Critical Intel

Critical Intel
How Assassin's Creed: Unity Fails As Historical Fiction

Robert Rath | 20 Nov 2014 12:00
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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.

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