Video game publisher Ubisoft set up a photo booth area at the Chicago stop on their traveling “Art Of The Assassin” show last week. In most of the sepia-toned snapshots the booth produced, the view of the American flag was obscured. But draped behind partygoers dressed in curly white wigs, tricorn hats, glossy coats, and other garb of Revolutionary War-era soldiers hung a 13-star “Betsy Ross” style flag with one notable addition—a white teardrop-shaped emblem with the roman numeral three in the upper right hand corner. The logo for Assassin’s Creed III.
Assassin’s Creed seems like an unlikely game for a publisher to swath in an American flag and use as a vehicle to encourage political participation. A deep suspicion of government consistently pumps through the veins of the series’ narrative. The protagonists of the first two games, Altair and Ezio, are asked to kill dozens of political and religious leaders in the 13th and 15th centuries—aristocrats, governors, even a pope—to stop the ambitious aims of a shadowy, age-old Templar movement. Along the way, the assassins unmask a secret history of the world hidden in images of real-life historical figures. It’s the stuff of wild-eyed conspiracies, a Dan Brown book or Glenn Beck lecture in game form.
That didn’t stop the organizers of this art show from drawing a puzzling parallel between the political assassinations committed by Connor—the anti-hero who stars in the upcoming Revolutionary War-era Assassin’s Creed III—and the political participation of voting for president in November. The two-fold purpose of the four-city tour, which stopped at Chicago’s Pilsen art district last week and hits New York City tomorrow, is to promote the third Assassin’s Creed game with images commissioned from contemporary artists while also partnering with the non-profit organization Rock The Vote to encourage voter registration.
“It’s an election year, and if you look at right now, the same demographic of young voters is the same demographic we’re trying to reach for this game,” said Nate Eckman, a marketing professional tabbed to help with the show’s creative direction. “It’s a way bring the game to that urban, millennial audience—a cool accessible way that brings in lifestyle.”
Eckman’s agency, SA Studios, touts the “unmatched authenticity” of its campaigns on its website, including a recent effort to market Lipton Brisk Ice Tea to Hispanics. For “Art Of The Assassin,” SA Studios asked the artists to create pieces that tied in Assassin’s Creed III with the Revolutionary War.
The result of the collaboration is a collection of more than a dozen pieces that borrow, remix, and mash up iconography of America with that of the bloody action game. Halfway through the exhibit, Connor started to resemble a figure of state propaganda—a deranged, tomahawk-wielding nephew of Uncle Sam. The hooded assassin stands in front of a background that melds the stars and stripes with a bluish bald eagle in Samantha Boeger’s airbrushed piece called “His Spirit Lives.” In corresponding pieces by New York City-based artist Artek, two figures stood in front a tattered Declaration Of Independence—one the shadowy visage of Connor, the other a skull-faced George Washington.
“It kind of represents death,” Artek said. “It’s just that one’s an assassin, so there’s also gotta be an assassinee. One’s a killer, someone’s getting killed, so this is putting them together.” So, Washington is meant to be one of Connor’s targets, right? No, said Artek. Their placement together is an act of symmetry, not to be taken literally. “I wanted a great focal point with the composition being the flag, so it made sense to put a character like King George III or George Washington,” Artek said. “It’s all about the imagery to me, really.”
That’s also true for his poster “We Will,” which features the bold words “We will ignite a revolution” under a clenched fist holding one of Connor’s tomahawks. “We Will” strongly evokes rebellion and militance, but Artek isn’t suggesting that people take the streets to overthrow the government. “Times change, so back then maybe they felt like the political structure wasn’t what it should be, whereas now it’s in a better place. It’s progression.”
The art was designed to be relevant, but not too relevant. Eckman had instructed the artists to explore the idea of “igniting a revolution” in their work, but not the kind actually depicted in Assassin’s Creed III. “Igniting a revolution is a big piece of the Revolutionary War, and that era and right now in our political climate, we can ignite a revolution by rocking the vote and empowering yourself for change. That’s the same essence we wanted to see in the artwork,” Eckman said.
When I countered that the idea that a revolution would fit in better with a movement like Occupy Wall Street than choosing Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in an election, Eckman smiled and said the event was really about aesthetics, not ideology. He also suggested I talk to Ubisoft’s public relations about my inquiry.
After hacking up more than a dozen British troops in 18th-century Boston during a short demo of Assassin’s Creed III, I did exactly that. “I don’t think patriotism is a bad thing, but that’s not our theme or direction. We focused on liberty and freedom,” Ubisoft Public Relations Manager Stone Chin said.
Pressed about the contradictory politics of the event, Chin replied, “We’re just making video games.”
“The Revolutionary War is a nice backdrop, but Connor doesn’t give into those affiliations. He’s an assassin,” Chin said. “And really, I think that we have tried not to read into this that much, to be honest. At the end of the day, this is just a video game.”