This year's edition of the Assassin's Creed franchise, Assassin's Creed: Unity, will take place during the French Revolution. As somebody who has always been fascinated by this historical era, I'm very excited to see how it will be treated by one of my favorite game series. This popular revolution that overthrew France's decadent nobility, then descended into paranoia and mob rule is an excellent backdrop for a different kind of Assassin story.
We don't know exactly what time period this game will cover, but I'm going to guess that it will span at least the main Revolutionary period of 1789-1799, starting with the fall of the Bastille and ending when Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the post-Revolutionary government. I hope it continues through at least some of Napoleon's reign, however, since he and his contemporaries were such fascinating characters.
The French Revolution is particularly interesting for this series because it challenges the ideals of the Assassin Order, which advocates freedom above all else. That very freedom, won by the common people of France, turned into a period of bloody terror in which thousands of people were brutally murdered for simply appearing to be anti-revolutionary. While most Assassin's Creed games have pitted Assassin “good guys” against Templar “bad guys,” this game has room for more gray areas, with possible Assassin “bad guys” joining in on the Terror. Arno is almost certain to transition from a starry-eyed revolutionary to a determined Assassin working against this mindless violence, but there will be plenty of interesting and gruesome things for him to witness along the way.
The Early Years
In the beginning of the game, we'll be seeing some of the reasons why France's peasants and working class successfully revolted against its noble rulers. The nation had gone into major debt after several wars, and its peasants and working-class people faced hardships such as overpriced food while the nobility largely continued their decadent lifestyles. At the same time, many French intellectuals were excited by the example of the American Revolution, which had been based on the democratic ideals of numerous prominent European thinkers.
Arno is likely to witness or take part in early popular uprisings like the Storming of the Bastille and the Women's March on Versailles. Both these events were exciting yet frightening, demonstrating the power of the people while also showing the dark side of mob rule as numerous aristocrats, civic leaders, and soldiers were killed (even butchered) by the crowd. It will be interesting to see what Arno thinks of the early revolution. Will he consider the deaths to be understandable casualties of the fight for equality, or will he be disturbed by them? What does an Assassin, whose main action upon the world involves selectively killing Templars, think of seeing a crowd of people doing essentially the same thing?
Several important historical figures are likely to appear in the early Revolution. The Marquis de Lafayette, who participated in the American Revolution and appeared in Assassin's Creed III, should be making a return appearance. As a moderate man who advocated democratic revolution but worked to keep the violence to a minimum, he'll likely be an ally to our Assassin hero without being an Assassin himself.
One interesting character that I hope becomes involved in the story is Jacques Necker, a government official who was well-liked by the people for working to reform France's regressive tax system. While Necker was a well-meaning reformer, he also had a tendency to cook the books and make the country's financial situation seem better than it was. When the king dismissed him for doing so, many commoners took this as an attack against Necker's reforms, and their resultant anger helped kick off the Revolution. Necker could be quite a colorful character if Ubisoft decides to make him a major player in the plot.
I also hope that Arno will be making the acquaintance of some of the women who were instrumental in fighting for the Revolution, either as writers or as active militants. This game would be an excellent opportunity for Ubisoft to show the increased power of women in society, allowing the player to hire groups of militant market women to sow chaos rather than settling for yet more “dancers.” The struggle for women's rights was an important part of the French Revolution, and there's no need in this game to present women as primarily having power via the sex trade.
Of course, King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette will be making an appearance. Whether the game treats them as convenient scapegoats or uncaring (or even Templar-connected) despots is an open question, especially since historians continue to debate their role in causing the Revolution. I doubt that Arno will be personally connected with either of them, but it will certainly be interesting to see if the game weaves him into the fabric of the events that caused their eventual executions.
The infamous period of time known as the Terror, in which the guillotines ran with blood as the mere suspicion of being anti-revolutionary was a death sentence, is about one man who will surely loom large over the game: Maximilien de Robespierre. Nowadays Robspierre is seen as a thoroughly black-hearted villain, but we can't forget that in the days before the Terror, he worked towards ending slavery in France's colonies and advocated for the well-being of ordinary workers and soldiers.
Robspierre is a fascinating figure, a charismatic man whose persuasive public speeches could convince others to champion equality but would later inflame the murderous passions of the Terror. We can only hope that Ubisoft is able to find a voice actor with the chops to portray the man (as they did so well with Blackbeard in Assassin's Creed IV).
It would be an easy out to align Robspierre with the Templars and formulate a plot in which Robspierre undermined the revolution on their behest. I dearly hope the writers don't do this, because it would be a dreadful misappropriation of the man's own ideals. Robspierre believed in the revolutionary movement with all of his being, and considered the Terror to be a virtuous movement with the goal of eliminating any who sought to sabotage the fledgling Republic. Robspierre should be portrayed either as an Assassin or an unaligned political figure in the game, preserving his beliefs and his role in history.
One mid-revolution historical figure who is almost certain to be an Assassin in the game is Cécile Renault, a young royalist who was arrested for attempting to assassinate Robspierre with two small knives. Given the easy transition of dual knives to hidden blades, I don't know how the game's writers could resist allying her with the Assassins. This gives us the exciting proposition of seeing Assassins who are both pro- and anti-revolutionary, which would add an excellent element of depth and complexity to the story.
End of a Revolution
After Robspierre's execution, the game will either wrap up Arno's storyline by giving him the chance to finally assassinate whichever main Templar menaces the game has cooked up from minor historical figures or allow us to see the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. I favor the second option, although I also wouldn't mind a full Napoleon-era Assassin's Creed Unity 2: Imperial Boogaloo.
Still, the full cycle of France becoming a Republic via popular uprising, then falling again into despotism under Napoleon makes for a nice story arc, and once again gives us a lot of room to explore the good and bad sides of the Assassin philosophy. In Assassin's Creed IV, we played a character who didn't fully become an Assassin until the end of the game. While it was interesting to see Edward question the Order from the outside, it's time to see a character who has the chance to question it from the inside. The excesses of the French Revolution provide the perfect fodder for Arno to be an Assassin who struggles with the mandate of the Order, finally bringing a nuanced view of the Assassins fully into an Assassin's Creed game.
However Arno's individual storyline plays out, Ubisoft has chosen an exciting period of history to depict. I can't wait to meet the many historical figures I've been reading about for all these years and stalk the streets of Paris with my hidden blades. Others may be tiring of the Assassin's Creed formula, but history geeks like me have a tendency to eat it up. Bring on la Revolución!