Neo-Victorian Review – Simulacra and the City: Accuracy, Intepretation and Dissonance in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

Duncan Milne is a PhD candidate at Edinburgh Napier University working on Robert Louis Stevenson and late nineteenth-century literary and critical networks.

Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed  series has, in the span of nine major games released within just nine years, developed a complex mythos based on ideas liberally adopted from the ‘canon’ of pseudohistory.  The increasingly convoluted backstory has elements taken from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (hidden bloodlines, religious conspiracy), Chariots of the Gods? (the presence of technologically advanced ‘alien’ species directing humanity in its historical infancy) and (as filtered through other examples of popular culture, such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) occult history in the shape of ‘the pieces of Eden’, historical religious artefacts with arcane power which serve as the MacGuffin for the quest narrative of most of the games.

Against this alternative history of conspiracies, secret wars and anachronistic technology, the Assassin’s Creed series has developed a reputation for the level of attention to detail in the open-world historical cities in which the game is set: the player may discover a vault of alien technology under the Vatican, as in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, but St Peter’s above it will be accurately represented, with fidelity in architectural details and other elements of the mis-en-scene, down to its state of construction and interior decoration.[1] This faithfulness to setting, which grounds the wilder excesses of the Assassin’s Creed plot in a tangible and immersive historical world, is particularly apparent in the latest iteration of the series, 2015’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Set in mid-Victorian London, the game offers a living city as a playground, which is populated, changing and fully traversable. In what is presented, however, questions are raised over the neutrality of such representations. Closer inspection of what Ubisoft presents to the player raises interesting questions around historiography, as Syndicate’s London proves to be an interpretation as much as a recreation, projecting the expectations of contemporary audiences on  to its simulated historical city.

Image1

Jonathan Dumont, the ‘world director’ of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate has stressed the idea of 1868 London as being a polarised city, ‘a city of divides’, and this interpretation is strongly emphasised in both the narrative and the ‘paratextual’ data provided in the in-game encyclopaedia.[2] The confluence of affluence with extreme poverty is strikingly visualised by the presence in Westminster of ‘The Devil’s Acre’ a slum in the shadow of the Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.[3] Dickens wrote on the slum in Household Words, remarking on how ‘the splendours and  luxuries of the West-end’ are ‘found in juxta-position with the most deplorable manifestations of human wretchedness and depravity. Charles Booth’s ‘poverty map’ of the area of 1889, showed the acre as an island of black, the coding for the ‘lowest’ grade of housing, amongst a sea of red, the most affluent.  Syndicate can visualise this contrast in a way even more immediate and striking, allowing the player to take the few steps necessary to go from walking amongst opulence to walking along an open sewer.

Image2

Ubisoft employed the Victorianist Judith Flanders as historical consultant for the production of the game, and ‘Devil’s Acre’ features prominently in her The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Victorian London (2012). The emphases of the book are also apparent in much of the ‘ambient’ detail in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Flander’s study of London hovers polyphonically over the Victorian city, listening to the daily reality of a disparate range of social classes and occupations.  The same experience is recreated immersively by playing the game: Syndicate’s London is populated by match girls, rat-catchers, pickpockets and lamplighters. The player has no direct interaction with this expansive population, yet they are elevated above mere set dressing by the attention to detail in their design, with a range of animations and other characteristics specific to their role and class. One of the most striking means of particularising these characters is the use of unique dialogue, which the player can listen to as they move around the city. These conversations may also be regarded as interpretive, portraying as they do the ‘other Victorians’ that have become the fixation of contemporary Victorian studies.  Eavesdropping uncovers small dramas of marital infidelity, solicitation and covert gay relationships, embodying the notion that Victorians lived submerged lives beneath the more evident social structures of the dominant ideology of heteronormativity, moral rectitude and reticence.[4]  Similarly, the empire is made visible in the population of Syndicate’s London.  Marc-Alexis Coté, the game’s creative director cites the diversity of Victorian London as being the chief appeal of choosing it as a setting, a diversity which rests partly on the architectural disparities already discussed, but also on the population of the city: the crowds on the streets represent a full range of ethnicities, none of whom are stereotyped into a particular social category, as is common in contemporary Victorian fiction.[5] The suggestion, as Coté continues, is that London is a city at the centre of, and founded on, its empire.[6] The imperial theme also forms an important subplot in the main story (and in ‘The Last Maharajah’ DLC), in which the player character helps the historical Duleep Singh lobby the British Government to allow him to return to Punjab, from whose rule he was deposed following the Anglo-Sikh Wars.[7]

