Assassin’s Creed, Multiculturalism, and How to Talk About Things


Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed games have historically opened with a title card that reads, “This game was developed by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs.”

The disclaimer was probably deemed necessary because the games have tended to deal with historical settings in which Christians, Muslims, and Jews interacted with each other in complex, sometimes hostile ways– conflicts that have continued, in one form or another, to this day. And though the series’ overarching story– which includes a kind of memory-based time travel, abundant conspiracy theories, and technology of seemingly alien origin– has little to do with real history, the games always struck me as more or less respectfully aware of the multicultural and multinational scope of their narratives. Even the nature of Ubisoft’s development practices suggested it: Assassin’s Creed Revelations, for example, was developed by studios in France, Sweden, Quebec, Singapore and Hungary.

This is why it was all the more surprising and dismaying when the creative director of the forthcoming Assassin’s Creed III, Alex Hutchinson, answered a question about the annualization of his franchise in the following way:

…I think there’s a subtle racism in the business, especially on the journalists’ side, where Japanese developers are forgiven for doing what they do. I think it’s condescending to do this.

Seriously?

Yeah. Just think about how many Japanese games are released where their stories are literally gibberish. Literally gibberish. There’s no way you could write it with a straight face, and the journalists say ‘oh it is brilliant’.

Then Gears of War comes out and apparently it’s the worst written narrative in a game ever. I’ll take Gears of War over Bayonetta any time.

It’s patronising to say, “oh those Japanese stories, they don’t really mean what they’re doing”.

You feel there isn’t a fair universal standard?

I just think the simple question should be; is the story any good?

These questions and answers indicate that Hutchinson feels that there exists a global universal standard for good storytelling, poseable in the form of “a simple question” that applies to all cultural products. He also implies that Japanese developers are not particularly good at achieving that standard, and that game journalists exhibit a “subtle racism” for not evaluating the Japanese games’ stories under the same rubric that they would evaluate the story of a Western game.

I would argue that it is not the games press in aggregate that is advancing the racist notion here, but Hutchinson himself: that it is indeed racist, and somewhat tragically imperialistic, to assume that one’s Western tradition (Hutchinson possesses a master’s degree in “English / Writing”, according to his LinkedIn profile) can universally answer the question he poses: “Is the story any good?” His answer appears to exhibit ignorance of the existence of non-Western storytelling– a tradition of literature that emphasizes very different qualities than the kind one might be exposed to in, say, a Los Angeles screenwriting workshop.

To talk in this manner is to express not only ignorance, however. It also expresses contempt for one of the pillars of the Assassin’s Creed series itself. An important reason I appreciated and enjoyed the first four installments (I, II, Brotherhood and Revelations) of the series as much as I did was the fact that each game was reasonably successful in evoking a culture different my own. The ability to do this is, in fact, one of the series’ great strengths, and one that distinguishes it from its peers. Why, then, would a person in a leadership position on an Assassin’s Creed game reveal such shallow thinking about the products of cultures other than his own?

Hutchinson does not have a credit on any of the previous Assassin’s Creed games; his most recent credit is having been the creative director of Army of Two: The 40th Day (which, ironically, Game Informer criticized for “lacking a cohesive story”), so perhaps the wording of his comment is simply the result of inexperience in matters outside of his own intellectual sphere. Or perhaps he is actually familiar with those traditions, but simply doesn’t personally like them. There is of course nothing wrong with failing to connect with certain kinds of stories, or even admitting you feel those types of stories amount to “gibberish”. Such matters are the province of opinion.

If that’s the case– if he was trying to express a preference of opinion– then I certainly understand what Hutchinson actually wanted to say in the interview, even though I would respectfully disagree. To help him out, I will try to capture what he said, but in a better, less problematic way:

“Sometimes I think the press gives Japanese games a free pass on story,” said the ghost of a more thoughtful, more well-spoken Hutchinson. “Game journalists almost expect the stories of Japanese games to make little sense, praising them regardless of their adherence to what I understand the Western tradition, and particularly the Hollywood tradition, defines to be ‘a good story’. Personally, however, I prefer just those kinds of stories– the kind that often get derided as being too simple or too stupid, like the one in Gears of War– to the stories in games like Bayonetta, which I am unable to really understand as a story.”

 

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