Assassin’s Creed III and American Exceptionalism (Part 2)

Part 1 here.

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The French Revolution, interestingly, was much lauded by proponents of modern times. It started out much like the American version – a bunch of people got together and didn’t like their current governmental system. However, the Declaration of the Rights of Man takes an entirely different direction – one not based on any higher power but that of the people. No greater authority means the will of the people becomes the de facto standard. We can call the French Revolution a Godless one, all things considered.

Although highly praised in your schoolbook, as it was mine, this “revolution” showed nothing but the crazed, wild behavior of people left to themselves. There’s a reason why Robespierre’s Reign of Terror gained its infamous name. People killed people for no reason; men ripped out the hearts of nobles in order to “gain their power”, as it were. Accusations led to an instant death or a trip to the guillotine. Body parts of people placed on pikes served as an reminder of where mankind will go when left to itself. Seriously, go look it up; I’m not joking or kidding in any way. Pope Pius XII (and probably a few others) condemned the Revolution outright:

In the same way that it [the modern world] tried to throw off the suave yoke of God, it simultaneously repudiated the order He established and, with the same pride of the rebellious Angel at the beginning of Creation, tried to institute another order according to its own will. After almost two centuries of sad experiments and missteps, all who are still of upright heart and mind confess that any such dispositions and impositions – those which have the name but not the substance of order – did not give the results they promised and do not correspond to the natural hopes of man”

Of course, Pius XII means the American revolution as well, but that one did not lead to a new government every thirty years, did it? Yet, somehow, this revolution gains the praise of the modern age because it represents the philosophy and belief of the new age. Liberty means liberty of conscience, the freedom to choose one’s own morality. What I believe is good, is good, and no one can say otherwise. Even we Christians fell into the corruption and the mindset; check out our political, social, and cultural landscape – things changed, and not necessarily for the better. We lost the so-called “culture wars” without understanding how the hearts and minds of America’s citizens transformed. At that point, Assassin’s Creed III shows us the fruits of that path. Our fiction does, in sense, represent our hopes and desires, and Ubisoft remains no exception to that rule.

Positive Depictions?

The problem, then, in Assassin’s Creed isn’t so much the idea of “American Exceptionalism” as its complete and utter modernist “interpretation”. Historical fiction has a right to do this sort of thing, but it inserts values from another period right at the outset AND carries a distinct philosophy. The Templars are associated with monarchies and centralized power (God and any religious authority would be included except for fear of offending people, I’m sure), while America’s uniqueness comes from the character of its people to rule themselves. The Homestead shows a diverse community of individuals (in other words, values of tolerance in the modern sense) that interact as normal human beings while being innately self-reliant. It is a community of peace, in essence. This contrasts with the Templars, who continually seek to spread fear and warfare, forcing reliance upon the government or some other power. Charles Lee, a Templar in the game, attempts numerous times to make the Revolution fail for this very purpose. If we were to make an allegory, it is obvious that the Templars fit within the mold of the nobles and religious authorities, while the Assassins represent the will of the People.

However, the problem lies not in the setting and characterization but in Connor (spoiler) Kenway. Corey May, the leader writer, uses the protagonist as a mouthpiece for modern times, rather than an actual person from the American Revolution. That means the criticism of modern times that you could have instead comes from an easy, trite, and overly simplistic conception of morality, liberty, freedom, and “exceptionalism”. The portrayals might be complex in their individual analysis of historical figures, but Connor ruins its by being the paragon of moral action – fitting for a nearly invincible assassin (and a video game character), but not a real personality.

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The Effects of Exceptionalism

Certainly, the game does a good job of showing the Founders as fallible humans, rather than fake caricatures of American history. Ben Franklin seems appropriately sexist (and a womanizer to boot). George Washington vacillates on tactical decisions and isn’t as confident (or deified, natch) as he has been in both real life and in modern times. The others…well, they can sometimes seem like horrible pragmatists willing to do anything, especially Samuel Adams. In that respect, it fits de Tocqueville’s concept of exceptional pragmatism, a rigorous rejection of tradition in human relations.

Even regarding American Indians, their rigorous adherence to principle and religion (this is their land, and they want to keep) remains quite close to the local Iroquois of the Northeast, “the people of the longhouse”. When the Iroquois are pushed out of their home region by Charles Lee’s actions, it shows that Connor’s people cannot be innocent bystanders in a war without incurring any concequences. Connor’s objective, to keep his people safe, eventually evaporates as he sees the futility of said task. He must sacrifice something in order to help the revolution succeed. May’s success in displaying the complexities of the political situation should be commended.

Still, by nature of using this kind of historical narrative, there’s an expectation of accuracy – but not at the expense of fun! Thus, you can’t have a complex protagonist; he’s not allowed to be “wrong” in the general sense; things must work out for the player character. Thus, Connor’s always “right” about moral principles. Of course, the game gives zero indication of what knowledge and/or philosophy Achilles teaches him. Assassins, supposedly, are schooled in all sorts of knowledge, but what is it? We’re left with…what? Values of modern culture artitifically implanted into the game – these are “right”. Everything else becomes “wrong”.

