Assassin's Creed 3 is an enormous, beautifully rendered sandbox game designed to kick sand in your face.
I was hunting for a UFO when I finally snapped.
Scampering across the wilderness, watching the silhouette of a tree on the horizon coalesce from out of the distance haze, I knew, before I had even confirmed the sight, what I was going to find. But I pushed my avatar character forward anyway, watching him hunch in his predatory sprint, heading toward an inevitable disappointment.
I was playing out the last of what had now been several 'Frontiersman missions' in Assassin's Creed 3. These were optional side quests in which, after overhearing some piece of whispered legend, would send the game's protagonist Connor out into the American wilderness searching for answers. And given that each of these local mysteries includes tales of spooky ghosts, otherworldly murders, or impossible beasts, these beats play out like fleeting colonial X-Files investigations, unravelling the fact from the fiction in America's early urban mythology.
Unlike Mulder and Scully's adventures, however, here Connor repeatedly finds each story to be a bogus exaggeration. A 'haunted' lighthouse proves to be just a tattered blanket on some sticks; tales of the fearful Kraken dissolve with the discovery of an old diving suit; the fearful visage of the Sasquatch turns out to be only some old hermit squatting in a cave. The closest the paranormal seems to dance with these campfire tales is hunting for the Headless Horseman, where a grim figure actually is spotted riding off into the wilderness. But given that this is almost certainly just some homicidal maniac with a carved pumpkin on his head, it's hardly the proverbial smoking gun to prove that Jacob Marley, ALF, and Elvis are sharing a rented condo in the Bermuda Triangle.
And here I was, at the end of this run of anti-climaxes, responding to the sighting of a UFO in the area. Running across that clearing, I already knew what I was going to find. Knew in my head and my heart exactly what it was going to be. And yep, there it was. Not a space ship or a flying saucer, but a single umbrella fluttering in a tree.
An umbrella in a tree.
Of course, it's meant as a bit of light comedy. Can you believe those crazy stories?! it seems to say. The people of this time are apparently so ignorant that a wind-swept parasol inspires tales of life beyond the stars! But the joke is also at your expense as the player. Look at you, you big silly, it says. Chasing all over the countryside after a bunch of wild fantasies!
...Which would be very droll, except: isn't this the game where the storyline – the entire main storyline – concerns a civil war between factions of an alien forerunner race who have prophesied the end of the world? A tale in which dead extraterrestrials masquerade as gods in order to shape the DNA and psyche of every human being that has ever lived? The series principally concerned with two clandestine cabals of zealots locked in an endless ideological conflict – expansive armies (that have gone unnoticed by the general populace) that are directly involved in every single major moment in the history of the world? Didn't the whole plot of the past several games explain that every religion, philosophy, and social structure in human history is inextricably tied to some weird Dan Brown fever dream of the Freemasons/ Illuminati/ Skull and Bones/ Mouseketeers – a secret organisation that built a machine (part alien!) that can help you re-live the memories of your ancestors through inherited-genomes-pseudo-science-expositional-techno-babble?
...But yeah: a UFO or Bigfoot? That's just nuts.
And at that moment, scampering up the tree to let the game laugh at my willingness to jump through its hoops, something snapped. I realised, all at once, that I had lost any investment I had in the series – that even though I might well continue playing the Assassin's Creed games in future (and I did), a fundamental bond between audience and text had nonetheless been ruptured, and would likely never return.
That, of course, was just my personal breaking point, but if the past few weeks are indicative of anything, I suspect I'm not the only one starting to lose interest. After all, it's now that time of year, as inevitable as sunrise, when Ubisoft takes a break from the non-stop, unrelenting onslaught of promos, advertisements, pre-release hype, demos, competitions, and post launch DLC for their previous Assassin's game, in order to take a breath, and immediately start teasing the next inevitable release in their yearly schedule. But this time, while it would be inaccurate to say that there's no buzz around the game, the response to the recent splashy announcement of the next installment, Assassin's Creed: Syndicate, is a little muted, it seems.
Perhaps it's a product of the saturating ubiquity of the franchise. In just the few months since Assassin's Creed: Unity launched, several other Assassin's branded games have already been announced or released: mobile apps, 2D stealth platformers, reissues of older games. Perhaps the company burned off a lot of good when Unity emerged as one of the most unpolished, bug-riddled, glitchy games in history – its reputation further sullied when it was revealed that a press embargo from Ubisoft had actively prevented reviewers from mentioning any of these flaws until after the game was already in stores and purchased by fans.
Whatever the reason, it seems true to say that even some of the series' most ardent supporters are now more 'cautiously optimistic' than 'Take my money!', and I suspect that it might be Assassin's Creed 3 the carries the burden for this shift – the game in which the series finally revealed its whole teased meta-narrative to be nothing more than an umbrella fluttering in a tree.
Land of the Free-ish
In many ways Assassin's Creed 3 tried to be as epic, grand and sprawling as the country – colonial America – that it sought to reflect. But it was a mess. Part techno-babble sci-fi, part historical drama, part thumping action spectacular, part maudlin family soap opera, part power fantasy, part mash note to hopeless emo nihilism, part meta-fictional commentary on the conventions of videogames, part unabashed exploiter of every hammy videogame trope, the game was awash with fundamental contradictions.
