Wandering between worlds – Disguise as an act of liberation in Assassin’s Creed: Liberation

This feature is part of our special series on History and Games.

Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation (and its remas­tered ver­sion Assassin’s Creed: Liberation HD)1 intro­duced new ideas to the well-known videogame series. In addi­tion to the very first appear­ance of a female assas­sin as the game’s pro­tag­o­nist, Aveline de Grandpré, a dis­guise mechan­ic pre­miered which enabled the play­er to switch between her three dif­fer­ent “social facades”, called per­sonas.2 The mas­ter sem­i­nar “Pirates, Madams, Voodoo Queens: A Gender History of New Orleans” by Dr. Rebecca Brückmann that I attend­ed at the University of Cologne inspired me to inves­ti­gate the his­tor­i­cal impli­ca­tions con­veyed by Assassin’s Creed: Liberation’s vision of late 18th cen­tu­ry New Orleans.

The game’s pro­tag­o­nist Aveline de Grandpré lives in the New Orleanian soci­ety of 1760, which is shaped by racial seg­re­ga­tion and French rule. This con­tex­tu­al­iza­tion of Aveline serves as foun­da­tion for a detailed analy­sis of the game’s dis­guise mechan­ic. This mechan­ic has a cru­cial role in the con­struc­tion of the his­to­ry the game por­trays.3 Following the idea of a “(hi)story-play-space” intro­duced by Adam Chapman, gam­ing is under­stood as an active his­tor­i­cal dis­course between the play­er and the “developer-historian”. Only in an inter­ac­tion between these two par­ties by the rules of the game – i.e. the game mechan­ics – can spe­cif­ic images of his­to­ry emerge.4

Aveline bribing guards

Aveline brib­ing guards

Aveline is intend­ed as an exam­ple of a free woman of color who grew up in a wealthy fam­i­ly. Her ambiva­lent social sta­tus is dis­played in the dif­fer­ent cos­tumes offered by the game’s dis­guise mechan­ic. Every cos­tume or per­sona direct­ly trans­lates to a change of her rep­u­ta­tion and there­by con­veys insights into the mean­ing of cloth­ing for the con­sti­tu­tion of social sta­tus. The prac­tice of dis­guise in the depict­ed seg­re­gat­ed soci­ety is inter­pret­ed as an act of lib­er­a­tion, as the game’s title sug­gests. Thus Aveline under­mines the society’s dress reg­u­la­tions of her time to act free from soci­etal and moral con­straints and to be able to achieve her aims.

Treatment and legal sta­tus of slaves, man­u­mit­ted slaves and free-born blacks was defined by the Code Noir of 1685 and 1724, a leg­isla­tive text intro­duced dur­ing the French rule over New Orleans. This text played an impor­tant role in shap­ing 18th cen­tu­ry New Orleans’ “three-caste sys­tem”5 which is cru­cial for an under­stand­ing of the his­tor­i­cal poten­tial of the game’s dis­guise mechan­ic. This “three-caste-system” cre­ates a state of limbo for Aveline as a free woman of color between white rulers and black slaves which is the foun­da­tion of her fight for jus­tice and free­dom for New Orleans’ slaves. Her effort is car­ried by the first-time appear­ance of the dis­guise mechan­ic in the Assassin’s Creed series6 which includes the three per­sonas: “Lady Persona”, “Slave Persona” and “Assassin Persona”.

“Lady Persona” and “Slave Persona” are two sides of one coin. The Lady Persona rep­re­sents the upper end of the social “lad­der”, the Slave Persona the lower end. Both rep­re­sent a way of chang­ing your social sta­tus through dis­guise and, by uti­liz­ing his­tor­i­cal mate­r­i­al, cre­ate options for action through the game mechan­ic. To gen­er­ate his­tor­i­cal imagery from this mechan­ic the play­er has to active­ly use it and be con­front­ed with the pos­si­bil­i­ties and restric­tions of the dif­fer­ent dis­guis­es. These pos­si­bil­i­ties and restric­tions direct­ly trans­fer from the expe­ri­ences Aveline makes in her respec­tive per­sona.

By fol­low­ing its strict­ly orna­men­tal pur­pose the “Lady Persona” (ill. 1) is a means to rep­re­sent wealth and sta­tus. Although it restrains Aveline’s mobil­i­ty with its numer­ous lay­ers of cloth­ing, its broad hat, and its tight corset, this cos­tume allows Aveline to emu­late the sta­tus of the white rul­ing class in New Orleans and to prof­it from their priv­i­leges. The noto­ri­ety level, for exam­ple, which deter­mines how eager the city’s guards are to find Aveline and which increas­es when Aveline attacks some­one or enters a restrict­ed area, rises more slow­ly than in any other dis­guise. Climbing up hous­es or sprint­ing over rooftops, on the other hand, is far from what this cos­tume was made to do, and there­fore becomes impos­si­ble.

