Screenshot from Assassin's Creed Unity (2014). Image Source: ABC News.
In Millennial Eyes is a new series on this blog which explores how historic events are depicted and discussed from Millennial perspectives. 14 July is Bastille Day in France. One Millennial depiction of the French Revolution is the 2014 video game, Assassin's Creed Unity, developed by Ubisoft Montreal. Neo-history emerges from the game's virtual reality combat.
The location of the Assassin's Creed Unity developer, Ubisoft, in Montreal is interesting, because if you ever wanted to know what France would have been like had there been no French Revolution - or at least, a different kind of revolution - you need to go to Quebec. Like many former colonies, Quebec, originally known as New France or Canada, and later Lower Canada, followed a real path of 'alternate history' compared to that of her mother country. One glance at the map of New France in 1750 (below), compared to the map of Lower Canada in 1791 (below the jump), tells you what a devastating loss France and the French people suffered in North America in this period. Voltaire (1694-1778) famously quipped that losing New France was no great loss. In Candide (1759), he asked what use France had for a "few acres of snow (quelques arpents de neige)?" It was a lot more than that! New France once extended west to Saskatchewan, and south through the American Great Lake states, down to Texas and Lousiana. French Canada struggles with that loss to this day.
New France in 1750. Image Source: J. F. Lepage/Wiki. After the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and other British victories over the French during the Annus Mirabilis of 1759, New France became British under the Treaty of Paris in 1763.
After the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Canada (light pink) came under British control. Under the 1774 Quebec Act, the British placated the French population by maintaining their civil code laws and Catholic religion; the Quebec Act angered settlers in the Thirteen Colonies who had moved into Canadian territory over the Appalachians. This was one of the causes of the American War of Independence (1775-1783). Image Source: US Department of State via Wiki.
Image Source: pinterest.
Quebec's provincial motto, present on all post-1978 automobile licence plates, is Je me souviens, which means, I remember. The motto carries a mixed message. The architect of Quebec's provincial parliament building, Eugène-Étienne Taché (1836-1912), invented the motto in 1883 to express the greatness of New France and Lower Canada's founding role in Canada. Taché's provincial legislature displays the motto alongside statues of figures whose work collectively came to express a dual French-English historical meaning. Wiki:
"[The original statues] included founders (Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain and de Maisonneuve), clerics (de Laval, de Brébeuf, Marquette and Olier), military men (de Frontenac, Wolfe, de Montcalm and de Lévis), Amerindians, French governors (D'Argenson, de Tracy, de Callières, de Montmagny, d'Aillesbout, de Vaudreuil) and, in the words of Taché, 'some English governors the most sympathetic to our nationality' (Murray, Dorchester, Prevost and Bagot) and Lord Elgin, who was given a special place for he was seen as an important player in obtaining 'responsible government.'"
The Amerindian statue group by Louis-Philippe Hébert (1850-1917) outside Quebec's National Assembly (provincial parliament) building commemorates Quebec's native peoples in the establishment of the New France and Quebec as a Canadian province (click to enlarge). Image Source (August 2013) © Paul Gorbould via flickr.
In 1978, when the motto was revived by Quebec separatists, Taché's granddaughter controversially informed the Montreal Star that the motto's whole verse confirmed a dual memory: Je me souviens/ Que né sous le lys/ Je croîs sous la rose. ("I remember/ That born under the lily/ I grow under the rose.") In this view, Quebec is the child of France and England.
The American Revolution ensured that the Mississippi basin became part of the USA, rather than part of Canada. Quebec became Lower Canada, created by the Constitutional Act of 1791 in the British Parliament. Image Source: World Atlas.
During the Seven Years' War (1755-1764), the British captured New France. One would have expected the French Canadians to support the New England colonists when the latter rebelled against the British. But they did not. The Quebecois have their own opinions; and they were left to go their own way. They became increasingly hostile during the American invasion of Quebec from 1775 to 1777. The upshot of this was that Quebec did not become republican; it retained the monarchical principle. In a sense, Quebec became a pre-French-Revolutionary French time capsule, with a dimly remembered loyalty to the Bourbon monarchy, preserved under the British crown. (Incidentally, the current Bourbon pretender is Louis XX; in 2014, a royalist forum debated his restoration to become monarch of Quebec, in the event of Quebec's separation from Canada.)
The French in Canada, and particularly the Quebecois, felt abandoned by their mother country. Quebec and France began to follow different paths. Quebec became a place where certain French values developed, distinct from those held by the French in France. The Seven Years' War had been an expensive defeat suffered by France's monarch and ruling classes, which led to their overthrow during the revolution. But French Canadians did not generally support the French Revolution once King Louis XVI was executed in 1793 and the Terror took hold in 1793-1794.
Despite the revolution's brand new aims, the pre-revolutionary Ancien Régime and post-revolutionary Napoleonic France shared a continued military drive to rebuild French imperial power and pride, with the focus shifted from distant colonies to the continent of Europe. Napoleon Bonaparte's effort to dominate Europe was blocked by the British, with the help of the Germans and the Russians. By the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the French were again defeated.
