How UbiSoft’s historical adventure shows the promise of the American Revolution
When the setting of Assassin’s Creed III was announced it was met with some concern. Taking place before and during the American War of Independence, UbiSoft’s marketing campaigns suggested a solidly pro-Patriot point of view, with the British marked out as the enemy.
Gamers should not have worried. As Assassin’s Creed III boots up, after the usual health and safety disclaimers and saving instructions, there follows this statement:
Inspired by historical events and characters. This work of fiction was designed, developed and produced by a multicultural team of various religious faiths and beliefs.
Innocuous at first glance, this is key to understanding Assassin’s Creed III, a truly hopeful depiction of the American Revolution’s promise.
Major spoilers follow, including discussion of plot points and the game’s ending!
Journey to the New World
For any history buff, taking your first steps through Colonial Boston in Assassin’s Creed III is a remarkable gaming moment.
“Living, breathing world” is a phrase overused for video games, but Assassin’s Creed III lives up to it. The detailed depiction of Colonial Boston (and later New York) is utterly transfixing. City streets are packed with town criers, merchants announcing their goods for sale, British patrols, and people going about their daily lives. You can stop into a tavern and play a (frustrating) game of checkers, ride a horse, sell pelts from hunting expeditions in the frontier, and soak up every meticulously designed sight and sound.
History forms the backdrop for the fictional war between the Assassin Brotherhood and the Knights Templar, but there is more to the game. Arriving in Boston for the first time, the protagonist Connor remarks “There is so much life here. So many opportunities“, to which his mentor Achilles replies “For a few, my boy… for a few.” There are many people in need. Missions involve aiding smallpox victims, stopping gangs of thugs from terrorizing Boston neighborhoods, preventing vulnerable families from eviction, and blocking British efforts to conscript citizens by force. And at the center is Connor, the game’s moral compass.
History in the Making
On this land, I am torn. Part of me wants to fight and repel all outsiders. The other part of me is the outsider. In the name of liberty, I will fight the enemy regardless of their allegiance. While men of courage write history of this day, the future of our land depends on those who are truly free. – Connor
The historical setting is striking, but the real hook is the journey of Ratonhnhaké:ton (nicknamed Connor by Assassin Order leader Achilles Davenport), a young man of the Kanien’kehá:ka (the “people of the flint”), member of the Iroquois Confederacy.
When the player first takes control as Connor he is a young boy playing hide-and-seek with friends in the forest, and from the off it’s clear UbiSoft has done its homework. These early sections immerse the player in Kanien’kehá:ka life. There is a strong sense of place – from the village longhouses, the sound of children at play, to the hunting of deer and hares in the frontier. All the dialog is in the Kanien’kehá:ka language, and is subtitled, providing further engagement in this world.
In recreating the historical setting UbiSoft worked with the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center in Kahnawà:ke, Quebec, to translate dialog, and to ensure linguistic and historical accuracy and cultural sensitivity.
An in-game database supplies further details, including background information on Kanien’kehá:ka history, the clan system of the Iroquois, and social and economic structure. These brief articles highlight key historical components, such as the Kaianere’kó:wa, or Great Law of Peace, the constitution of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, the set of laws that unified and governed the nations of the Iroquois.
That the Kanien’kehá:ka are referred to by their actual name throughout, and not as the more commonly known (and derogatory) name Mohawk, reveals how hard UbiSoft have endeavored to ground this game in a Native American viewpoint. This respectful treatment of Native American society sets the tone of Assassin’s Creed III.
There are few compelling Native American protagonists in popular culture. Only the father and son Chingachgook and Uncas from Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992) is comparable. Yet that movie’s focus on the adopted white man as savior (Daniel Day-Lewis’ Hawkeye) is in keeping with well-worn motifs featured in everything from Lawrence of Arabia to Avatar.
And although Connor’s father is British, his mother is Kanien’kehá:ka – Connor’s background functions as a plot device to explain his opposition to the Templars. Ratonhnhaké:ton is raised and accepted in the Kanien’kehá:ka community. Assassin’s Creed III is brave enough to place the complete Native American character of Connor front and center.