The “Slave Persona” (ill. 2), too, draws from con­tem­po­rary con­di­tions to cre­ate spe­cif­ic options for action. Disguised as a slave Aveline is able to hide in groups of other slaves to avoid detec­tion by guards or to enter for­mer­ly inac­ces­si­ble areas by car­ry­ing a box of goods (ill. 3). On the level of game mechan­ics brib­ing a guard in the “Lady Persona” (ill. 4) close­ly resem­bles deceiv­ing the guards in the “Slave Persona”. What dis­tin­guish­es both mechan­ics is that they embody dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal impli­ca­tions which only become trans­par­ent to the play­er if he uses said mechan­ics. Aveline exploits the excess­es of inequal­i­ty for her own ends while play­ers gain access to new options for action in this his­tor­i­cal frame­work. But while new options arise with every switch between “Lady Persona” and “Slave Persona”, oth­ers dis­ap­pear. Any of the two dis­guis­es comes with a set of new restraints for Aveline in terms of her social sta­tus as well as for the play­er in terms of game­play. Neither Aveline nor the play­er can there­by ever break free from the restric­tions of the New Orleanian soci­ety of the late 18th cen­tu­ry.

But there is a third cos­tume: The fic­tion­al “Assassin Persona” (ill. 5) com­pletes Avelines escape from society’s restraints. While using the cir­cum­stances to her advan­tage in the other two per­sonas she only eludes the social restraints in her “Assassin Persona”. This per­sona stands in oppo­si­tion to the real­i­ty of 18th cen­tu­ry New Orleans and there­by sym­bol­izes the com­ing alive of change and lib­er­a­tion in the per­son of Aveline.7 In this cos­tume Aveline is an anom­aly in time, which under­lines the spe­cial role of the “Assassin Persona” in the triad of per­sonas. Abandoning each and any façade Aveline becomes the city’s most want­ed per­son and is attacked on sight. While the noto­ri­ety level can be reduced back to zero in the “Slave Persona” and the “Lady Persona” Aveline is always want­ed when wear­ing the Assassin dis­guise. This new dan­ger is the price paid for a lib­er­a­tion not only of Aveline but also of the play­er in terms of his options of action. The Assassin dis­guise gives the play­er access to Aveline’s full arse­nal of weapons and gad­gets; climb­ing and jump­ing pose no chal­lenge for Aveline. Only in this cos­tume the “Chain Kill abil­i­ty” (ill. 6) can be used which enables the unleashed Aveline and the play­er to effort­less­ly elim­i­nate large quan­ti­ties of ene­mies.

Therefore, a lib­er­a­tion from soci­etal restraints (from the per­spec­tive of Aveline) and from the restraints imposed by the game mechan­ics (from the per­spec­tive of the play­er) becomes appar­ent in the “Assassin Persona” as a delib­er­ate fic­tion­al addi­tion to the his­tor­i­cal set­ting. The free­dom of the Assassin Aveline is trans­ferred to the play­er as a feel­ing of free­dom expe­ri­enced through the dis­guise mechan­ic. The act of dis­guis­ing alone marks an escape from the con­ven­tions of dif­fer­ent class­es in the New Orleanian soci­ety. While being his­tor­i­cal­ly implau­si­ble in her actions, the fic­tion­al char­ac­ter of Aveline de Grandpré enables the play­er to switch between his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tives and come to an under­stand­ing of the soci­ety through the sharp con­trast of the dif­fer­ent per­sonas.

It is appar­ent that his­tor­i­cal imagery is not only gen­er­at­ed by nar­ra­tion or his­tor­i­cal recon­struc­tion but also by the options of action offered by the game mechan­ics. Coming back to Chapman it can be con­clud­ed that a “read­ing” of his­to­ry in games is accom­pa­nied by a “doing” of his­to­ry which takes place in a (hi)story-play-space through which play­ers trav­el and in which they cre­ate images of his­to­ry by per­form­ing actions framed by the game logic.8

Aveline not drawing attention to herself in the slave persona

Aveline not draw­ing atten­tion to her­self in the slave per­sona

After approach­ing Assassin’s Creed: Liberation as a (hi)story-play-space and iden­ti­fy­ing the game’s dis­guise mechan­ic as a “doing” of his­to­ry I won­dered about how and why Aveline de Grandpré came to be. When asked about the influ­ence of the history/historiography of the 18th cen­tu­ry New Orleanian soci­ety on the cre­ation of Aveline, one of the pro­duc­ers of Assassin’s Creed: Liberation at Ubisoft Sofia, Martin Capel, stat­ed: “[W]e actu­al­ly feel that we didn’t invent her, she was there just wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered.”9 So it was­n’t by chance that Aveline took over from her male pre­de­ces­sors in this itin­er­a­tion of the Assassin’s Creed series. Quite the con­trary: “In Liberation, Aveline is more than just an Assassin liv­ing in New Orleans – she is an inte­gral part of the liv­ing city that she grew up in.”10 It becomes clear that the game’s devel­op­ers con­scious­ly made a state­ment about 18th cen­tu­ry New Orleans and the class of free women of color in their game. They suc­ceed­ed in mak­ing this state­ment about the ambiva­lent sit­u­a­tion of free women of color by choos­ing an uncom­mon approach, name­ly by merg­ing his­tor­i­cal mate­r­i­al with the game mechan­ics through the dis­guise mechan­ic described in this arti­cle. By adding in the “Assassin Persona” the devel­op­ers ulti­mate­ly enable Aveline and, on a broad­er level, the free women of color to act inde­pen­dent­ly. This empha­sis­es an under­stand­ing of his­to­ry in which for­mer­ly invis­i­ble social groups and their impact on soci­ety is focused upon. So while Assassin’s Creed: Liberation sure­ly isn’t the most stun­ning release of the series in terms of its graph­ics or its nar­ra­tive, it def­i­nite­ly is a fore­run­ner in terms of the his­tor­i­cal imagery it con­veys and how it suc­ceeds to do so.