In 1812, The French attempted to dominate Europe and were defeated. Image Source: History of War.
Fournier's remarks give a sense of the political climate after the game's release. This remark came from a politician who rejects Quebec's separation and independence. Normally, someone speaking from that perspective would support Quebec's minorities."'The Quebec of the future is already visible. A nation within a federation. With one language, one culture, civil law, and distinct social values. It is a pluralistic society that long ago opted for an interculturalism approach. This choice of interculturalism is also part of Quebec’s specificity.' In Quebec, interculturalism means the integration of minorities into the majority French-language culture. ... [Fournier's] call for constitutional recognition of a 'Quebec nation' with only 'one language, one culture' not only denies reality, it could have serious implications for minority rights. His wording is much stronger than that of the 'distinct society' clause in the Meech Lake Accord, and drops the protection for the English-speaking minority."
In that climate, the Quebec government funded Ubisoft substantially. After government funding began in 2005, Ubisoft's video game offerings started to include historical and cultural elements in line with governmental priorities. Of course, Ubisoft is no mouthpiece for Quebec's Ministère de la Culture et des Communications. Assassin's Creed Unity was directed in Montreal by Alexandre Amancio and written by Travis Stout. The city of Montreal has long been known for preserving a cosmopolitan balance between English, French, and other cultures. Ubisoft Montreal's main office is located on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, also known as 'the Main,' the north-south street which was traditionally the dividing line between the city's English-speaking and French-speaking areas.
Due to government subsidies for Assassin's Creed Unity, the game became a success. At the same time, Ubisoft's cultural balance began to erode. In the middle of development and release of Assassin's Creed Unity, the government mysteriously yanked Ubisoft's funding and almost destroyed the company. After that, production of Assassin's Creed quasi-historical franchise was quietly moved from partly-Anglo Montreal to government- and Francophone-centric Quebec City under a tamed company branch, Ubisoft Quebec. Development of Ubisoft's non-historical games remained in Montreal. Reports:
- Gamasutra (14 December 2006): The French-Canadian Connection: A Q&A With Yannis Mallat, Ubisoft Montreal
- Montreal International (30 October 2012): Ubisoft, 15 years of success in Greater Montréal
- CBC (30 September 2013): Ubisoft Montreal invests $373M, creates 500 jobs. Local software giant is expanding with government assistance
- O Canada (1 October 2013): Ubisoft Montreal to add 500 new jobs by 2016. Canada's vibrant video game industry continues to expand
- Globe and Mail (1 October 2013): How far will Quebec go to nurture its video game industry?
- Investissement Québec (2014): Invest Quebec factsheet on heavy government investment in video games industry: The Video Game Explosion
- CTV (4 March 2014): McGill researchers and Ubisoft create video game to help treat 'lazy eye'
- Financial Post (19 June 2014): Ubisoft’s planned expansion in Quebec being ‘analyzed’ after government cuts subsidies to game industry
- VFX Soldier (19 June 2014): Ubisoft CEO Unsure Of Montreal Studio’s Future After Subsidy Cuts
- Financial Post (2 July 2014): Development of Assassin's Creed line moved from Montreal to Quebec City: Ubisoft goes ahead with planned $28M expansion of Quebec City studio despite subsidy cutbacks
- IGN (18 July 2014): UBISOFT MONTREAL ANALYZING FUTURE FOLLOWING GOVERNMENT BENEFIT CUTS
- Ubisoft (2 July 2015): UBISOFT QUEBEC TO LEAD FUTURE ASSASSIN’S CREED
- Examiner (7 October 2015): Ubisoft Quebec feature: From the ground to Assassin's Creed Syndicate
- CNW (12 November 2015): Investments in future generations and student retention - Ubisoft Montréal presents the CODEX program: more than $8 million to support the development of Quebec's future generations
- CTV (4 January 2016): Ubisoft teaches high school students to make video games
- Globe and Mail (25 February 2016): Maker of Assassin's Creed video game turns to Canadian investors to fend off takeover bid
- Montreal Gazette (25 February 2016): ABB, Ubisoft and Bombardier make Forbes list of Canada's best employers
- gamesindustry.biz (26 February 2016): Ubisoft seeks investors to avoid Vivendi takeover
- PC Gamer (25 February 2016): Ubisoft asks Canada to help head off hostile takeover by Vivendi
- NeoGAF (26 February 2016): PM Justin Trudeau visits Ubisoft Montreal
- Polygon (8 March 2016): The Division Isn't Just Ubisoft's Next Game, It's the Company's Future
That quasi-historical viewpoint is evident in the game, which incorporates Millennial conspiracy theories. 'Who caused the French Revolution?' the game asks. Its faux-historical answer is: Masonic predecessors of the Illuminati, connected to the Anglo-American world. The game is played from the eagle-eyed perspective of the Assassins, who are not 'Quebecois' inside game continuity. But they are French characters who are outsiders to the French-in-France community. This a French voice which inhabits the Anglo-American world, a voice which forgives the executed French king, because he was a victim too. The game's Assasssin protagonist, Arno Dorian, is 'French-Austrian,' akin to the identity of Marie-Antoinette, although Arno speaks French and English, not French and German. He is a neo-élite populist, who battles behind the scenes to defend the people. The Assassins are sent into the French Revolution's chaos by their shadowy guild-masters to battle the Templars, a secret hermetic cult, guardians of the ancient Temple of Solomon, the supposed real puppet-masters behind the Revolution, and very different from the actual, historical Templar Order. The in-game narrative depends on a wild Millennial back-story. There is a Youtube channel series (here) which explains how real history deviates from Assassin's Creed's faux-history.
