Can a video game be historical fiction? It’s a question I’ve confronted playing every Assassin’s Creed, and a goal Ubisoft clearly strides toward. They’ve come close in my mind, especially with Assassin’s Creed II and III, but due to the settings never feeling quite real enough, they’ve yet to produce a game that indisputably fits the bill.
So what of Assassin’s Creed: Unity? Has Ubisoft finally cracked the formula?
I regret to say they haven’t. Much like Revolutionary Paris itself, Unity strikes one as a chaotic, beautiful mess. It’s a shattered mosaic. All the elements are there, but it lacks a cohesive structure to put them together. Unity‘s a fascinating and unprecedented vision that, with a little more thought and incubation, could have been much more.
What is historical fiction, exactly? Opinions differ, but without treading on too many toes, I’ll say this: historical fiction is a story that engages a historical period as part of its narrative. The setting isn’t a backdrop, it’s integral to the point that this particular story couldn’t be told about another time and place. L.A. Confidential would be a different story outside of post-war Hollywood. The monastic setting shapes The Name of the Rose. In these stories, history isn’t the icing on the cake, it’s the flour in the batter. The characters aren’t merely living in a time, their struggles and adventures reveal something about that period. Science fiction or fantasy elements can even exist in a piece of media (see Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series) so long as the work engages with the period’s real issues. The Richard Sharpe series counts because it’s primarily about class conflict in Wellington’s army, whereas The Pirates of the Caribbean films don’t because they’re based on pirate myths peddled by Hollywood. That’s the difference between historical fiction and fiction with a historical setting.
Second, historical fiction reinterprets history for a modern audience. It’s not a primary source document from the past, and therefore gets passed through the imaginative lens of both its creator (or multiple creators) and its audience. Along the way, the interpretation process, knowingly or not, highlights elements that appeal to modern people. We discussed this two weeks ago regarding Shadow of Mordor, but a modern writer will always choose to highlight themes that appeal to modern tastes. For example, it’s no accident that the film L.A. Confidential emphasizes the novel’s theme of institutional racism in the LAPD. That aspect likely rose to prominence since the film came about in the wake of the Rodney King beating and 1992 Los Angeles race riots. This certainly counts as a bias, true, but it also refreshes historical periods and shows us how they apply to our own lives.
Unity hits it out of the park with its setting. Ubisoft has fashioned the world’s greatest digital recreation of a historical city. It has architectural majesty and street filth. Crowds and cafés. The monarchy and the mob. You walk through the city and see men fixing a wheel on a wagon. Drunks wander past. Actors preform a scene on the street. At times I would sit in the Café Theatre and just listen to the conversations. There are no idle inclusions, either. Each element serves a purpose. During the Revolution, for example, cafés served as the pressure cookers of intellectual thought and a clearinghouse for rumors, so it makes sense as a secret society’s home base. (There are even theories that caffeine itself helped fuel the Enlightenment – before coffee and tea everyone drank beer, even in the morning.) It’s a well-placed detail and shows the team understands what they’re doing. Loving touches grace every street corner.
Take a stroll through the city and it’s clear that the team really cared about fashioning an accurate and convincing illusion. In fact, city’s depiction is so good that at times it falls into the uncanny valley or feels that much more marred by its glitches. The street scenes lose their luster when hats or socks spontaneously appear on citizen’s heads, and after seeing the same crowd burning effigies day after day, you wonder if they ever go home. Still, I find it hard to fault a development team who clearly cared too much rather than too little, and perhaps had more ambition than they did development time.
Much like Black Flag, Unity expresses the period through play as well. The game uses public violence, for example, in a way that fits well with the period. From street brawls to assassinations and sword fights in front of crowds, the game clearly understands the Revolution’s idea of violence as a performative rhetorical tool. But the best example is how Arno moves.
The French Revolution was primarily a class struggle, and the developers use the game’s verticality to emphasize this through movement. The game’s newly open windows provide more opportunities for item hunting and escape, but they also give class commentary on the city. Generally the higher you climb, the nicer apartments get. A wheelwright’s shop on the first floor might have a sitting room on the second, with subtly more expensive furnishings. An unkempt bed and hanging laundry may give way to dining tables and paintings as you rise, communicating the city’s class divisions. Likewise running across the rooftops from one district to another will speak volumes about the city’s haves and have-nots. The arched roofs and wide avenues in districts like Cité and Versailles not only look different than the shantytown slum of la Cour des Miracles, they physically influence how you move around the architecture. The latter’s broken and crooked, with lines-of-sight cut off and difficult to navigate. You feel the destitution and fear there through gameplay, and when you climb you can literally ascend above the streets and look down on the rabble.