Leaving Kanatahséton is a wrench, for both the player and the protagonist. In terms of gameplay and story, the village establishes a “safe space” but warns of challenges to come. Connor has already seen his mother killed in an attack that nearly burned his village down. His journey to become an Assassin is driven by his desire to protect the Kanien’kehá:ka.
Home Free on the Homestead
Connor’s defining characteristic is his integrity. Throughout the game his people face Loyalist, Patriot, and Templar threats, and through it all he maintains his sense of morality, decency, and justice. Where this is shown most clearly is the Davenport Homestead.
Connor travels to the Massachusetts frontier to find Achilles Davenport, the mentor of the Assassin Brotherhood in the colonies. Achilles is in hiding from the Templars, his home fallen into disrepair. As Connor wins Achilles’ trust, the two rebuild the Assassin order.
Technically, the homestead functions as a base of operations – the player can review progress here, and complete missions to craft and upgrade items. Story-wise, the homestead is where Connor and the game’s themes are defined.
Each mission focuses on a different set of characters – farmers, lumberers, miners, smiths, and others – who find themselves in need of help. As the player completes each challenge Connor invites the people he encounters to join the growing homestead.
Though typically stoic, Connor is a diplomat and honest leader. He supports those who lack confidence – one section involves him playing matchmaker for shy miner Norris and hunter Myriam, leading to their wedding where he gives the bride away in place of her missing father. At the wedding celebration Connor is asked about his role and replies: “I only helped Norris muster his courage. The rest came naturally.“
Connor offers aid to those who are struggling. In New York he meets Ellen, a seamstress, who is being abused by her husband. Ellen defends herself against Connor’s question about why she stays with her spouse:
Here Connor offers hope to Ellen – to become part of the life and work of the homestead. Though skeptical at first, Connor assures there is no catch and Ellen joins the Davenport community.
Connor’s interactions are variations on this theme. Farmers Warren and Prudence are assaulted by British troops when they refuse to give up their crops as payment. Norris, from Montreal, is beaten by drunken soldiers in Boston when they take a dislike to his accent. The player fights back on behalf of the oppressed.
The people who unite to build Davenport are from a range of ethnic and national backgrounds (there is a distinct lack of stereotypes), and each has experienced persecution and loss – Achilles, of Caribbean and British descent; Warren and Prudence are hinted at being from the Caribbean also; Norris’ French accent marked him out for abuse from British soldiers; and of course Connor himself.
Long before America was understood as a nation of immigrants, this representation of a diverse and free community is Assassin’s Creed III at its most hopeful.
(Even the antagonists’ diversity is portrayed accurately – the redcoats’ accents range from Cockney and other English accents, to Scottish, Welsh, and Irish).
In gratitude to Connor for their life on the homestead, Ellen designs a new flag (an interesting reworking of the Betsy Ross stars and stripes) and explains: “This flag is a symbol of our strength and unity and I would hope you’d all be proud to fly it high above your homes and shops. I’ll happily make one for each and every one of you if you so desire but this one is for you, Connor.”
The flag is a statement of what the developers have created in Assassin’s Creed III. As the battles of the American Revolution take place in the game’s foreground, the Davenport Homestead illustrates the daily struggles fought and won by ordinary people. UbiSoft’s attention to detail reveals cultural sensitivity, and an optimistic vision of freedom and equality.
Fog of War
Though he does not consider the Patriots’ struggle to be his own, Connor will be drawn into the Revolutionary War as his Templar enemies work within the Loyalist side (if not exactly for the Loyalist side).
With his own personal mission – to protect his people and land – Connor’s story is woven into the history of the war. Throughout the main sequences he offers an outsider’s perspective on the battles waged in the Revolution.
Connor also gives a frank assessment of the Patriots’ understanding of freedom. Founding Father Samuel Adams features as one of Connor’s allies, but the Kanien’kehá:ka assassin challenges his views –
Adams: It’s good to see the people finally taking a stand against injustice.
Connor: Says the man who owns a slave.
Adams: Who, Surry [a servant in Adams’ home]? I practice what I preach my friend. She’s not a slave, but a freed woman, at least on paper. Men’s minds are not so easily turned. It’s a tragedy that for all our progress still we cling to such barbarism.
Connor: Then speak out against it.
