N.B. Spoilers for Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, as well as acknowledging that as a white person, my perspective is limited. I’ve linked to an Evan Narcisse post below.
One moment sticks out in my mind in AC: Liberation above others: I was working for Aveline’s mentor, Agaté, to funnel a group of soldiers to a specific spot so I could ambush them. Racing around and breaking water towers so that they would need to navigate certain streets, I ran around in Aveline’s slave guise so that I would attract less attention.
You see, AC:L has a mechanic that is new for the Assassin’s Creed series: Aveline can go to changing rooms and switch between three different personae: the assassin guise that is established in the series, her slave guise, and her lady guise. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks. Assassin has access to all weapons and can freely climb and traverse the city, but is spotted by guards more easily, always having one bar of notoriety. The lady cannot climb and has a very limited arsenal available to her (a parasol that shoots poisoned darts being one). The slave can freely climb about the city (though gains a small amount of notoriety for doing so), and while she has a limited arsenal, it’s not quite as limited as the lady. It was the limited arsenal that struck me as I found myself stuck in the mission above, unable to proceed. The slave persona had no access to firearms.
To end the mission, Aveline is tasked with both not being detected by the soldiers standing about like slightly animated mannequins and blowing up a powder keg to destroy their rear flank. In most Assassin’s Creed games, I barely pay attention to most of the tools I have, as they rarely are needed outside of one or two instances; as someone who never uses the pistol in these games, I suddenly found myself ruminating on the fact that of course Aveline would not be carrying about a gun with her as someone who is perceived as a slave around the streets of New Orleans.
Similarly, the notoriety that Aveline is shown to have as an assassin but not a lady seems tied to how she is perceived to wield power. Helping run her father’s business as a lady does not seem uncouth (and one may not even know that, if she is just looked at; her step-mother seems to be at pains to get her to marry so that she can actually fit into society). However, a black woman with obvious weapons hanging about her person, and dressed in garb that would read as masculine while not being a slave? She seems to stick out in what our understanding of that time would be.
Further, it caused me to reflect on the full use of the dressing stations in place of just stepping into an alley to change. Aveline is not just changing her costuming, but what tools she has access to in a particular guise can be incredibly expansive or limiting. Suddenly having access to tools you did not before could only be explained by stepping into a place where they’d be available, instead of just changing into the spare costume you may have had while wandering the streets and stepping out of sight.
There are many different moments of reflection that the game invites the player to make about Aveline and her place in this society as a liminal figure: a biracial woman with access to being a lady but being able to pass as a slave caught in a city being fought over by the Spanish and French. For more of a look at how specifically her being black influences this, I’d recommend Evan Narcisse’s thoughts on the matter.
However, Aveline is not the only character that struck me. Since the first Assassin’s Creed, I have had a tendency to gloss over any collectible that offered no in-game story benefit. In AC:L you are given the opportunity to learn more about Aveline’s mother, Jeanne, through her diary entries. In a literary tradition that reminded me a bit of The Color Purple, her earlier entries tend to be rather simple, and explore her getting a feel for her voice. As her writing continues, she is more loquacious, and outlines the story of being a slave who has to downplay her intelligence and skills in writing, her brief affair with the assassins, and how tenuous her life was as a slave to a man to whom she was romantically entangled. Rather than just placing her in the binary of Templar vs. Assassin, this is a bit of ‘world-building’ (considering it takes place in our own world…) that grounds the AC universe into a place people inhabit where they do not necessarily wish to be subject to these orders when exposed to them.
Therefore the meta-narrative around the game (that this is a memory of an assassin released by Abstergo, who is tied with the Templar order) seems to want to make an example of Aveline. In the ‘fake’ ending of the game, Aveline has turned her back on the assassin order, working instead with her step-mother, Madeleine de L’Isle, who is the Master Templar in this region. This is the narrative that Abstergo wants you to believe, that Aveline is respectable to their standards. It seems all the more sinister that the first access to a minority narrative we have is one where that minority’s story is warped to fit the narrative of the ‘respectability politics’ of the Templar order.
If the player finds and tracks Citizen E through the game (three naturally occurring, whereas another handful need to be found separately), they are given longer narratives around something in the moment: cutscenes with certain key exchanges omitted. Find all three of these glitches that give you access to the more full story, and the ending sees Aveline instead taking her own power and going for her own aims (which theoretically align with the assassins). The only way to gain access to the true story is to circumvent the system, which does seem to track with how mainstream attention toward figures like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. seem to be wiped clean or simplified into a simple Magneto vs. Charles Xavier narrative.