Dabe Alan / EA
A full-spoiler look at the story and struggle of Assassin’s Creed 3
Just a quick note, this post has many spoilers for Assassin's Creed 3. If you'd like to avoid them, go back and read our review of the game itself, play through the campaign, and come back It can be hard to write a review of a game and avoid talking about some of the most interesting parts of the story or characters. I was told that Ubisoft had successfully hidden at least a few aspects of Assassin’s Creed 3 from players before launch, and the inclusion of a brand-new playable character named Haytham Kenway was a very pleasant way to begin the game. This wasn’t a twist that happened hours into the game, this was a surprise that took place the moment you began playing. It was a confident move, and it showed that the developers weren’t scared to pull the rug out from under the player. It didn’t hurt that Haytham may be a more interesting character than Connor, the game’s other lead character. I’ve heard him described as a colonial James Bond, suave and capable. You spend hours with Haytham and his group of merry men before the rug is pulled out from under you once again: These men are Templars, and you’ve been playing for the other team in the game’s opening hours. This was an amazing reveal, and after playing through it again I noticed how far it went to making the player question the goals of the Assassins. Nothing you do in these hours is evil. You’re not acting like a villain. It’s disappointing how quickly these men move into moustache-twirling caricature once you take over Connor’s story. A part of me wonders if the game moved into unreliable narrator territory once you begin to see things through Connor’s eyes. The Templars seem like upstanding men when you’re playing as them, only to turn into cartoon versions of bad guys once you’re playing as Connor.
One of the most interesting parts of the game’s story is how many father-son relationships are introduced and explored. Or rather, left unexplored. Desmond goes out of his way to protect his father, but there is no major emotional payoff to that relationship. In fact the Desmond portions of the game seem like they take place in some other, less-important reality than the time you spend in the Animus. Desmond is trying to save the world, but it never feels like there is much at stake during his sections of the game. The “true” ending feels like a cartoon; the emotion and heart of the game exist with Connor inside the Animus. The relationship at the game’s heart is between Connor and Achilles, two men who are always going to exist on the fringes of society due to the color of their skin. Connor’s ignorance of racial politics is interesting when the two begin to spend time together, and Achilles often speaks to Connor as one would to a bratty, entitled son. Connor’s inability to see what Achilles has done for him and his hurtful words don’t mean anything in terms of game play, but it adds another layer to the game. Haytham proves to be a much more attractive father to Connor later in the game, but Achilles offers Connor the “right” path through most of the game. Connor is a flawed hero, and he sees the world through the eyes of an outsider. He can’t fit into city life due to his heritage. He wasn’t raised in the ways of the Assassins, so that order also feels alien to him even as he takes on their responsibilities and equipment. He is put in a position where he is forced to kill his best friend, and he loses both parents at a young age. In a cruel twist he fights to keep his people safe, although all the characters and beings who control and dabble in his fate seem to know that there is no place for the Mohawk in a newly-freed America. His search for revenge seems to line up with the battle against the Templars, but the struggle to keep his people safe was doomed before he began. This theme doesn't end there. As this section of the game, shown in a video by Kotaku, explains, America itself was like a teenager fighting with its Dad about living under his roof, under his rules.Connor battles his mission as much as he fights other people as he goes down the list of men he must kill. The time he spends fighting against, and in some cases alongside, Haytham prove to be the game’s most interesting moments. The men argue about the possibility of a free America, and Haytham makes his case for the Templar side of the story. In many ways what Haytham says during these conversation makes sense, and Connor argues with Achilles about a possible peace with the Templars. Connor seems willing to forsake his adoptive father for his much more seductive biological father. The arguments that Connor's dying targets make about their reasons for working with the British do make a kind of sense, if we even assume these men are telling the truth. But they're also on their deathbeds, what reasons have they to lie? Consider this: Connor is angry, alone, smart, and ready to fight. These traits make him the perfect target for a gang or cult, and the Templars and Assassins are a mix of both things. The path of the Assassin is long and lonely, Achilles never looks like he’s happy with his path in life, while the Templars seem to have much more going for them. Having his father argue for the other side doesn’t help. Of course Connor is going to be tempted! Knowing that Desmond already has Templar blood makes that struggle much more immediate; there seems to be a chance that Connor will fall. The various Star Wars properties always love to play with the idea of characters giving in to the dark side, but Assassin’s Creed 3 succeeds in presenting this challenge because so many of the motivations of the characters on the Templar side of things make sense. They don’t seem like villains, as they’re merely trying to stay one step ahead of human nature and remain in control of people who barely seem in control of themselves. When pundits argue that some people are too stupid to vote in modern elections, they’re arguing in favor of the Templars. The game consistently points out that the future is going to be a giant pile of shit for many of the people involved, and the two sides are fighting over whether it’s going to be the shit that the Templars select, or the shit that comes from people being short-sighted and selfish. We lose either way, it’s just a matter of who chooses the poison. The Assassins want to allow humanity to suffer by its own hand, while the Templars are hoping to rise above the common rabble and try to eke out a better living under their version of order. Admit it, you've often thought you could fix things if only given more control, whether it be at your workplace or in the government. How long until you would be willing to strap on some blades and put your violence where your mouth is?
No bosses, only men
If there is one theme I’ve noticed in many of the big budget games of this season it’s the lack of boss battles. Assassin’s Creed 3 certainly has setpieces and some major encounters, but bosses? No. When you finally catch up with Charles Lee near the end of the game both Connor and Lee are spent, used up, and barely invested in their struggles against each other. Connor has more or less already won. They don’t speak. They share a drink. Connor reaches up, holds Lee by the back of the head, looks him in the eyes for a moment, and then kills him. At this stage they’re just going through the motions. One of them has to die because that's what they do.Many people criticize the pacing of Assassin’s Creed 3, and I have to admit I skipped much of the side content, but it’s a game that moves at the speed of a good novel. People talk to each other. You can go get lost in the woods if you would like. Important things happen off-camera and are only hinted at. Large swaths of time pass by between chapters. The game shows more often than it tells, and that’s a delightful trait in video games. The game’s worst sin is its insistence to make you walk a few feet before another loading screen, an annoyance that kills the pacing of many scenes. When I look back on the game, I barely think about the goofy resolution to Desmond’s story, nor the game’s glitches. The story of Connor begins with a deep look at his father, complete with Haytham’s regrets about not having a life with Connor’s mother, and ends with Connor having fulfilled his duty only to have been used up and disillusioned with everything he had seen along the way. He's not made whole by his time as an Assassin as much as he's emptied out by it. His retirement won't be filled with contented glasses of brandy by the fire. The random man who tells Connor the government hasn’t started in with taxes yet, since that would be too British, seems to know what’s coming: An America that’s led by the same upper-class and out of touch men that we spilled blood to break from during the revolution. America may be free, but that happened because a bunch of white men with land decided we should fight to make it so. What freedom was gained was arguable. The argument is made that men like George Washington were more buffoons than gods. Assassin’s Creed 3 may have problems as a game, but it excels as a narrative journey. The Desmond mumbo-jumbo is easily forgotten after we’re placed in the thick of the American revolution and asked to figure out what it all means. By watching the events of the game unfold as an outside, we're able to see the flaws of all the characters, and both sides of the battle. Connor is like the fabled last shot of the war; beginning with an explosion, rising into the air in a grand show of menace, only to splash harmlessly into the water before sinking down into the abyss.