The doors close, the lights dim, and as the television screens light up the room goes silent. To the left of the audience is a table with trays of cupcakes decorated with an 18th-century American flag; to the right stands the creative director of Assassin’s Creed III, discreet, not drawing any attention to himself. At the front of the room is the first Assassin’s Creed III gameplay footage to ever be shown outside of Ubisoft. The director is nervous, the audience is focused, the cupcakes are delicious.
“The hate mail has already begun!” says Assassin’s Creed III’s creative director, Alex Hutchinson.
We’re sitting in a park with Hutchinson days before the official Assassin’s Creed III preview event. He’s calm, laid back, and speaking to a fellow Australian has brought out the Aussie accent that his years in the US and Quebec have tried to stamp out. At this point the world has only seen one piece of art for the game: that of a Native American assassin against an American flag. We only know that the game takes place during the American Revolution and that the lead character’s name is Connor (his native name is Ratohnhaké:ton). Those are the only things that have been revealed.
“The internet is a wonderful place filled with opinions,” Hutchinson laughs.
“I get spammed on Facebook and email all day. It’s always been a bit like that once they know who you are and what game you’re working on, but this one seems particularly hot.”
Having inherited one of the biggest series in gaming, Hutchinson admits there was a bit of fear at the beginning of the project over how players would respond to the game. If he changed too little, he’d be accused of allowing the series to stagnate; if he changed too much, there would be blood. His team put their fears aside and made a game that Hutchinson believes is fresh and reinvigorates the series. Among the changes is a move across the Atlantic from Europe to 18th-century America, which has been the cause of much community uproar.
“The thing we keep saying is the America of the 18th century is not the modern America,” he says.
“It’s kind of funny that it’s called the American Revolution because at this point there is no America. The British joked at the time that the American Revolution was a civil war fought on foreign soil. It’s a huge moment for America -- it’s the founding of the country -- for the rest of the world, it’s the seeds of the American century.
“We really believe it’s a relevant story, not just for America, but for the entire world.”
A Collision Of Two Fantasies
Back in the preview room a Native American assassin walks discreetly through a bustling town. From behind, his movements are indistinguishable from previous assassins. He is unperturbed by a robbery in the streets, he doesn’t apologise when he walks into people, and he transitions into a series of sprints, leaps, climbs and flips when he is spotted somewhere he shouldn’t be. This America looks nothing like it does today.
Out in the wild, Connor walks through woods and forests, reacting to the elements. He struggles to wade through thick snow in the middle of winter, his movement is fast and uninterrupted during the clear days of spring, and he is always on the lookout for the wildlife whose territory he stands on. Nature is everywhere, and where Assassin’s Creed III lacks the stunning architecture of Europe during the Renaissance, it makes up for it with a natural environment that consumes the player. This America looks nothing like it does today.
“Assassin’s Creed is kind of two fantasies colliding, one being the fantasy of being an assassin, the other being a historical tourist,” Hutchinson says.
“This America of the 18th century is not as built-up as it is now; it’s certainly not as built-up as the European cities we’re used to seeing in the past. Nature is a much more potent force, so what we want to do is create an assassin who is as nimble and agile in the woods as previous assassins were in the city."
Hutchinson says that the team are making forests that are actual playgrounds -- unlike other games where trees might as well be lamp posts -- the trees, cliffs, and rivers in Assassin’s Creed III will be gameplay surfaces that allow the player to experiment.
You Have Never Seen 18th-Century America Like This Before
Flashbacks to the present aside, Assassin’s Creed III’s 18th-century setting will be the most modern time period ever explored in an Assassin’s Creed game. This alone has been the cause of much foot-stomping within gaming communities: America is boring! Who cares about the patriots! Boston is not as beautiful as Florence! I don’t want to play as Abraham Lincoln! Some fans, it seems, are a bit confused.
“It’s a game set in the American Revolution; it’s not the story of the American Revolution,” Hutchinson says.
“You’re not fighting for the patriots. The Assassin’s Creed story is about assassins versus Templars; the American Revolution is the backdrop. We’re telling a thirty-year story that begins well before the American Revolution and continues after it’s over.
“We’re exploring ideas of life and death, power, slavery, control and freedom -- these ideas aren’t just embedded in the story of the American Revolution, they’re embedded in the story of the assassins versus the Templars.”
With the setting dealt with, Hutchinson addresses the next issue that has ruffled some feathers in the online space: the Native American assassin.
In an interview with Kotaku Australia, Hutchinson expressed his disappointment at the racism displayed by the internet towards Connor. But the negative response has not discouraged the Assassin’s Creed team.
“It’s very important for us to be authentic about this,” he says.
“Normally, characters from video games come from the group in power, but in this case Connor is an outsider, which gives us all kinds of fascinating story possibilities. He’s half Native American, half European. The story of his genealogy is part of the narrative.”
The team worked with Native American consultants to ensure that they stayed true to history. Connor is voiced by someone who is half Blackfoot. Using a character from a minority ethnic group could have potentially opened a large can of grubs for Ubisoft, but they were determined to handle it respectfully with sensitivity and accuracy. If there was something they couldn’t do accurately, they weren’t going to do it at all.
Hutchinson shows a scene where the assassin scalps his victim after he plunges his blade straight through the man’s body. The scene is gory, blood drips everywhere. This is a mechanic that didn’t make it into the game due to the historical inaccuracy of scalping.
“The more we looked into it, we discovered that usually you would scalp people alive, not after you’ve killed them,” he says.
“There were all kinds of things that started feeling inappropriate for the game. We also decided that scalping someone alive was too gruesome for the kind of story we wanted to tell and it kind of over-powered the scene. It’s one of those mechanics that’s a bit like allowing people to kill children in a game. Even if people don’t do it, just having it there and having the player know it’s there… maybe they’ll try it once and it’ll change their feelings towards the game. That’s how we felt about scalping.”
How Do I Look?
After setting the tone of the game, the team had to decide how Connor would look -- specifically, how Native American he should look. Early concepts of Connor show him in full-blown Native American clothing. After several redesigns, the team realised that despite his heritage, Connor was joining what is essentially a western organisation.
“The story is the assassins arrived in America and he joined them, so we decided to have him adopt western clothing and bring his own gear. So if I work at a bank, I put on a suit -- it doesn’t matter if I like t-shirts and jeans -- I have to put on a suit. The same applies to him.”
Among the things that Connors brings with him are a tomahawk knife and a pin blade, and he also has access to a bow and arrow. The combat has been rebuilt from the ground up to complement Connor’s range of weapons, allowing for two-handed combat. And for the fans concerned about the hidden blade not being visible in the promotional art released, it is there. There's a reason it's called a hidden blade.
A New Century, A New Direction, A New Game
The team’s goals for Connor were very specific. Where Altair was driven by duty and Ezio was a strong, archetypal juicy character, Connor will be a much quieter character.
“We didn’t want to have a Native American Lothario,” Hutchinson says.
“Our goal was to have him driven by a general need to help people. He’s the good guy, he fights injustice, and you can imagine how he gets caught up in the Patriots’ fight.”
Everything about the game points in a different, refreshing direction. While it still has its feet firmly planted in Assassin’s Creed soil, the game branches out into a different era, a different place, and looks into the world of a different people.
The creative director is still nervous -- soon his game will be shown to an even bigger audience, and who knows how they might react. The audience is interested -- this is unlike any Assassin’s Creed game they’ve ever seen before. As for the cupcakes? Yep, still delicious.
Main photo and cupcake photo credit: Tracey Lien at Kotaku Australia