Assassin’s Creed IV: Whaling & Slavery

So we’re going to chat about Assassin’s Creed IV for the next few weeks. I’ve had a whole bunch of ideas for Screed IV-related things that I want to write about, ah so we’re gonna do that. The first one is to do with chance. We’ll use the example of hunting land animals, because it’s convenient, but it applies to a whole bunch of other areas of the game too. 

So there’s two types of hunting that you can do in AC IV. There’s hunting on land, and hunting in the sea – basically whaling, that second one. The whaling option struck me as kinda weird, and I’ll explain why. Obviously there’s all the contemporary stuff in the modern day around how whaling is horrific and bad – they’re intelligent creatures, the rhetoric says, so just leave them alone. Also keep in mind that whaling is functionally illegal these days. Veganism is attached to the anti-whaling movement, insofar as one of the key motivations for many vegans is ending animal cruelty. There are also concerns about sustainability, species extinction, and a whole bunch of other things. From that perspective, it seems dated to have whaling in the game as something you can do. We’ve also had video games dealing with the horror of whaling relatively recently – Dishonored was October 2012, and AC IV barely a year later.


One of the arguments that might be utilised in defence of the depiction of whaling is the historical argument. ‘Well’, people say, ‘it’s what happened in those days, so it’s historically accurate to depict it.’ It’s true that whaling happened, obviously, but there are lots of things that happened in that period and region that aren’t included in the game. The mere fact of whaling’s existence isn’t a good enough justification as to why it’s in the game when so many other things aren’t. Given the limited number of things that could feasibly be included, and given the breadth of historical experience in the Golden Age of Piracy, we have to treat the inclusion of whaling as a conscious decision by the developers. Further, there’s a difference between including something and the question of how you represent that thing. Imagine if AC IV had lots of sexual assault. Well, yes, it historically happened, so okay – but imagine if your job as a player was to run around sexually assaulting people. When you depict something, the way in which you depict it matters. When you come home with a whale, there’s cheers and applause and ‘look at the size of ‘im!’ – so it’s not only depicted, but it’s depicted as fun. That’s weird.


Another point of contention – and I didn’t mean to spend so long talking about the whaling, but we’re here now, so let’s get on with it. One of the themes (or so-called ‘themes’) in AC IV is slavery. It’s the 18th century, the Triangle Trade is booming, and slaves are super common. When you start the game, you’ve got a shipmate called Adéwalé, a Trinidadian ex-slave who becomes your quartermaster. Obviously slavery is a touchy subject for him, and it comes up sort of periodically – at one point protagonist Edward is going to meet some slavers, and Adéwalé is concerned that Edward plans to start slaving himself. Edward is quick to explain his position (that slavers are terrible and slavery is bad), and the plot goes on.


However, given that slavery is such an issue in the game, it’s weird to me that the writers are so oblivious of the history of slavery in literature. Well, it’s not surprising, because Ubisoft games have bad plots, but let’s lay this out quickly. We’re gonna have to leave land-hunting for next week. If you’ve ever read Moby Dick, you’ll know that there’s a bunch of discussion of racial issues, and one of the ways that the book talks about slavery is through the metaphor of whaling. White men chase the whales down and harpoon them and eat them – it’s a metaphor for the oppression and injustice suffered by African Americans. It’s also something that comes up in some other literature, but I’ll let you go and find other examples. The one that I will mention briefly – we’ve already touched on it – is Dishonored. The killing and mutilation of whales – the brutality of that whole process becomes a relationship for the state of the city. There are winners, a few rich men up top, and losers, the vast majority of all the people being worked to death before their time. It’s not racialised in the same way as Moby Dick, but it’s a relevant example. The dynamic of hunter and hunted, victim and assailant – it’s that same relationship.


Of course, that dynamic itself is clearly politicised. Historically, there’s been a great deal of good that’s come from whaling. Well, I say ‘good’ – there are products which were useful which have come out of whaling. It’s not entirely fair to say that historical whaling was exclusively about excess and waste and the sheer joy of killing living creatures – but that’s the implication of the comparison with slavery. From that perspective, it’s interesting to see in Dishonored all the whale products used by the culture. Your powers come from runes (whale bone), the weapons are powered by whale oil, the lamps are whale oil – heck, whale oil powers the whole industrial revolution in that world. We can say that the society and culture of Dunwall is founded on the backs of whales. You can use this as a metaphor to talk about how the oppression of the populace is actually foundational for the wealth of the richest – and many of the plot points tie into that. Anyway, given the existence of Dishonored, and Moby Dick, and the rest of them, I would expect a game that deals with both slavery and whaling to be a bit smarter about the connotations of the two. Well, I’d expect it from a company that wasn’t Ubisoft, anyway.


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