American Revolution: The Game

Assassin's Creed IIIWarning: Please be advised that there are a few spoilers in terms of the game’s storyline in the fourth paragraph of this post.

This is a strange topic for me to be writing on, i.e., a video game. After all, I am not what some younger Juntoists might call “a gamer.” But when I saw the trailers for Assassin’s Creed III last summer I found my anticipation for the game growing. Assassin’s Creed III is a historical fiction-based game in which the main character—a half-English, half-Mohawk warrior called Connor—finds himself at the center of many of the most important events of the American Revolution. Let me start with a little background on the game.

Assassin’s Creed is a franchise that is now up to 8 games, of which Assassin’s Creed III is the most recent. The storyline of the franchise is so incredibly involved that it would take a couple of posts to really unravel it all. However, fundamentally, the arc of the storyline is built upon the Knights Templar mythology. In the game, the Templars are the antagonists and the protagonists, the Assassins, are a secret group out to stop them from imposing their vision of balance and order over the world (cue Henry F. May flashback). Both groups however are out to collect old artifacts that they believe will allow them to stop the world from ending due to a solar flare in December of 2012. The main character of the overall storyline is Desmond Miles, a contemporary Assassin. However, with the help of a sort-of virtual reality machine called “The Animus” he is able to re-live the experiences of his Assassin ancestors to gather information and clues. Previous games took him back to 11th-century Palestine and 15th-century Italy and Spain. Assassin’s Creed III takes the story up to the 18th century and the American Revolution.

Now I must admit that I knew none of this backstory before the game was released. I had never played any of the other games before, as what little time for games I have is usually spent playing FIFA with my six-year old son. What drew me to the game, as an early Americanist, was the historically accurate renderings of the colonial and revolutionary settings. Also, throughout the game you interact with actual historical figures and play important roles in the most important events of the period. What early Americanist wouldn’t want the chance to walk around Boston in 1754, a Mohawk village, Valley Forge, and, especially for me, New York in 1776? Or participate in the Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Battle of Monmouth?

The game spans almost thirty years. You come to the colonies as a Templar, Haytham Kenway, seeking one of the artifacts at an ancient site somewhere in New England. There he meets up with a number of other Templars including Charles Lee, William Johnson, and Benjamin Church, and carries out numerous missions. At one point, he needs to kill a fellow Templar, Edward Braddock. In the game, you follow him out on the expedition and assassinate him, while a young George Washington tries to stop you. This is a great example of the way the game weaves its characters and storyline into historical events. In turn, you witness and take part in such events as the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party, Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and others as you help the Americans defeat the British and the Templars who have sided with them (i.e., the liberty of the patriots vs. the imposed order from above of the monarchy and Templars). Rather than doing a historical review, I simply want to describe the experience of playing the game as an early Americanist.

Bowling Green, post-fire

Bowling Green, post-fire (click for higher resolution)

Much of my own work has been on colonial New York City in the 1750s and 1760s, so from the very start I was anxious to get to the part of the game where you go to New York City in 1776. However, I found the gaming experience of walking around Boston (as an English gentleman) to be both personally thrilling and historically enlightening. The cities were designed from historical maps and are incredibly accurate renderings. But it’s not just the layouts that are accurate. Walking down the streets of Boston in 1754, one witnesses robberies (of which no one bothers to take notice), various groups of persons interacting, random dogs and pigs wandering the streets, small groups of children in ripped clothing and no shoes harassing passers-by, and groups of British soldiers marching through the streets who will just come up to you and push you around if you make yourself too conspicuous. It really brings to life the sort-of—for lack of a better term—Wild-West nature of colonial urban life.

I am not ashamed to admit that I found it quite exciting to walk into the Green Dragon Tavern to interact with Samuel Adams and to subsequently board the Dartmouth to take part in the Tea Party. At one point, your character has to ride his horse from Boston all the way out to Lexington on a snowy evening, the rendering of which was stunning. During the Battles of Lexington and Concord, you ride along with Paul Revere and end up commanding the Minutemen charged with holding the North Bridge. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, you are tasked with swimming out into the harbor and destroying the cannon on one of the ships bombarding Breed’s Hill. To do so, you have to run down through Charlestown while buildings, including the church steeple, collapse in front of you due to cannon fire.

By the time you get to New York City, the fire has already ravaged much of the city. And not long after arriving, you get thrown into the Bridewell gaol, for conspiracy, so players even get to experience prison life in the eighteenth century. Your player is sentenced to be hanged and he is brought out of the prison and up onto the platform on the street as a crowd of people watch. The perspective then switches to first-person as the hood comes down over the screen. You are eventually able to escape thanks to a disturbance in the crowd, but the experience was entertainingly disturbing. At the end of the post is a compilation of clips that I edited of some of these scenes.

