National identity is an odd beast. It’s hard to define, harder still to quantify, and the source of many disagreements; for a simple test, visit any forum with a religion/politics section and ask whether the United States is a Christian country. This argument will be so well rehearsed that phrases such as “one nation under God” and “Treaty of Tripoli” will be posted fast enough to make your head spin, accompanied by copious links to sites which argue one side or the other. We all have our own ideas about what being English, American, Russian or Narnian actually means beyond the mere physical factors of borders and birthplace — of which characteristics are inherent to our collective identity. For some it’s a shared set of beliefs (as in the Christian country debate), while for others it’s the ethnic makeup of a family tree. To others it’s simply a set of attitudes, like the good old stiff upper lip or an adherence to what Superman would call The American Way. (Truth and Justice optional.)
An outsider will obviously have a different perspective, generally based around crude stereotypes that don’t particularly align with the self-image a nation likes to indulge. Stereotypes have a tendency to skew towards the negative (the Irish are stupid, the Americans are fat, the Russians are drunks, etc), while national identity will likely place emphasis on the things citizens of said country think best about themselves. Not all stereotypes are negative, though they can still be both wrong-headed and harmful – boy, Asians sure are good at maths! – but the collected stereotypes of a culture as viewed by other cultures will paint a much less heroic picture than that which a culture would paint of itself. This can be quite healthy at times, as a country overdosed on fanatical patriotism and self-reverence might need the outsider viewpoint to be reminded that everyone is flawed, but on the other hand being exposed to the less-than-reverential opinions of others can often cement a belief that those others are jealous or “hate” the country in question. During a recent playthrough of Assassin’s Creed III, I was given cause to wonder what my nationality tells others about me (or rather, what others suppose about me) and whether I liked what it might be saying.
Assassin’s Creed III is full of cultural stereotyping. On his journey through the New World, our hero Connor will sometimes take a break from perfecting his impression of a waxwork statue to work with some incredibly rude and arrogant Frenchmen. He picks up a pair of drunken Scots who’re happiest when beating one another up and who view casual violence as a perfectly ordinary way to say hello. He encounters a polite, friendly Canadian who just can’t understand why anyone would want to pick a fight with him, eh. There’s a surfeit of Native Americans who not only live in harmony with the land – unlike those damned white devils! – but also commune with “spirits” who consider them a special people. The English are the game’s designated villains and therefore, being much more at the forefront of the narrative, escape this pigeonholing in the main. The English stereotypes within the Animus are muted, the emphasis being less on showing cultural quirks – perceived or otherwise — and more on showing the English characters as unrepentant dicks. To the casual observer, it might seem they have avoided being tarred with the same brush as virtually every other ethnic or cultural group who appear.
But as players explore the world of Assassin’s Creed III, they are treated to a steady flow of information in the form of the Animus Database, an in-game encyclopedia containing historical facts and stories about the locations and individuals encountered. Rather than being the dry and straightforward infodumps found in other games the entries are infused with personality, being written from the perspective of Shaun Hastings, a historian and member of the modern-day Assassins who remains outside the Animus as witness to Desmond’s adventures. In previous games, the character gained quite a following for his dark and sarcastic wit, and with the third installment the writers have acknowledged this popularity by greatly increasing the ratio of personal observations to historical facts. The majority of Database entries are stuffed with little jokes and Shaun’s notes on the subject at hand.
It is here that the English stereotyping emerges. As the world opens up and the Database begins to fill with entries it becomes clear that Shaun is what some writers apparently consider to be very, very English. He’s positively vitriolic toward the French, snobbish towards the Americans, and seems incapable of mentioning tea in a tone less than worshipful. It’s akin to reading a history book by Al Murray’s stand-up character, the Pub Landlord, unable to resist insinuations of English cultural superiority at every turn. He never wastes a chance to mock or belittle, or to slyly hint that the modern United States would be a better place had England won the Revolutionary War. When forced by the story to acknowledge military victories by French or American forces, he does so with extreme bad grace, usually acting as if such an acknowledgement genuinely pains him to write and offering excuses for the English army.
This changes the tone of the Animus Database significantly from previous games, with the newest incarnation bouncing schizophrenically between harmless jokes and spiteful, needless insults where previous versions were largely content to relay interesting information. Adding to the dissonance is the nature of Shaun’s voice actor, Danny Wallace. A comedian, radio presenter and author, Wallace is best known for such flights of fancy as attempting to start his own country, resolving to say ‘yes’ more (the story of which was later dramatized as Yes Man, a forgettable Jim Carrey movie), attempting to find 52 people who shared his flatmate’s name and starting a cult – by accident. Speaking as a fan of the man’s work, I can assert that he comes across as an incredibly nice bloke, one who is seemingly incapable of malicious behavior or even thought, completely different from the character he voices. That country he founded? The Kingdom Of Lovely. The cult he began? He used his new-found powers as a possible Messiah to order his followers to perform “random acts of kindness” for complete strangers. He’s about as far from the aggressive and angry Shaun as it’s possible to be, and that factor alone is jarring, a contradiction between the English as presented in Assassins Creed III and Englishmen as we are in reality. Which is not to say that as a nation we’re all wonderful, friendly people (we aren’t) but the torrent of negativity pouring from Shaun is certainly not representative of the nation as a whole.
The jabs flow steadily, even from the most innocuous of Database entries. Everything from naming conventions (mocking a lack of imagination in a congregation moving from the First Church to the Second Church upon the destruction of the former, for instance) to modern idealistic portrayals of the nation’s founding are occasion for a sly dig. Several times Shaun will mention an event or individual before offhandedly suggesting that if the American education system weren’t so poor Desmond wouldn’t need to be told these facts ‑seemingly forgetting that Desmond was raised and essentially indoctrinated in a commune, and has never experienced the public school system — because to anyone who isn’t a stupid American, they’re common knowledge. The snark is so relentless that eventually the player has cause to wonder whether Shaun is taking the American Revolution as a personal insult.
