Justifying My English Degree: Perspective and Moral Ambiguity in Assassin’s Creed 4

Since I finally broke out of movies with going to TV, this is one that’s been rattling around in my head for a bit since I finished the game.

THE GAME: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

PUBLISHER: Ubisoft Montreal, 2013

PRINCIPAL ACTORS: Matt Ryan, EJ Schneider, Danny Wallace

SYNOPSIS: In the not so distant future, a new employee of a video game developer delves into the life of a little known Welsh pirate of the 18th century, and promptly finds himself caught between two long warring groups.

Warning: Some spoilers for AC4 follow

THE CRITIQUE: Perspective is a rudimentary part of storytelling. Depending on the POV that’s being employed, perspective can vary, but it’s more often than not the perspective of the rookie, the new guy, the fresh hire, the uninitiated. It’s an easy trick that’s used to make sure that the exposition at least appears organic, because it would make sense to tell a new guy, and by proxy, the reader, how things work. While the player is thrown into the thick of things when AC4 first kicks off, it’s soon revealed that it was all a simple stress test for new employees of Abstergo Entertainment, a gaming developer about to release a killer app and only needs the right data to nail down a solid launch, data that the player will be gathering be delving into the life of Edward Kenway, a Welsh privateer turned pirate and reluctant assassin.

From that point on, you’re largely seeing the world through Edward’s eyes and, mostly through his philosophy of social freedom, getting drunk, and getting paid. The conflict between the series’ core factions, the titular Assassins and the Templars, largely falls to the background, only addressed when both Edward and the player can tear themselves away from sailing around the Caribbean, pillaging cargo, and getting all manner of sea shanties stuck in their heads. It could be argued that this is the whole point of the exercise, considering that the player’s character is working, though unbeknownst to him, for the Templars in the modern day section, and it’s simply serving the purpose of downplaying the conflict between the groups so that the public can concentrate more on chasing simple pleasures, but that point, I believe, only sheds light on why I’m writing about perspective in the first place.

The first five Assassin’s Creed games (Assassin’s Creed, Assassin’s Creed II, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, and Assassin’s Creed III), all have one thing in common: they’re from the perspective of the Assassins. While obviously all of the games in the AC series features Assassins, the modern day sections have always been from their perspective, using player surrogate Desmond Miles as the series’ core character. There are some obvious differences between Desmond and the AC4 modern character, referred to hereafter as the Employee. Desmond spends most of his time on the run with his team (though taking plenty of breaks for selfies), doing their past-life delving from rundown buildings, warehouses, and caves, while the Employee gets an office space with access to a coffee bar and a friggin’ aquarium elevator.

It’s not just environment, though. Desmond was raised by the Assassins, his entire paradigm shaped by their philosophies, training, and indoctrination. As a result, the player only sees the conflict from that perspective: Assassins good, Templars bad, and daddy issues for everyone. Considering that a large number of players have played the entirety of the series, it’s understandable that there would be some overlap when coming into Assassin’s Creed 4 and only given the blank slate Employee to work with. Characters like the Employee are created solely for self-insertion, after all, but it’s likely that Ubisoft assumed players would simply apply the same perspective to AC4 that they’d been carrying through the last 5 games, not only to the modern character, but also to Edward Kenway as well.

But stepping back from that, if a player jumped in fresh into the Employee, having never played the series before, they’d likely see both sides as dicks.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to not like about the Templars in this game. “Google is evil” allegory aside, the Employee is still working for a subsidiary of a company that “disappears” people on a regular basis, and has autopsy videos on their servers of the “gracious donor” that’s making your memory-jaunts to the Bahamas possible. While plenty could easily point out that the modern Assassins in the game, Shaun and Rebecca, who return from the previous games in the series, aren’t evil, they’re just a little stupid and naive (Seriously? A bad bottle job and a baseball cap are really going to hide you when you were all constantly taking selfies on cell phones that your enemies now have?),  the point of perspective with them is that only players who’ve gone through the series would reasonably side with them, already having been indoctrinated by their time with Desmond. For the player who didn’t, or who can divorce themselves from the previous experience, the Employee isn’t an Assassin in the making, or a Templar for that matter: he’s a pawn being slowly nudged by both sides into checkmate.

This is best underlined by the final scenes, where the Employee is trapped and pinned down by a psychotic Assassin that Shaun and Rebecca let loose on him. When the Employee is saved, it’s a Templar who asks if you’re all right, not an Assassin. In fact, the Assassin’s only offer a “Whoops! Never thought he’d try to kill you. Our bad! But you’re going to keep feeding us confidential data, right?”, while the Templars offer the Employee a generous bonus package plus hazard pay. Sure, it’s only money, but at least it’s something. It’s not enough to sell you on either side, in fact, with that virgin perspective, it’s shown to the player that both sides are both right and wrong, that both sides use morally ambiguous methods, it’s just that one side is better funded. Without Desmond’s story fresh in the player’s mind, while it’s still hard to cheer for the Templars, the Assassins lose a lot of their moral high ground, which is likely the reason for the credits scene: Edward Kenway sailing off  into the horizon, leaving both sides behind. His point is that he screwed up, so maybe he’s not ready for the Assassins yet. In modern times, I wish there was a similar option for the Employee, to walk out the front door to hop a plane to anywhere, because the Assassins screwed up, and maybe they need to fix that before their next move. Because let’s face it, when your perspective is revealed to be that of a pawn, with both sides pushing, sometimes the choice is to leave the board, give the finger, and walk away.

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