It's just this little chromium switch, here... (derspatchel) wrote,
It's just this little chromium switch, here...

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.

The game's writing, sadly, is not as sharp as its world design. As in the previous games, you get the chance to meet up with FAMOUS PEOPLE FROM HISTORY! and get quests from them. In Assassin's Creed II, for example, you meet up with both Niccolo Machiavelli and a young Leonardo da Vinci while running around Florence. Leo becomes a real pal and gives you plenty of chances to play with his greatest inventions throughout the game, including his tank and flying machine. Of course the flying machine is included. How could it not be?

Since these are works of fiction, the historical characters get dialogue shoved into their mouths and this is where the problem begins. I don't know how out-of-character Machiavelli and da Vinci got, since I am not as familiar with their histories as I am with, say, Benjamin Franklin's. He's the first big historical figure you meet in Assassin's Creed 3. There are other PEOPLE FROM HISTORY! who act as NPCs, but Franklin is the first Big Name you meet. I have been promised more, and I am looking forward to shaking hands with Benedict Arnold.

Ben is quite upset when you first run into him. Loose pages of his Poor Richard's Almanack have gone flying off through the streets of Boston and naturally he would very much like you, a complete stranger, to find them. So begins a side quest you work on as you're doing everything else in the game. When you collect all four, you get to read a nice excerpt from the publication and earn some cash. This is the level of interactivity you get with FAMOUS PERSONS FROM HISTORY!.

Once you start chatting with Ben, the anachronisms pile up and the history pedant gets annoyed. It's one thing to run around a fictional, paraphrased version of a city, but it's another to see historical figures saying and doing things they wouldn't at the time. Some are minor and probably easily explained: Franklin was living in Philadelphia by 1755, for instance, though it's implied he's a Boston resident in-game. He could be just visiting Boston, of course, but the game doesn't want to say either way. Ben does, however, mention "his new book, an Almanac" as if introducing its concept, yet the first Poor Richard's was published in 1732.

Still, these are tiny tiny nitpicks compared to a subsequent scene, in which Benjamin expresses the desire for the American colonies to be equals with Britain, not under their rule. Perhaps, he argues, they should even be an independent entity. After all, everybody wants independence as they grow older, and America is certainly old enough.

Uh, no.

It's a popular misconception that Franklin was for American independence from day one. We Americans very much want to think that since he is one of our most beloved historical figures, right up there with Washington, Lincoln, and Hulk Hogan. He was so wise and learned, naturally he'd want freedom and liberty ringing throughout the land! Maybe he even came up with the idea! But that's not true at all, at least not in 1755. Franklin was a true Royalist then. He did indeed hold the ideological belief that the colonies could co-exist equally with Britain, but his loyalties were still to the Crown.

Good Imperial relations were important. Franklin may not have liked the Stamp Act of 1765, but he initially supported it as any good subject would have. This made him unpopular among his revolutionary peers, some of whom even threatened to burn down his home in Philadelphia. He eventually realized the overall negative impact the Stamp Act had on the colonies, and helped successfully petition Parliament for a repeal. (Good leaders and statesmen listen to all sides of an argument, and it is not--and should not be--a mark of shame if their opinion changes. Sucks to your flip-flops, demagogues.)

It wasn't until the late 1760s that Franklin gradually accepted the fact that the Crown would not grant the colonies autonomous status. If they desired equal footing, they'd have to achieve it themselves. While Franklin saw it from economical and political perspectives, he hadn't quite grasped the attitude the British government had towards the colonies. The final, cruel blow came in 1774, when Franklin was laughed out of the House of Lords while petitioning against four punitive laws which American patriots called "the Intolerable Acts". These acts included closing the port of Boston until the East India Company was repaid for the damages incurred by the Boston Tea Party and giving the king complete authority over appointing government officials in Massachusetts. (The governor could also appoint government positions, but guess who chose the governor?)

It was then Franklin learned that the British government thought the colonies were a laughably provincial lot who needed to stay under the yoke of British rule. Maybe he suspected it, but it had to be shoved in his face for him to admit it. As much as Ben wanted to be a good Englishman, he wanted his home to prosper and flourish and that wasn't going to happen as long as he and his fellow countrymen were treated as inferiors and subjugated accordingly.

So he went home to Philadelphia, sang several songs with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and the Declaration of Independence was born.

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.

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