Adams: We must focus first on defending our rights. When this is done we’ll have the luxury of addressing these other matters.
Connor: You speak as though your condition is equal to that of a slave’s. It is not.
Adams: Tell that to my neighbor who was compelled to quarter British troops, or to my friend whose store was closed because he displeased the crown.
Connor acts as the Revolutionaries’ conscience. At the Second Continental Congress, he speaks with Adams again:
The Loyalists must be blamed for firing first at the Battles of Lexington and Concord in Adams’ view. Connor points out that we do not know who fired the first shot. What actions are justified in this conflict? Is there anything wrong with “a little theater” to overthrow tyranny? For a character with such a strong sense of right and wrong, Connor has doubts about the morality of the Patriots’ arguments. Connor and Adams’ debate is handled intelligently.
Is Connor naive? His passionate belief in freedom and equality is not tempered by any political realities pointed out by Adams. In assassinating William Johnson, a British official who also built relations with the Iroquois Confederacy, the dying man challenges Connor:
There are no simple answers to be had, and Assassin’s Creed III shows all sides of the conflict.
What is striking is Connor’s role as driving force behind the Patriots. He dumps crates of tea at the Boston Tea Party; leads inexperienced troops at the Battles of Lexington and Concord; and charges the British at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
In popular culture we are used to the trope of the white man “going native” and becoming the savior of an indigenous people (Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Avatar again). Assassin’s Creed III flips this tired script. Here a Native American saves the Patriots in their moments of need. Connor provides resolve and leadership – and even guidance to a hesitant Commander-in-Chief.
When introduced as the hero of Lexington, Connor passes the praise onto the Patriots. George Washington, newly installed as Commander-in-Chief, remarks: “As humble as he is brave. We could use more men like you.”
Connor will find his mission intertwined with Washington’s cause. Charles Lee, the general who had hoped to become leader of the Continental Army, is depicted here as a Templar who aims to murder Washington, and only Connor can prevent this.
In a reflective moment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where the Continental Army camped in the winter of 1777-1778, the two characters discuss the war:
Washington: I have failed them, Connor. Only look around to know my words are true. This revolution once seemed a righteous thing. Our cause pure and just. We asked only for what all people deserve: liberty, equality, and respect. The Empire should have embraced us. Instead they pushed for war – a war, it seems, they are now destined to win. I dared to dream of better things. Behold what it has wrought.
Connor: Such dark thoughts will cripple a man. But only if he lets them. Look again. Out there stand men and women determined to be free. Such a struggle is rarely easy, and never without sacrifice. I have often asked myself a thousand times if I would not be happier back amongst my people, living a quieter, simpler life. But if I abandoned my cause – if you abandoned yours, Commander – who would take our places? And what would become of the people who rely upon us?
Washington: It isn’t right that they should suffer when I do not. If the ground must be their mattress, so too will it be mine.
Connor: And what about the storm?
Washington: If I can’t take a stand against some snow, then there really is no hope for us.
The harsh conditions at Valley Forge did indeed raise questions about Washington’s leadership, and Assassin’s Creed III reveals the doubts carried by the future president.
Connor’s encouragement helps Washington and the Continental Army to victory. But the alliance is broken when Connor discovers the Sullivan Expedition – a scorched earth strategy to overwhelm the Iroquois, who had joined the Loyalist side. With villages and crops devastated, Washington received the name Conotocaurious – “Town Destroyer” or “Burner of Towns”. This discovery is a turning point in Assassin’s Creed III. The vulnerability of the Kanien’kehá:ka and the Native American world is brought into focus. Though subsequent missions have Connor returning to the Revolutionaries’ cause (in a superbly realized set-piece, the player commands a ship at the Battle of the Chesapeake), the victories start to feel empty.
In the finale, Connor achieves his final victory over the Templars – eliminating both his father, Templar Grand Master Haytham Kenway, and Charles Lee – and ensures the success of the American Revolution. The epilogue ties together the game’s themes. On Evacuation Day, Connor witnesses cheering crowds as the British leave Boston.
As the ships depart, we see slaves being sold on the pier. The struggle for freedom is unfinished. After the epic battles of the Revolution and the considered dialog about freedom, this single image is perhaps Assassin Creed III’s most striking.