The narrative spanned two continents and several major cities. It jumped between two distinct time periods. It concerned itself with three major protagonists, all competing for the player's attention. There were even at least three epilogues to the game. Literally: three epilogues. (It's no wonder the credits of the game run for about the length of an average Peter Jackson film.) At some moments the narrative is filled with pretentious bloat – long meandering speechifying and posturing. At others, it's inscrutably lean – whole years of narrative development were skipped, characters inexplicably disappeared or sent you off on quests that had little justification.
To its credit, the game sought to explore some of the real world injustices and hypocrisies that littered the overly-romanticised age of America's founding fathers, thereby questioning the willful mythologising of history. Here George Washington is depicted at times as a ruthless mercenary, even willing to order the slaughter of whole tribes of Native Americans, something true to historical record. Ben Franklin's infamously lecherous letter to a friend extolling the benefits of choosing an older mistress is quoted directly.
At the same time, the game indulges a cartoonishly oversimplified revisionist conspiracy history, and frequently sidelines some inconvenient truths. There are very few African American slaves depicted in the game, with slavery itself largely hand-waved away early in the narrative by Samuel Adams; and complex social conflicts always boil down to the game's fantastical Templar versus Assassin's conceit. It's in this, the game's central thematic exploration of the conflict between the Templars and the Assassins – between an oppressive, clandestine society devoted to social engineering human history, and an (ironically highly organised) group of murderous anarchists striving to thwart their plans for some amorphous definition of freedom – that the issues with the game become most pronounced.
Up until Assassin's Creed 3 the franchise had built upon each previous iteration, continuously cramming more content, more side objectives, more mini-games, into its endlessly expanding coffers. As the series wore on, however, it became progressively overburdened with extraneous mechanics, with Assassin's Creed 3 arguably its most overstuffed. (Which, if one wanted to get snarky for a second, seems a little ironic, considering how much of its narrative is spent chastising its imperialist characters for serving an empire that wants to arrogantly overstretch itself.)
The game boasts a multitude of weapons, a series of stat upgrades, stealth, melee and projectile combat, vehicle travel, an assassin squadron to recruit, order about, and micromanage, hunting, item crafting (with recipes), lock-picking, a selection of playable historical board games, a small homestead and trading sim, cryptic puzzles, fort liberations, horse riding, an entire naval control and combat system (because for almost no reason you're made a ship captain too), infantry orders, canon targeting, for one entire expository sequence you become a spirit eagle flying through the air avoiding obstacles because... I guess that's something else to do. On and on and on...
Yet, despite this glut of options, the game repeatedly strips away this wealth of choice in order to funnel the player into passive, scripted sequences. Learning to lead a battalion of men and offer them cover fire with a canon is used precisely once – seconds after that mechanic is explained – and never seen again. Many of the assassinations are impossible unless approached from specific angles expressly dictated by the game designers. Cinematic sequences force the player down narrow, non-interactive pathways. Most peculiarly, several fight scenes with major antagonists turn into straight battles of attrition, in which the player character must be manoeuvred around to some piece of interactive scenery where he is required to utilise pre-rendered contextual attacks.
This restriction is perhaps most clearly displayed in the game's much maligned introductory chapters. Rather than allowing the player the freedom to explore their world, the game directs them, over the course of several hours, in how they are to move and behave, drip feeding them new skills and dictating how to use them. Indeed, you are so confined in this tutorial period that you spend a good portion of it confined to the deck of a boat, surrounded by open ocean that offers only inglorious death.
The reason that this opening chapter is so constrained is revealed in a plot twist misdirect: the character you are playing, Haytham Kenway, is actually a devoted Templar – not the freedom-spruiking Assassin you presumed him to be. Thus, this kind of rigid, claustrophobic play-style is entirely representative of his world view. When the game's true historical protagonist is revealed, Kenway's illegitimate Native American son Ratonhnhaké:ton, or Connor, the stage seems to be set for a direct interrogation of the irresolvable yin and yang spiral at the heart of the game series. Having literalised the conflict between Templar and Assassin as father and son, by asking you to play as and empathise with both men, the game appears ready to weigh free will and totalitarian order against one another on a global and personal scale.
But then it goes on to repeatedly undercut this intriguing conceit.
What happens instead, over the course of a dozen more hours, is a curiously undercooked build up to a rote fight. Connor eventually meets his father and arbitrarily agrees to start running errands for him, with any notion of free will disregarded as neither the player, nor the supposedly independent Connor himself, is permitted to do anything but follow Haytham's morally questionable instructions. (Even in side-missions you are inexplicably forced to do Haytham's work for him. Connor is still running around chasing Ben Franklin's notes long into the game – even though he wasn't the guy originally given that task.) Soon Connor is predictably double-crossed, and the father that you were compelled to play, whose goals you were at first invited to empathise with, is reduced to merely a stiff, narcissistic zealot, his motivations for diligently serving the Templar order and spreading imperial dominance across the globe through violent oppression no more nuanced than any other moustache-twirling villain.
The climactic battle between Connor and his father, the supposed resolution of the conflict between these two characters and the culmination of the game's oversimplified metaphorical exploration of their world views, becomes merely another endorsement of constraint. For all of his innumerable fighting styles and weaponry and companions, Connor (and the player that gives him agency) can only win this scripted fight if he performs precisely as the game dictates, by participating in the game's obsession with counters and interactive objects – effectively a series of dressed up quick-time events.
So at the climax of Connor's narrative, although incessantly paying lip service to the notion of 'freedom', and supposedly using him as a symbol of defiance, Assassin's Creed 3 instead persists in stripping any such freedoms away, forcing the player down a singular, preordained path from which they cannot stray.