More Assassin's Creed games are coming out in the next couple of months, along with their slogan, "History is our playground." But these games are not about history, they're about conspiracy theories, and conspiracy theories are often brash simplifications of more complex historical events, as the next installments are going to be.
I really enjoyed playing these games because the gameplay is incredibly fun (if getting a little samey after all these years), and the settings - from Renaissance Italy to the eighteenth century Caribbean seas - are spectacular. But I hated seeing great historical events - from the Third Crusade, to the French Revolution - as just a consequence of a fight between the two secret world-order organisations, The Assassins and The Templars (both of which were actually virtually non-existent by the 1300s). Big historical figures - and I'm talking about the greatest minds in history, who changed the way we live and think and understand the nature of our existence - are poorly written simulacrums there to prop up the games' cardboard protagonists, who are usually white, cocky Lotharios who think they are very smart.
In the Assassin's Creed universe, Leonardo da Vinci is a high-pitched sycophant besotted with Ezio Auditore; Maximilian Robespierre is a member of the secret Templar organisation who wants to "instigate a widespread revolution in France" (i.e. the French Revolution) in order to control humanity; even Charles Darwin is only able to continue his work because the Assassin twins Evie and Jacob Frye oblige to kill his rivals.
The ridiculous list goes on and on. The Assassins were responsible for everything, from Richard I's campaigns in the Third Crusade, to having cream and milk in our coffee. History is reduced to nothing more than to accentuate the oafish characters of the Assassin's Creed universe.
This distorted style of historical storytelling isn't just confined to Assassin's Creed, though. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, the thirteenth century Mongol campaigns in and around Russia were just a way for a secret organisation called 'The Trinity' to get their evil hands on another McGuffin-style artefact called 'The Divine Source' (The Assassins and The Templars in Assassin's Creed are after McGuffin-style artefacts called the 'Pieces of Eden'). Classical mythology suffers similar treatment: in God of War III, the anti-hero Kratos slays most of the Greek heroes and even gods in drastically violent ways (which includes shoving your thumbs into Poseidon's eyes, punching Herakles to death, and snapping Hera's neck), just to find another MacGuffin, this time the mythological Pandora, who, um, holds the key to killing Zeus.
Why do so many video games treat history like this? Are they incapable of finding good writers? Or do game developers presume that gamers will be turned off by more factual history in games, and in turn turned off by anything other than conspiracy theories which dooms the games' plots from being interesting right from the start? The results show that history is more than just a playground.