Do you know what you’re playing? A simple enough question you might ask, one that I would normally squint at and hesitantly say “Yes” to as I turn on the console to play whatever game I’m working on. These days, that game is Assassin’s Creed, specifically Liberation, a PSP-Vita turned PS3 spinoff of the main series. The historical-action-stealth video game put out by Ubisoft features the first female and first black protagonist in the AC universe. Normally, I would think that amount of information would suffice if you asked me if I knew what I was playing.
But once I actually press start new game, all bets are off.
This is the first cut-scene (if it can be called that) you get immediately after starting a new game in Liberation.
I hesitate to call it a cut-scene because it’s basically an ad-like voice over priming the player about Aveline de Grandpré and the world you’ll be entering through her, a broad summary situating new and old users within this particular narrative. It also plays up the fact with this game, you get to, well, play with history. And in doing so, you “make history yours” (emphasis added). Reliving and reshaping how we think about history is par for the course when it comes to this series. That isn’t the really interesting bit though- it’s that the game is “brought to you” by Abstergo Industries, in quotes because Abstergo Industries doesn’t exist (or does it?!) outside of the AC universe. This might seem innocuous enough, simply a fictional version of the game publisher credits included at the start of almost every console game. But for people familiar with the series narrative, Abstergo Industries “bringing” you the game should immediately raise some eyebrows and or questions. Keyword being should.
Abstergo Industries is the modern day conglomerate in the game responsible for creating, among many other things, the Animus technology that allows for certain subjects to retrieve and relive the historical memories passed down through ancestor’s DNA (It only gets better/worse from here). Within the game, the animus is the mechanism that allows you to travel back in time through memory simulation to the Crusades or in the case of Liberation, 18th Century New Orleans.
Abstergo is also the incredibly powerful and far-reaching front for the Knights Templar a.k.a. the baddies the brotherhood of the Assassin’s have been fighting for centuries. And these two ancient, secretive organizations have been fighting for centuries over the future of humanity by locating and using ancient and powerful artifacts (Pieces of Eden) left behind by a previous civilization of beings. To find where these things are hidden, both sides use the Animus to relive the memories and experiences of Assassin’s from previous generations tasked with finding and protecting the pieces. The pieces need protecting because, according to the Assassin Order, the Templars would use these ancient powers to impose order on humanity in order to save it, virtually wiping out individual freedom.
So back to the opening cut-scene and the should-be raised eyebrows. Liberation is brought to you by Abstergo, the bad guys.
Without this background info, and without finding out even more in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (which I have yet to play unfortunately), you’ll completely miss the fact that within the game narrative, Liberation is actually a propaganda piece put out by Abstergo to “portray Aveline as a traitor to the Assassin Order.” In order to serve their own purpose, Abstergo has altered the facts of Aveline’s own memories, memories that you experience as a game, experiences you think are “real.”
But that’s not the full story you experience through Aveline’s genetic memories either. As you might expect from a game with such secret organizations, within the narrative there is another secret organization that has pitted itself against Abstergo Erudito is a mysterious group of hackers who aim to subvert and expose all of the Templars’ covert evil-doings. In the case of Liberation, they’ve hacked the game and found a way to put back the true events that Abstergo has either warped or left out of Aveline’s life. By finding and “killing” hidden glitches (named Citizen E), you gain access to certain sequences that would have been left out or different, sequences that would affect how you think of both the Templars and Aveline as an assassin. In one instance, killing Citizen E leads to a cut-scene where a Templar has particularly sinister plans for the colony he is running. Without the Erudito hack in there, you miss a key moment that reveals the lengths that the Templars are willing to go.
The suddenly not so simple question returns with a vengeance: Do you know what you’re playing?
This is a lot of background information, most of which I didn’t have myself when playing through the game the first time. I found Citizen E and saw the hidden scenes, but didn’t quite get why it was important for me to see the scenes. That is, I didn’t get that Abstergo was leaving out or messing with Aveline’s memory. I just assumed that everything was kosher. And it was a bit confusing to tell what was going on in those scenes. I would argue this speaks to the script-writers’ difficult task of making a covert narrative element explicit enough for the player to understand what these cut-scenes are. But, it also speaks to inattention and my willingness to accept what is put in front of me while playing.
Here comes the irony: my passive reception of what I experience to be the truth maps quite well onto what amounts to a real and common concern regarding the Assassin’s Creed series, namely that the games distort, misrepresent, or manipulate the historical truth to meet the needs of the game developers. For many of us, it’s reasonable to be upset when other people or media tweak history. Most of us would agree that we should be leery of schools that attempt to censor history textbooks. But these games aren’t textbooks, they’re games you might say. And the response from someone critical of Assassin’s Creed wound sound something like this- Yes, but many of us still tend to value the truth, be it entertainment or not. These forms of entertainment, they would say, still pose a threat to young or otherwise misinformed people who play them because of how easy it is to assume that what’s being presented to them is “truthful.”
The truth though, historical truth or an instance of truth felt by individual, is hard to come by. The competing narratives within the game of Liberation prompt me to ask hopelessly broad and yet seemingly obvious questions like What’s at stake in knowing or not knowing the truth? and What do we stand to lose by not knowing the truth of a nation or part of the world’s history? Or, specific to Liberation, What’s at stake in not knowing or having a critical understanding of the history and experience of slavery in the American South and Caribbean? Or, What would it mean for South Africa’s post-Apartheid generation to not have a sense of the history of Apartheid? (I owe this example to Angel Nieves, whose talk on restorative social justice and digital humanities I attended in the midst of writing this post.)
One possible answer can be found by returning to the convoluted narrative of the Assassin’s Creed series. Both the Assassins and the Templars are waging war in the past over these artifacts that can determine the future of humanity. I’ve repeated this to myself and it always sounds dramatic. But it always resonate with me nonetheless. It’d be interesting to go back to cut-scenes and other moments from the series, but I have a hunch that some of the language characters use when talking about the artifacts relates to the truth, truth as higher knowledge and thus power. Looking for Pieces of Eden serves as an interesting metaphor for the pursuit of truth/knowledge. As such, it serves as a way to conceptualize the power with which we imbibe into the past. The key to fixing the issues of the present and preventing them from being issues in the future is to understand what (who) came before. These games model how we look at history as a tool for improving what is still to come.
Having such a model provides one explanation for why we can imagine it would be so important for there to be an Erudito if there were an Abstergo, and why we should lower a critical eye on all forms of historical representation, across all media, not just games; repeated tampering with the tool eventually breaks it, or turns it into something else, into something other than what it was designed for. And once that happens, the tool ceases to function for everyone and only serves those who have the ability to tamper with it.
Side Note: What get’s lost in all of this, and what might be an unknown consequence of playing with (distorting) history, is Aveline, or better yet, her history. Either way you slice it, her narrative is not a replication or re-experiencing of her memories, not compared to other assassins in the universe. Her history is a refraction, packaged (for monetary and political profit), filtered, and otherwise altered before being delivered to the player. As I said, I haven’t play Black Flag, so I don’t exactly have the full picture. It would be interesting see her appearance in Black Flag, and then marry that with observations from Liberation of the altered/hacked scenes from her life. Stay tuned.