In gaming, as in any other franchise, iconic is good. It’s symbolic, if not outright semiotic, of a clear message to the player/viewer/reader of a singular concept and the implication of a specific type of guaranteed experience. It could be Iron Man’s suit or Jamie’s beret, but the image that equals a hallmark is worth more than platinum in a globalized market. Why use a thousand words or more when that single precious image will suffice?
Well, sometimes…because it just doesn’t work. And the image is incongruous. And in its incongruity, it becomes distracting. And being distracting, it becomes almost all you see, until you look up and realize that you can’t pay any attention to the franchise the image was supposed to herald in the first place.
It’s really hard to get distracted in Assassin’s Creed 3. I mean that as a sincere and deep compliment; the absorption into the colonial version of my home is almost total, to the point where the dogs have started staging fight clubs in front of the screen to remind us that we still need to feed them. And yet, staring at Connor’s hooded figure is enough to remind me that I’m not in 1776; that I’m playing a game, and that game is a 6+ year franchise, with purchaseable bits and pieces scattered over the mediasphere.
Is this Ubisoft’s intention? Most signs point to an assurable yes. All Assassins–at least, all playable Assassins who are ancestors of modern-day protagonist and part-time whiner Desmond–wear a hood. Desmond himself wears a hoodie similar to the hooked eagle-skull that Altair, Ezio and Connor wear, so it’s obviously deliberate, and meant to be marketably iconic. The bigger question is not whether Ubisoft intended this disparate look, but whether the image succeeds: both in the isolated title of AC3 and as an identifiable, hereditary figure in the franchise.
The truth is, Connor looks weird. The only people who ever really wore hoods in the revolutionary-era Northeast were women. If men were hooded, they usually anchored it with a tricorn or similar brimmed hat, both to keep it secured in the shitty NE weather, and because, as Grandpa Simpson says, “it was the style at the time.” In a franchise where an essential element of gameplay is being able to blend in with the crowd, Native American Connor sticks out like an ironic lily-white thumb, mingling among loyalists and patriots alike, sometimes while a wanted poster describing his exact appearance looms down from a convenient nearby tree.
All the Sons of Liberty know Connor on sight; yet red-coated regulars, the very same who might be told tales of the white-hooded death-bringer who has murdered scores of their brethren, can look at him strolling through the North End and say nothing, preferring instead to practice their marching or force filthy Frenchmen from their homes.
I keep expecting one of the British commanders or Templar muckety-mucks to point to Connor in the midst of one of his backstabfests, and shout “THERE! The rake in the white hood! Capture him!” They never do. Oh, they shout for his capture and give chase, but all Connor has to do is jump into a wagon filled with corn husks and they eventually forget, perhaps distracted by a passing filthy Frenchman. Later, when Connor leaps from the wagon still wearing his hood, it’s relatively easy to meander through the streets to his next destination. It’s a good thing the regulars have an almost amnesiac memory, because in this era, Connor can’t keep his head down and blend into a group of obliging monks. And boy, those redcoats can forget.
Sure, this is nitpicking. And if I really wanted to break down the brilliance and tragedy of this game, I could…and still might. But what Ubisoft has done is remarkable. They’ve made an engaging game, set in a time period that for years has been a tantalizing challenge to developers, mostly because they couldn’t make the warfare believable and enjoyable without trying the patience of a shooter-fed generation. Sea battles haven’t been this fun since Sid Meier. And even the history snarks across the screen in equal measure of savage honesty and engrossing trivia. So it becomes all the more obvious that one small, oddball detail isn’t really that small at all, and kind of feels like a giant smirk and wink from the developers about the entire meta-experience that ends up being the Assassin’s Creed franchise. If the series ran on camp, it would be an inspired choice. But it doesn’t. This is supposed to be real history-with-a-twist.
My partner has a kind of brilliant explanation for the hood. It’s his theory that in a game about memories, it’s Desmond who sees the hood. Connor wasn’t wearing one at all; and, as Achilles trained him, he was a master of disguise, easily passing for a colonist of Spanish descent as he moved about the side-streets and countryside, a jaunty but tasteful tricorn perched on his head. Desmond, tied always to his one goal, to the Brotherhood, to the one mission that he’s decided gives his life direction and purpose, superimposes the Assassin’s hood on Connor, giving him an iconic image to follow through the colonies. As the modern-day situation grows ever more dire for the world and desperate for the remaining Assassins, he unconsciously needs to remind himself of where he came from; where he’s supposed to go.
Which is what icons are for. It’s a good theory; one that I’ll buy, even though it’s just fridge logic that we’re both aware Ubisoft never intended. It makes it easier for both of us to murmer “screw it-it’s a game” and continue chasing almanac pages across Faneuil Hall. But the dork in me, the developer in me, even the armchair marketer in me wonders if this singular choice, to favor iconography over verity, really was the best, for the title, for the game universe, and for the IP.
Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter. The Assassin’s Hood(TM) could be as ubiquitous as Mickey’s ears, if branding is the ultimate goal. But I’ll just note that Mickey’s ears–if present at all–can’t be seen in brand-strong movies like Beauty and the Beast or Tangled. Despite their iconic stature, they’d break the dream of Belle’s little town or Rapunzel’s palace, and for Disney, protecting the dream is the strongest brand of all.
I wonder what that is for Ubisoft?