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History First-hand: Memory, the Player and the Video Game Narrative in the Assassin’s Creed Games

Lakshmi Menon, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Abstract

This paper will look at the convergence of the interactive free flow of video games and the questioning and revisioning of historical continuity using the example of the Assassin’s Creed series by Ubisoft. With a story that exists simultaneously in the modern day and the 15th century, the games allow the player to take control of characters and alter, or make possible, events recognisable as historical fact. It plays with both history and memory and history as memory, as the life of the primary player character is being relived through the genetic memories of one of his descendants. Being highly narrative-bound, the Assassin’s Creed games use, via the medium of the screen, the rift between history and memory as a central element of narrative, theme, and game design, which this paper will explore. Furthermore, using theories of convergence this paper will examine how video games provide a new, interactive mode of storytelling that is rapidly becoming representative of our age.

 

There was a time when video games were merely considered to be base forms of indoor entertainment, with early games like Pong or Pacman which had simple objectives and no discernible plot or structure. With time, however, games have evolved from these simplistic origins to complex narratives, containing driven, well constructed characters, complex plot (or plots), and involving a greater involvement from the players than mere accurate button-pushing. Games today, with advancements in graphic design and capability of the platforms on which they can be played, are almost akin to interactive films– in which the player not only consumes the movie-like storyline, but becomes an active participant in the narrative and its outcomes.

This interactivity is, as pop culture theorist Henry Jenkins would put it, a marker of the media convergence that is so significant to our age. Ours is an era in which there is an increasing participation of the consumer of a popular cultural text with the text itself- whether as the voting audience of a reality television show, or the creators of fan-art and fiction. Video games therefore become one of the most significant examples of this participatory culture. Technologies have advanced to make this convergence even more possible, and along with that, have intensified how far reaching the effects of convergence can be. Older regimes of knowledge are called into question, and the dimensions of time and space can be compressed into a completely different format. Games in recent times have developed complex narratives that create alternative realities and histories: they find new methods of storytelling through a synthesis of textual and cinematic media, bound only by the rules that bind gameplay. We have come a long way from games in which the only objective was ‘don’t die’.

In this paper, I will look at the convergence of the interactive free flow of video games and the questioning and revisioning of historical continuity using the example of the Assassin’s Creed series by Ubisoft: open-world, action adventure stealth historical fiction games, consisting of nine main games and a number of supporting materials on multiple platforms. I will focus particularly on the games that follow the adventures of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, and Edward Kenway – in Renaissance Italy and the Caribbean respectively. The games in the Assassin’s Creed series exist in two time frames, and a basic understanding of the story is necessary in order to theorise fully its implications with regards to my arguments on history and memory. The games revolve around the rivalry between two ancient secret societies: the Assassins and the Knights Templar.

The real-world chronological setting of the first three games in the series feature Desmond Miles, who is forced into the Animus, a device that allows him to experience his ancestral memories. Desmond explores the memories of a number of Assassins; including, in Assassin’s Creed II, Ezio Auditore da Firenze, an Assassin in Italy during the late 15th and early 16th centuries of the Italian Renaissance. Assassin’s Creed IV puts the player in control of an employee of a company developing games based on the now deceased Desmond’s genetic memory, with the pirate Edward Kenway being the first of his ancestors to be used for this purpose. Throughout the games, there is a constant switching of the gameplay between the characters in the present, trying to solve Abstergo’s mysteries, and the ancestral Assassin who is – in effect – playing out incidents that form part of the history that we know and recognise, only with differences that are important to the plot structure of the games.

While the premise of Assassins and Templars is fictitious, the events that Ezio and Edward participate in are true, as are many of the characters they interact with, such as Leonardo da Vinci in Ezio’s case and Blackbeard in Edward’s. The mythology of the games suggest that it has been the actions of the two rival factions that have affected many of the events in history; for instance, Rodrigo Borgia is a member of the Templars, and is part of the conspiracy to bring down the Medici family in Florence, and it is suggested that the first Templar was the Biblical betrayer Cain….Access Full Text of the Article

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