I’ve grown up with video games from the times of 8-bit pixels to today’s high-definition virtual entertainment centers. I greatly enjoy all the fun, intrigue, and spectacle, as well as following all the latest news on upcoming titles and technological advancements. Because of that passion, however, it takes something substantial to floor me these days, something beyond improved graphics or a new installment in a beloved series. That is why I had to pause and re-examine the announcement of Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation,” when it was revealed that its protagonist would be a woman by the name of Aveline de Grandpré, it would take place in mid-late 18th century New Orleans, Louisiana, and that she would be of French-African heritage.
Aveline de Grandpré in a screenshot from her debut trailer. © Ubisoft Entertainment
First, some background on the series. The best-selling Assassin’s Creed games are a historical, stealth-based action series. The player controls an Assassin, a member of a secret brotherhood that has operated throughout human civilization to combat corruption and evil. They are directly opposed by the Knights Templar, an equally enigmatic group seeking world domination, and their pawns. The player is generally tasked with carefully navigating an open world environment to avoid detection and the dispatching of enemy targets with a variety of techniques, tools, and weaponry. There are two main games available now with a number of spin-offs. The latest in the series, Assassin’s Creed III, will be released in October; Liberation is its spin-off for Sony’s portable Playstation Vita console, slated for simultaneous release.
One of the series’ most distinguishing features is its historic settings. Previous games in the series have taken place during the 12th century Third Crusade and the late 15th century-to-early 16th century Italian Renaissance. This time around, America, circa the Revolutionary War and the American colonies, is the backdrop.
Aveline pictured with Conner Kenway, protagonist of Assassin's Creed III. © Ubisoft Entertainment
This go around, Ubisoft seems very keen on throwing in potential factors concerning race. While Conner Kenway, a man of half-English, half-Native American heritage, will be the Assassin in the thick of the war in the North of the main game, Aveline’s adventures will take place in the South, and it does not seem they are skimping on their famed real world inspirations. Aveline was born into wealth through the plaçage system, a real life cultural system of French and Spanish colony populations of the time, especially in Louisiana. Born out of a perceived need for more women in their colonies, plaçage allowed wealthy white men to, basically, enter into common-law marriages with women of color. They were not fully recognized as wives, but as placées, which came with separate legal and social standards for the woman and any potential children. According to Wikipedia’s sources:
“By 1788, 1,500 Creole women of color and black women were being maintained by white men, and a certain manner of living had emerged to be followed by each generation. It was common for a wealthy, married Creole to live primarily outside New Orleans on a plantation with his white family, with a second address to use in the city for entertaining and socializing among the white elite, while the placée and their children would live primarily in the house he had built or bought for her in New Orleans, and participate in the society of Creoles of color. The white world might not recognize the placée as a wife legally and socially, but she was recognized as such among the Creoles of color. They even owned slaves and plantations, but some of them, particularly during the Spanish colonial era, were relatives that the placées wished to manumit at a later date.”
These relationships often occurred alongside the men’s “legitimate” families in a gray area between recognition and stigma. Even non-married men kept separate residences from the placées’ family. However, the men regularly saw to the upbringing of their plaçage-born children:
“He also took part in and arranged for the upbringing and education of their children, which meant that both boys and girls were educated in France, as there were no schools available to educate mixed-race children, and it was illegal to teach blacks to read and write. Naturally, the ideal plaçage arrangement(s) ran into the thousands of dollars per year.”
Creole woman of color with maid, from a watercolor series by Édouard Marquis, New Orleans, 1867.
This environment is ripe with potential dramatic plot developments, something else that the Assassin’s Creed series is known for. It will be interesting to see how Aveline and her familial situation are written and evolve in the context of the game.
This is not to ignore Aveline herself. While she is similar to the protagonists of the previous games in that she’s skilled in combat and exploration, we know that the first female protagonist of Assassin’s Creed is intelligent, strong-willed, and sometimes impulsive, a trait that puts her at odds with her mentor. She is observant of the contradicting aspects of her society, developing a powerful anti-slavery opinion as a result. She will also be the first protagonist in the series to make use of full disguises, including the fancy dresses of New Orleans high society and the rags of a house servant. This shows a keen awareness on multiple fronts, by both Aveline and the people that created her, of how she could maneuver in and manipulate the expectations of her culture.
Two of Aveline's disguises, aristocrat and servant, both equipped with the series-signature hidden blade. © Ubisoft Entertainment
Even though the game must be played to see the full breadth of Aveline’s story and character, she seems as dynamic and compelling as any other player character in the series, if not more so. Part of this has to come from the developer’s decision, back when the game was still an idea on paper, to not play things safe with this iteration of the series. By being willing to draw upon the experiences of a black woman from the time of slavery (and, in the main game, the experience of a Native American fighting in the Revolutionary War), Ubisoft is set to present untold stories that other games have never really touched upon without being shortsighted at best, offensive at worse, or completely educational and simple in nature. This is especially the case if the sample size is restricted to big budget, AAA-rated games, which have a track record of lack of innovative risk in order to remain highly marketable to potential new customers and anticipated by already-hooked fans.
I’ve never been one for portable games and do not own a Vita, but I’ve been incredibly tempted to give into buying the console solely to experience Liberation. If it executes its premise and sells well, Aveline could set a precedent for future companies in casting their main characters. This is not to say that minorities are non-existent in video games, but that will take another blog to explore. For now, Aveline stands as a very positive signifier of progress on this front.
In-game screenshot of Aveline tussling with enemy guards. © Ubisoft Entertainment