March 14th, 2013

Quit gettin mad at video games

And then Jefferson says "The darker the berry the sweeter the juice, amirite bro?"

Last night I started playing Assassin's Creed 3 on account of it somehow finding its way into my Steam library earlier this year. I've enjoyed the Assassin's Creed series for its fun gameplay, a nice combination of building-hopping parkour and stab-you-in-the-face sneak attacking, but mostly I really appreciate the world design in the games. The developers have gone to great lengths to replicate historic cities, including Renaissance-era Rome, Venice, and Constantinople (not yet Istanbul). While not to scale, all the Important Landmarks are anatomically correct and more or less in their place so you can, say, climb around the Hagia Sophia all you want and honestly, who hasn't wanted to?

This made me excited for AC3, as its setting is the American Colonies in the 18th century. More specifically, it's set in Boston, Philadelphia and New York, with Boston being the first city you play in. Hot damn, said I, it'll be a lot of fun running around Colonial Boston, climbing on Faneuil Hall and such!

The Boston in the game did not disappoint. It's a compressed version of Boston circa 1755. As with the previous game worlds, the streets aren't entirely accurate, but much of Boston's colonial landmarks are faithfully recreated and located in their proper places. Look west-southwest from the top of Faneuil Hall (curiously missing its grasshopper weathervane, though the in-game encyclopedia mentions it) and you'll see the State House, King's Church, and the Old South Church where they should be in relation to one another. Beacon Hill is a loaf-shaped grassy hill crowned by a huge iron pot full of tar suspended from a tall wooden pole. Since this is Assassin's Creed, you can climb to the top of the beacon, look all around, then take a graceful swan dive off the top and land safely in a pile of hay below. It's called a Leap of Faith. You get to perform many of them.

Even smaller landmarks from which you can't exactly jump are included, and the game happily unlocks encyclopedia entries upon your first encounter with each. You can run across the Causeway past the old Mill Pond to get to Copp's Hill and Christ Church in the North End. (Christ Church is now known as the Old North Church; the first Old North Church was dismantled by the British during their siege. They needed the wood for fuel.)

You'll also find the Bunch of Grapes tavern, the Old Corner Book-Shop (even back then things in Boston were old) and the Liberty Tree in your travels. Many of your Boston-based missions start in the Green Dragon tavern. I think I saw Cambridge across the Charles, but I don't know if I'll actually get to run around Harvard Yard or if it's just backdrop decoration. I have ridden to Lexington and Concord, though. (That's as far as I've gotten in the game and I'm trying as best I can to avoid spoilers.) I really can't wait to see how Philadelphia and New York measure up to this level of verisimilitude. I'm not as familiar with those cities as I am Boston, but I do know my way around all three fairly well.

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Anyway, such details might be considered inconsequential when inserted into a videogame. It's true that a fictitious Benjamin Franklin's opinions aren't technically affecting the gameplay one way or another. But when such care has been taken to re-create and interpret historical locations in a game engine, surely the historical figures could be portrayed and interpreted accurately as well. AC3 is trying very hard, even through a contemporary filter, to maintain some kind of historical and cultural balance, tipping neither towards traditional, hackneyed stereotypes nor out-and-out revisionism. This just makes the discrepancies that do slip through all the more glaring.

I wonder what else awaits. Personally I'm hoping for a rapping Sam Adams.