A couple of months ago, I wrote about Syndicate’s main game and how it doesn’t really use the history that it’s based upon. In making its tagline ‘oppression has to end’ and then not really addressing any oppression despite brief references to the fact that it is set in London at the time of the British Empire, and by having its historical cast act in completely inaccurate ways, the game misses an opportunity to use its setting in its story and purported message.
In Part 1, I said that the character of Duleep Singh as where “Ubisoft misses the biggest opportunity to examine the Empire’s effects” thanks to the lack of contextual explanation and his fleeting screen time. I also said:
“There is, an upcoming DLC pack entitled The Last Maharaja which is described as “join[ing] Duleep Singh on his quest to reclaim his birthright,” which, to be honest, I am not hopeful for, since (spoilers) the real Duleep Singh died without ever seeing India again, including Parliament refusing his last wish for his body to be returned to his home country for fear of unrest. Stay classy, Britain.”
Well, I finished up The Last Maharaja a few days ago, and as I suspected, it suffers from most of the same problems as Syndicate’s base game.
Background history that I’m going to have to explain because the game really doesn’t: Duleep Singh came to power as the Maharaja (essentially King) of the Sikh Empire in the Punjab region of South Asia when he was five. When he was eight, his mother Jind Kaur (the regent Maharani (Queen)) was imprisoned and a British Resident took over ruling the empire. When he was 15, Singh was exiled to Britain, where Queen Victoria took a shining to him and he lived in something of a gilded cage for the rest of his life.
In this DLC, a pack of ten missions begins with the Indian immigrant Henry Green trying to persuade Singh to do more for India under British rule. Singh argues that he doesn’t want to jeopardise his relationship with Victoria, which is understandable since he had no other guarantee of safety in Britain. Nonetheless, Henry dispatches Evie and Jacob in a further attempt to persuade him.
An assassination attempt is made on Singh’s life, with the assassin claiming that Singh deserved it for “causing problems.” Here we are introduced to the British Indies Company (BIC). They have been blocking letters between Singh and his mother back in India, which, whilesomewhat anachronistic, is a problem that the real Singh struggled with.
By the way, the BIC isn’t and never was a real thing. They are clearly based on the East India Company, but the EIC still exists so presumably there were trademark issues? An aside: the EIC now sells overpriced tea and their website has a “history” page that celebrates the “pioneering spirit and sense of adventure” that helped in “writing our history by planting the first teas in Darjeeling, causing the Boston Tea Party; holding Napoleon captive; and generating the fortune of Elihu Yale, founder of Yale University.” They conveniently leave out all the Indians they killed.
Anyway, following the return of his letters, the Fryes tell Singh that something must be done about the British Indies Company and that they need his help. This is where Ubisoft begins to struggle, because the real East India Company had already been taken over by the Crown in 1857 (the DLC is set in 1868 or thereabouts) and the Crown continued to rule over India until 1947. (Side note, British people who really believe that we have nothing to be ashamed of in our 20th century history…no.) As such, no matter what the player does to the British Indies Company, there can’t really be a significant historical impact. This leaves the entire DLC feeling shallow.
Firstly, the Fryes and Singh steal back a tiny crate of gold and return it to India, and then they destroy a British Indies Company headquarters. These actions feel pointless, since their effect on the BIC is never addressed. Moreover, they don’t address why the British Indies Company should be destroyed, beyond the theft of property. The human cost of the British Empire is conveniently left untouched by the game’s narrative.
There is no discussion of the First Anglo-Sikh War, even though it directly affects Singh’s story. Not once is the Indian Rebellion of 1857 mentioned, where thousands of Indians were killed by the East India Company in retaliation for the uprising. Even Singh himself never discusses the effects of being kidnapped into an environment so far removed from the one he knew, or really even expresses a desire to return to India. The player would be forgiven for thinking that the BIC and the Empire as a whole was merely a process of organisation with a side dish of thievery, when it was so much more (and worse) than this.
After the success of these counter-thefts, Singh “goes mad” and decides to steal back the Koh-i-noor. The problem is that the Koh-i-noor never actually left India thanks to the confusing events of Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India (which also fails to use its history), though neither the Fryes nor Singh know this. Therefore, after the mission, in which Singh is almost arrested and ruined, Henry reveals that the thing they stole was just glass. (How the British never noticed this is not explained.)
This mission is the best discussion of Empire that Syndicate provides, though it isn’t great. Though, again, making no mention of human cost, Singh is clear in condemning archaeological imperialism. This is, however, undermined by the fact that Henry and the Fryes think that he has “gone mad.” Moreover, the story of the mission simply doesn’t make sense.
Henry destroys the fake Koh-i-noor, and apparently no one notices that the most valuable jewel in the Crown’s possession has been stolen (even though it was due for recutting the very next day) because it’s never mentioned again. The Assassins must have replaced it at some point too, because Britain still has the jewel in our possession today – though we’ve apparently still never noticed that it’s glass. (I take this opportunity to restate David Cameron’s terrible excuse for why we still have it: “If you say yes to [returning] one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty.” I said this last time but it bears repeating: if your house is full of stolen furniture you can’t be acquitted just because you wouldn’t have anywhere to sit.)
An aside: there is a part in this mission where you have to pickpocket Singh, and if you fail a typo-d message comes up which reads “you have been caught stealing Duleep” (as opposed to from Duleep). This is particularly ironic when you consider that the Empire literally stole Singh, and they got away with it just fine.
The final mission has Singh confronting his would-be killer one-on-one. The killer taunts Singh in two very interesting ways: “you think [your people] remember you?” and “we will bury you in English soil.” Singh was buried in England, and having this line come from the villain’s mouth is a condemnation – but only if the player realises that Singh wanted to be buried in India and had his wishes refused. Additionally, he was buried in England because it was believed that burying him in India might cause an uprising. If the player knows this, they know that the idea that Singh was forgotten by his people is wrong. But if they don’t know the history (which isn’t exactly commonly taught), they could believe this taunt, which destroys Singh’s historical significance. Ubisoft doesn’t provide enough context to have these lines achieve the weight that they should carry, and at worst they can be accepted by the player as untrue and unfair fact.
Finally, Singh decides that he must devote his life to restoring India to its people, though in a nonviolent manner and so without the help of the Assassins. The real Singh said little about restoring his country, and sadly died without seeing any change in its status, but I can’t see where else Ubisoft could have gone with this, because throughout Syndicate they have shied away from exploring the realities of Empire in order to create a sense of stale positivity.
In discussing only the material effects of Empire and acting as though the human impact is completely nonexistent, Ubisoft is able to imply that Singh and the Fryes’ resistance is worthwhile, but in doing so they make it so that squaring it with real history is impossible. Worse, this inability to engage with the realities of Empire makes the entire experience feel shallow. It is reasonable here to compare with Assassin’s Creed III which does not shy away from depicting some of the devastation of colonisation, and therefore creates a far more engaging (if heartbreaking) story. Syndicate, including this DLC, swings in the opposite direction, avoiding hard truths in order to allow the player to feel victorious. But where no such historical victory exists, trying to create one instead creates a superficial experience that is ultimately unsatisfying.