Carving Out A Space (With Hidden Blades)

What does it mean to understand the Assassin’s Creed video games as works of historical fiction? To what extent can other forms of historical adaptation shape our perception of these games? How does the medium of the video game complicate our notions of what history and historical adaptation are? What’s at stake in engaging with the particular historical settings and themes of Assassin’s Creed: Liberation and Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry as fiction?

These types of questions motivate me to conduct the experiment I’m going to sketch out here. ‘Experiment’ feels right because I’m really just testing out my ideas without knowing what the exact results will be. In short, I want to try to develop a critical approach for studying Assassin’s Creed, particularly Liberation and Freedom Cry, as historical fiction. To start, I will rely on the criticism surrounding both historical novels and films.

I need to look toward other media in part because of the relative lack of scholarship on gaming and historical adaptation. But even as I come across works on the subject, I’m still interested in situating these media and their respective discourses together in order to potentially triangulate their relation to each other and to history as such. I hope to come up with a framework unique to the video game platform, but I also feel the need to leave space to expose the boundaries of this type of inter-disciplinary work.

My condensed concept map shown here helps explain how I plan to do all this.

concept map of criteria for historical fiction game

With my remaining time on this collaborative project, I’m going to evaluate my experience playing Liberation and Freedom Cry through a set of criteria based on the historical novel and film criticism I’ve found. I may add or expand or cut things out depending what’s there in the texts and games to analyze; but what I’ve come up with serves as a jumping off point.

A few words on the criteria as I initially interpret them:

  • Aesthetic – range of emotions and reactions to the game based on its form, which is defined by the relationship between the narrative, historical research/representation, and gameplay

My idea of the aesthetic criteria draws from the observations of Sarah L. Johnson. In Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre, she articulates the difficulty of the form of the historical novel as “Either… bad history—costume dramas, in which modern-day characters were dressed up and paraded around in period garb—or bad fiction, where the author crammed in so much research that it overwhelmed the plot” (3). In her view and others, the historical novel fails when it cannot balance authenticity with creativity. Adding the element of gameplay, how the player interacts and participates in the narrative, we can imagine that having an improper ratio can detract from the experience and possibility for critical analysis.

  • Historical Insight – the ability of the game to better illuminate the socio-cultural context of the time period(s) being represented

In defense of the historical film, Richard Francaviglia and Jerry Rodnitzky argue in the preface to Lights, Camera, History that  the power of the medium as lens for analyzing history come from its ability to “emotionalize” the past, allowing for new interpretations of “the historical record” (vii.) This potential for sympathy brings to life an entirely abstract, or perhaps inaccessible, reality of the past. Applying this line of thought to my current interests in video games means asking what knowledge of the past is and is not being made available to us, through narrative, historical research and representation, and gameplay.

  • Contemporary/Universal insight – Related to historical insight and the larger consideration of historical adaptation as serving some educational purpose, this pertains the game’s ability to speak in some way to the issues of world the game was born into or issues that transcend history

I here refer in my thinking to Michael C. Carnes in Novel History when he says that the historical novel “cast(s) light on the human condition rather than on any particular historical period” (21). This type of thinking laid over a game like Assassin’s Creed has the potential to juxtapose the game content itself with the social context in which it is received. In other words, it asks what the game can tell us about us and our world, not just a past world. Further, it asks us to observe and make meaning out the connections between the past represented and the present being enacted.

  • Historical Authenticity – Related to both historical insight and aesthetics, the presence or demonstration of historical truth in the representation, its mimetic performance

For reference, I turn back to Sarah L. John in Historical Fiction. Speaking of the reader’s interests, she says that “historical frame must be presented as accurately as possible so as not to shatter the illusion” (5). Despite its fictitiousness, a lack of facts or mimetic reproduction throws up a barrier to entry into the story. The burden for the artists or artists responsible for a book or game to re-present the past warrants extended discussion going forward. Because research and factuality feature so heavily in historical fiction, it exposes the possibility of truth being an end instead of means to an end, albeit a perhaps obscured end.

  • Unique Criteria→ Player Related – Still undetermined, possibly pertaining to the gameplay itself and how it teaches the player about his/her position as a player in relation to the historical/fictional

With my subsequent posts, these larger lenses of analysis will be shaped by the the interplay between the Assassin’s Creed games’ fundamental elements— research, narrative, and gameplay.

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