I’m not sure if there’s a Venn diagram that shows the overlap between video games and classic literature, but if there is I would imagine that it’s not large. Being a fan of both, then, you can imagine my joy when my pre-ordered copy of Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate” arrived, complete with its bonus content “The Darwin and Dickens Conspiracy.” Which brings me to another very small Venn diagram, one that would show the overlap between “Charles Dickens” and “badass.” But this preview would fit there nicely:
Pretty cool, eh?
Previous iterations of the Assassin’s Creed series have been set in Renaissance Italy, the American Revolution, the Caribbean in the 18th century and the French Revolution, which has pleased both the historian in me and that side of me that enjoys sneaking up behind bad guys and stabbing them in the neck. But if Ubisoft developers had personally interviewed me about what my ideal game would look like they couldn’t have come much closer than they have with Syndicate. I’ve been playing the game (I would go with “enthusiastically,” my long-suffering husband may have used the word “obsessively”) for a few weeks now and my love knows no bounds.
Set in London in 1868, you play as either Jacob or Evie Frye, twin assassins whose mission it is to free London from a notorious gang (the ‘Blighters’) and their Templar leader by building up their own gang (the ‘Rooks’), assassinating various Blighter ringleaders, and freeing children from illegal factory work. Unfortunately, the London constabulary don’t look kindly on you running up to people and murdering them on the street, even if they are gang members, and will intervene. Stealth is paramount.
But let me talk about where you come in. Jacob and Evie run into you (literally) in one of the game’s first cut-scenes, looking distracted but spry as you talk about Edwin Drood (I’m not convinced you were even thinking about Drood in 1868, but I’ll go with it).
Later in the game we run into you in a pub, where Jacob and Evie learn of your membership in The Ghost Club and where you draft the two to help investigate and debunk a series of supernatural mysteries. So far I’ve only completed your first mission, which involved tracking down and killing someone pretending to be “Spring-Heeled Jack” (hey, I’m an assassin, that’s what I do), but later missions involve investigating haunted houses and kindnapping hypnotists. Sounds awesome.
I love and appreciate the research that Ubisoft’s developers have put into your character, and that they’ve built the game’s missions around a real club that you belonged to. But more than that I appreciate that an entertainment medium that is often decried or dismissed as time-wasting escapism is, in fact, teaching people about important eras and historical figures in an immersive and natural way.
I am the first to admit, for example, that my knowledge of the American Revolution is sketchy at best, but walking through Boston with Samuel Adams or punching George Washington in the head (not my finest moment, I admit) puts personalities and context to faces and names and, although it sounds completely clichéd, really brings history to life. I can read about the Boston Tea Party, sure, but how much cooler is it to say “yeah, I helped heave crates of tea into Boston Harbour while angry British soldiers tried to shoot me. That was a hell of a night.”
It’s the same thing in this installment. Child labour was terrible, and reading about efforts to stop the practice are interesting, but sneaking into a factory undetected to free groups of coal-shovelling children, while dispatching their cruel overseers with a series of weapons designed for me by Alexander Graham Bell is undoubtedly more rewarding. Bell? A bit chatty, but a total sweetheart.
London in the 19th century is not just a computer-generated series of buildings and streets and carriages but a fully immersive world. As Evie (by far the cooler twin, and the first playable female character in the series – hooray!) roams the city we hear snatches of popular songs coming from pubs (they’re included on the soundtrack too, which is nice) and collect local beers and contemporary illustrations. Even my band of Rooks, usually intent on causing mayhem, are surprisingly well-read. At one point I was standing in an alley and when one of them (a woman in a fetching green jacket, trousers and a bowler) ran up to me and blurted out “Have you read ‘The Moonstone’ yet? It’s wonderful!” I don’t think a video game character has ever given me a book recommendation, much less with such breathless enthusiasm. (With a large chunk of side missions devoted to you, my friend, we mustn’t begrudge Wilkie Collins his moment.)
What I’m saying is that it’s difficult to walk away from a world you’ve explored and historical figures you’ve conversed with without at least a passing interest spilling over into reality. And if someone, somewhere, picks up a book by Charles Dickens because they once met him on a London street and helped him catch a phony Spiritualist, surely that’s not a waste of time. Now, let’s press Play and continue our adventures!
Yours in in ghost-hunting camaraderie,