Over the Christmas period, at any moment (brief or extended) when I could wrestle myself away from family, reading or general indolence, I indulged in the game Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Whether or not you are familiar with the game franchise matters not. All one need be aware of, with regards to the game, is that it involves pirates and alcohol. Some of the pirates, the story’s protagonist, for example, are fictitious; others, such as Blackbeard, Jack Rackham, Charles Vane, Ben Hornigold, Stede Bonnet, Mary Read and Anne Bonny, were all once real human beings — dead now, of course. Their stories are altered somewhat in accordance with the game’s plot, which transcends what we comprehend as possible in certain areas of physics, too. Another nuance for the scribe is that, in my case anyway, I played the game with a bottle of amaretto at my side, pretending it was rum (amaretto is cheaper, okay?).
As with any story, game or plot, there is conflict. An imbroglio which requires resolution. Hardship, deception and betrayal all abound. There are two sides. An extension of the Knights Templar, known as the Templars, who believe that their grand quest for global peace comes from order, high suzerainty and the surveillance, by this upper echelon, of every person’s every act. Little privacy means little chance of rebellion or insubordination. A belief that in embracing some greater good, whereby the individual surrenders much of his or her ambitions to the oceanic desires of the collective, thus forsaking one of the most sacred elements of their freedom, the collective becomes all the more safe. Their opponents are a quasi-secret order known as the Assassins. Their beliefs include sayings such as ‘nothing is true, everything is permitted’ and their rationale seems, at times, to be a purely anti-Templar functioning process. Throughout the entire series of games, the theme of deception tends to run between the chosen Assassin member which the human player controls, and this assassin’s master. The master is presented as pro-liberty, pro-ritual and pro-kill-Templars. There are scenes in-game when the player eliminates a member of the Templar order, and in these poignant moments, stories are shared, sides revealed, secrets dislodged, and suddenly the shelf of certainty the Assassin protagonist has been arrogantly perched upon (thanks to the cunning manipulation of rhetoric by his or her master) seems to be a shelf of uncertain purchase. The road to freedom is revealed as patchy, mottled with doubt and difficulty. Step by step, the protagonist begins to wonder if the tautological anti-humanitarian accusations their master convicts the Templars of are covered in a base camouflage of hatred; if so, the protagonist is being used, tempered, honed into the ultimate killing machine, shaped and managed by the will of this grand master. In fighting to free people from Templar oversight, the assassin steadily understands that he/she isn’t free his/herself.
The stories are cleverly written, spanning multiple periods of our history and, overall, I had a blast.
But as you might be able to see, playing the game got my gears grinding.
Another game I suffered an addiction to was The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. A more classical fantasy fiction-styled game, where dragons, trolls and demons abound, where there are ruined fortresses and grand loot is to be discovered at the end of every cave and the depths of every lake. Where each corpse seems to hold tight to a weapon with its own history. Weapons that can boost the protagonist’s skills or do extra damage to opponents — and what’s more, the human player can control an Orc — how much more unconventional might a game get? ‘Nonsense!’ I hear J.R.R. Tolkien calling.
Skyrim is a province on the continent of Tamriel, and much of the culture seems to draw on Vikings and the Norse mythology, which in itself is interesting — a move away from Greek and Roman mythology is always worthy of points. And here I must revert back to Black Flag, as this game, too, involves mythology…of the Mayans. Jungles, jaguars, crocodiles. All in there.
Anyway. One of the quest-lines in Skyrim involves the province’s eventual civil war. There is an empire, and there are rebels, Skyrim loyalists, if you will. The player is his or her own arbiter, able to decide whether to fully liberate Skyrim or to wholly unify it, bringing every jarl to the heel of grand imperial rule.
Regardless of whether the player is a rebel or an imperial, there is another quest-line involving a brotherhood of assassins who, via contractual agreement, are hired to assassinate this empire’s ruler. Guess who kills the emperor? Correct.
And this got me thinking, drawing political links between the two games. In Skyrim, the player is given the opportunity to be part of a huge imperial unification, a move which would obviously present consequences and opportunities that the game doesn’t really draw upon, and didn’t much need to anyway. The aftermath; the introduction of new trade routes, the stimulation of employment, the increases in collective wealth. And then, the chance to throw the self-same empire into turmoil by eliminating its figurehead. Obviously, if the player chooses to liberate Skyrim then killing the emperor is the final moment of silencing the whispers of empire, but the freedom the player is given within the game to influence who lives, who dies, who suffers and who prospers, is wholly fascinating at a time where, in 2014, there are countries suffering similar oppression. Countries where people are going to die this winter because fundamental life commodities – food, water, shelter, are beyond what they can even hope for anymore. Countries where political chaos and lunacy all the way at the top of the system are spreading downwards, from spire to roots, enveloping all in a great mass of greed and corruption, leaving the poor and the weak by the wayside. Skyrim and Black Flag are games where the player can be richly rewarded and, ultimately, spend so much time hooked on these games that the liberation of Skyrim, and the grand quest against Templar overlords can suddenly seem more important than the millions of homeless children across the world. Or, if we are willing to (in the moments where we turn off our Xbox 360s or Playstation 3s) inject some of the news — via television, internet or newspaper, it matters not — into our lives, people can see that these games aren’t just great examples of graphics and story writing, they are also — like many good novels and films — reflecting real world issues; we just have to look beyond the swords, the cannon fire and the dragons. Really, an imperialist regime sweeping across the land, and a sect of huge dragons seeking to enslave a province — if that metaphor cannot be unpacked into our current events and enable us to see, think, and fucking sympathize with the people freezing in deserts at night, then I don’t know what can.