Library Diva said...

Just wanted to point out that in Mass Effect, you can COMPLETELY customize Shepherd. You can play her as male or female (guess how I've played through), as straight, gay or with no sexuality at all, and as any race you choose.

Thanks for your Assassin's Creed coverage. I have been interested in this game for a while, and particularly interested in how the Native American community viewed it.