There’s an unmistakable tang of jealousy to the commentary, as if mockery of American history and politics is an attempt to claim superiority over some aspect of America, a petty game of point-scoring. England is a former superpower, one whose glory days (if you can count rampant imperialism, institutionalised racism and an unwavering adherence to the idea of one culture’s innate superiority as glorious) are long since faded. Shaun’s resentment seems to stem from an awareness of this fact, coupled with the obvious reality of America as the dominant world power of the modern day and reminders of the influence England used to exert. His national identity, as with many real life Englishmen (particularly the sort who write letters to newspapers), is tied in with the nation’s former accomplishments rather than current status and his mind rebels at being reminded of how much that status has dwindled. Our school curriculum places extremely heavy emphasis on the study of the two World Wars, wars in which England can not only lay claim to hard-won victory but also — at least with the second — some kind of moral superiority. The subject of the American Revolution is pretty much ignored, for perhaps understandable reasons (nobody enjoys being reminded of a war they lost, particularly when the victorious nation went on to surpass the loser as a world power), with the focus instead being largely on what we would view as positive aspects of English history, though obviously people of different political stripes disagree on which parts of our history are positive. When directly confronted with first-hand evidence of events which contradict his personal sense of national identity, Shaun goes onto the defensive and seeks to bolster his own sense of denial. Given that the events to which he is objecting take place in the distant past his only recourse is to vent his bile at Desmond, a captive American over whom Shaun can exert his own influence in the hope of spinning history to fit his views of England as superior, as if the success of the American Revolution was mere fluke.
Addressing another aspect of supposed English culture, Shaun is given to making risqué (albeit terrible) jokes on occasion, which are tonally incompatible with the encyclopedic nature of the Database as well as painting a rather sad picture of English humour. When the player, via Connor, accompanies Paul Revere on his Midnight Ride the Animus Database entry accompanying the event will mention that ‘it sounds more like something you’d do with a lady’. Ha. Ha. Ha. Because sex, get it? In fact, the very same joke is used on at least two other occasions, as when visiting locations prefixed by the word Mount the Database will note that “mount” has some sexual connotations and that these are, of course, the very height of wit. It isn’t the immaturity that rankles (as anyone who’s read my previous articles will be aware, I am certainly not above a dick joke or two), it’s the sheer grubbiness, the leering nature of the “joke” implies that Assassin’s Creed III has morphed into Carry On Up The Colonies. This, says the game, is an encapsulation of English humour. Smutty, repetitive and unfunny. After all, what is there to compare it to? Even the non-dirty jokes cracked by Shaun are rather pathetic, being limper than damp lettuce and giving the impression of an unfunny man desperate to arouse a smile from the audience, however forced. The whole experience gives rise to a worrying thought – is this really how the world sees my country? Would a foreigner meeting an Englishman for the first time expect them to talk like a bitter, resentful cross between Enoch Powell and Sid James?
We can’t just put this down to the perspective of any single nation, either; as the series always takes pains to remind the player, Assassin’s Creed was developed by a multi-faith team from a variety of cultures, as if it was created within a United Colours of Benetton advert. English people, as presented in the meta-narrative of Assassin’s Creed III, are apparently incapable of getting over the loss of our former colonies and apt to make snide comments wherever possible to comfort ourselves. We obsess over tea, exhibit xenophobia and mistrust toward ostensibly friendly nations and we never fail to sneer at a culture we consider inferior, which is all of them.
Do the writers honestly believe that English people act this way? After all, every other stereotype present is easily recognizable from depictions in other media, if not entirely true to reality. This character is arrogant and pompous because he’s French. That character is humble and wise because he’s Native American. They are shortcuts for the player, intended to tap into our shared ideas of how certain peoples think and act – the game never needs to explain why a minor character has certain mannerisms, because the stereotype bridges the gap; of course that guy is a drunken thug, he’s from Scotland! Were the game set a couple of hundred years later he’d had a syringe full of heroin in one hand and a Stanley knife in the other. If characters follow certain behavior patterns as a way to save the time required to properly develop them, why should the player assume that Shaun is any different? The only other English character to get the same amount of screen time is Haytham Kenway, the decoy protagonist, father of Connor and proud owner of the emotional range of a decorative rug, but when we look at him we see similarly disturbing stereotypes. He’s aristocratic, callous and he considers “common people” to be a rabble who need the rule of his elitist friends to keep them from murdering one another, essentially a class-focused version of The White Man’s Burden. The recurring theme with both characters is assumed superiority, that their group is inherently better or more civilized than others. This seems to be the central conceit of the Templar order, that “the people” are weak and it is the duty of their betters to control them for their own good. At one point Shaun is questioned as to whether he regrets joining the Assassins over the Templars, managing to give only a semi-convincing refutation.
Perhaps none of this is intentional on the part of the writers. Perhaps they forgot that the two major English characters are a stuffy, elitist aristocrat and a ranting, bitter historian with serious inferiority issues. Maybe it completely slipped their minds that other than these two men, the English characters are almost uniformly total bastards who exhibit the same depth of character as the furniture. Given the weight given to other cultural stereotypes though, I can’t help but doubt it. The player is presented with these two men as an encapsulation of what it means to be an Englishman, apparently a nation of people whose central unifying factor is an unshakable sense of failure and bitterness. Maybe once this stereotype held true, and in the waning days of Empire such opinions were common, but one would hope that such stereotypes would have died with the Empire that birthed them.