God Save The King

My seven-year old son, Lucien, had previously watched the animated television show about the Revolution, Liberty’s Kids. So he was aware of the major events of the Revolution like the Tea Party. In fact, that was the part of the game he was waiting for the most. (Note: Depending on how you play the game along with a setting that turns off all the blood, the game is not necessarily gratuitously violent.) I was sitting at my desk while he was playing the game when I heard him yell out, “I’m doing it! I’m doing it!” I looked over to see him throwing the tea overboard. Indeed, he has ended up playing the game much more than I have. For as much as a seven-year old can, he has developed an historical imagination of the events and the game provided the perfect opportunity for me to talk to him (and his six-year old brother) about the events.

Both the settings and the storyline, with over 30 hours of gameplay and 2 1/2 hours of cinematics, are amazingly detailed and complex. One can easily spend far more than a few dozen hours immersed in the game and still not complete all of it. Along with the main storyline, there are various side missions and add-ons including one in which you must stop the attack on West Point and a counterfactual add-on called “God Save The King” in which, after the war, Washington declares himself King and you are tasked with assassinating him to save the Revolution. In the end, barring a time machine, this game is as close as one can get to a dynamic visual experience of colonial and revolutionary settings. For the non-historian, the game will also bring home the violent nature of the Revolution, something often downplayed in popular history and oft-ignored even in the scholarship. Being an early Americanist, the game has led me to consider more the nature of the settings in which the historical subjects about whom I write lived. But, most of all, it proved to be just a whole lot of fun.

Some historians choose the period because they find it interesting while, for others, the period chooses them and takes on something of a fascination or, even, an obsession. For those of the latter category especially—like myself—the game proves to be an exciting and memorable experience indeed.

Michael D. Hattem is a PhD student at Yale University.

23 comments on “American Revolution: The Game

  1. Great post, Michael Hattem. I’d add that gaming and other forms of historical entertainment such as historical fiction novels, films, and television shows help keep history relevant for those who indulge in them. I understand that historical entertainment may not always meet the standards of accuracy a historian sets (think Downton Abbey) but Assassins Creed does not make those mistakes. The game’s creators hired historians and linguists to get the details right. See my own post on Assassins’s Creed III here for more: http://www.patricia-osullivan.com/2012/11/historical-fiction-in-gaming.html

  2. TMO1984 says:

    I find this post rather interesting – as a history educator, I too, bought the game to immerse myself in an historical environment I’ve always dreamt of seeing. Further, I think this game is an excellent example of how we can bring history alive (literally) for students. Admittedly, I’d love to see some of the major game-makers to create other historically rich environments for these game systems. What fun it would be to walk around Colonial New England or the war-ravaged South during the Civil War? The possibilities of these video game rendered environments is exciting.

    • TMO1984, lots of games are set in historical situations. Age of Empires is one that comes to mind immediately. My son also learned a lot about the Eastern Front in WWII from gaming (can’t recall which game). As an educator, you understand that it is all too easy to lose boys along the way. Gaming provides an opportunity to re-engage them. The main issue I see is doing this without glorifying the big draw of these games – the violence.

      • I think you’re right, Patricia. In this case, especially with the blood turned off, I didn’t find the violence to be that bad, or at least it wasn’t gratuitous. Games like this, especially ones done this well, have the capacity to engage young adults in history in a way that they likely cannot in their junior high and high school classrooms. They also provide opportunities for parents to discuss historical topics and issues with their children.

        • Michael, as a writer of historical fiction, I enjoy how novels can engage kids in history. Unfortunately, the biggest market for HF and for novels in general is women. Gaming is a great place to engage boys.

  3. Christopher says:

    Thanks for the review, Michael.

    About a year ago, my 11 year-old brother-in-law (a self-described “gamer”) excitedly told me about the then forthcoming Assassin’s Creed. He assumed I would be interested because of my training as an historian of early America. I casually brushed it aside, feigning interest. This November, while on a research trip to NJ, he excitedly showed me the game, and even let me play. I’m not one for video games (aside from occasionally dominating my brothers-in-law in Madden) but this one was genuinely fun.

    More meaningfully, it sparked a series of questions from my brother-in-law about the Revolution, the accuracy of the game’s story line, and my research and teaching interests.

  4. Christopher, the combination of watching “Liberty’s Kids” and playing the game has actually given Lucien, my six-year old, enough background that he and I can discuss the events he’s witnessing and participating in.

    On another note, he and Tristan, my five-year old, like to run around the house playing cowboys and indians and pretend shooting at each other (a wholly separate issue). After playing the game, I heard them doing it one day after playing through the 1750s and they had started calling it “redcoats and indians.” When new sequences in the game come up, it shows the place and date and while they were running around the house playing one of them says, “Now it’s 1760!”

