As a historian, I’ve always quite liked the Assassin’s Creed franchise, and I’ve also always regarded it with a kind of wry smile, a ‘you’re taking some serious liberties with the truth, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.’ It’s part of the package; something that I’ve come to expect, even to look forward to.
Syndicate, though, does something else. It sets itself at the very heart of the British Empire, even repeatedly makes reference to the idea that whoever controls London controls the world, and then makes some passing references to how this is actually a pretty bad thing and completely fumbles any attempt to actually engage with the issues that it alludes to.
Now, perhaps this one seems worse to me than some of the others since the British Empire was my primary area of study (though, disclaimer, I focused mainly on Africa – which was predominantly colonised about ten years after the events of this game – and I also focused mainly on decolonisation (or the lack thereof) which is much more recent. Therefore if someone wants to call me on a historical point I’d be thrilled to discuss it). However, considering that the tagline of the game is “oppression has to end,” the fact that there are really very few references even to the existence of the Empire, and that even fewer of them are even particularly condemning, is a failure on Ubisoft’s part.
First things first, it’s been said before that Syndicate’s portrayal of London is way too white. Britain has been a society of many ethnicities since the time of the Romans, but from the early modern period (some time in the 1500s. This is a whole other debate you don’t want to know about) trade links had brought increasing numbers of people of colour into Britain, particularly large port towns like, you guessed it, London. How multicultural was London in the early modern period? Enough that Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) declared that “blackmoors” (this term often referred in particular to north African people, with whom Britain did a great amount of their trade) “should be sente forth of the land’ - i.e. deported.
So yeah, listen up, racists, your white minority fears are at least 500 years old and they’re still ineffectual and nonsensical.
Anyway, more importantly, Elizabeth I didn’t get to kick out all the people she didn’t like, mainly because people of colour were so numerous and entrenched in key economic institutions that it would have caused major problems in British trade and industry. By 1868 (Syndicate’s start date), then, there would have been an even greater number of people of colour in all walks of life, particularly mercantile ones.
This does not come across in Syndicate at all. I saw only three people of colour, the most prominent of course being Henry Green, born Jayadeep Mir. An aside: I wish Ubisoft would stop changing non-English names (like Ratonhnhaké:ton to Connor). There could have been genuine reasons for Henry to change his name – like my father did when he became a British citizen, in his words “in order to get less racist comments” – but since Henry’s birth name is mentioned in-game only in a buried diary entry from Evie (I assume it’s also in his novel, Assassins Creed Underworld) Syndicate once again misses an opportunity to really address the issues of the age (and of this one). Back on topic, Henry is a fantastic character. He subverts hypermasculine tropes by being predominantly non-violent unless it’s absolutely necessary. His Wiki quote is “You can be a great Assassin without being a great killer, Jayadeep.” His personal quest involves collecting pressed flowers. However, he rarely if ever mentions his background, or any kind of political opinion, despite being friends with the second person of colour, the Maharaja Duleep Singh (who was a real historical figure heavily affected by British imperialism).
Singh, whom Evie briefly helps to petition members of parliament in order to restore India’s independence from the Empire, is where Ubisoft misses the biggest opportunity to examine the Empire’s effects. The sequence could have been amazing had they given it literally any context or more than the most fleeting of screentimes. If I didn’t have some background knowledge already, I’m not sure that I would have even followed it, and certainly I wouldn’t have understood its gravity. 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.
The third and final person of colour I saw in the whole game was an NPC in the World War I based mission that follows Evie’s granddaughter Lydia, which implies that Ubisoft considered adding in people of colour and then were like ‘yeah, make one in every thousand NPCs black. But not in 1968 - only in 1916!’ for…reasons? Not exactly inspiring representation.
Three people of colour, with the tagline “oppression has to end.” It’s not difficult to see the discrepancy. Syndicate is shot through with underlying dismissals of the sinister side of Victorian Britain too. Other people have mentioned that the game is conspicuously free of sex workers, found in other games in the franchise, despite this being a time of moral panic concerning the profession, and that there isn’t any real examination of the liberation of child labourers, even though you can “free” them. Its treatment of people of colour is yet another aspect in which it fails to engage with the history that it’s supposed to be portraying.
In Part 2, we’ll look at Syndicate’s selection of other real historical figures beyond Singh (and we’ll spend a lot of time ranting about Winston Churchill).