Friday, November 1, 2013

Give Us Ahab: An Open Letter to Ubisoft

This post was originally written for a digital culture class. See it here.

Dear Ubisoft,

You have recently announced that in your upcoming game, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, a way to gain materials and money for character and ship upgrades will be through harpooning whales, sharks, and other large sea creatures. Let me start by congratulating you on the careful consideration that appears to have been taken on this relatively small mechanic within a much larger game, as evidenced in this video. However, I wish to present you with an extraordinary opportunity for such a mechanic which you may have overlooked. (Due to the nature of secrecy surrounding large video game releases, I realize you may already have considered the option that I am about to present to you, but I'd like to present this proposal before the game releases so that you might consider it before the game is in it's final form.)

As you probably gathered from the title of this post, my proposal is simply this: put Captain Ahab and Moby Dick in AC4. I believe this could provide a great gameplay experience, visual spectacle, and satisfactory narrative, as well as fit in quite nicely with the aesthetic and philosophy of both Black Flag and the Assassin's Creed series in general. In addition, it could open an interesting and satisfying inquiry into the relationship between Herman Melville's classic and modern video games as a vehicle for artistic expression.

Image from

Captain Ahab and the story of Moby Dick fit perfectly into the Assassin's Creed universe. Not only is he an important figure in literary history, he has a violent and mysterious past, a missing leg, and an inhuman drive for revenge. The AC universe prides itself on making "history our playground," and has already included several important historical figures from Leonardo Da Vinci to Benjamin Franklin. While Ahab is a fictional historical figure, the character is still quite important historically. Also, adding fictional historical characters might help keep the franchise fresh, which is a well-documented concern for the series in general.

The whaling aspect of the game is exciting because it's dangerous, tense, and the animals you face are large and powerful. Your developer videos already lead players to imagine hunting even larger animals like blue whales and great white sharks (see video below starting at 7:45):

With danger, tension, and ever-larger animals already being a focus, what better climax to this experience could there be than facing the single most infamous sea creature of all time: the white whale himself, Moby Dick?

The Pequod could be a ship just like the hundreds of others already floating around the open Caribbean world of AC4. When the Jackdaw approaches Ahab's ship, his call could be heard coming over the wind: "Ship ahoy! Have ye seen the White Whale?" The player could choose to stoop and converse with Ahab or ignore him (or attack him, I suppose). If the player does talk with him, it unlocks an open-world side mission to be on the lookout for the White Whale, which can only be unlocked to be discovered after a certain percentage of the main story is completed. When the White Whale is unlocked, the player can happen upon Ahab again if they go to the right spot on the map and catch the crew in the very act of chasing down the great Moby Dick. Again, the player could choose: ignore Ahab, help out, (or attack, but really, that would be quite diabolical at this point). Depending on how well-prepared and sure-handed the player is, perhaps he/she could change the course of literary history and save the Pequod. Or, alternatively, if you ignore Ahab at this moment, when you come back you can find the wreck of the Pequod and try and take on the whale on your own (no easy feat, to be sure).

Not only does Moby Dick fit in with the tone and setting of AC4, one of it's largest themes could be interestingly explored through an open-world game like Black Flag; namely, the cost of monomaniacal purpose. For many players, the pursuit of the white whale could become such a high priority that a major drive of their gameplay for 20+ hours could be dedicated to preparing for and seeking out the whale. Most likely, on the first attempt, the player will die--rendering all of that work a failure (for the brief moment a loading screen allows). In that brief moment, the player could feel everything Ahab felt in his final moments to some degree. Questions of meaning, time, satisfaction, power, failure, and futility would naturally rise in the player, forcing an easy identification with Ahab himself. Ahab could even give several side missions to the player before the hunt ever unlocks, taking Edward and his crew all over the map looking for this or that in preparation for the big day. Video games are perhaps better suited to transfer a taste for how truly driven Ahab was to get the whale, as a player has to perform actions and develop skills to get through the plot, but a reader has only to keep flipping the pages (which, with this book in particular, might not be so easy, really, but the point still stands).

I realize the side-story which I have outlined here might be impossible to completely implement by release, but I can wait for DLC. If you do nothing to include Moby Dick in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, I believe you will have missed a huge opportunity to create an awesome climax of the whaling aspect of the game, as well as an exciting and driving supplemental narrative, great gameplay, awesome visual spectacle, and the chance to "play with history" like never before in any Assassin's Creed game--or, indeed, any game ever made.

In short, give us Ahab, and let us do what he never could. Let's change the course of literary history. Let's kill that beast.

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