Fifty quid says Queen Victoria is a Templar. Empress of India seems like a Templar-y thing to be, and the history books have it that at least eight people tried to off her. I’m placing another £20 on Jack the Ripper turning out to be at once a nice guy and a flawlessly animated woman.
I know now how Italians must have felt as Assassin’s Creed’s cultural wrecking ball of various faiths and beliefs swung towards them, but the Renaissance of Assassin’s Creed II was 600 years ago. Who knows what those folk were up to? That hubbub in America was more recent, but then our cousins are fond of cinematic stabby panache, so what does it matter if Ubisoft embellishes the details? The French Revolution, meanwhile, was carnage. Creed is good at carnage, but I worry that it's not so good at what would make Victorian London believable.
Though admittedly I haven’t met many of them, I can’t think of anyone more British than the Victorians. They’re the honorary inventors of the modern Brit, all prim and proper and apologetic while enacting devious plans to expand the Empire and out-class the world around them. Every film to feature Alan Rickman being intellectually evil owes something to the Victorians. Detectives in deerstalkers playing mind games with master criminals? Late 1800s. Long-running legal dramas fraught with social consequences? Cheers, Charles Dickens.
The Victorians perceived themselves as living in a period where the clever exercise of political and administrative power could accomplish a great deal more than fighting the French again. For the first time, the concept of adviser and politician as full-time professions had sprung into being, and indeed our actual warring was a bit hit-and-miss.
London convulsed with social, religious and technological change at the height of imperial power, but no one stormed Buckingham Palace, and the excess bloodshed of the preceding century was tucked away in the less tasteful colonies, far from London society. Basically it’s a bloody fantastic setting for an assassin game: political intrigue and concentrated centres of power, a city where one knife in the dark could reshape the world’s largest empire.
But this has never been Assassin’s Creed. Mechanically and tonally, I worry that it lacks the apparatus to capture the spirit of the era.
Assassin's Creed: Unity's chaotic Paris
Let’s not pretend that Assassin’s Creed is about – has ever been about – espionage, rather than cutting your way through the headlines of history. Hey, Borgia! Chop. Yo, Robespierre. Lop. Fuck you, random guard. Schlick. How do you begin to tell the story of the social developments which forged our introverted island when you are (one assumes) scalping policemen on Tower Bridge?
I’ll subdue the academic in me temporarily, because I’m aware no one plays a Ubisoft game for its historical precision and keen social commentary. I’m flustered because the developers Ubisoft Quebec, unless they’re very different storytellers to their Montreal siblings, are in danger of squandering the richest arena for cloak-and-dagger tactics that historians have on record. Ubi could choose a single strand of political wrangling and follow it from workhouse to Whitehall, cataloguing each class’s manoeuvring and casting the player as a true instigator of social change, with tangible results outside of the Animus. The 19th century is yesterday in timeline terms.
But I don’t think that will happen. Assassin’s Creed has frequently shown itself to be incapable of subtlety, preferring to fixate on big events and brash happenings rather than capture the zeitgeist. But let’s say Ubisoft surprises us and unveils a British story that’s restrained in its outward ambition, tuned to the historical importance of class and politick. It would probably still fall tragically short, because the best Victorian assassin game already exists.
Concept art for Dishonored's Dunwall
Dishonored does what a game deep in a long running franchise can’t – it abstracts. Assassin’s Creed tries to recreate each aspect of its settings in perfect (unoptimised) detail, which is a task too colossal to get right. London will look gorgeous, but sprinting all over it collecting beefeater hats and anti-establishment pamphlets won’t convey how the city felt. Dishonored, by contrast, selects core themes and paints them with vigour in big, broad strokes.
In Dunwall, Dishonored’s London-in-all-but-name, rumbling whale oil engines power the latest technology, products of the industrial revolution in conflict with the watercolour townhouses they’re attached to. As much as its scientists proclaim their progressive brilliance, however, their inspiration is ultimately the arcane powers of times gone by. Meanwhile, the protagonist wields competing magic and artifice to achieve his goals. Apart from feeling fantastic in play, the juxtaposition is a very Victorian issue.
While packing plenty of potential for bloodshed, the storyline doesn’t demand it, centring instead on the backroom dealings of high society. The Lord Protector, symbol of the old regime, is jailed. On your escape, you topple the Lords Pendleton to accrue seats in parliament, party with Waverly Boyle, whose romance keeps the traitor government funded, and eventually come toe-to-toe with Haverlock, his ambition failing as his social ties snap.
Corvo Attano acts with restrained, almost gentlemanly power to disrupt all-important political networks. If you opt to go on a rampage, Dunwall dies even as you succeed. In its artwork and focused story, abstracted from one thread of British history, Dishonored is quintessentially Victorian. Okay, yes, everyone speaks with American accents and they’ve misspelled the title, but the self-control that Arkane Studios displays is British through and through.
Another scene from Dunwall.
Assassin’s Creed, with its collectibles and set pieces, is anathema to Victorian London. Like a puppy wetting itself in excitement, we’ll crash through each point on the BBC’s Victorian timeline, stopping in on Dickens, inventing the stamp and dining with Darwin before fighting Queen Vic herself in a phone box for the show-stopping finale. Oh, wait, phone boxes hadn’t been invented then? It’s cool - that didn’t stop us having fun with Leonardo da Vinci’s non-existent flying machine.
I’m sure it’ll be fun. It just… won’t be Victorian.