It is one of the ironies of videogames that they often embrace some of the most radically political situations in the most noncommittal ways possible. After all, just because a game features a violent revolution or a war, that doesn’t mean the developers want to be seen to take sides. The results of this can be unintentionally funny, creepy, or just leave you wondering if you should disconnect your brain before playing, as if the intended audiences are shop window mannequins and crash test dummies.
A recent example of a game falling over itself to be apolitical is Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, an open world game about stabbing people set in London around 1886. The game has you embarking on an extended campaign against a secret organisation which controls London, and by implied extension the British Empire as a whole. You fight against them by murdering assorted senior personnel (as well as hundreds of affiliated henchmen), sabotaging their various endeavours and generally unleashing all manner of mayhem against the group.
Why do we do this? Well, because we’re reliably informed that the people we are killing are members of the Templars or are working for them, which is apparently a group of Very Bad People, and not like the Assassins, who are much better, apparently. London under Templar control is bad, apparently, and under Assassin control we are told it will be better for everyone, though we never really find out why.
Your credentials for being on the side of righteousness seem to stem from the fact that when you meet famous historical figures like Charles Darwin or Florence Nightingale they seem to like you and let you help them out in various ways (usually but not exclusively related to stabbing people). The rationale presumably being that since Charles Darwin is a great man slashing throats at his behest reflects well on our heroes.
Even in these interactions however the game is painfully noncommittal, for example your characters in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate will happily to kill police officers for Karl Marx, but they don’t actually join the Worker’s Party, because heaven help us if it turned out that either of our heroes did anything that might suggest an underlying ideology.
It feels very much that when a developer is so timid in attaching defining ideological or political qualities to the characters or groups in the game then Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is what you end up with. There is no sense that your characters stand for anything, at least not intentionally. Instead your hero or heroine wanders around a genuinely beautiful rendition of Victorian London trying their absolute level best to not offend the sensibilities of anybody (while stabbing people).
By contrast something like Saints Row 3 handles this sort of system altogether better. Saints Row 3 works along a set of almost identical mechanics for how the struggle for control of the city plays out; do an activity, claim an area then watch your minions move in. However what Saints Row 3 does is cast you as an anti-hero. The design is self-aware enough to know that you can’t treat somebody as a regular hero if their most common form of interaction with other people is to kill them in cold blood. Your character is motivated by revenge and by greed, which is probably terrible karma but at least it gives you a sense of your characters purpose.
Another approach is to have the antagonists of the story carry the political weight and let the motivations of the heroes become ennobled by the contrast. The best example of this is a game called The Saboteur. By setting the game in occupied Paris during World War Two, ensuring that everybody you kill is a Nazi or Nazi collaborator, everything is good clean fun. We know that Nazis are bad and the game doesn’t need to go to great lengths to explain why, it’s accepted ideological shorthand. Another example of this is Blazkowicz, the hero in the Wolfenstein games; here the character is not engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering people, he is engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering Nazis.
When it comes to games set in World War Two it is still possible to mess things up when trying to be even handed. For example Company of Heroes 2, a strategy game set on the Russian Front, takes such pains to remind us of the ruthlessness of the Soviets that it ends up accidentally making the fascists look like the heroes. The trick would seem to be when approaching a historical situation with a clear villain then you don’t need to be even handed. It’s a videogame where tanks have health bars after all, not a history book.
Of course it can be argued that none of this ideological and political emptiness in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate makes it any less fun, and to a point this is true. The mechanical elements of the game are not affected by the motivations of the character but the connection between player and character is. As such the motivation to keep playing over hours and hours of repetitive activities suffers badly. This is a problem that past Assassin’s Creed games have not been too troubled by, for instance in Black Flag, the hero was a pirate and his ideology based around the consumption of rum, accumulation of doubloons and shooting cannonballs at the Spanish navy made complete sense.
If a game is going to base itself around important events in the lives of its characters it has to make those characters stand for something. It may not be something every player or potential player agrees with, but it’s certainly more entertaining than watching somebody sit on a fence (and stab people).