Comparisons and Failures

Isn’t it interesting that Connor becomes wholly uninteresting because he exists as a vehicle for a particular worldview? In the previous games, Altair and Ezio were not divine heroes sent from the heavens; they were ordinary people caught up in historical forces beyond their control. Ezio’s whole world suddenly changed when his family were killed; he became an Assassin by necessity and unintentional guidance from a whole bunch of secretive assassin people. Over three games, you learned of the great sacrifices he made in creating an Assassin empire, of sorts. As far as representing a worldview, Ezio became a paragon and a symbol, but we find that he knows he must retire and leave the mantle to someone else. He does not get to live the life he wants. Altair, as well, goes through his own personal tragedies, but both rose to the occasion and their circumstances. The Crusades and the Renaissance, in effect, were perfect settings because they were times of tumult and change – both cultural and intellectual. Human civilization would never be the same.

But Connor does not question. Connor just tells it like the writers see it. What a simplification! To that effect, the game frequently makes Connor into a pretentious, anachronistic critic of the Founders from a futuristic position. Apparently, because Connor’s the son of an American Indian and a British man, this gives us all the justification we need to make him into an objective observer of wrongdoing. How many times do we need to see the same conversation about “that doesn’t give people freedom”, “this is dishonest”, or “tell people the truth”? Apparently, he wasn’t taught by the Assassins how to think well about their procedures before joining. Instead, he is “morally superior” to everyone else, even sticking to his principles to the end.

Furthermore, the positive depiction of American Indians still seems to take the same “naive, yet worried Indians” you’ve seen a hundred times in every form of media in the past one hundred years. They’re the mythical forms of American Indians that exist in pop culture, even to turning their beliefs into some kind of fiction (a hallmark nonetheless of AC series, but still).

It struck me that all the assassins in this game are minorities. That isn’t a bad thing in itself, but Connor’s creation of a racially diverse “utopia” in the middle of colonial Americastrikes me as a little hilarious, definitely intentional, and horribly anachronistic. We’ve got French-Canadian guys, a free black couple, independant women, prostitutes – all the pariahs of Revolutionary times magically make it onto Connor’s farm for no other reason than diversity for it’s own sake. Connor’s an enlightened individual in a time of darkness, a convenient narrative trope to make the player feel good about his enlightened position.

Let’s be serious: American Indians were not invested in such ideas, either. There’s no origin for these thoughts except through the insertion of the writer’s social values into a different historical context. Neither side was invested in some vague notion of “freedom” or “tyranny”. It’s insulting to the player, at the very least; at the very worst, it makes a judgement upon the past without understanding the circumstances into which they were born. No one’s saying they couldn’t have been more equal, for all the pronouncements the game continually makes. The women and slaves example at the game’s epilogue remain the ultimate example of this. Still, when you make retroactive ethical prosecution, lambasting the past for following a different moral code inserts idea that aren’t in the minds of the time.

Conclusions

Thus, it’s ultimately a failure in creating a true representation of the time and of the ideas and thoughts that made America exceptional. Instead of allowing the audience to come to a conclusion as to the morality of the situation, Connor constantly butts into the conversation with his vague notions of justice. Ok, we can all agree slavery and women’s rights are wrong, but what about these Templars versus Assassins? Are either of them right? What of the idea of control versus that of liberty, and what are the implications of either? The script merely touches on these, rather than developing them in any meaningful sense.

The game, more often than not, shows a one-sided view of history that becomes skewed through its protagonist’s history, actions, and speech. He’s not an outside observer; he’s FROM THIS TIME PERIOD! And that’s why it doesn’t work. His naivity comes not from his upbringing – that is used early on for tutorials – but through some social commentary entirely out of place. It is the illusion of depth, not real depth. A Godless French Revolution-style philosophy pervades the experience in its very depths, refusing to make any compromise or entertaining alternatives. That Connor, the champion of liberty, never entertains a single alaternative to his own moral codes demonstrates the same dogmatic repression against which the ideal of American exceptionalism stands. We definitely do not see the kind of ideas depicted in 1 Peter 2:

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. 15 For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. 17 Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God,honor the king.

18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. 19 For this findsfavor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.


I suppose one should not expect any different. What else would we show when every institution tells the same false tale of history? I’m a student of history – that comes with the territory of a theology and philosophy degree. When I read, watch, or (in this case) play historical fiction, I expect at least a modicum of accuracy in portraying the original events. I also think that the true history, in many cases, integrate well with a fictional narrative. Yet this portrayal blatantly disregards true history and replaces it with a false one – as if the facts of the case were secondary.

Assassin’s Creed sins in establishing a philosophy of the world rather than God. We would do well to be cautious in just accepting what people tell us about the past, or we may be doomed to repeat its mistakes.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.