J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Exploring the World of Assassin’s Creed 3

One of the big videogames of the season is Assassin’s Creed 3 from UbiSoft. The Los Angeles Times review was mixed, finding the game play limited but the mise-en-scène amazing:
Set largely in the period during the American Revolution, “Assassins Creed 3” (Xbox 360, PS3, PC) is an action-adventure at its most expertly researched, and it is the all-too-rare title to prominently explore Native American culture. Colonial cities such as Boston are constructed via 18th century maps, and Ubisoft hired a Mohawk community consultant for language accuracy. It’s perhaps the only game released in 2012 that could be more fun to experience as a historical fact-checker than a player.
I already did that, based on a preview video of the game, and you can hear the interview here. Since I’m not a gamer, I can’t speak to the elaborate backstory, the character movement, the narrative options, and the like. But the visual recreation of colonial Boston looks great.

I’ve seen some articles describe the game’s version of Boston as “one-third scale,” which means the characters should be peering over the tops of houses. I think that’s a confused reference to the designers recreating about a third of the town. I know characters can jump around the Town House (now Old State House) and the docks, but they may not be able to make it down to Pleasant Street or all the way out to the Mill Pond.

Slate called the result “the most accessible reconstruction of the Revolutionary War era that’s ever been made.”
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.’”
Assassin’s Creed 3 was developed by a French company with a big office in Montreal and developers all over the world. At the launch party this fall, I heard all sorts of accents. That national diversity meant the developers could contemplate the Revolutionary conflict from many angles, not bound consciously or unconsciously to America’s heroic origin story.

The game’s main hero, Connor, is of Irish and Mohawk origin (as well as somehow related to assassins in the medieval and Renaissance versions of the game—the details escape me). He may not feel complete allegiance to one side—there were men of Irish and Mohawk descent on both sides of the war, after all. According to this L.A. Times story, the game’s writers chose that hero to be “someone who would be coming into Colonial society for the very first time,” like the game’s players. And he seems to voice a modern sensibility:
For example, at one point in the game, Connor meets with Samuel Adams. As the two walk through the streets of late 18th century Boston, Connor criticizes the Founding Father’s position on slavery. Though Adams personally opposes slavery and abolished the practice in his own household, he does not use his pulpit to speak publicly on the issue — a decision that Connor finds incongruous with the patriots’ cause.
Which is a fair question—but one usually brought up by Loyalists in Revolutionary Massachusetts.

UbiSoft’s developers were even able to take their first downloadable add-on somewhere that past American authors would have found anathema: a post-Revolutionary America where George Washington has become a tyrannical king and must, presumably, be assassinated. I doubt the next downloadable add-on invites players to leave the army and return peacefully to a farm.

If anyone has played through Assassin’s Creed 3 and has strong impressions of the game and its depiction of history, you’re welcome to share your thoughts here.


Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

I agree from the preview I've seen that the recreation of Boston is quite impressive. But its not perfect: there is a level of intermixing of post-Revolutionary "federal" architectural features with colonial elements. Interestingly, the colonial revivalists of the later nineteenth-century did the same thing, so I guess there is an historical precedent of sorts at work here!

Daud said...

With regards to scale, what they mean by 1/3 scale is that they gave Boston the same footprint, but reduced the total acreage to 1/3 of it's actual size. This means you can visit everything from the neck to the North end, but what is in-between is somewhat condensed. I imagine they left out a lot of non-nondescript houses.

Speaking of scale, I've also read that smaller towns like Concord and a larger one in New York will be in-game. But notably missing is Philly- it's straight, planned streets were not as fun for gameplay and they also created "distance drawing" problems for the game's engines.

As an avid gamer, I'll have plenty to say about this, to be sure. But I won't have anything to say until after the PC release on Nov 20. (not that I'm bitter about the delayed release or anything...)

J. L. Bell said...

I agree, Don, that Assassin's Creed 3 isn't a perfect recreation. (I think you mentioned louvred shutters as one anachronism.) In another couple of decades we'll probably see the fashions of our own times standing out in a way we don't now. But between the detail and the walk-through vision, it's quite a feat. What the John Adams miniseries hoped to achieve but didn't have the budget for.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Daud, for the explanation of "one-third scale" and the news about Philadelphia. I guess our twisting "cowpaths" are good for something!

I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on the game.