Games

Experiencing Racial Identities: Passing in 'Assassin's Creed: Liberation'

My initial response to reading about the idea that Aveline, the protagonist of Liberation, would be able to adopt different personas in the game that seem tied to her mixed racial heritage was one of uncertainty.

In a recent issue of Game Informer, Matt Miller describes the addition of a new mechanic to the Assassin's Creed series that involves taking on what Ubisoft Sofia is calling “personas” in Assassin's Creed: Liberation. Miller explains that the first female protagonist in an Assassin's Creed game, Aveline, is “a woman of mixed race who also has access to significant financial resources,” and as a result that the character will have “access to three personas as she wanders New Orleans [. . .] each represented by a change in abilities and clothing (“10 Cool Features You Don't Know about Assasssin's Creed III . . . and 5 More from Assassin's Creed: Liberation, Game Informer. November 2012. p. 97). Barring the persona of the assassin, the two other personas available to Aveline are “the lady persona,” which consists of “the constraining dress of an affluent New Orleans woman” that will limit “her mobility [. . .], but she [will] gain the ability to charm her way past soldiers and other obstacles that would stand in her way.” The final persona puts her in the guise of “a local slave,” which allows her to “slip unnoticed past opponents or incite a riot with the local populace.”

Fans of the series will probably immediately recognize that what has previously been a mechanic enacted in the Assassin's Creed series by hiring groups of prostitutes, gypsies, mercenaries, and thieves in order to create distractions and throw off guards in this stealth series has now become a mechanic directly associated with the protagonist herself. Now Aveline's disguises will allow her to do what otherwise had previously only been accomplished by hiring some outside help.

My initial response to reading about the idea was an uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty. Clearly, what Ubisoft Montreal means to do with these personas is essentially turn the concept of “passing” into a game mechanic. Clearly the game mechanic is tied to Aveline's mixed racial identity and thus she is performing what was sometimes practiced among people of mixed race throughout the history of the United States, especially in the years before the passage of the Civil Rights Amendment. By taking advantage of the perception that a lighter skin color means “whiteness,” she can take on the persona of a “white woman” and gain social advantages that she lacks as a “black woman” within this period of American history. My discomfort probably arose from the idea of seemingly “reducing” this complicated and sometimes controversial social practice to a simple game mechanism.

However, since I teach American literature to university students, it then occurred to me how infrequently my students are unaware of this practice and its history at all. Commonly, at some point in a survey of American literature the idea of passing comes up (be it in talking about the work of William Faulkner or the stories of Jean Toomer or a number of other American writers, especially those whose works often take place in the South). The concept is one that students, both black and white, seem to have never learned about in any American History course, and they often find the idea to be an entirely foreign and discomfiting one having grown up in post-Civil Rights America and having no real context to place the idea in.

With that in mind, this made me begin to consider the potential value of experiencing directly the concept of donning and discarding racial identities. What is interesting about this simulation of passing in Liberation is how it clearly acknowledges and seemingly has the potential to make players realize the complicated nature of racial identity and how it is related to both appearance and performance. By donning a racial identity, Aveline will be seen and treated differently were she to “wear” the guise of another such identity. This experience of passing as a meaningful practice, taking advantage of the benefits of “being white” in a culture dominated by that racial group and then seeing how that changes when one no longer can claim those same advantages by dint of how one is seen and evaluated by others could be a more instructive and compelling experience than any rote explanation of this idea could.

I don't know if Ubisoft Sofia will ultimately be able to pull off this mechanic in anything more than a superficial way, but I find myself somewhat excited to see what might result from doing so. This medium does allow one to adopt and perform a multitude of identities, which in part is what seems to make it a uniquely personal experience by comparison to film or literature and the like. And while certainly the reality of someone else's experience of identity likely will never be simulated perfectly, the idea of making players acutely aware of how racial identities are shaped by a culture's assumptions about appearance and performance by practicing the idea within a historical context, again, seems like it has the possibility of providing a form of instruction that maybe only this medium could provide.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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