Critical IntelHow Assassin's Creed: Unity Fails As Historical FictionCritical Intel - RSS 2.0
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.