How…how are you all doing? You there, that’s a nice blouse. Is that new? That’s…that’s nice and all. Okay, I get it. I understand. You’re probably all just a teensy-bit upset with me. Or, maybe, you don’t even know who I am. That’s a perfectly rational response, given the fact that I kind of disappeared from the face of AcaGameia for a short period there. So let’s just set down the torches, pitchforks, assorted kitchenware…and let’s talk games, m’kay? You all enjoy that, yes? Games. Gaaaaames. Okay, so Ubisoft-
Hey, No! I said pitchforks down! I get that Ubisoft gets righteously roasted upon the pyres of gaming ire for lots of legitimate issues. One particular log that I haven’t seen thrown onto the pile often enough is their very real problem with historical accuracy. As someone who spent some time working with historical records, that’s a bit of a bother to me, especially because so many of their games are set in the past. With games like Valiant Hearts and the Assassin’s Creed series, it’s no surprise that Ubisoft will nonetheless try to champion themselves as those who would seek to make the past come alive. Part of their ad campaign for Assassin’s Creed III, for example, included touting that they’d based the level design off of genuine maps of the period and even made sure that every named character was killed in the proper year and proper location. Valiant Hearts, on the other hand, makes a point of highlighting the partnership between Ubisoft Montpellier and the documentary filmmakers behind Apocalypse, World War I.
Yet for all this effort and publicity, neither game pulls off a satisfactory level of historical accuracy for me. Assassin’s Creed III, while offering a picturesque view of Boston in the late 18th century, nonetheless contained a narrative that felt like it cribbed more than once from textbooks loaded on American Exceptionalism. For Valiant Hearts, the offending party came in the form of a character: Baron von Dorf, a ridiculously over-the-top caricature of the evil Prussian, complete with super-Zeppelins and fantastically evil-looking tanks that appear to be a cross between steam and diesel punk wank material. Here’s the thing, though: historical accuracy is more than just the right names, dates, and places. That’s simply the superficial framework through which historical work is done. It’s great (and should be lauded) that Ubisoft goes out of their way to seek out historical research, especially while other “educational” shows can feel comfortable constructing a historical argument without a single historical consultant on the show, but examining their games as being historical narratives reveal nearly all of that research to simply be a facade.
You see, for Historians the things that Ubisoft contends as evidence of historical accuracy- names, dates, places, etc.- are simply the building blocks of historical narratives. They’re the elements which, while helpful, don’t exactly tell us anything or offer any real sort of understanding by themselves. They have to be put together with critical examination, with historical understandings of causation, and with a sense of historical narrative before these superficial elements begin to create any worth that we might call “historical accuracy.” This is why historical work is always undergoing a constant flow of revisionism – not because older historians got the facts wrong (although, sometimes, they did), but because new understandings lead historians to ask new questions, or to place different emphases on the various facts. Another way of putting this is so: Telling you that Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned emperor of France on December 2nd, 1804 is simply trivia. It’s trivial. That fact alone is pretty well useless by itself. But to place that fact within a historical context- say, as emblematic of Napoleon’s growing attempts to centralize and dominate French politics following the French Revolutionary period- suddenly that fact has weight and meaning. It can be measured by how well it contributes or complicates the narrative- and truly, it’s in the narrative where historical accuracy is actually measured, not the trivia.
It’s in this narrative that Ubisoft always seems to come up somewhat short. Using the infamous “Rise” trailer as an example (mentioned in one of the first posts on this blog!), we see “Americans” declaring themselves for liberty and independence, while the British torture and threaten the women/children combo. The game is not much better- as mentioned in a great article to look up when you’re done here, “Connor Kenway turned out to be an American exceptionalist who was co-opted into a historical period where he shouldn’t exist.” The player, through Connor, works to assist the the Revolution against the dastardly British, freeing citizens from British imprisonment that historically would not have occurred, and even takes part in a bit of homesteading…because why not have an Indigenous American get some of that Manifest Destiny going? The British as a group come off comically oppressive, while the Americans as a group stand in for the advancement of the Assassin (and by extension “good”) values. When I finished the game, I had to check and make sure George Bancroft wasn’t a script doctor! Similarly, the character of Baron von Dorf hews closer to the propaganda used by Allied forces than any real historical actor, and his inclusion is incredibly jarring (and reveals a glaring bias) in a game which handles its historical narrative so well whenever he is not part of the plot.
Because look, I’m not trying to be pedantic here, and discussions about historical accuracy can often come out that way. There are plenty of other details in Valiant Hearts that are factually inaccurate- all of the main characters, for example, are not real. They’re fictional, made up, the ultimate sin of historical accuracy (according to some people). Yet their creation allowed Ubisoft to explore an accurate historical narrative in some way- Karl, the ethnic German who lived in France, for example, allowed players to learn about the experience of the real Germans who were deported from France at the beginning of World War I. You might suggest, in fact, that historical accuracy done properly reverses the standard assumptions – that the facts and trivia of history are relatively negligible so long as the narrative being told about that particular time is accurate…at least when it comes to forms of entertainment. This understanding is how I can get behind a game like Bioshock: Infinite– it’s very clearly a work of fiction, but its presentation of Gilded Age American thought and ideals is spot-on, and the historical research done by Ken Levine and his team shows.
So what do you all think? Is historical accuracy something games should aspire to at all? Which games do you think have done historical accuracy properly, and which ones should be relegated to the “bad” list? Can we all forgive my lack of posting now? Please?