Inglourious Basterds: The Tyranny of King Washington Impressions

Several years before Ubisoft announced its American Revolution-set sequel, a hidden puzzle in Assassin’s Creed II depicted George Washington holding one of the game’s most power artifacts–an Apple of Eden. With the first episode of Assassin’s Creed III: The Tyranny of King Washington, it looks like this little easter egg is finally going to pay off in a big, weird, and kind of uncomfortable way.

If the original Assassin’s Creed III set up a surprisingly nuanced world of social and moral ambiguity, The Tyranny of King Washington gleefully deconstructs it, dashing out the color and life of the original game with a bleak color palette peppered with the occasional blood splatter. In King Washington, Assassin’s Creed forgoes all pretense of historical accuracy, and pulls a page from Quentin Tarantino’s playbook. King Washington is not just an exercise in historical speculation, it is a gratuitous, historical revenge fantasy.

Where Tarantino uses unanimously condemned historical institutions as his sneering antagonists, Ubisoft challenges expectations by casting one of America’s Founding Fathers in the role. The way in which players come to this point is somewhat explained in the jumbled flashback that opens the first episode, “The Infamy.” In this sequence, George Washington and the game’s hero, Connor, find an Apple of Eden–as Assassin’s Creed II set up three years prior. After Washington takes hold of the device, Connor wakes up to find his previously deceased mother alive and a dead animal on his head in place of his usual assassin’s hood. Now going exclusively by his given name of Ratonhnhaké:ton, he learns that in this alternate universe, the American Revolution (and presumably the French and Indian War) went down a little differently. Washington is now the first American king–and a merciless one at that. What’s left for a not-Assassin to do but to stop a tyrant?

Although the set up leaves many questions unanswered, Washington wears his villainous sneer and dual pistols fairly well. This is in part because Assassin’s Creed III‘s George Washington already subverted American myth by telling Connor a horrible lie (if by omission). While the revelation that George Washington ordered the attack on Connor’s village is horrifying in and of itself, exaggerating the atrocities creates an interesting opportunity for many gamers to re-negotiate their relationship with history. Much like the Tarantino films, King Washington accomplishes this by recontextualizing historical monsters in opposition to the familiar–in this case, gameplay and generic imagery. However, the use of familiar images backfires when it comes to Ratonhnhaké:ton.

The tools Ratonhnhaké:ton and the player have to combat Washington’s tyranny are deeply entrenched in the same, Euro-American-centric cultural narrative that makes George Washington legendary in the first place. In order to stand up to Washington, Ratonhnhaké:ton must drink a tea brewed from the “virgin boughs of the great willow tree” (the clan mother reiterates this, like, three times). This tea sends him on a “sky journey” that eventually grants him the ability to behave like a wolf and even command a pack. The new ability plays well; it gives players some much-needed control over Assassin’s Creed III‘s questionable stealth element. However, it also smacks of noble savage rubbish–the distinctly Euro-American notion that Native Americans are somehow connected with nature–both physically and spiritually. Interestingly, this construction of the Native American was born out of the same literary movement that gave us the mythical George Washington who cannot tell a lie. 19th century American Romantic authors constructed a mythology for a new nation; the noble savage served not only to create a false sense of history, but also to erase the actual awful history of genocide–the history that makes Washington a worthy Tarantino villain in the first place. The result is a weird cognitive dissonance in which Ratonhnhaké:ton tears down the mythical image of George Washington by inhabiting the equally mythical, fetishized, and Euro-American image of the Native American man.

Assassin Ratonhnhaké:ton and his mother, Kaniehtí:io
Assassin Ratonhnhaké:ton and his mother, Kaniehtí:io

This dissonance is additionally fueled by the DLC’s use of language. The Mohawk characters no longer speak their native language with subtitles as they did in the game proper. Several of the Mohawk actors do not reprise their roles, including Kaniehtiio Horn, who plays Ratonhnhaké:ton’s mother. I do not know who the new actor is, nor what her affiliation with first nation peoples might be, but the absence of both some of the original actors and the language is suspect. When combined with the fetishization of the rest of the culture, it becomes distracting and uncomfortable. It undermines any good that might come from King Washington‘s bid to refocus history.

Of course, there are still two more episodes of The Tyranny of King Washington scheduled for release next month. Unlike the similarly episodic The Walking DeadKing Washington‘s first episode is not self-contained; therefore, it is difficult to judge what will ultimately define the adventure. In fact, after playing the first episode, it’s not clear why Ubisoft broke it down into episodes at all–perhaps to recreate some of The Walking Dead‘s water cooler buzz? Whatever the case, I hope that later episodes better contextualize some of the issues I had with “The Infamy”. After all, director Marc-Alexis Côté stressed to Eurogamer that Ubisoft worked with its “native consultant” prior to shipping the DLC (presumably the same consultants from the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center that advised on the original game). Either way, I’m still invested in the characters enough to want to know what will happen next.  Until March, I suppose.

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