The developers behind the Assassin's Creed series have always been proud of how much effort they put into maintaining a thin veil of historical accuracy. That's most evident in the settings, from Revolution-era Boston to the Holy Land during the Crusades, where that veneer of accuracy goes much deeper. But it's there in the plot, as well, despite the presence of deific holograms and a secret order of superhero Assassins.
The large-scale battles in Assassin's Creed 3 are certainly based in reality. Maybe there really was a lone, robed figure infiltrating those battlefields and taking out officers. Maybe that guy that Connor killed in whatever sequence really died of mysterious causes around that place and time. Maybe.
The point is I was surprised when Ubisoft announced that the first expansion for AC 3, "The Tyranny of King Washington," would throw all of that out the window. Instead of basing the new narrative on actual historical events, they'd create an alternate version where George Washington became a tyrannical king with a supernatural scepter, with figures like Benedict Arnold cast as his evil underlings. They weren't just augmenting history; they were altering historical facts in service to the game, and as far as I knew, this was the first time they had done this. At least it was the first time they had done it so blatantly, and it was a huge departure from their normal attitude.
When I spoke with the DLC's mission director, Ubisoft Quebec's Hugo Giard, I suggested that it must have been cathartic to not be constrained by the realities of history when developing "The Tyranny of King Washington."
"It was a blast," he replied. "During pre-production, imagining new scenarios for each of these characters, whether they be this time good guys or bad guys or whatever, all of that was a lot of fun to do." He said just like in the main Assassin's Creed games, real historical figures provided "a jumping-off point." But without the need to research and consider trivia like who died at what battle, they were able to take the creative licence much further than the teams behind the main games can.
"Once we jumped in there, I mean, as storytellers and as mission designers we were free to come up with any ideas that we wanted to," he said. "We could explore, you know, we could go crazy!"
The "crazy" definitely came through. So far only "The Infamy," the first of the DLC's three parts has been released, but it includes hallucinogenic tea leaves, a Crysis-style cloaking mechanic, packs of spirit wolves with deadly jaws, and an extraordinarily evil George Washington. He's even got the Apple of Eden, an important relic in Assassin's Creed lore, and he's using it to manipulate reality.
None of that would have been possible if Giard and his team at Ubisoft's Quebec Studio had had been limited by the rules of fiction grounded in history, as opposed to the fictionalized history that "Tyranny" is.
Including the Apple was important to Giard because of an image in Assassin's Creed 2 that briefly shows Washington holding the artifact. Never mind that Washington never came near it in the main Assassin's Creed 3 storyline. In fact, I'd guess that was one of the main reasons for "Tyranny" to go off on this unreality tangent to begin with -- hardcore fans would have no doubt started a whitehouse.gov petition if the series had moved on without Washington ever holding the Apple himself.
"When we started working on the DLC we knew we wanted to bring something new and fresh to the gameplay," Giard said. Becoming invisible definitely accomplishes that, and the upcoming two chapters will add "bear might" and "eagle flight" powers to complement Connor's new "wolf cloak." But I think the real triumph is the degree to which Ubisoft is getting comfortable manipulating history to suit its own narratives.