But the parkour cuts both ways. Though it’s used to emphasize the setting’s themes, it also keeps you separate from the most interesting elements. Life in Unity‘s Paris happens on the streets, not the rooftops. That’s where the people are, with the graffiti, filth, and news criers. Nonetheless, the game heavily incentivizes the player to travel across its rooftops where fewer threats can get to you (especially since you can plunge through the ground upon landing). There’s a sad, detached feeling that often came over me as I traveled this way, knowing that my efficiency kept me from witnessing the bustling city below. And that detachment’s a microcosm of Unity‘s fundamental problem.
For much of the game, Unity‘s narrative feels divorced from the French Revolution. It’s not that Arno and Elise’s problems aren’t engaging — I liked them and their adventures well enough — it’s that they aren’t rooted in this time and this place. Their Romeo and Juliet murder mystery dynamic could’ve worked in Renaissance Italy or the American Revolution as easily as 18th century France – and an eleventh hour attempt to tie into the period fails as a result. Unity spends too much time fussing with dull Assassin-Templar dynamics early on when it should have developed a consistent theme and introduced recurring historical characters. By the time the third act rolls around, it’s rattling off historical figures like a crying actress in an overlong Oscar speech. Worse, the Assassin narrative upstages the much more interesting historical one — quite literally. At one point a villain monologues while Louis XVI is guillotined in the background. The Terror largely happens off screen.
In contrast, look at Assassin’s Creed II, where the inciting incident merged the in-game myth with a real historical event. Ezio’s father and brother die as a part of the real-life Pazzi Conspiracy, and his campaign of vengeance takes place amidst the anti-Pazzi riots that racked the city after the attempted assassination of Lorenzo de’ Medici. (If you’re interested in knowing the real story, read April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici.) While there are many fictional elements tying events together, the real historical events alter and shape Ezio’s character.
Arno’s the opposite. While his story takes place during famous revolutionary events, these momentous occasions happen in front of him rather than to him. He doesn’t internalize. We never get a sense of how he feels about the Revolution, what he thinks about it or how it’s changed his life. His attitude toward the upheaval in his country seems to be that it’s a distraction from his revenge, and it leaves me incredulous as an audience member. A Parisian not feeling or thinking anything about the Revolution in 1791 would be like a New Yorker not having a reaction after the 9/11 attacks. The French storm upended a centuries-old social order, yet Arno’s only reflection carries little more than momentary wonder at how much has changed. And if Arno’s divorced nature seems odd, that goes doubly so for the historical characters like Mirabeau, who often seem more caught up with the Assassin-Templar conflict than the howling political chaos around them.
In fact, Unity keeps the entire Revolution at arms length until late in the narrative, and that’s a huge failing. It loves to show you rioting crowds, but never explains why people scream in the streets. There aren’t any missions explaining what angered France to the point that it tore itself apart. Database entries try to pick up the slack (when they’re not cracking tiresome French jokes) but the Revolution’s so complex that simply throwing data at the player worsens the situation rather than clarifies it. Halfway through the game I was still trying to figure out what relationship the secret societies had with ongoing events, and as a result the narrative comes off a shambles. Open world mechanics exacerbate the issue, since important events like the Women’s March to Versailles get shunted off to secondary status as co-op missions, meaning a player may encounter them in-game years after they occurred. History depends very strongly on cause and effect relationships, and when you stir fry the timeline it affects how the audience perceives the period.
Ubisoft also makes no attempt to frame this to a modern audience, and that’s a shame. Assassin’s Creed III got on my good side when it attacked historical myths about America’s founding. At every turn it questioned the classroom-sanitized version American students grow up with, presenting the founding fathers as lecherous, incompetent, or hostile to Native Americans. In short, they were people rather than icons. Shaun even lectures Desmond about the folly of seeing the time as a golden age and example for the current country. Whether I agreed with specific portrayals or not, it was a red-blooded, opinionated game that wasn’t afraid to break some china, and I like that. If anything, Unity seems too careful about meddling with history, instead forcing an unearned thesis into its epilogue.
Overall, I wonder whether this distant feel came from Unity trying to remain neutral. Apparently when they brought in an expert from the Sorbonne to review the script he found it too pro-Royalist and they made changes as a result. That was probably wise, since even now the game has a strong counter-revolutionary streak to it, emphasizing the Revolution’s mob violence and executions while rarely acknowledging the causes for upheaval. For a game that takes place during great political turbulence, Unity‘s hesitation to engage the era’s politics is a grand failure on its part.
And that’s why Assassin’s Creed: Unity isn’t historical fiction.
It’s a Revolutionary-era sandbox without peer. Graduate students will write theses about this game. Professors could use it in the classroom. There’s no way to over-emphasize what an achievement it represents with regard to research and presentation. But historical fiction lives and dies on its narrative, and in storytelling it falls short.
That’s a shame. It’s a grand historical adventure, and the setting has so much potential.
At least there’s still hope — Napoleon’s just around the corner.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in The Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.