Image3

These details suggest a level of historical carefulness on the part of the game-makers, but Ubisoft have described their aim in the Assassin’s Creed games as ‘striv[ing] to strike [a] balance between historical accuracy and fun gameplay’.[8] ‘Gameplay’ is, inevitably, at the core of the medium, with all other elements there merely to enhance it. Indeed, for all the discussion of verisimilitude in the environment and its inhabitants, there is an element of the supererogatory in Syndicate’s world-building: for most players, and indeed for almost all players for most of the time, the intricately detailed London that Ubisoft have created will scarcely be registered or interacted with as the player sprints between mission points in pursuit of the action that drives the narrative forward and affords the challenge of the game. It is once the player involves themself in this that the conflict between accuracy and gameplay becomes apparent. In 2007, Clint Hocking coined the term ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ to describe how many games ‘throw […]   the narrative and ludic elements of the work into opposition’; that is to say, the motivations of the character and the condition of their world do not accord with the actions the player can choose to (or is required to perform) in the game.[9] Instances of this abound in Syndicate: Evie Fry, one of the game’s two main playable protagonists is carefully characterised as being subtle and cautious, yet mission goals reward causing indiscriminate damage. Achieving 100% ‘synchronicity’ in one mission, for example, requires the player to overturn a number of carriages during a chase through the streets. This feels highly incongruous when playing as Evie, and only slightly less so when playing as her brash brother Jacob, given that such a move requires shooting the horses from under your pursuers.

Image 4

The benefit of ‘sand box’ games such as Syndicate is, however, the freedom they afford the player to set their own parameters:  few may choose to do so, but it remains possible to disregard the core gameplay and explore the city, and so avoid any such inconsistencies. Should the player choose to wander the city at hazard as a virtual flâneuse, they will perhaps come to realise that Baudrillad’s theories on simulation, simulacra and ‘the fiction of the real’ have obvious applications in considering Syndicate’s London. Baudrillard describes such recreations as the game offers as ‘hyper-real […] more real than reality’: that is, by constructing an artefact which is based upon the ‘distillation’ of shared social perceptions of a particular place or period, ‘substituting the signs of the real for the real’, as Baudrillard puts it, the recreation seems more ‘real’ than the original.[10] An ‘accurate Victorian London’, to repeat the phrase used by Ubisoft must have all the features generally assumed to be quintessentially of the period and the time: rhyming slang, smoke-stacks, fog, top-hats; the full repertoire of Victorian clichés. This need for authenticity in embodying the (hyper)reality is evident in the transpositions and compressions made to the city map which privilege what might be termed ‘thematic truth’ over physical precision. An example: Trafalgar Square is reproduced in great detail and at an accurate scale (see image above), but drive a carriage north along Charing Cross Road and the player will come across St. Pancras Station within a few hundred metres. This relocation allows for more railway infrastructure to be included within the limited space of the map, and for train tracks to circle the city. The Industrial Revolution is represented as the dominant zeitgeist of the period, and the mechanised aesthetic of steampunk is a clear influence on design elements such as the outfits of the protagonists and the ‘exo-historical’ fictional technology they use, as well as in the title screen which recreates the series’ logo in cogs and gears.

Image5

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate presents the Victorian period as, in Jacob Fry’s words, ‘an age of invention’, with the narrative of the game and the design of the city stressing the conflict between this progress and prosperity and the human misery driving it. But just as there is a dissonance between the game’s narrative of justice for the people and its gameplay of reckless violence, so too is there a disconnect between the presentation of Victorian technology as polluting, dehumanising and dangerous and the fetishisation of the same technology. It is this logic which makes the steam locomotive so prominent a feature in the city and allows uprooted railway stations to dominate the map. In contrast to previous Assassin’s Creed games, where the cities are represented as cities ‘are’, as a palimpsest of buildings from different periods, Syndicate privileges period over place: the emphasis in Victorian London is on the Victorian, not on London. The game attempts to make the nineteenth century homogenous and discrete, not intruded on too closely by the periods preceding it. It is Waterloo and King’s Cross which dominate the city in Syndicate, not St Paul’s and Southwark, because, as Sue Bridehead knew, ‘the cathedral has had its day’ and there is nothing so Victorian as the railway station.[11]

Game images copyright Ubisoft and via www.ubisoft.com and http://www.mweb.co.za/games/view/tabid/4210/Article/22818/Assassins-Creed-Syndicate-review-London-Bridge-over-troubled-water.aspx

Image of Charles Booth’s ‘Poverty Map of London’ via http://www.umich.edu/~risotto/

[1] Charlie Wilcox, ‘Historical Immersion in the Assassin’s Creed Series’, The Time Stream [https://thetimestream.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/historical-immersion-in-the-assassins-creed-series/]

[2] Justin Mahboubian-Jones, ‘London Loves: How Assassin’s Creed Synidcate Brought a City to Life’, Stuff [http://www.stuff.tv/features/london-loves-how-assassins-creed-syndicate-brought-city-life]

[3] Charles Dickens, ‘The Devil’s Acre’ in Household Words, vol 1 (1850), p. 297 [http://www.djo.org.uk/household-words/volume-i/page-297.html]

[4] Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth Century England (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2009), pp. 30-31.

[5] http://www.wired.co.uk/article/assassins-creed-syndicate-london

[6] http://www.wired.co.uk/article/assassins-creed-syndicate-london

[7] Amarpal S. Sidhu, The First Anglo-Sikh War (Stroud: Amberley, 2013).

[8] Anne Lewis, ‘Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag – Historical Accuracy vs. Gameplay’ [http://blog.ubi.com/assassins-creed-iv-black-flag-historical-accuracy-vs-gameplay/]

[9] Clint Hocking, ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock’ [http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html]

[10] Jean Baudrillard, Simulation and Simulacra, trans. by Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), p. 2.

[11] Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1896), p. 158.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s