    One other funny thing… They know that I work at the Franklin Papers and when Benjamin Franklin first appeared in the game, Tristan said, “That’s Daddy’s boss.” ;)

  5. Ted Burrows says:

    Michael: can you comment on the hardware required to play the game (memory, graphics card, etc.)? I’m wondering if accessibility is in issue here.

    • The game is available for the PlayStation3, XBox 360, and WiiU. The game is also available in either disc or download for PC but NOT Mac. These are the system requirements:

      FOR PC:

      Minimum
      Supported OS: Windows Vista® (SP2) / Windows® 7 (SP1) / Windows® 8
      Processor: 2.66 GHz Intel® Core™2 Duo E8200 or 2.66 GHz AMD Athlon™ II X4 620
      RAM: 2 GB
      Video Card: 512 MB DirectX® 10 compliant with Shader Model 4.0 or higher (see supported list)*
      Hard Drive Space: 17 GB

      Recommended
      Supported OS: Windows Vista® (SP2) / Windows® 7 (SP1) / Windows® 8
      Processor: 2.6 GHz Intel® Core™2 Quad Q9400 or 3.0 GHz AMD Phenom™ II X4 940
      RAM: 4 GB
      Video Card: 1024 MB DirectX® 10 compliant with Shader Model 5.0 or higher (see supported list)*
      Hard Drive Space: 17 GB

      *Supported Video Cards at Time of Release:
      AMD Radeon™ HD 4850 / 5000 / 6000 / 7000 series
      NVIDIA® GeForce® 8800 GT / 9 / 200 / 400 / 500 / 600 series
      Laptop versions of these cards may work, but are not supported. These chipsets are the only ones that will run this game. For the most up-to-date minimum requirement listings, please visit the FAQ on our support website

      More info here: http://assassinscreed.ubi.com/ac3/en-US/index.aspx

  6. For those interested, there is a fascinating documentary called, “Inside Assassin’s Creed III,” which documents the game’s creation and production processes.

  7. Michael Diaz says:

    I’m a little surprised that you’ve given this game such a glowing historical review. Besides near-ubiquitous nitpicks about the the clothing and material culture, I have a number of fairly large complaints about how the game portrays 18th century society. In particular, the game makes almost no attempt to portray the deference and formality that defined social interactions in polite society (and thus missed an opportunity to contrast the roughness of impolite society). In particular, George Washington seems deeply out of character because of this.

    And don’t even get me started about the anti-ship capabilities of swivel guns…

    In short, this game, like so many other popular portrayals of this or any period, is a good point to START a conversation with the young/the general public. However, the game is too fraught with inaccuracies to be particularly meritorious by itself.

    • Michael, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!! First, this is not exactly “a historical review” or one which purports to judge the historical accuracy of the game. That is another post/topic entirely, one which certainly would be worth writing/reading. Instead, I wanted to describe the overall experience of playing the game. I come to a game like this, or even a series like HBO’s John Adams, expecting historical inaccuracies and try not to let it spoil my experience of the game or movie overall. It is, after all, a game that is neither pretending nor aspiring to absolute 100% accuracy. As in watching a film, one playing a historical game like this must agree to suspend their historical disbelief.

      In terms of class, I think it’s pretty obvious in the game (at least in the first part when you’re Haytham Kenway) that there is a broad gulf between men like you and the kind of people who populate the streets. There simply is not that much inter-class relations occurring within the context of the story to make that something worth focusing on for the game’s creators. As for polite society, you are talking about a small band of highly focused Knights Templar that meet and plot in taverns to seek a secret location. They don’t seem too concerned with seeking out coffeehouses for what I’m sure these characters would consider idle or useless conversation. Thanks again!

  8. Nevermind04 says:

    Michael,

    I’m not sure if you have any interest in 1911-1915 American history, but if you are interested, check out Red Dead Redemption. It’s only available for the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3, so you won’t be able to play it on your computer. However, the game takes place at an interesting time in American history: a time when large cities were starting to develop in the west thanks to the railroad, automobiles were just starting to compete with horses, and the mythical, gun-slinging outlaw was a dying breed.

    The game takes place in a fictional southern Texas and northern Mexico. The location names are all fictional, but the experience of riding a horse through the Texas terrain into a realistic early 1900s town with cobble roads was absolutely incredible for me. There’s even a theater with silent movies (set to period music). The game was immersing, from start to finish. I highly recommend it (despite the fact that it’s fictional) because of the amazing attention to detail they’ve given this re-imagination of 1911-1915 Texas.

    As it usually is in the world of shooting games, Red Dead Redemption is very violent and much of the dialogue is inappropriate for young ones. Many a cowboy at that time was rough around the edges and the protagonist John Marston is no exception. Once you get on a horse and ride into the wilderness, I think you will find yourself in awe.

