The recent release of new trailers (and, in the case of Assassin’s Creed III, the game itself) by the development teams for both Assassin’s Creed III and Bioshock Infinite have raised a few thematic questions concerning their narrative situation as intrinsically American, and perhaps not so proud of it.
Many videogames are set in the U.S. in an abstract sense – by which I mean that they just happen to be there, and that the setting of the U.S. is ultimately unimportant to the narrative and critical work of the game itself. Others – like Modern Warfare – have global settings that reflect their narrative context, but don’t ultimately resonate as those locales in the same way that Americanism (and not just the geographic America) does in AC3 and Infinite.
AC3 and Infinite aren’t just set in the U.S., they’re immersed in it. Up to their virtual noses. AC3 is mythic in its scope of engagement with Revolutionary America. It draws on the iconography of colonialism, the American Revolution, and the frontier, but also the brutality of Anglo-Native conflict and the enslavement of Africans and African-Americans. Because I have not yet played the game, I cannot say definitively what AC3 ultimately does with this American iconographic lexicon, but the trailers give us a pretty good idea.
The AC3 launch trailer, in particular, is profoundly anti-Exceptionalist in its presentation of both colonists and Redcoats in favor of the protagonist, Connor, who admittedly chooses to side with the rebels in the Revolution. At first glance, this would seem to indicate a patriotic stance on the part of the game’s narrative; however, the opening sequence – “When I was five, they came to my village…they took our land, slaughtered my mother. But they made one mistake. They left me alive” – mimics a more “typical” American sentiment. The mustached colonist in fact parrots the American view of Native peoples from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: “You are a nothing, living in the dirt like animals.”
Certainly, by setting the game in the Revolutionary period – rather than the later period of Westward expansion so characterized by the brutality of American military and colonial forces against the Native peoples – helps to mitigate the seeming criticism of the ideology of American Exceptionalism, but the tenor of the player-character’s narration reminds us implicitly of the exploitative treatment of Native Americans by the government, the white people, and the law in later centuries.
Even the most recent multiplayer trailer, the subject of some debate due to its disproportionate levels of violence against women, raises a few unanswered questions about the exploitation not only of Native peoples, but, in the line, “the blood-soaked cotton found on the Virginian plantation,” of African slaves, as well.
In short, while AC3 does follow a narrative trajectory that parallels the fight for colonial freedom from the oppression of the British Empire, it does so through a character and through settings that specifically emphasize that America itself would later become an agent of the same imperial exceptionalism that characterized British occupation.
If anything, Bioshock Infinite is even more explicit. Even the title of its trailer, “The Beast of America,” indicates the deliberate vilification of the American ethos as brutish and exploitative. The powerful tones of the rock spiritual – also titled “Beast of America,” and containing the line “We are free in the land of America. We ain’t goin’ down like this” – that plays throughout the trailer emphasizes the incongruity of the red-white-and-blue bunting that appears everywhere in the game’s footage. The iconography of “freedom” so often promoted by American Exceptionalism is warped in Infinite’s Columbia, genetically and mechanically modified into unquestionable monstrosity. The beast of America.
The key question here is “Why have both AC3 and Infinite chosen this historical moment to explode American Exceptionalism?”
Both games have been in development (to a greater or lesser degree) for the last three to five years. They have been built by men and women who lived through 9/11, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, the stock market implosion, the implementation of increased limitations on immigration, the Occupy movement, and the election first of George W. Bush and then of the first African-American president of the United States.
They have seen the American Dream crumble in the fingers of friends and family, but they also seem to have some measure of hope that our country is not yet – either socially or politically – beyond redemption. After all, neither game is about hopelessness – both are about hope. Hope that the Revolution will bring renewed freedom to the colonies. Hope that we can, as in a fairy tale, save the girl and live happily ever after – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But despite this hope, they are still critical of the myths that we, as Americans, tell ourselves. Of the fiction that we are somehow inherently better than the people of other nations or tribes (literal or figurative). They want to remind us that we are as bigoted, brutish, and ignorant as any other nation, but also that – despite this – we continue to loudly and publically insist otherwise on the global stage.
In some ways, both AC3 and Infinite seem to be offering an apology for the U.S., an assertion that not all of us believe in our own superiority. They want to force us – as Americans – to confront our own bestial impulses by giving us the gameplay tools to engage in that violence and even to become the very brutes we are being encouraged to criticize. To see the beast in ourselves, as it were.
Because if we become the monsters, if we have to accept our own brutality, then perhaps we will let go of our claims of exceptionalism and seek instead to find a common thread in humanity, rather than to continually focus on difference and divisiveness. And if we can do that, then we will be embracing the Revolutionary ideology that all people are indeed created equal and deserve the same rights and freedoms and all others. What Americanism should stand for.