It’s been a while since I played the previous Assassin’s Creed game, so I decided it was high time to continue on with the series. Black Flag was next in the main storyline, so I dove right in and blew my way through it in record time. Once again, my biggest problem with these games is female representation. It’s just… not good, and if there were one thing I wanted the games to improve on, that would be it. As for everything else, sure, it’s not perfect, but like its predecessor, Assassin’s Creed IV is remarkably on point when it comes to race issues, as well as just being a fun gaming experience.
Now that Desmond is dead, Assassin’s Creed no longer has a main character. Instead, you, the player, are the new avatar character. You find yourself hired by Abstergo, who has found a way to view genetic memories without the need for a living host. After Desmond’s death, Abstergo recovered his body and has been exploring both his and other Assassins’ genetic memories in order to find First Civilization artifacts. In the meantime, Abstergo makes money by creating video games based on said memories.
You end up exploring the life of Edward Kenway, the grandfather of Connor from the previous game. Edward is a fuckup of a person who wants to get rich and turns to piracy to do it. Along the way, he comes across an Assassin called Duncan Walpole. Duncan was on his way to betray his order to the Templars and give them valuable First Civilization technology—but during his brief encounter with Edward, Edward kills him and steals his identity in order to gain profit. Edward ends up helping the Templars instead by completing Duncan’s mission, and then spends the rest of the game running around dressed as an Assassin and occasionally feeling guilty for what he did.
What’s interesting about Edward is that he’s not actually an Assassin during the events of the game, at least not until the very end. He’s an impostor and the game constantly reminds us he hasn’t earned his robes. Edward is selfish, impulsive, driven by delusions of grandeur, and through his own actions, he pushes away everyone that’s close to him. It’s not till near the end when all his friends are either dead or gone that he really manages to sober up and fight for a cause other than himself. Edward is a compelling character, but he’s not at all likable as a person for half of the story—and to be honest, that’s why I enjoyed playing as him so much. The game takes place is the early 1700s, during the golden age of piracy, the height of slavery, and the colonization and eradication of indigenous people. Had Edward been written any other way, he could have easily been portrayed as a white savior.
Instead, what we are left with is a selfish white man who wants to be a good person but is too caught up in himself to do so. He’s not overtly racist—he takes on a Black man called Adéwalé as his quartermaster and doesn’t look down on him for his skin color. Edward even defends Adéwalé to other pirates when they jape that Edward should have just shot him instead of giving a Black man that much influence. Despite this, Edward is not immune from his own prejudices. He still views Africa and the people there as one homogeneous group, doesn’t necessarily care about slavery or colonization, and Adéwalé constantly has to call him out on his microaggressions. Edward is thankfully receptive to this criticism and never tries some #notallwhitepeople bullshit, and it was refreshing to have such a popular franchise reinforce the idea that being called out is not some overreaction. Just stop being a dick.
Unlike Adéwalé, Edward enjoys certain privileges thanks to his skin color—he has access to things Adéwalé does not, and part of his arc is learning to be a better person by caring about the plight of others. Most of the Assassins we meet aren’t white—they are either Black or Maya—and it’s them that Edward has to learn to help and make amends with. He’s not the white guy who saves the day. He’s the white guy who causes problems because he only thinks about himself, gets derided for it, and then helps the Assassins survive, but they never actually need him.
Being an Assassin’s Creed game, the story features multiple real-life people, such as Calico Jack, Charles Vane, Blackbeard, Mary Read, and Anne Bonny. Mary, Anne, and Edward’s estranged wife Caroline are our three prominent female characters. Edward leaves Caroline behind before the game starts to make his fortune—unbeknownst to him, he leaves her pregnant, and although he promised to be gone only two years, he stays away for ten. Caroline’s memory follows Edward through his journey, and she dies off screen. As for Mary and Anne, they both get arrested for piracy and receive stays of execution due to pregnancy. There’s no record of what happened to them after this in real life, but in Assassin’s Creed, Mary is an Assassin and Anne her recruit. Although Edward and the other Assassins save them, Mary sadly passes away after giving birth (we never find out what happened to the child, since it was taken from her), and though Anne lives, her son doesn’t make it.
I’m a bit torn on Mary’s death. Her death is one in a long line of people Edward loses, and in terms of fridging, although he’s understandably upset by it, it’s not so much her death as it is the death of all his friends. It’s only Adéwalé and Anne who survive, and Adéwalé abandons him for being a horrible person. Mary, like Adéwalé, spend the game acting as Edward’s moral compass, which in this case means screaming at him in disappointment every time he does something stupid, which is often. We learn that she has a life outside Edward, that she’s not driven solely by him, and all this helps her character be more than a means for his manpain. It also helps that Edward doesn’t mourn for her alone, but shares his grief with Anne. Like Up, if I absolutely had to have a dead female character, this is how I’d want it done, but when two thirds of your female characters die, that’s not a good sign. The series certainly isn’t wanting for men afterward.
Part of Caroline’s death is offset when Edward finally meets their child—but I mean, that doesn’t make Caroline’s role better. She never becomes more than a prop to drive his character and embody his regrets. As for the kid, most of us playing the game, when learning Edward’s a parent, probably assumed the child was Haytham, Connor’s father. It turns out, though, that before Haytham, Edward had Jenny. While this gave us another female character, who I understand has a fairly decent role in some of the books, we don’t spend enough time with her for her to develop fully here. She’s not void of personality by any means and what we do see of her and her interactions with Edward are touching, but it would have been nice to see more of her. Her character is somewhat presented as a reward for Edward as well. Like, oh, now that he’s no longer a shit person, he has a daughter waiting for him and isn’t actually alone anymore. Yay!
On a more positive note, back in the present day, it turns out that our new avatar character for the game is female, which I was not expecting. This becomes less awesome when you remember that you spend your time at Abstergo being stalked, blackmailed, and almost murdered. Yeah, this game isn’t winning any awards for its female characters. And what’s truly sad about this is that other than Assassin’s Creed III, it probably has the best female representation of all the games in the series thus far.
Like I said, Assassin’s Creed IV was fun and interesting, and like previous installments, it discussed the issue of race with care. Even though the main character is white, the series hardly faltered in detailing his many faults in regards to race. I just wish that I had more female characters to relate to. The games have given us multiple female characters who are well written and interesting, only to shove them into common stereotyped tropes. I have Assassin’s Creed: Rogue to play next, followed by Unity, and I doubt either of them will have the female characters I’m looking for. The next one after that is Syndicate, and who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky. Until then, if any of you are interested in the story but don’t have time to play it yourself, that one guy on YouTube I keep linking to has already worked his way through this game too. Have fun.