According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, history is
“a chronological record of significant events (such as those affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes.”
Now, within that definition are some considerable caveats. What is considered significant? To whom is an event significant? Even within the record itself, how is it archived in such a way that the same meaning is retained from the moment of documentation to the point of retrieval after the passage of time? Who or what decided what the explanations were going to be for causation?
We often discuss history at the casual level as a simple statement of “things” that had occurred and have remained as such and thus have broadly consented to history as an overarching authority of past reality. However, history should be also thought of as a practice of power and control, through the silencing of voices as determined by institutions and structures that value some people more highly than others. Therefore, we need to be cognizant of the lens through which we absorb and think about history and be aware of its potential to be wielded like a weapon.
What I find interesting about the Assassin’s Creed franchise is its premise of allowing the player to see history for “what it really was” by “living” through the memories of a past individual through the use of the Animus machine. In the first three games, I – III, we accompany a modern-day character named Desmond Miles as he explores his “genetic memories” through the Animus. Quite conveniently, he is a descendent of very prominent Assassins who all happened to have considerable influence during each of their times. Assuming that “genetic memories” are uncorrupted retellings of the reality that each ancestor experienced, the enemy of the Assassins, the Templars, try and use Desmond’s body as a means of finding really important items that had the power to shape the world according to their ideology.
In a way, the exploitation of the body and an individual’s history is somewhat of a meta-commentary on the actions of Ubisoft, the publisher of the franchise. Most narratives involve a conflict between parties, and the generic ones are usually between a “good” side and a “bad” side. The same goes for Assassin’s Creed: the player is led to think that the Assassins are good agents fighting for peace freedom and sovereignty while the Templars are bad people who seek to bring about peace through order and control. (This paradigm is toyed with further in later games, but I’m not going to go into that now.) Now the question becomes, “What type of people are Assassins and what type of people are Templars?”
In the stories set in colonial America, the Templars are usually presented as the colonizers (British, French) while the Assassin’s are those that have been colonized and/or oppressed (those of Native American or African descent). This power dynamic lends itself nicely to the dichotomy depicted by the two opposing orders. What is really interesting then is decision behind the heritage of two of the protagonists in Assassin’s Creed III: Aveline de Grandpré (AC3: Liberation) is of African/French heritage while Ratonhnhaké:ton “Connor” Kenway (AC3) is of Native American/British descent.
Not only does that put both characters in an unstable “middle ground” between the Assassin and Templar ideologies, but that also places both into a strata of society in which all the benefits of the more “powerful” race are not experienced but the oppression of the “weaker” race remains. As somewhat expected, the games focuses more heavily on the Assassin/Templar conflict as the protagonists’ motivating factors, but the social/racial issues that each would have faced are certainly considerations that went into the construction of these characters. However, was Ubisoft interested in telling a story from the perspective of those who were silenced, or were they just exploitative in taking narratives just for the sake of entertainment?
At a certain point in Liberation, both Assassins meet up (**surprise surprise**) to go on a joint-mission, and it seemed only natural to have the characters with mirrored lives to collaborate. While this interlude seemed like a bone for fans to chew, a deeper correspondence between the two might’ve benefited a richer social commentary. A hint of that is there with the final parting words between the two:
Aveline: […] Connor, are you always… certain in the means and ways of the Brotherhood?
Connor: I… trust my own hands.
But does that mean we should always trust ours? Perhaps not.