‘Assassin’s Creed III’: On Slavery, Native Americans and Death-Dealing Gameplay

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Assassin’s Creed sits at or very near the top of my favorites list as enthusiast-grade video games go. (I apologize for calling it “enthusiast,” but I don’t have a better word, and I want to distinguish it from stuff like Bastion, Minecraft or Superbrothers: Swords and Sworcery.) I’m a sucker for stealth games, even more so when they deliver sprawling Lost-like puzzle-narratives on par, caliber-wise, with the storytelling in a game like BioShock.

The latest installment, misleadingly titled Assassin’s Creed III (it’s actually the fifth game in the main series) takes the Assassins vs. Templars struggle across the pond to America during the Revolutionary War. But with that abrupt lunge forward in time (the last game was set in Italy during the Renaissance) comes certain period implications, slavery and the displacement of Native Americans being but two. In fact you play as a Native American, hypothetically bringing sensitive racial and cultural issues to the fore. With that in mind, I fired a few questions off to the game’s creative director, Alex Hutchinson. Here’s what he had to say.

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A recent criticism of one-man-killing-machine games is that someone with this sort of death-dealing power would eventually draw regional or national (if not global) attention. Were you able to implement a combat system in Assassin’s Creed III that makes dispatching enemies any less arbitrary?

Ideally we’d build the game so that the only people you need to kill are the targets themselves, and we’re adjusting the bare-handed fighting techniques to be more about sleeper holds and other non-lethal moves to try and support this. Also we’re adjusting both the health system and the combat system to make confrontations with large groups riskier, to try and encourage the player to be more discrete.

Other than that, we try to build it into the story: Over the course of the narrative people become aware that there are assassins active in the world, so it’s not like they just ignore it.

In the original AC there was a quasi-mystical adherence to the eponymous assassin’s “creed,” the principles of the Hashishin and the interplay between East and West. But in the subsequent AC‘s, the Italian renaissance spin and Ezio’s more genial personality seemed to do away with much of that. Where does AC3 fall?

Each assassin swears allegiance to the creed and promises to uphold its base principles, which in a nutshell is the preservation of free will and the ability of the individual to guide their own destiny without outside control. However, each assassin interprets this differently, and we see each character as a chance to explore the concept of freedom vs control or protection vs. risk within the framework of that character’s back-story and also the historical setting.

If it never changed or characters didn’t have different interpretations or different reasons for joining the brotherhood, then we’d be stuck telling the same story over and over. So in AC3 we really want to contrast this notion of an organization built on supporting free will against a revolution which at least in retrospect claimed the same, but perhaps there are more shades of gray in both those stories than people like to believe.

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The Revolutionary War deeply affected Native Americans, with various groups siding with the Americans or British or splitting intra-group. There’s also the broader question of what had been going on in terms of massive displacement (continuing through to the present day). Since the protagonist is himself Native American, will you foreground this?

In videogames it’s often very difficult to create a situation where the player feels emotionally connected to the narrative because in a videogame, the narrative is usually built around challenge, and a challenge can be overcome through perseverance, so you always know that you’re going to win: There’s never a surprise when you succeed in a game, there’s just the satisfaction of having done it.

In AC however you’re reliving history, so you know how things are going to pan out and you have even less choice, which presents a different problem and also an opportunity. We wanted to create a story where the lead character has many goals: to help the patriots; to fight Templars; to help his people find a place in the new country. The reason was we have a few goals which the player will eventually achieve through history or effort, but also one that is destined to fail. We wanted to use the history of the Native American people in this period to shine a light on the efforts of the protagonist, and also hopefully to get people to think of their own history a little differently.

Not to get hung up on the implications of the period, but we’re talking about a point at which slavery had existed for at least a century and would continue as a legal institution through the next century’s midpoint. Will players have to grapple with that?

We realized early on we needed to either make slavery the central issue of the game, or leave it as something that existed but not engage hugely. If this game were set during the Civil War then obviously it would be the central theme of the game, but we didn’t feel like we had enough in the historical record to make a case for it in AC3. It is discussed in the game, and we’ve tried to be true to history in terms of how many slaves were in the cities we’re depicting and what kinds of presence they had, but we didn’t want to force something into the public discussion that wouldn’t become a very public issue for several more decades.

Does your locational progress through the game imitate past ones, where you’re starting in a small area, then expanding out to others? Is it possible in a game like this to reinvigorate areas you’ve already pretty much combed over?

We approached the locations a little differently this time: We basically open up our big cities or new locations in one bite, then drive you around them with missions as the story progresses, but the side tasks, and other activities are always available as another layer over all the locales.

We can definitely continue to add gameplay to old regions, and we hope we’ve built enough new systems to send you back to every area more than once. We’ve had more of a focus on systemic gameplay, whether it be animals and hunting in the wilderness, or other mechanics, so we think there’s more to do than just the story.

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If you’re exploring the wilderness, how much of the gameplay feels procedural in terms of who you’re encountering or what you’re able to do? Will we still see meta games, e.g. taking out fortresses, recruiting and training other assassins, buying property to establish income or decorating your HQ?

There are several ‘meta games’ of which we’ve spoken already about clubs, forts and hunting or trapping. Basically every loop in the game that was in previous iterations has been discarded or rebuilt along with all the new stuff. We’re very wary of repeating ourselves: We want this to be a starting point for new fans and a refreshing change for longtime fans.

We’re still very story driven though, so the backbone of the game will always be narrative.

One of the things I’ve often wished for in sandbox games is a dynamic strategic layer, where there’s a sense things could back-slip, e.g. areas the enemy can take back. Obviously that’s a horrible idea if getting the area back involves lengthy, repetitive sequences, but is there anything about AC3‘s strategic gameplay that makes the world feel more volatile?

The mechanic you describe is very close to the Templar Den mechanic in ACR [Assassin’s Creed: Revelations] and while it’s intellectually interesting, a lot of the time those sorts of mechanics can feel like busywork or the game forcing you to repeat an action you’ve already completed which is annoying. I think there’s always a desire by players to progress and move forward, or at least to find new challenges, so these mechanics can be tough to build.

There are some tensions in the AC universe of how much systemic content to create as our audience is usually hungry for story and context, but I think there’s a lot of value in having this bedrock of systems underneath which can provide a toy layer and a chance for player expression in an otherwise very directed experience. Suffice to say there’s more in AC3 than ever before!

How much of the modern-day story you started in the original AC, with Desmond, should we expect to see wrap up in AC3? (By which I mean, a lot of gamers may balk if they discover, having purchased and completed AC3, that they need to wait for several followup DLC packs or full blown sequels to truly resolve the story, as with AC2.)

Our goal with Desmond is to resolve a big chunk of the dangling threads in AC3 and to provide some sense of closure to people who’ve been with us from the start. I have been banned by PR from saying anything else, but stay tuned!

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