Focus groups revealed that people knew very little about the period. “We did some consumer studies early on, and we’d ask people, ‘What do you know about the American Revolution?’ And they would say, ‘Well, didn’t everybody live in tents? And it was Billy the Kid and Christopher Columbus.’ … You’d be amazed by how few people got even the century sort of right.
“It’s depressing.” He pauses. “But it’s also an opportunity: They don’t know anything! We can completely come in and show you it’s cool.”
The trick was not to commit to a position. That’s how you make history sell. “We tried very much to stay out of taking sides in the revolution,” Mr. Hutchinson admits, “which is one of the reasons we chose a native American. So that we could say he’s not a British soldier fighting for king and country, and he’s not a colonial fighting for truth, justice and the American way. He’s actually one step removed from that.”
Mr. Hutchinson argues that this is in keeping with current historical methods: “I think anyone who argues that history is objective or static is very confused,” he says. “I don’t think that there’s a single event that hasn’t gone through multiple interpretations or iterations in terms of what people believe even happened, let alone what was important about it, or what led up to it or what followed it.”
Welcome to history’s brave new world.
Whether or not it’s precisely accurate, it’s imperative that the game, like a movie, look and sound authentic. So Ubisoft hired Maxime Durand, who at the time of AC III’s conception had a freshly inked history BA from the University of Montreal.
Not a gamer himself, he assembled 60 gigabytes of historical documents: maps of Boston and New York before and after various fires; compendia of flags and military uniforms; Haudenosaunee portraits of local natives (to ensure “respectful” depictions); working-dress catalogues for crowd life; and even Lobcocks and Fartleberries, a compendium of 18th-century insults for Connor to overhear as he stalks his prey.
“The fishmonger – what did he look like?” Mr. Durand says. “Can we place these people around the harbour? So if the player stops fighting for one second and looks around, he’ll understand a breathing, living world of the 18th century, talking like the 18th century, doing jobs of that time.”
There were many arguments along the way. The game-play designers wanted rain gutters, so Connor could climb them. Mr. Durand pointed out that rain gutters did not exist at the time. His strict attention to detail paid off. The game’s version of Boston’s State House is so painstaking that State House archivists have asked to use Ubisoft’s documents in restoring the building.
What, then, about the controversy? Mr. Durand defends the decision to make a Mohawk a supporter of the Americans: While most Mohawks were British allies or neutral, there are documented exceptions.
“The Iroquois Confederacy was destroyed during the American Revolution,” Mr. Durand says. “They all ended up fighting each other. … We don’t take the [majority] view that historians used to, 50 or 60 years ago. The philosophy today is that history is more about different points of view.”
Today’s games reflect an evolution that has been stirring up history as a discipline for decades. Civilization, a game released in 1991 (Time Magazine named it one of the top 100 ever), took a more Whiggish approach – history as a series of conquests and ever-greater progress.
That understanding of history, says Jean-François Lozier, an expert on early French Canada at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, started to go stale in the 1960s, “before historians realized that history is also about the lived experience of human beings, most of whom were not at the top of the pyramid.”
Dr. Lozier has his complaints with AC III – he finds its treatment of Mohawk women and spirituality superficial and misleading – but he is a fan because it sparks an interest in history.