Professor François Furstenberg of Université de Montréal's Department of History collaborated in the production of the third video game of the Assassin's Creed series. “You really have the impression of living at the time of the American Revolution,” said Furstenberg, who is an expert on George Washington and the American Revolutionary period.
Game editor Ubisoft first contacted Furstenberg in 2010. The project was classified top secret. “I had no idea what it was about. When I arrived at their high security offices, I had to sign a confidentiality agreement. Only then did they talk to me about Assassin's Creed III. The historian was immediately interested. “In a class, you can teach 30 students, sometimes 200. With a video game like this, you have the opportunity of getting tens of millions of people interested in history.”
The story of Assassin's Creed revolves around Desmond Miles, a young American who is held prisoner by a pharmaceutical company called Abstergo. The company is actually a front for the Knights Templar, sworn enemies of the Assassins. The Assassins are Desmond's ancestors, and he is brought to relive their past with the help of a mysterious machine called the “Animus.”
The story of Assassin's Creed III takes place in the 18th century and centres on Connor Kenway, a Mohawk born of an English father and Indian mother. When his village is burned, he joins the brotherhood of Assassins and takes part in the war. He meets up with great figures such as Samuel Adams, George Washington, and Israel Putnam and participates in historical events such as the signature of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Boston Tea Party.
Not a “gamer”
By providing ideas, ensuring historical accuracy and reviewing the script by Corey May, Professor Furstenberg helped set the scene for this mega production. “You know, video games are a multi-billion dollar industry and may well replace film and television in terms of popularity with some segments of the population. What I liked about this project was the ability to make history come alive in all its materiality," he said. “The scenes on the ships are beautiful. In the 18th century, all cities were port cities. The raison d'être of a colony was the production of wheat and tobacco and other goods for the foreign market. Everyone had a relationship with these boats, which were the link to the world. In the game, you have the opportunity to relive this particular link between industry and the rest of the world.”
Furstenberg is not a “gamer.” Before being contacted by Ubisoft, he was not familiar with this action-adventure game that has sold 10 million copies worldwide. However, his profile fit the requirements for the job perfectly. Professor Furstenberg holds a doctorate from John Hopkins University, he heads Université de Montréal's introductory course to American history, and he naturally knows more than a thing or two about the characters and events that made up the American War of Independence.
In 2006, he published a book on the images of George Washington. Entitled In the Name of the Father, the book uses rhetorical analysis to explain how "father of the nation and the Constitution” was used to construct nationalism after the American Revolution. The book served as a reference for the designers of Assassin's Creed III. “Washington is a secondary character in the game, but he is such an important icon that his hair had to be greyed. At the age he appears in the video game, he should have had red hair! But no one would have recognized him,” Furstenberg joked.
Apart from this detail, the rest of the game reflects quite well the reality of the time. The historical dynamics are especially kept intact. “If they had wanted to depict the revolution without showing slaves, or portray the Americans as noble liberators, I would have hesitated,” Furstenberg said. In his opinion, the simple fact that the hero of the game is Mohawk is significant because it brings theoretical questioning. “If you were Mohawk at the time of the American Revolution, who would you ally with? What are the stakes of this revolution? If you were a slave, who was the liberator, the English or the Americans? These are relevant questions that the characters in the game ask and that I could ask in my class. The game has compelling pedagogical aspect,” he said. “I am waiting for the educational version without violence or blood!”
This text was translated from an article originally published in French by Dominique Nancy.