However, underneath the sparkling, bustling waters off Nassau, down the dank, crowded alleyways of Havana, and within the lush, verdant jungles of the West Indies, something insidious slithers. It rings incessantly like a warehouse bell, saunters about confidently like an impetuous brigand, and flies proudly in the gale like a stark, white flag; it makes itself such a part of the game world that it feels natural, organic, right.
There’s no mistaking that, at least for the majority of the gameplay experience, Ubisoft’s crafted the world of Assassin’s Creed IV accurately; in certain scenes it's pitch perfect. The history portrayed, while slightly skewed to fit a particularly pointed narrative, is nevertheless boldly representative of life among the pirates in the 18th century.
Consequently, it is without doubt and surprise slavery is ever present, that black and Hispanic oppression lurks within parts of that inherently tawdry passage of history. It is a representation necessary to effectively recreate such a world, one crucial to draft and imbue realism, especially in such a visually interactive medium as gaming -- one that commands we believe it and stands to lose everything if we don't.
This, in and of itself, is commendable and expected. An fourth entry in the series without such deplorable institutions would be awkward, lamentable, and decried as an example of how the gaming industry got it wrong, how the industry needs to grow up, to face real issues, to stop treading the ground of the anodyne.
What’s more disturbing and regrettable than its inclusion, however, is the seemingly disconnected way we view the embodiment of such issues and, more importantly, how Ubisoft actively asserts a savior mentality into the gamer’s framework. Of a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed hero is the protagonist.
Like some archaic Leonardo-constructed Batman, Black Flag's leading man swoops into the fray and rescues the seemingly incapable from ostensibly insurmountable situations or odds.
It is a complex that satiates some often strange desire within the savior character to act upon “good works," to climb some rickety and invisible ladder toward some supposed great beyond through helpful deeds -- whether physically or mentally, real or ethereal. And it's all based on feelings of culpability manifested through patriarchic paternalism.
Within this ideal is the inherent idea of parenthood, of the sagely father guiding the rebellious lost son or daughter back to the fields of home. This type of framework embodies the necessity of aiding the underprivileged in order to satisfy the purportedly caucasian urge to save the savage, to uplift the unenlightened, and to bear upon the world the great gift of modernization.
It's a concept visualized in many games, but especially in Assassin’s Creed IV, not only through narrative, but also through history.
The British and Spanish Empires of the 17th and 18th centuries were the effigy of this messianic notion. Their religious idealism and cultural sentiments nigh commanded them, through the concept and action of imperialism, to tame the “noble savage,” to bring light into the dark of the world, to act as savior for those unaware of their wicked, wrongful ways. This wasn’t contained to just the Americas, but bled into Asia and Africa as well.
But what isn’t argued is that the effect of such patriarchal mindsets spurred a legacy of self-importance and glorification endemic to -- fairly or unfairly -- whites as a whole. It engendered a framework that whites were and are somehow more educated, more informed, and more actionable entities within some untouchable sphere, that their theories and processes were and are more conducive to industrialized, sophisticated modernity.
Whether perceived as helpful or not, most charitable actions engaged by whites in developing countries or third-worlds then and now are often invasions of culture, mentality, and philosophy. Freedom is often removed and replaced with servitude.
And this isn’t relegated to the realm of the politic or cerebral academic. Start up Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Video, walk down to the local cinema, stop at a Redbox; at any of these you’ll find films such as The Help, 12 Years a Slave, Avatar, Blood Diamond and The Last Samurai that perpetuate this mentality of the white savior. That’s not to mention the countless books and video games that, while well-meaning in their exploratory narratives and ensemble casts, err in truly tackling the issues head on. They dance a worthy dance, but it is a dance all the same.
Assassin Creed IV, for better or worse, is one piece that follows its forebears into the ubiquitous territory of self-aggrandized philanthropy. It finds itself sailing the nebulous waters of charity and pity, selfishness and altruism. It never truly knows where to anchor. The most egregious representations of the White Savior Complex within Assassin's Creed IV’s narrative bombard the player in three separate instances.
The first comes when the player initially meets Antó, the Maroon Assassin -- an older, sagacious assassin stationed at Kingston. Here, Kenway aids Antó in freeing captured slaves, comrades whom Antó would bring into the assassin fold. Ultimately, this is an example of the savior unshackling “incapable” disciples.
A more subtle example comes when Kenway liberates pirates from various strongholds within the world or from groups of the "thuggish" Spanish or British. In my experience -- particularly in the early game before acquiring the Jackdaw -- nearly all the pirates saved by Kenway were black or Hispanic. A considerably slight few were white and, as I progressed through the game, this seemed to be the rule rather than the exception.
The third, and most disturbing, instance comes when Kenway aids the Taino Assassin, a black female assassin, in escaping the trap she has unwittingly put upon herself. Here, not only does Kenway warn her and imply she could not have defended herself or comrades on her own, but he challenges her to a contest of which he must win in order to usurp her power. This effectively bequeaths him the crown of messiah. It is truly and completely garish its construction, and wholly bearish in its delivery and realization.
In all of these instances Kenway represents the outsider who has cast aside his typical societal armor -- even in pirate civilization -- to contribute to the supposed saving of an implied less-capable. Even Adéwalé, Kenway’s right hand, is just that: a right hand.
He is subservient to the master, the messiah, the other. Even when he becomes his own man and pirate, one seemingly untethered of societal constructs and commands, he’s still the product of Kenway; Kenway made Adéwalé the man he ultimately became. Without Kenway, it is possible the figure of Adéwalé the player comes to know throughout the game would not exist.
Therefore, the question stands: why can’t those directly affected resolve any of these instances on their own? What is gained, other than becoming the cohort of the marginalized, by the “outsider” who endeavors to so doggedly offer his aid? The answer is not as simple as a single answer, but complexly hidden somewhere in the perpetuated quagmire of the syndrome.
Yes, I understand Assassin’s Creed IV is a game; and yes, I understand the player must actively pursue missions, objectives, and goals, combat mobs and enemies, and save damsels and princes in distress; at least this is the view normally espoused of the medium.
But must it always be that way? Must we always play as the white, blonde-haired savior? After all these years, can’t we create more nuanced narrative experiences, ones that speak more truthfully to the fluidity of humanity?
In some ways Assassin’s Creed IV does that -- the memorable, rounded characters of Blackbeard and Mary Read (the latter of whom I thought was commendable in the portrayal of the androgynous character) -- but it still falls short.
As gamers, developers, enthusiasts, and journalists we’re still learning from our mistakes and missteps; we’re still deciphering what it means to play games, what games are, and what they truly have the potential to be. Consequently, we should be ever striving to push the medium forward, to challenge our customary viewpoints on the very things we champion and love, to rid our expressions of outdated paradigms that harm our beloved medium.
It’s important for not only the growth of the medium, but for ourselves.
And I’m not saying there must never be a white male protagonist who rescues an unfortunate from distress or harm, but that we must instead always challenge the concept of the ideal such a protagonist represents and understand there are sometimes richer, far more engaging scenarios within the digital landscape that is gaming; so many sparkling, priceless treasures we’ve left undiscovered.