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A Stranger in His Own Land, or 'Assassin's Creed III' and the Alien

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Wednesday, Jan 23, 2013
The worst thing about Connor as a character seems to me to have less to do with him possibly serving as an ethnic stereotype and more to do with the fact that he often just doesn't seem human at all.

Despite having been taught English by his Native American mother and living with an English speaking mentor while training for years to be an assassin, the new protagonist of Assassin’s Creed III, Connor, never learns the gentle art of using contractions when speaking English. Now, maybe not all people who learn English as a second language always pick up on the usage of contractions as they pick up their new tongue, but that isn’t the only peculiar tendency in Connor’s speech, a character who is of a mixed heritage, half-British, half-Mohawk.


This guy usually speaks in a slow, stoic, monotone about nearly everything.  You know, like Tonto in The Lone Ranger or just about any Native American character might speak in any 1950s cowboy picture.  It just sounds weird, right?  Distant, detached, alien, which is what those older representations of Native Americans always tend to sound like to my ear when they speak in their slow and weirdly halting manner.


However, the worst thing about Connor as a character seems to me to have less to do with him possibly serving as an ethnic stereotype (though, his speech patterns at least seem to suggest some of those classic trappings) and more to do with the fact that he just doesn’t seem human at all.
  
Honestly, Connor seems to me to be more boring and distant than the original Assassin’s Creed‘s protagonist Altair.  And that’s saying a lot.  Altair just fits the standard model of stoic, super competent, badass video game protagonist.  And that’s it.  There’s nothing more than a rebellious streak against his own order to flesh him out as a character.


Connor’s inhuman qualities extend beyond his speech into his relationships with nearly anyone that crosses his path.  Yeah, he occasionally gets hot headed, but in the Homestead missions, which seem to serve as an effort to show who this young assassin is as he relates to his friends and neighbors when he isn’t on his mission of vengeance, he mostly just seems baffled by human behavior in general, as if he has lived his whole life in isolation and finally got let out of the box or something.


Connor can’t seem to comprehend the two lumberjacks who work near his own home in the wilderness who get into bitter arguments and often fisticuffs, but then for some reason settle down and are the best of friends when they cool down.  Instead, Connor stands like a slack jawed yokel as if the concept of intimate friends having a knock down drag out fight is some completely foreign concept, nothing in his wildest imagination apparently could prepare him for such strange and possibly aberrant human behavior.  Lord knows, you’ve never seen two best friends get into a pretty bad fight but still make up again afterward?  Right?  Ummm… right?


Early in the game, we see Connor growing up among his own people.  He has friends, they play together, he has a mother, and some bad things happen both to him and to her.  Nothing here would make me think that somehow he has never observed basic human nature before, and yet, in moments like the aforementioned lumberjack “incident,” he acts as if he has just gotten off the spaceship to observe these curious human creatures.


Indeed, the scene that drew my attention most to Connor’s curious alien and alienated nature was one in which he befriends a French miner who wants advice on how to court a woman.  Connor’s decision to “figure such a mystery out” by going to ask a woman what it is that women want creates a convenient fetch quest for a video game, but his query to another female homesteader, “What is it that you women want?,” makes him seem like some kind of sociopath, as if women themselves are so alien to him that he must discover these “creatures” secrets, baffling as those might be.  (Her mundane answer, “flowers,” again, seems to leave him aghast at the confusing nature of all humanity.  Seriously, it might be stereotypical, but he has never heard of such a thing before?).


Indeed, all I really wanted throughout the game was for Connor to do something human, something like get a girlfriend.  It isn’t so much that I feel like a romance is an essential part of any plot, but what a romance subplot does do is to allow a character to be seen relating in a familiar way to other people, allows us to see another perspective on a character, vulnerabilities and strengths.  In a sense any more normal type of relationship might do, but the guy is young and it might make sense for him to act like a normal young adult. 


This assassin is on a years long mission for vengeance (and I realize that that might take up a lot of your time), but for God’s sake, he does have to think about something else once in a while.  Again, this seems like what the Homestead missions are intended to do, yet, Connor’s basic inability to grasp any kind of common emotional response or behavior in the sorts of people that might allow us to see that he is more than a slow talking, stoic killer distances him further as a character rather than provides the player with any insight about him or any reason to give a damn about him.


The most effective moments in the game actually exist in the main story missions, when Connor finally meets his father, a man who is also a Templar, the mortal enemies of the Assassins.  Connor’s struggle with the fact that, despite being on opposite sides, he isn’t far different in character than his own father (both are driven and unrelenting in their desire to complete their missions) or whether or not he likes or hates this man who abandoned him are better moments, more human moments.  Regardless of all of the fantastical conspiracy-laden plotting of the rivalry between Templars and Assassins, the fact that this guy isn’t sure how he feels about his own father is something that I can get, that feels like something real people feel confused about. 


On a recent podcast, my fellow PopMatters writer Nick Dinicola defended Connor’s characterization when I brought some of these points up about the character, noting that Connor’s experiences are kind of important in the larger context of the Assassin’s Creed franchise.  Connor is a man who is often made victims to his circumstances, someone quite different than fan-favorite and Assassin’s Creed II protagonist, Ezio.  Ezio is a man who gets to define his own mission, his own vision of the assassins’ more libertarian creed in a country that he knows and where he belongs, whereas Connor belongs to no real group at all and is connected to what seems like the last vestiges of the Assassins themselves.  He believes in the notions of freedom being espoused by the British colonists, but he grew up with a group of people whose own freedom is becoming more and more limited as a result of the other group’s encroachment on what was formerly theirs.  Indeed, he is a stranger in his own land and among both of his peoples.


Dinicola’s argument is compelling from a thematic perspective, and I almost want to feel convinced that Connor’s most foreign qualities serve to emphasize this reading of the game.  That being said, I still have to believe in the guy on some dramatic level, though, right?  I just wish that he could serve the purpose of representing the alienated without being merely reduced to only an alien.

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