Living the Pirate Life in Assassin’s Creed IV

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Assassin’s Creed IV is an indulgent game. No doubt as a reaction to its predecessor, Black Flag is lighter on the historical detail and spends much more time embracing both myth and classically “fun” gameplay. While that sounds like a strike against the game’s historical storytelling, it’s actually not – rather than dialogue and database entries, Black Flag uses game mechanics to convey its historical setting. It’s subtle enough that you may not even realize it, but Black Flag‘s mechanics cause you to think like an 18th century sailor and unconsciously live the pirate life.

Sea Shanties

Shanties are probably the best single element in Black Flag. They’re fun collectables, give players a sense of the period and make the long stretches between islands pass with ease. And that last bit is truly inspired design-because that’s what sailors used songs for in the first place.

First, hard truth: shanties shouldn’t be in AC4. Shanties are a specific genre of chanted work song that arose during the mid-19th century on clipper and packet ships. Inspired by African-American dock worker’s songs as well as British and American folk music, shanties helped sailors work in rhythm during tasks where they needed to synchronize specific actions like hauling in the anchor or unfurling sails. “Leaver Her, Johnny,” for example, was written to accompany working a ship’s pump. While some of the period songs in Black Flag are genuinely from the early 18th century, many like “Drunken Sailor” come from a hundred years after, and others are not work songs, but “sea songs.”

That aside, the sea songs in Black Flag serve the same purpose as their historical counterparts-to make the ocean seem less empty, to keep spirits up and stave off boredom during long trips. Songs fill empty spaces for the player, just as they did for seamen making long voyages with nothing but their voices and a few small instruments to entertain them. While it’s true many of the songs are out of period, their use bridges the gap between player and ship better than anything else in the game.

Making Port, Blowing All Your Money and Heading Back to Sea

Land-based gameplay is the worst part of Black Flag. Boring port activities and chores, only interrupted by missions you have to slog through to get to sea again. Worse still, you’re frequently poor on land, having blown all your money on ship and weapon upgrades-you know, fun things-before your clothes even dry out. As a result the more time a player spends on land, the more he looks out to sea, dreaming about the salt air and next big score.

Now I’m sure Ubisoft didn’t intend this-no sane AAA developer would-but the limited pleasures on land actually replicate how many sailors spent their time and money during the Golden Age of Piracy.

There is nothing to buy on a ship at sail. Sailors might pay each other to make pipes or other small goods, or buy items off each other, but that was fairly limited. Added to that, cruises were long, boring and harrowing, meaning that when ships came into port, crewmen needed to relive stress and have fun before embarking on another monotonous voyage. Unless a sailor had a spouse to support or a relative to take care of his money (most people didn’t use or trust banks) the only solution was to spend wages on goods and pleasures. The result was that shore leave often became a multi-day debauch, with sailors drinking, visiting brothels, and buying everything in sight before they went back out to sea and their currency became useless again. In fact, this behavior was known to be so extreme that some sailors blew all their money within a fortnight on shore, and had to take on menial work or wander around broke until the next voyage. The result was that many veteran seamen left the trade with no savings at all, winding up as beggars at home. The cycle was so infamous that it inspired a famous Royal Navy song, “The British Tars,” where the narrator laments that after twenty years in service, he’s “turned adrift to starve upon [his] native shore.”

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This is basically how I behave as Edward. The minute I reach port I’m buying ship upgrades, weapon upgrades, maybe a new set of clothes and-wait a second, I had 20,000 Reales when I got here, what the hell happened? Then I’m hunting for treasure chests and Templars just so I can pay upkeep costs on ammunition just to afford going to back to sea, so I can get more money, and blow it again. The only difference is that I’m spending all my money on hull upgrades and swords rather than prostitutes, rum and exotic pets. The result is the same, though-enthusiasm makes me spend my money on fun big-ticket items rather than the more responsible things like refilling my mortar shells and pistol ammunition.

Fear the Sea and Sky

After the English defeated the Spanish Armada, they printed medals with the phrase, “Jehovah blew with His winds, and they were scattered.” Whether or not you believe in divine intervention, it’s a pretty fair assessment. Winds constantly worked against the Spanish during their aborted invasion, and about half the Armada wrecked in a storm off Ireland. The weather was such a factor that King Phillip II of Spain railed at the “Protestant winds” that beset his fleet. “I sent the armada against men,” he lamented. “Not God’s winds and waves.”

This drives home a good point about the age of sail: That storms were more dangerous than enemy vessels.

