Language, feathers, and scalping: The challenge of Assassin’s Creed 3’s Native American hero
Assassin’s Creed 3’s creative director, Alex Hutchinson, pronounced the Mohawk name of the game’s hero, Connor Kenway, during a meeting at PAX East. A few members of the Penny Arcade team were invited to a small hotel room to check out how the game was coming along, and the challenge to actually say the name was thrown down. I can’t repeat the pronunciation, but the name is spelled “Ratohnhaké:ton.” Learning how that word is spoken is the sort of challenge you face when you create a game with a Native American lead.
“It’s very hard, I had to practice,” Hutchinson said. “We had to go down to the Mohawk cultural center to get a guy to pronounce it into the phone.” Many of the Native American names in the game were “excruciating,” Hutchinson remembered. “Some of them had so many vowels we said ‘fuck it, give us another one.’”
The design of the hero
Assassin’s Creed 3 will finish the story of Desmond Miles, and Connor Kenway is a very different hero for the series. The game takes place (at least partially) during the American Revolution, and the lack of vertical structures changes the flow of battle and game play. Connor will take advantage of the trees and forest instead of the man-made structures from previous games; an early video to pitch the game’s concepts showed scenes from Predator to prove how effective an assassin moving from tree to tree could be in certain situations. Many ideas and concepts were tried and removed from the game, but Connor’s English mother and a Mohawk father were some of the few things that survived the early planning process.
“We asked who we wanted to be. We didn’t want to tell the story of winning the Revolution, and we didn’t want to tell the story of a British guy fighting back. We needed an outsider, someone who could present an external perspective on this thing, who would it be?” Hutchinson asked. A Native American character was the logical choice. “Historically they fought on both sides, they didn’t really want to be involved but they got brought in. That was an easy fit, but everything after that was excruciating.” Working on the character designs was tricky, and they went through multiple voice actors trying to find the right fit.
The problem is that it’s possible to parody an Italian accent, but you can’t parody a native American accent. “It just sounds instantly racist,” Hutchinson explained. “When we tried to hire voice actors we really realized we were dealing with a minority as a lead for the first time, and not someone in a position of power.”
During the meeting we see several versions of the main character as the team went through different visual ideas of how Connor should look. “There was this big tension between how native he should be and how western should he be. It was a weird problem.” The early concept art used visual ideas like eagle feathers, but that was almost an “owl man” look. They had to tone down some aspects of the character design, while still fitting the aesthetics of Assassin’s Creed.
“I had to explain he’s Native American, but that he has joined the Assassins - and that’s a western group. If I go work for a bank, I have to put on a suit. I don’t get to come in with a t-shirt and jeans, even if I wanted to,” Hutchinson said, explaining the final design. Connor’s clothing is reminiscent of the looks from the previous games, but upon closer inspection you can see bits and pieces of Mohawk ephemera. You get the sense of someone adjusting to a uniform to fit their own culture and personality. It took a long time to get to that point, and many of the early concepts smacked of caricature. The final designs are much more successful at melding the English, Native, and Assassin cultures from Connor’s background.
Why scalping was removed
We watched many early videos of concepts and game play, and after one kill Connor reached down with a knife… and removed the scalp of an enemy.
The mechanic was discussed, and prototypes of animations were made, but it was later removed. “[Scalping] at first seemed kind of cool, and we thought there might be a mechanic there because our research showed us that there were all kinds of creepy bounties put out. There were literally bounties put out by the colonials for men, women, and children, and you would get less money for women and children,” Hutchinson said. During this time period scalping was practiced on every side of the war, and you could turn in the scalps of your enemies for a cash reward.
“It’s historical, and it’s uncomfortable, but if it’s a procedural mechanic it’s going to be everywhere,” Hutchinson said. You can’t offer that sort of thing and expect people not to do it. “Once you add the ability to scalp someone we had the vision of this kid killing 19 people and then going and scalping one, and then scalping two… It’s just super-uncomfortable.”
Even if people decide not to scalp their enemies, they’re going to be aware it’s there. “Once it’s in the game it’s polluted, and then there’s this distasteful element to it. We found out that most of the scalping was done alive, so if you imagine… once you get into, and we try our level best to be true to history… people who survive scalping… you see that and you go…” Hutchinson made a face of disgust. It was clear that Hutchinson was bothered by what this sort of thing would have done to the game, and once you look at pictures of scalping victims, its easy to see why. The mechanic was ultimately removed from the game.
The rhythms of war
It’s interesting to see Connor moving out and around the different battles of the game; the reason a Native American character works is that he can be above the conflict, not a part of it. The rhythm of combat during the American Revolution was much different than what we’re used to in depictions of modern war: One side fires a volley of shots, there is a pause, and then musket rounds begin to hit the other side. It takes time to reload. Bayonets are used for mopping up. It is an ordered, terrifying way to fight. Connor moves through the bush and above the trees to avoid the worst of the fighting while going after his own target.
Assassin’s Creed 3 has taken what worked in the previous game and adapted it for a new setting and hero. Creating a Native American lead for a video game was not easy, but so far it looks like the work has paid off; the character’s heritage and place in the world will be an important part of who he is and how he goes about his job. We saw fluid kills, a level of interaction with the environment that surpasses what we’ve seen in previous Assassin’s Creed titles, and a character that will help us look at an era of American history from a different perspective, even in a fictional setting.
The video game industry often suffers from iterative sequels, but Assassin’s Creed 3 is doing enough new things to get us excited. A Native American hero, with all the problems and advantages that entails, was a brave choice. The fact that the development team takes that challenge seriously shows in the final design, animations, and game play footage we’ve seen thus far. These are the creative decisions that allow franchises to grow and thrive.