This is not the year of Luigi. That's a marketing ploy. It's really the year of the sea shanty, and its triumphant return into the wider public (well, gaming at least) consciousness. Originally conceived as a means of passing the time while sailors engaged in back-breaking labour on a ship, 2013 saw them take centre stage in Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed IV, where they promptly steal the show.
They are, without a doubt, the best thing about that game.
Why? Because they're real history. Sort of. Let me explain.
Because of the way they're taught the subject, people tend to associate history only with immediate visual items, or catalogued information. The dates of battles, Kings of England, the clothes people wore, etc.
But that's just scraping the surface of our past. So much of the human experience never finds its way into a text book. How things smelled, how they felt, how they tasted, how things sounded.
So when we think of pirates, we think of ships, we think of hats, and we think of yyaarrgghh. We don't think of the more mundane parts of life, like singing while doing a hard day's work.
Without that sort of stuff, we're getting an entirely incomplete picture of how life used to be.
Assassin's Creed IV, on the other hand, thrusts sea shanties into the very heart of the game. They're a cult favourite, a singalong treat to pass the time on long voyages, a collectible to be earned through feats of athleticism in the game's towns.
Most games would be content to simply let you sail between islands. Maybe play some piece of music. But such is Assassin's Creed IV's devotion to really having you live through a time period that you're given the full experience.
Or, at least, you're getting a fuller experience of the myth. See, sea shanties weren't very common during the age of piracy in the Caribbean. In fact, there's little record songs were sung at all during that time on the decks of European ships. Most sea shanties you recognise, including the famous "Drunken Sailor", were actually first sung decades, sometimes even centuries later.
Perhaps the weirdest example of this discrepancy is the game's worst shanty, the maddening "Johnny Boker". This wasn't a pirate song at all. It actually dates from the 20th century, and has roots in African-American minstrel shows and folk songs. Indeed, a line from the actual shanty - obviously omitted from the game — is "O Jonny Boker, help dat n****r do, do Johnny Booker do".
This should be something to criticise Ubisoft for. After all, it's not history at all! It's pandering to a stereotype at best, and at worst, lying!
But given the context of Assassin's Creed IV, I can't help but feel there's a touch of appropriateness to it all. After all, outside of the Animus you're playing somebody who's not trying to catalogue history, you're trying to make entertainment out of it. You're always being told by your superiors, oh, we'll just cut that, or edit that, or change this to make it more exciting.
Just like Ubisoft have done here. I mean, sure, in reality pirates never sung sea shanties. They just chanted on the decks of their ships. Boring. But just like the staff at Abstergo Entertainment, Ubisoft's primary job isn't to educate you. It's to entertain you. And if they have to flesh out the experience of being a Caribbean pirate by borrowing another era's work songs, and playing to a stereotype, then the entertainment is better for it.
You may be living a lie of a life - a lot closer to that of a 19th century sailor than a pirate - but at least you're living a fuller lie.
Just remember that the next time you have to write an essay on pirate songs, OK?
Anyway, inaccurate or not, the songs are still awesome, performed with gusto and adding a ton to the atmosphere of the game's sailing sections. So here are the best of them! (With thanks to Kosappi Uni for the videos!)
That Lowlands harmony... it gets me every time. Even in a YouTube video. If this is playing on a calm night, and you're sailing with the moonlight at your back, well...if you're not covered in goosebumps, there's something wrong with you. Seek help immediately.
This shanty, British in origin, actually dates from around the 1860s, and is about a sailor's lady friend visiting him in his dreams.
It's as famous as tricorn hats and swashed buckles, and also one of the oldest sea shanties on record, dating back to at least the 1830s. Used mostly on larger ships, it was the only work song permitted by the Royal Navy.
Isn't it the best? It's exactly the kind of thing you imagine pirates singing, drunk off rum and swinging at the ropes. They never did, of course, since it dates back to the early 19th century, but it's an awesome tune regardless. I mean, how often do you get to hear a song about a giant ram terrorising the countryside, killing all in its path?
Cheerly Man is actually an American shanty, one of the most popular of the 19th century. The lyrics you hear in the game are the "radio edit"; 20th century author Joanna Colcord wrote the more common words "are too racy to reproduce without considerable editing."
FISH IN THE SEA
Starting life as a Scottish fisherman's song, it soon made its way over the Atlantic and became popular in both the US and Canada. You'll notice each verse involves a creature of the sea; sailors could keep adding to the song as long as they could keep thinking of new fish with catchy words.