While the imple­men­ta­tion of a female pro­tag­o­nist and said dis­guise mechan­ic can also be seen as more of a mar­ket­ing choice than an endeav­or into the capac­i­ty of the medi­um to relive the past, it still rais­es the ques­tion how his­tor­i­cal imagery is and can be con­veyed in the Assassin’s Creed series and in videogames in gen­er­al. I would argue that trans­fer­ring his­tor­i­cal mate­r­i­al through game mechan­ics can achieve a high­er degree of involve­ment of the play­er than trans­fer­ring that mate­r­i­al only through the nar­ra­tive. Quite pos­si­bly both ways com­ple­ment each other. But does some kind of involve­ment make one way bet­ter than the other? I’m not sure. Further research is need­ed to grasp the inter­con­nec­tion of nar­ra­tive and ludo­log­i­cal approach­es to his­tor­i­cal mate­r­i­al in videogames.

Picture credits:
Assassin’s Creed: Liberation HD. 2014. Ubisoft Sofia/Ubisoft Milan. Playstation 3 (Playstation Network), Xbox 360 (Xbox Live Arcade), PC (Windows). Ubisoft. Chapter: Sequence 1.
All screenshots were taken by the author of this text.
  1. Assassin’s Creed: Liberation HD. 2014. Ubisoft Sofia/Ubisoft Milan. Playstation 3 (Playstation Network), Xbox 360 (Xbox Live Arcade), PC (Windows). Ubisoft. Chapter: Sequence 1. []
  2. Following Merriam-Webster the term per­sona describes “an indi­vid­u­al’s social facade or front that espe­cial­ly in the ana­lyt­ic psy­chol­o­gy of C. G. Jung reflects the role in life the indi­vid­ual is play­ing” (http://​www​.mer​ri​am​-web​ster​.com/​d​i​c​t​i​o​n​a​r​y​/​p​e​r​s​ona) [Accessed November 20th, 2016] []
  3. Andrew B.R. Elliot and Matthew Wilhelm Kapell, „Introduction: To Build a Past That Will „Stand the Test of Time“ – Discovering Historical Facts, Assembling Historical Narratives“ In Playing with the Past. Digital Games and the Simulation of History, edit­ed by Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and Andrew B. R. Elliott (New York, London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 17. []
  4. Adam Chapman, Digital Games as History. How Videogames Represent the Past and Offer Access to Historical Practice (New York: Routledge, 2016), p. 51. []
  5. Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters. The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), p.198; Jennifer M. Spear, Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2009), p.101. []
  6. Previous iter­a­tions of the Assassin’s Creed series already offered ways to cus­tomise the protagonist’s cloth­ing. The changes pos­si­ble were, how­ev­er, either of cos­met­i­cal nature (col­or­ing of pieces of cloth­ing) or sole­ly had an impact on the game mechan­ics (e.g. improved pro­tec­tion from enemy’s attacks). The tight­ly inter­con­nect­ed nar­ra­to­log­i­cal and ludolo­gial dis­guise mechan­ic pre­mier­ing in Liberation can sure­ly be described as an inno­va­tion for the series. []
  7. Jeanette C. Lauer and Robert H. Lauer, “Fashion” In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Volume 4: Myth, Manners, and Memory, edit­ed by Charles Reagan Wilson (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006), p. 61. []
  8. Chapman, Digital Games as History, S. 51. []
  9. Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation pro­duc­er Q&A”, Gematsu, http://​gemat​su​.com/​2012​/​08​/​a​s​s​a​s​s​i​n​s​-​c​r​e​e​d​-​i​i​i​-​l​i​b​e​r​a​t​i​o​n​-​p​r​o​d​u​c​e​r​-qa [Accessed December 20th, 2016] []
  10. Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation pro­duc­er Q&A” []

Felix Zimmermann

About Felix Zimmermann

Felix Zimmermann is a second-year Public History student at the University of Cologne. He played Yoshi’s Island on his SNES when he was 3 or 4. That’s when it all began. You can contact him via Mail (contact AT felix-zimmermann DOT net) or on Twitter (@Felix_felixson).