I haven’t brought this up before but I’m actually a pretty big Assassin’s Creed fan. I loved the original game even with all it’s warts. It’s just that it was the first time I played a game were the protagonist had a real, well defined arc and discussed genuinely interesting ideas without spoon feeding it to you like you’re an idiot. The bad guys had good reasons for what they were doing and the good guys were freaking assassins. It draped history with conspiracy in a way that was intelligently thought out and not because it’s the result of a loon who replaced their brain with the extended cut of the X-Files complete series DVD box set. I’ve religiously bought every release in the main series (but not the hand-held spin offs) and I’m super excited for the release of the fifth and final installment which is unironically calling itself Assassin’s Creed III.
But I’m actually not here to talk about the fifth and final game. I’m here to talk about the discussion of its setting. From the beginning there has been speculation about which historic period the next game would take place, and inevitably 17th century Japan was raised by some fans. After all it makes sense right, you have the political intrigue, civil upheaval, and tons and tons of assassinations going on. And ultimately that’s what Assassin’s Creed is all about, being a sneaky assassin and killing people right?
Well that’s not precisely accurate.
The titular assassin’s of Assassin’s Creed kill not for money or in service to a particular lord, but because of their ideology. They locked in a secret war that spans multiple centuries and countries with another secret society that wishes to dominate and control the affairs of people everywhere through the use of powerful artifacts from a lost First Civilization known as the Pieces of Eden. The problem facing a Japanese setting for the game is that it doesn’t really fit any of that, where as moving the franchise to America in the 1750’s-1790’s makes far more sense.
The problem with Japan is that it’s very distant and isolated from the rest of the world, and the people who have governed Japan have for hundreds of years tried to keep it that way. Assassin’s Creed games are always set at the crossroads of history, where many cultures are meeting at once, and where violence and conflict become inevitable. It’s these key points in global history that set a backdrop for a secret ideological war for the future of human kind are set. Japan doesn’t have that. It has the intrigue but they are between rival shoguns intent on their own power. This isn’t like the crusades, the Renaissance, or the War of Independence, where many different people from all over the world where coming together and were the battles were fought over loftier ideals than power.
The other problem is trying to force the mythology of the main series into that one specific setting. It would take massive leaps of coincidence and authorial fiat to give Desmond a Japanese ancestor, given how isolated and xenophobic Japan has been until very recently. It wasn’t until the later part of the 19th century that Japan opened up to the West, and then it was by force. And Japan didn’t really play a significant part in global history until WW2 and Ubisoft has specifically said from the beginning they were taking WW2 off their list of potential locations for future Assassin’s Creed games given how over saturated the industry is with WW2. There’s also the problem of trying to explain what the Templars and the Assassin’s would be doing there. Japan is very far away from Europe and the Middle-East and an oceanic voyage around Africa and across the Indian ocean would take the better part of a year. And again I have to keep going back to just how famously hostile they were to outsiders, so even if the Templars tried to gain a foothold in Japan they m0st likely would be unable to succeed. And finally as I pointed out earlier the Assassins wouldn’t be interested in killing for the honor and duty of a specific shogun, they have more important and loftier ideals to kill for then the squabbling of some feudal lord in a country that is figuratively at the end of the Earth. I’m not saying a game where you get to play in a realistic depiction of a 17th century Japanese assassin wouldn’t work, it just wouldn’t work within the context of the Assassin’s Creed mythology.
But the American Revolution is the perfect setting for the next Assassin’s Creed game. We have both the temporal and geographic distance from Ezio Auditore for the series to be fresh again, but not so far that we end up in alien territory. We also see Desmond’s lineage moving towards America, and let’s face it, it’s far more plausible for Desmond to have some Native American ancestor in his genealogy, which most Americans do, than a Japanese ancestor, which is highly unlikely. And finally we have the whole crossroads of history and clash of cultures that is both iconic and necessary for the series. You have the birth of a new nation, you have the influx of immigrants from all over Europe, you have the British, French, and Spanish interests in the New World, and you have all the aboriginal cultures in their prime before they were crushed by the onslaught of manifest destiny.
And you know what else, which is probably the best point I can make here, the American Revolution has never been done before. We’ve seen Japan in so many games, and Japanese culture itself is a huge part of the overall gamer culture. How many games that weren’t RTS were set in the American Revolution? None. In fact it’s square in the middle of this weird part of history were firearms were so bad that no one wants to make games about them. Darkest of Days tried to make a game about fighting with realistic Civil War rifles, and even then it still had to spice things up with rocket launchers and assault rifles, apparently saying that since historians didn’t look to closely at this part of the Battle of Antietam as long as the Union wins and the Confederates lose, go nuts.
Anyone could make a game in feudal Japan, but only Assassin’s Creed could do a game in the American Revolution.