Over time most non-Native North Americans, born in the continent after generations have eroded the lines of their family immigration, come to realize that the place they call home is not really their home at all — that it is in fact land stolen from the people indigenous to it. This, for me at least, was a pretty unsettling revelation. As children, none of us fortunate enough to be born in politically stable nations think much about whether or not our country truly belongs to us. We Canadians sing an anthem that subconsciously reinforce the idea the nation is “our home and native land” and only when we’re a bit older and wiser do we understand just how stomach-churningly ironic such a lyric is.
How do we deal with this?
There’s a decent body of Canadian literature that explores this sense of cultural entitlement and burden from both the Native and non-Native perspectives. It’s a hell of a thing to try to deal with and writing seems like one of the only ways to try to make sense of any of it. The fact of the matter is that multiple generations of colonial families now feel like North America is their home, lineage having erased memories of Native manipulation and genocide. Art attempts to bring these issues back to the forefront of our minds by forcing us to confront the idea of continental identity, though, sometimes portraying the lives of relatable early settlers+ and sometimes reinforcing the idea of North American multiculturalism as a “better late than never” type of reconciliation. Digging into these issues — re-opening the wounds that non-Natives have caused by co-opting the continent — seems like one of the only ways to assuage our collective guilt and attempt to forge a new, better identity.
It isn’t often that we see these themes explored outside of literature, visual art, independent film and music, but the unexpectedly rich portrayal of the birth of America offered up in Assassin’s Creed III looks to change this from the context of a mainstream videogame.
Assassin’s Creed III is a game about the United States, but, because it centres on the American Revolution, it’s also a game about North America as a whole. Any reasonably balanced historical fiction using the Revolution as its setting has to consider much more than the Patriot figureheads and the battles that led to independence and look at the larger context of European colonialism and Native American exploitation. ACIII could have dodged many of these issues while still creating an engaging narrative by casting a white colonial or troubled Redcoat as the Assassin hero, but Ubisoft Montreal, the game’s developer, instead chose to tackle its story with the level of complexity it warrants++.
This is done, in a brilliant bit of plotting, by forcing the player to spend a large amount of time in the shoes of both Ratonhnhaké:ton/Connor, a British-Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) man, and Haytham Kenway, his English father. We are made to see two different perspectives, to grow close to two characters who end up alternating between uneasily allying with and outright fighting against one another throughout the second half of the game. The decision to have both Connor and Haytham act as controllable characters is key because, as the larger themes of the story end up illustrating, nothing in the North American story is as black and white as it may seem.
When Haytham arrives in Massachusetts he immediately begins to seek a powerful item for the benefit of the Templars, the authoritarian secret society he belongs to. In order to find this item Haytham is willing to manipulate anyone he can find in the volatile colonies. Like Britain itself, Haytham and the Templars have come to the New World in search of a way to extend their power. The magic item the Templars desire, much like the limitless wealth represented by the Americas’ abundant natural resources, must be acquired at all costs in order to maintain control over the known world. Haytham eventually discovers that, if he is to claim the hidden item, he will have to work alongside the Native Americans. While his partnership with a Mohawk woman named Kaniehti:io (or Ziio) begins as an alliance of convenience — Ziio wants a troublesome British General eliminated and Haytham needs her to help him gain access to the item — it ends up becoming more intimate as they work together. Haytham, the power-hungry British imperialist, mixes his lineage — the future of the Empire — with Ziio and the Natives of America. Their son, Connor, is born as a mixture of the Old and New World.
When Connor is abandoned by his father he is left to find his own way in the world with the guidance of his Native community. After his mother dies in a raid on his home village he, like the American colonies, is cut off from his parents and forced to create a new identity largely disconnected from its roots. What follows is a story of the American Revolution wherein the thematic symbol of the continent, the British-American Connor, is left to navigate ideologies of absolute freedom (the Assassins) and traditional stricture (the Templars) while fighting to construct his own individual identity by piecing together his disparate roots. His only help comes in the form of an aged Black American, Achilles Davenport, who, from the hints he drops throughout the game, has obviously experienced enormous hardship while playing a part in building the New World. Connor, by the end of the game, has an identity constructed from the perspectives of Black and white colonials, British imperialists, Native Americans, Patriots, Loyalists, order-obsessed Templars and overly optimistic, freedom obsessed Assassins. In this way, the character of Connor becomes something more than the tabula rasa of Altair or Ezio’s aristocratic philanthropist, the protagonists of the first two Assassin’s Creed games. He is North America itself. His instinctive, violent reactions to injustice and his struggle to find an identity are all uniquely continental traits. His attempts to rectify his past with his present, the trappings of his lineage and his desires for a just future, see him constantly confused and guilt-ridden. When, near the end of the game, Connor must confront his father, he is America itself. Haytham, standing in for Britain and the nation’s past, is killed by the child he created. Whatever North America may be, ACIII says, it isn’t part of the Old World anymore.
Ubisoft Montreal mixes elements of everything that North America is, bringing a collection of varying ethnic groups, national cultures and competing philosophies together in their characters. Through this, the studio gives its audiences both an exciting historical adventure and a playable essay on the North American condition. Most videogame developers aim much lower than this, assuming that any audience buying an action game won’t have the patience to explore deeper themes. Assassin’s Creed III proves otherwise, offering up a thoughtful, interesting and artistic take on the birth of modern nations and asking the kind of difficult questions regarding the past, present and future of North America. None of these questions provide answers for people like me who are still troubled by the idea of calling a country like Canada or the United States home, but they at least urge more people to consider this problem and think more deeply about what it means to come from our continent.
+ Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush and many other examples of “frontier literature” provide detailed accounts of early, sympathetic North American immigrants unconsciously trying to “make it” at the behest of others.
++ I wonder if the developer being based out of Quebec helped to inform the subtler approach taken by the game. Quebecois are definitely not strangers to the complexities of multicultural politics, Montreal being something like the nerve centre of Canada’s century old tensions between Francophones and Anglophones. That the city is also home to a larger number of Anglophones than many other areas of Quebec (and that Ubisoft Montreal employs people from across the world, most notably Corey May, the Assassin’s Creed series’ American Lead Writer) is another factor that helped the team to create a complex look into their subject matter.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, Sasquatch Radio, and, more importantly, founded, writes and is editor-in-extremis for game site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.