Black Flag does a brilliant job representing this fact mechanically. Offhand, I’d say that I’ve lost the Jackdaw to storms about twice as much as enemy fire. Rogue waves and waterspouts do far more damage than a Man o’ War, and even a stiff gale can drive you into the rocks, making you vulnerable to nearby enemies. In fact, the weather is so dangerous that I’ve developed as many strategies for surviving a storm as I have for attacking a convoy. If a ship I’m hunting sails into heavy weather, I abandon the chase and look for an easier prize. Should I see rain coming in off the horizon, I’ll anchor near an island and go exploring until the storm passes. Probably the most dramatic moment I’ve ever had in AC4 wasn’t a broadside-to-broadside battle, it was when I was trying to flee a British convoy and was forced to sail into a storm. I spent the next few minutes zigzagging in high winds, plowing through rogue waves and dodging mortar volleys as I tried to dock at a friendly fort without getting dashed against the rocks. After I made it-barely-I stood on the walls of the fort, watching my pursuers founder and burn.

These concerns, and the tactics I used, are fairly realistic. 18th century sailors would rather sail hundreds of miles around heavy weather than risk going straight through it, and it was not uncommon for navy captains to call off a pursuit due to a storm. Given the option, many captains would dock at a protected harbor or anchor in the lee of a large island to shield their vessel from high winds and rough seas. While some of my solutions would be dangerous to execute in reality-sitting a ship near a small island was the worst thing one could do, as was boarding another ship to ride it out-the game does train players to think like an 18th century sailor. Storms are to be avoided if possible, suffered if necessary and feared always.


Turning Against the Crown

Like most Americans, I have an unconscious bias in favor of the British. Common ancestry plays a part of that, but I cemented it by spending my adolescent years with Horatio Hornblower, Richard Sharpe and Jack Aubrey. Net result: When I slipped the Jackdaw out of port for the first time, I was decidedly rooting for the King’s colors. (The King’s colours, I should say.)

For the first few hours I was the terror of the Spanish Crown. I hit shipping hard, plundered vessels and slugged it out with forts. When I spotted the Royal Navy, I gave them a respectful berth, sometimes firing a gun in salute. Once I even swept in to save an outgunned frigate captain who’d bitten off more than he could chew. Imagine my surprise when the ungrateful wretch turned his guns on me after I’d sent the Spaniards to the bottom. Instead of engaging, I turned and beat for the horizon to lick my wounds, deciding that I’d let the Brits fight their own battles. The exchange didn’t turn me against the British, but it did rattle me-best to avoid my countrymen, I thought. I can live off the Spanish purse and avoid the English guns.

Betrayal and alienation didn’t turn me pirate though, it was greed. I remember the exact moment it happened. We were limping off Nassau after a Spaniard took a chunk out of us, looking for an easy prize. The Jackdaw needed improve her broadside, but the Spanish ships on the horizon had naught but rum and canvas. Then my spyglass found an English brig, damaged, sailing alone, its belly full of metal. I could almost imagine Kenway toying with the end of the glass, making up his mind. Then I gave the order to let out the sails and sight the mortar. I took my first English vessel.

That journey would’ve been familiar to pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries. As we’ve discussed before, many pirates had previously sailed under privateering charters or in the navy. Others, though without a charter, felt they were fighting a patriotic war by targeting only vessels from enemy nations. Governments indulged these notions of patriotic piracy during wartime, but once a war ended, a run-in with the Royal Navy would be enough for pirates to feel betrayed and alienated-to realize they were no longer part of their nation, but something else. Similarly, it wasn’t unheard of for legitimate privateers to pillage their own shipping lanes out of greed. Both privateering and piracy are, after all, opportunistic ventures and sometimes the temptation of a lone merchantman was too much to resist. This ended up being the case for Edward Kenway when I was at the controls-he started out as a patriotic sea-rover and became an enemy of his own kind out of simple greed. As I fired the first volley at an English vessel, I remember thinking that it was just this once, just to get the cannons fixed.

It wasn’t – it never is.

There are many tools developers use to portray a period. They can do it visually through graphics and art direction, through sound effects and music, or dialogue and characterization. But the best games craft a rules set that make players think like a historical person, making choices not because it’s what they’re supposed to do, but because it’s the best thing to do given the circumstances. It’s a storytelling method unique to videogames, and can bridge the gap between past and present so elegantly that for many players, it will pass unnoticed.

Robert Rath is a buccaneer and privateer currently terrorizing the shores of Hong Kong. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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