History is a sensitive topic to approach with me. No, I’m not a denier of the holocaust or anything quite so dramatic or silly, rather I find the lens we tend to look at history through to be a tiny bit skewed. From the outset I find it a tad odd that Australian history wasn’t taught in schools down here until the 1960’s, but perhaps even more perplexing is that what replaced it is distinctly european-centric, or to use a term that makes me blood boil, western.
The Assassin’s Creed series has been diverse in its representation of history, venturing deep into ‘modern’ human history, from the crusade-era Middle East in the first game to the Victorian era England in Assassins Creed: Syndicate. But despite its best efforts to represent all creeds and cultures, it too has followed a distinctly western story arc, only really daring to venture into moments in history where Europe has been at front as centre. Even when it has ventured beyond Europe’s borders – the Crusades, the American War of Independence – the cogs of the colonial powers were there ticking away in the background. to date it has largely been a story that stems from the origins of England’s religious imperialism in the Middle East. They’re nice little historical points in time, but there’s nothing that makes them any more globally significant than anything that happened in other parts of the world. Parts of the world like Asia.
Western culture is, despite its focus on multiculturalism and diversity, a teensy bit racist (for want of a better word). The games industry is no different in that respect, taking a distinctly narrow-view on cultural and geographical boundaries, largely due to our own historical relationships. Japan, for example, while not the first Asian nation to engage in diplomacy or trade with the western world, was arguably the first major East Asian nation to openly embrace european style cultural ideals, while China had a long standing history of trade with European and American powers, but much in line with its age-old view that it was the Middle Kingdom surrounded by barbarians, never gave way to Western ideals in the same way as its neighbour. This has long defined our political and philosophical alliances in that region of the world. Even in the games industry even when people refer to the east, as it were, we refer to Japan. An eastern-developed video game is only one developed in Japan. A Korean game is one that is trying to be Japanese. And China is just a straight copy of what everyone else is doing. In some ways most westerners sees Asia as Japan and then the rest, a view that doesn’t do the cultural vibrancy of the area justice.
Take Korea for example, a country that is not only the 11th biggest economy in the world, but achieved that in the short space of a few decades. But even before that Korea was an intellectual powerhouse, held together for centuries by various iterations of confucianism, that informed everything from its social structure to its legal system. Even its oldest University, the Sungkyunkwan University, was founded on confucian values of “Humanity, Righteousness, Propriety, and Wisdom”. So how Korea, a nation of central importance in East Asia both intellectually and in how it shaped that region of the world, gets lost in the shuffle is almost unforgivable. A nation that for much of its history has fought occupation from its larger neighbours in Japan and China, that has fought to maintain its fascinating cultural identity and history, is something worth standing up and taking notice of. Turns out though that wars for cultural ideals and imperial supremacy were also playing our in other parts of the world in much the same way they were in Europe. And Assassin’s Creed is the perfect vehicle to grow that awareness of just how central Korea has been to the history of the modern world.
You see the beauty of Assassins Creed is its versatility tells an overarching story of a war for cultural supremacy. It is a boundless story of cultural and idealistic imperialism. The format, too, is quite simple: there is an aggressor and a defender. Real life history fits this ‘pro forma’ rather nicely, as it turns out, as human history was plagued by conflict through both conflict, and the more subtle conflict of ideas. Or in some cases the perfect storm of both. In the context of Ubisoft’s world they have managed to squeeze their overarching narrative of a war on ideals into a significant period of cultural enlightenment (the Italian Renaissance), of revolution (the French Revolution and the United States War of Independence), and of faith (the Middle Eastern Crusades). It is far reaching in terms of time periods, but for anyone with even an ounce of knowledge of European history, it doesn’t take a genius to connect the historical dots.
With the historical preconditions required to throw the Assassins and Templars into conflict being so malleable; evolution, revolution or enlightenment; it’s not hard to see that Korea itself has had its fair share of both in its long history. As recently as 1945 Korea was occupied by the Japanese, bringing to an end the long-lasting Joseon period and the enlightenment it brought with it, who engaged in something of a systematic destruction of Korea’s own cultural identity and heritage. Even now Korea struggles to identify and proliferate its own cultural identity.
But Korea has also had periods of significant enlightenment brought on by shifts in social expectations and ideals. Right from the onset of the 500 year Joseon period and its confucian foundations the nation has been in a constant state of social change. Even the introduction of the modern Korean language, Hangeul, by King Sejong the Great was intended as a great social equaliser to improve literacy amongst all classes, was wrought with opposition from Confucian scholars of the period. Based on his own confucian ideals, which has their origins on mainland China, scholar and Minister Choe Manri wrote in 1444:
“Within the Chinese realms, though customs may differ, but the script never deviates because of the dialectal speech. Though western barbarians such as the Mongols, the Tangut, the Jurchens, the Japanese, and the Tibetans all have their own script, but it is a matter of being barbaric and does not merit consideration.”
This sort of struggle of ideals persisted for centuries, given rise to by the factional system of Joseon politics, which in a rather progressive way by the standards of the time arguably prevented totalitarianism and control of one political power.
Even more recently the nation was fundamentally changed by the erosion of power of the trade unions, who to that point, had sustained significant economic and social power, mainly through their opposition to military-style governments that held power in South Korea right up until the free election held in 1987 which saw Roh Tae-woo come to power who paved the way for the modern economic powerhouse the Republic of Korea is today. In effect there is a bounty of historical material and settings in Korea’s history that could be plundered for use in historical fiction, spanning all the way back to the 14th century through to modern day. Korea may not have the profile of Japan or the elusiveness of China, but Korea certainly has earnt its historical chops.
The beauty of the Assassin’s Creed series is how versatile it is how easily it can fit interesting historical settings into its overarching world.Korea quite simply is the perfect vehicle to carry Assassin’s Creed’s narrative of the challenge of ideals. I can see it now, a hooded Seonbi perched atop Dongnaeeupseong Fortress in Busan, guided by the strength of his conviction for confucian philosophy. Or a female fighting the declining status of women in Joseon society. Or a Korean nationalist rising against the annexation of his country by the Japanese. The possibilities are endless, and for cultural awareness and social cohesion, understanding of one of the world’s great nations can only be a good thing. Even if the means of disseminating that information is through popular culture.