The epilogue also concludes the personal story begun many years before in the village of Kanatahséton. Earlier in the game Achilles had warned Connor that “Life is not a fairy tale and there are no happy endings“. Achilles’ words resonate throughout, and threats to the Kanien’kehá:ka hang over Connor. If the player returns to Kanatahséton during the game, conversations with Oiá:ner, “Clan Mother” of the village, reveal the people’s doubts about the war – “There is talk amongst the other nations of moving west… Away from the war… Perhaps it is time we considered such a thing.”
Connor’s victory comes at a cost. While he has beaten back the Templars in the colonies, upon returning to his childhood home he finds the village abandoned, the Kanien’kehá:ka forced to move west as their land has been granted (by an act of congress) to a citizen from New York. This poignant cutscene brings into relief a devastating historical reality – that whether the day was won by the Loyalists or the Patriots, it will be the Native American peoples that suffer the most. Assassin’s Creed III, with its attention to historical detail and avowedly multicultural perspective, could hardly finish on any other note.
UbiSoft does not always meet its own high standards, and the game loses cohesion in places. In mixing the fictional secret war between the Knights Templar and the Assassin Brotherhood with the factual Revolutionary War (and the Native Americans in the middle), the game becomes a bit muddled. For example: Connor has an uneasy alliance with the Revolutionaries, their understanding of the nature of freedom often not aligning, but in capturing British forts he raises the American flag in triumph. Assassin’s Creed III tries to have it all ways here.
Blending in fiction complicates matters. The historical fact remains – the world represented by the Native American hero Connor and the diversity of the Davenport Homestead could not exist in the 1760s; it is too much of a stretch that people of different nationalities and ethnicities could band together to build a new community in this time. Unfortunately, the just society created by Connor and the homesteaders is an anachronism.
This is something hinted at by Achilles, in his last words to Connor:
I leave this land and all its resources to you. I trust you now know this place has become something of great significance. A community to serve as an example of what this would-be-nation could become. But the larger and stronger it grows, the more fragile and difficult to defend it becomes. I hope your friends who are birthing this infant country understand this truth. Your unwavering tenacity and honesty have burdened you with responsibility far greater than any one man should bear. But you, if anyone, are capable. You have given an old man hope that all is not lost and for that I thank you… I am grateful to have met you, knowing you will guide this land and these people to a better future.
The Davenport Homestead is a portrayal of the very best of America, but this was not the world that existed in the 18th century. Even in 2014, we still have a long way to go to fully realize the dream of diversity, equality, and justice. UbiSoft deserve praise for articulating this society so well.
The Game Heard Round the World
The Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s ride, the Declaration of Independence, Bunker Hill, encampment at Valley Forge, the Battle of the Chesapeake – it’s all here. Assassin’s Creed III immerses the player in the major events of the American Revolution and then deepens the grand historical experience with considered dialog on war and freedom.
But the personal story is Ratonhnhaké:ton’s, the young man of the Kanien’kehá:ka, and his journey in a world shifting inexorably around him and his people. The American Revolution as recounted by a sympathetic Native American protagonist enables the player to view the birth of a nation through a different lens. More than this, Assassin’s Creed III envisions a just society that was – and perhaps still is – ahead of its time.
There is historical accuracy and historical respect, and Assassin’s Creed III achieves both. That “disclaimer” at the beginning of the game? It’s a statement of intent – UbiSoft’s declaration to focus on those peoples often forgotten when we think of the Founding Fathers and the battles of the American Revolution. Assassin’s Creed III is an astounding artistic and technical achievement, and a landmark video game.
This Slate article, The American Revolution: The Game, analyzes the historical setting of Assassin’s Creed III. In an article in Forbes, The Awesome Mohawk Teacher and Consultant Behind Ratonhnhaké:ton, you can read more on how staff members from the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center guided UbiSoft in designing the game. Assassin’s Creed III‘s Connor: How Ubisoft Avoided Stereotypes and Made a Real Character is a good read from TIME on the creation of Ratonhnhaké:ton. And Playing Assassin’s Creed 3 on the Pine Ridge Rez is a fascinating perspective on Assassin’s Creed III by people living on the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota.