The Assassin’s Creed series is perhaps one of the most popular titles on the market today. Starting in 2007 with the release of Assassin’s Creed, it delivered its tenth main instalment in late last year, with Assassin’s Creed Origins. Along with a film adaptation starring Michael Fassbender in 2016, numerous books and spin-offs, and the series selling over 100 million copies as of September 2016 has marked it as Ubisoft’s best-selling series. Therefore, the series is pretty safely cemented as one of gaming’s most popular and prolific.
Ubisoft has even shown themselves to be fairly responsive to customer feedback, releasing 2014’s Unity campaign DLC, Dead Kings, free of charge after its infamously less than stellar launch with bugs and glitches galore. In addition, after the series showed signs of stagnation with its yearly instalments, Ubisoft took a year out of its release cycle for Origins to come out in late 2017, to positive reviews across the board. A popular series with a devoted fanbase is something Ubisoft will want to continue for years to come, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
One of the key assets to the Assassin’s Creed games is the breadth of diversity offered to the creators, in its history-hopping gameplay. Recent instalments of AAA yearly releases have suffered in this way, with Call of Duty and Battlefield being forced to return to their roots of world war shooters after the modern warfare well ran dry.On the other hand, Assassin’s Creed has thrived with games ranging from the Middle East during the Crusades, to the Seven Years War in the American Colonies, to Victorian London.
This is one of the series’ best defining traits, with the main draw being the historical setting, time period, and the protagonist, which, in true AAA fashion, has featured a stubbly white dude for the majority of its releases. The protagonist debate of Assassin’s Creed has always interested me, with Ezio Auditore usually being touted as the best protagonist in living memory by a vocal majority of fans and this is something Ubisoft seems to agree with as they have focused three games and a short animated film on his life. However, as a long-time fan of the series, I’ve never understood the fascination with the Italian Assassin compared to the other protagonists on offer.
Whilst certainly a cool character, Altair Ibn La’Ahad of the first Assassin’s Creed, was fairly one-dimensional as a protagonist too. A true-to-the books, American-accented Syrian man (hardly the biggest historical sin Ubisoft has committed), he was a serviceable protagonist, but never seems to top anyone’s list of Best Assassin.
Introduced in Assassin’s Creed II, Ezio is much more fondly remembered, either due to the second instalment’s legendary status, or his sheer charm. Within the first few hours of gameplay, he’s seen as a competent fighter who can dish it out as well as take it, throw out a ‘your sister’ joke to a rival, parkour around Renaissance Florence, charm his girlfriend, outrun some guards the morning after, and even pal around with Leonardo da Vinci, all before he even dons the iconic white robes and hidden blade.
By the time the credits roll on the game, he’s renovated an entire villa, befriended (and killed) more than a few historical figures, and even had a fistfight with the Pope (again, hardly Ubisoft’s biggest historical revision). With the sequels of Brotherhood and Revelations continuing Ezio’s story, Ubisoft seemed as invested as the fans in keeping his story going, taking us to liberate Rome and throw Cesare Borgia off a castle wall, and then to Istanbul for the conclusion of his saga. While he did give us some great moments (Revelations’ ending ranks amongst some of my favourite moments in the series), Ezio never bewitched me as much as he did other fans.
Imagine my surprise, then, when 2012’s Assassin’s Creed III featured a Native American protagonist, Ratonhnhaké:ton, more commonly known by his adopted name of Connor. In comparison with questionable portrayals of Native American characters in popular culture, such as Johnny Depp’s Tonto in the 2013 adaptation of The Lone Ranger, Connor has clear strength as a protagonist. This is a respectful portrayal of a Native American man, especially within the context of the American Revolution, originating from a tribe with historical accuracy which actually existed (looking at you inFAMOUS: Second Son). He shows genuine compassion and care for the people he protects and the characters he meets, yet stays true to his convictions, even killing his own father, Haytham of the Templar Order, and telling George Washington exactly where to stick his star-spangled banner after being betrayed by both men. He follows in Ezio’s footsteps, renovating a down at heel homestead, and basically restoring the Assassin Order in the American colonies. He even has his share of badass moments as well, taking down a traitorous Templar moments after escaping his own execution and charging through the Battle of Bunker Hill to assassinate another. Oh! And there’s also that DLC campaign where he tackles George Washington off a pyramid with magical animal powers.
However, Connor has attracted far less fevered popularity amongst the vast majority of Assassin’s Creed fans, who tout his ‘boredom’, and supposed lack of charisma as flaws in his character’s writing, when these are actually some of his most interesting characteristics. Whilst Connor’s awkwardness in many scenarios may seem to be just that, it’s actually a conscious decision made in the performance by Noah Watts (Connor’s voice actor).
While managing to hold many conversations with fellow members of his tribe in Mohawk, Watts’ awkward line readings with the white American cast were fully intentional, as was the lack of contractions in Connor’s speech (which despite giving him an oddly stiff and formal edge, shows his lack of fluency in the English language), which makes perfect sense for a Mohawk teen thrust into the American Revolution. He’s in an unfamiliar setting, but does what he can to be polite to a culture and society he doesn’t understand. While a jokey scene, Paul Revere’s touchiness with Connor during the Midnight Ride clearly unnerves him, though he does not voice this discomfort. He’s unused to this culture, this way of living so common to us, the player, so of course he looks out of place. There is obviously a degree of disconnect here, and whether Ubisoft intended this or not is up for debate. However, I do wonder if it’s Connor’s personality that causes such a divide amongst fans. He’s not a cool wisecracking Italian man. Instead he’s a softly spoken Native American, with flashes of extreme anger that break through every so often. He’s not charming, his interactions with any female characters are usually a laughable mess, he doesn’t drink, and Watts even confirmed that he’s a virgin. So despite his bow-wielding badassery, is the problem with Connor for a lot of Assassin’s Creed fans that he’s not manly enough?
Due to the collective disdain for Connor, Ubisoft seemed to take this on board in their next instalment, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, taking a pretty relatable fantasy for any player, being a pirate on the high seas, and transplanting it within their usual historical sandboxes. While it’s easy to tune out the main character to the roar of cannonfire and the annoyingly catchy sea shanties, Edward Kenway, Connor’s grandfather, is an interesting protagonist in his own right. There’s elements of what made Ezio so relatable to the fans; he’s tough as hell, he’s best mates with Blackbeard and Jack Rackham, he’s a charmer, a brawler, and easy to relate to. However, having spent most of the game pursuing riches and infamy, he begins to see the error of his ways after having lost most of the comrades he set out with and he sets out to make amends. Unlike Ezio who would brush this off and parkour away, we see Edward at his lowest, speaking with one of his last remaining friends about all those they’ve lost, holding back tears at what his selfishness has cost him, and finally admitting how much he misses them. He seeks a sense of purpose again, and the Assassin Order offers it to him, but only after he turns to them for help combatting the demons that plague him. Within the context of mental health, many men, myself included, are more likely to try and ‘man up’ (something much easier said than done) but still refusing to ask for help because it’s seen as ‘unmanly’. This toxic masculinity is exactly what Edward subverts and goes against in asking for help when he needs it. Whilst his character arc still offers more obvious examples of him subverting typical protagonist roles (he’s probably one of the most casual bisexual pirates to have not existed), this is one of the most defining, in my eyes.
I could go on psychoanalysing each protagonist of each successive instalment, and why fans view them as ‘inferior’ to Ezio. The cool, wisecracking brawler Jacob Frye is a bit of a moron compared to his older sister, Evie, and more or less “accidentalies” himself into each assassination and plot point, like successfully killing a Templar but also almost causing the collapse of British currency simultaneously. Arno Dorian refuses to buy into the now-toxic tenets of the Creed and thinks for himself, while still pursuing his love across Revolutionary Paris. And so on.
My main point is that the hero worship present in some fans for Ezio may be down to more than just ‘he’s a cool Italian man who does cool Italian things’. While his charm, charisma, and overall style is something to aspire to, my main concern is how the other characters’ plights are often overlooked, other ways we can learn from these fictional Assassins that we may be losing every time Ezio tops a ‘Best Assassin’ list.
Image: Ubisoft – Assassin’s Creed 3