A preceding game, Assassin's Creed III (2012), explored Canada and the Thirteen Colonies during the American Revolution, and similarly found the Templars to blame for that conflict; you can see the pre-release demo of that game, showing scenes in New England from 1776 here, and extended game narrative here. Assassin's Creed: Liberation (2012) portrayed events from 1765 to 1777, and focused on the aftermath of New France's loss of Louisiana in the French and Indian War; the game was set in New Orleans (see game scenes in the city here). Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (2013) took up the causes of stealing rum from pirates and liberating slaves from Templars in the 18th century Caribbean. Assassin's Creed Rogue (2014) cast a Millennial conspiratorial light on the history of the Seven Years' War, with a conflicted Irish Templar hero leading the action. A film, based on the franchise and starring Michael Fassbender, will be released on 21 December 2016 (the trailer is here); the film explains the game narrative's advanced technology, which allows present-day characters to retrieve and relive the genetic memories of their ancestor Assassins.
The franchise demonstrates that video game technology would be an incredible historical teaching tool, although easily abused. Assassin's Creed's partial historicity, seductive technological realism, and exploitation of Millennial anti-Illuminati and anti-Masonic conspiracy theories could confuse game players into thinking that the games are more historical than they really are. There is some subtlety in the Templar/Masonic angle. In 2014, the BBC broadcast a documentary, The French Revolution: Tearing up History, with Dr. Richard Clay, a British art historian, who remarked that the Freemasons were important iconoclasts during the French Revolution. He did not speculate on Masonic incitement of the revolution. That idea is overt in the conspiratorial Quebecois entertainment of Assassin's Creed Unity.
Real world historical revisionism thereby arrives through a Millennial hybrid of sensibilities: historical fiction merges with online conspiracy theories and computer-enhanced perception. Notice as well that this is quite different from historical fiction or historical cinema. For a historically cinematic French Revolution, presented from the French governmental perspective, see the 1989 historical docudrama at the bottom of the post. The Quebecois-designed game is another animal. The gamer is an actor inside virtual reality and can manipulate 'historical' events. You are not passively watching actors walk through a fictional set of revolutionary Paris. You are Arno. You are walking through revolutionary Paris. And if you are a good enough gamer, you can change the historical meaning of the revolution.
Presentism, confirmation bias, historical revisionism, and anachronism: in Assassin's Creed Unity, they are all there. This game brings a message about the flawed impact of Millennial technology on historical awareness. Those who grasp the current potential of technology and who do not like how history transpired can use technology to alter present interpretations of the past. If you use technology to revise how people currently understand history, you can revamp the apparent endgame of history. And it is really that future endgame which concerns historical revisionists. It is not the French in France who are radically using technology to overturn and update the broadly-understood meaning of the French Revolution. It is the French in Quebec.
In 2015, after Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed franchise production moved to Quebec City, the company aimed its entertaining historical revisionism at another time and place: 19th century imperial London. In Asssassin's Creed Syndicate, released November 2015, the Assassins infiltrate the city's organized crime ranks to continue their battle against the Templars, who have captured the London establishment. The Assassins rescue London from the Templars; and Queen Victoria personally thanks them at the end of the game. In 2016, the next two games due to continue Ubisoft's fake history about the Templars' control are set in British imperial India, to focus on the Sikh Empire at war with the East India Company; and in Russia, during the October Revolution.
Images Source: PC World.
Assassin's Creed Unity Co-op Demo USA (9 June 2014), set in 1789. Video Source: Youtube.
Assassin's Creed Unity Single Player Demo USA (9 June 2014), set in 1793, portrays the Paris mob murdering members of the clergy. The player chooses whether or not to become embroiled in this and other brutal events in the streets. Video Source: Youtube.
Assassin's Creed Unity High Society walkthrough. Video Source: Youtube.
Assassin's Creed Unity Inside the Bastille. Video Source: Youtube.
Assassin's Creed Unity September massacres, the setting is 2-7 September 1792. Video Source: Youtube.
Assassin's Creed Unity has a fictional revelation (starting at 4:51) in which the execution of King Louis XVI was supposedly masterminded by the secret order of the Templars. The blood of the king, who protests his innocence in this scene set on 21 January 1793, is not truly on the hands of the deceived French people. Video Source: Youtube.
Faux-historical depiction of the fall of Maximilien Robespierre in 1794, which gives the gamer a sense of participation in fictionalized historical events. Video Source: Youtube.
The French Revolution, Part I (1989). Access subtitles via the cc button. Video Source: Youtube.
The French Revolution, Part II (1989). Access subtitles via the cc button. Video Source: Youtube.
See all my posts on Millennial views of past events.