Indigenous Representations in Assassin’s Creed III
As a follow-up to the 2011 web-friendly film Native Representations in Videogames, I’ve kept a beat on progress made in Indigenous representations in commercial and independent games. You can catch it in 2012’s web-friendly film Indigenous Representations in Assassin’s Creed III.
So what’s happened?
Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace—a research network of Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, technologists, and designers interested in Indigenous self-determination in cyberspace—has continued encouraging Mohawk youth in Quebec to learn and use skills in game development to adapt and pass on traditional stories. Skahion:ati: Rise of the Kanien’kehá:ka Legends is a 3D third-person adventure game that was created in the Skins 2.0 Workshop at Concordia University. Skahion:ati was made using Unity and Blender with the support of a robust team, which included visits from Ubisoft employees (based in Montreal, Quebec), showing that the company cares about the Indigenous community.
Ubisoft released Assassin’s Creed III, a historically-science-fictional third-person stabby game set around the American Revolutionary War that features a Kanien’kehá:ka mixed blood hero. Ratonhnhaké:ton, who is later renamed Connor to assimilate into the city, is a dynamic character who is impassioned to protect his peoples’ lands and ultimately kill his own non-Indigenous Templar father Haytham Kenway, his associates, and historical baddies.
The game remedies several typical missteps of past Indigenous representations in videogames:
Collaboration: Most importantly, UbiSoft collaborated with Indigenous peoples. The development team took steps to involve Mohawk peoples in the development of Assassin’s Creed III at the design and production stages. Thomas Deer, a cultural liaison officer at the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center, directly consulted with Ubisoft on Iroquois traditional knowledge to inform game assets like buildings, music, and non-player character behavior.
Language: Ubisoft also involved language consultants and hired Kanien’kehá speakers. Although the actor behind Connor, Noah Watts, is Crow and Blackfeet, he worked with language speakers directly as well.
Feminine Strength: Kaniehti:io (Connor’s Kanien’kehá:ka mother) is an intelligent, suspicious, and tactical woman who helps to free enslaved “Natives,” arranges alliances across Indigenous nations, and saves the life of Haytham Kenway (by being totally badass and strong herself).
Ubisoft does still occasionally get iffy, like the Clan Mother who gets too close to the “Mystic Savage” trope in her shamanistic powers and tone. However, given the Assassin’s Creed series’ science fiction time traveling storyline, the elder’s knowledge of the “portal” adds an element to the growing recognition of Indigenous science fiction.
The game generally has an anti-colonialist tone. Kaniehti:io rightfully doesn’t trust Haytham. Even the non-player characters question their role, such as a British soldier who comments about the expedition: “Slap a fancy name on something and all is excused.” Interestingly, the game is mindful of (what to the Anishinaabe is known as) Weendigo nature of the colonizers—Weendigo being a spirit of endless consumption that can enter someone prone to that way of being and mount to cannibal nature. As a youth, Connor predicts of westward expansion: “In time they will swallow us whole.” Haytham, being self-reflective, states, “We’re cruel and desperate creatures, set in our conquering ways” and acknowledges his own “desire for more, and more, and more.” Kaniehti:io worries about the “same dark hunger” being passed down in her son.
Overall, the game balances the bloodiness necessary for a game about assassination with Indigenous ways of knowing, such as when Connor points out when hunting, “We must return nature’s kindness with our own.”
Props to Ubisoft and Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace for these strides. I’m writing a more in-depth academic journal article on this topic that will be out soon, and until then, you can check out the short vid here.
Here’s to looking forward to the future with a model for other commercial game companies to follow and hope for independent game companies to be inspired by.
P. S. What’s up with Mohawks and time travel?