    Also, it’s a few years old so you’ll probably be able to pick up an unopened copy for around $30. If you have any interest in zombies, it also has an addon called “Undead Nightmare”, which simulates a zombie virus spreading through old west Texas. It is completely separate content from the main game. You can get the game and it’s addons cheaply in the “Game of the Year” edition, if you’re interested.

    Happy hunting,
    Nevermind04

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Nevermind04. Before AC3, what little time I had to play games was mostly spent playing my six-year old in FIFA. Before AC3, I had not let my boys play any shooting/fighting games. They mostly play either sports games or LEGO games. But he was watching me play the game and, after I played it a little bit, I decided that the fighting in it wasn’t so bad that he couldn’t play it (especially with some tweaks to the settings to minimize it). It’s not a game that’s all about gratuitous violence. And while the game hasn’t made me into a bona fide fan of shooting/fighting games per se, I’m considering trying out one of the previous games (probably AC2) or perhaps another historically-based game, so thanks for the suggestion.

      • I would highly recommend AC2 and AC: Brotherhood. The first game, set during the Crusades, is interesting, but the gameplay is so inferior to later iterations that it is almost unplayable now. AC2 and AC Brotherhood were developed under the guidance of the original programming team at Ubisoft. Really the high points of the series, in my estimate.

  9. Sid Spyker says:

    Interesting article, I have never read about the American Revolution so for obvious reasons I missed things that you may consider quite good, but doesn’t change that you enjoyed the game. One small correction coming from a fan is that, the game tries to portray both the Assassins and Templars in a morally grey area. So Templars aren’t the bad guys nor are we the good guys in the game.

  10. “You come to the colonies as a Templar, Haytham Kenway, seeking one of the artifacts at an ancient site somewhere in New England.” – This is a pretty significant plot spoiler regarding Kenway’s allegiance. May want to avoid this in future reviews!

    I wrote about this game recently on notevenpast.org: http://www.notevenpast.org/discover/%E2%80%9Cyou-have-died-dysentery%E2%80%9D-history-according-video-games

    I am really excited that more games are including historical topics, but I’ve found this most recent version of Assassin’s Creed pretty disappointing. Speaking as both a gamer and historian, I think Assassin’s Creed 3 reaches new heights with regard to historical adaptation, but takes a step back in terms of gameplay and story telling. I hope the series can recover.

  11. Phil Wilson says:

    Thank you, Michael, for a wonderful, in-depth look at this multimedia experience extraordinaire. We like you, are non-gamers (regarding action / role-playing games) except that we are highly interested in playing and promoting the historical strategy games in the Colonial Campaigns Club which are of interest to many adults (mainly males, unfortunately) in North America and Western Europe. Now we need to find a kid or an adult with Assassin’s Creed III who would let us do a walk-through of the scenarios.

    Note that we are also interested in hearing from any individuals who are as passionate about the “lost and endangered arts” as we are, so that we can collaborate on topics such as this one. We are an emerging 501c3 with the name, “The Lost Arts Collaborative of North America, Inc.” and we are looking forward to having your readers alert us to any and all lost arts and artisans / practitioners that may want to have us help them with their business and brand visibility. Please contact us at http://www.LostArtsNA.org/.

  12. Phil Wilson says:

    To everyone who are enjoying this blog as much as we…

    Please check out this site when you have a chance. It’s a work of art and technology.

    http://www.bostonhistory.org/sub/mappingrevolutionaryboston/

    p.s. Thank you, Michael, for letting us know how your children have been assimilating this historical experience. This is the future of education, no doubt. Plus, for all of you that have negative comments on the inaccuracies and other problems of AC3… it’s important to understand just how much effort and expense that Ubisoft has invested in their attempt to go where no other competitors have ventured.

  13. [...] “American Revolution: The Game,” a post by Michael D. Hattem, looks at Assassin’s Creed III. Hattem says the game designers did their homework and all that research pays off in a meticulous, thrilling game-world: [...]

  14. Maxime Durand says:

    Really great to see all the comments. Thanks a lot; it really is important to me and the whole team which has worked in this game.
    If you want a funny fact; we at Ubisoft had studied the idea of having Ben Franklin’s Junto has a part of the game originally, back in 2010, but could not fit in our narrative track.
    I hope players enjoyed the Animus Database and it’s content. It’s often a manner to add more to what we can really show in the gaming aspects…

    Maxime,
    Historian on ACIII

  15. [...] Gardens at Got Soil?, and Michael D. Hattem at The Junto adopts a left-field perspective on developing your historical imagination through American Revolution, a historically realistic video game. Closer to home, rather more [...]

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