Assassin’s Creed 4 writer on pirates: Part syphilitic assholes, part romantic heroes, all awesome
Assassin's Creed 4 takes place during the golden age of piracy, a period of time from the 1650s to the 1730s. The game's lead character is Edward Haytham, the Assassin who fathered Haytham Kenway, a character from Assassin's Creed 3 who himself fathered Connor, the game's lead. Still with me?
“Since summer of 2011, we’ve known we were going to do Edward. We seeded Assassin’s Creed 3 with little clues of his existence,” Darby McDevitt, the lead writer of Assassin's Creed 4 told me during a recent conversation. “Haythem mentions going to the opera with his father…” he said, causing the PR man in the room to make a motion with his hand. “That’s the only one I’ll say,” McDevitt finished.
Edward was also a pirate, but modern pop culture isn't sure what that means. Were pirates romantic men of adventure, or murderous scoundrels? The answer, McDevitt told me, was somewhere in the middle, and this made them very fun to write.
Pirates as drunken founding fathers
“These guys were rogues, definitely. They were also experienced sailors, a good 90 percent of pirates were ex-sailors, Navy or privateers. Part of our job is to really delve into the history and bring out the surprising truths,” he explained.
“The thing that intrigued us about this period of the golden age of piracy was the idea of a republic of pirates,” McDevitt continued. The team started with a book by Colin Woodard that described the “The Republic of Pirates,” a group that included Blackbeard, “Black Sam” Bellamy, and Charles Vane. The group spent time in Nassau and formed what they thought of as a “quasi-democratic republic of pirates,” according to McDevitt.
I made a joke about the idea of a “republic” of pirates; it sounded like an anarchist group that met every week at 9 p.m. McDevitt nodded, but the group was serious.
“We saw this as a proto-American Revolution in a way. They definitely weren’t motivated by the same impulses, but there was definitely this desire to cast off the king and cast off religion, there was a lot of the Jacobite Risings in England at the time causing drama about who should be king,” he explained. The pirates didn't give a shit, they just wanted to go down to the West Indies, make some money, get drunk, party, and live apart from society. “They didn't have statesmen-like attitudes,” the writer said.
On Blackbeard, and making the villains interesting
“If you can make someone a realistic person, then the era around them feels realistic,” McDevitt said. It was important that the game not feature characters that were one-note, easily filed into good or evil camps.
“These people are criminals, but they’re not psychopaths. Not all of them,” he paused. “Some of them. Blackbeard was not known to have killed anyone until his last battle. He never had a recorded kill. He didn’t actually like violence. There are some surprising facts about Blackbeard that we’ll bring to life in our game.”
I asked for an example.
“One story about Blackbeard that I really like was that he blockaded the town of Charlestown for 10 days, and he robbed every ship that came into port. But he only did it because he wanted medicine for his crew, because they all had syphilis. He didn’t steal any gold, he just took people hostage because he wanted to cure his men,” McDevitt said. He pointed to that story as a good mixture of both sides of these pirates: Blackbeard disrupted the town’s trade, took hostages, scared the shit out of people, but it was all done for a “couple chests of medicine.”
This story seemed to be a little fantastical, so I did some research after our conversation. The blockade did happen, and a chest of medicine was an important part of haul, but there is still some discussion over what the medicine was used for, and whether or not more loot was taken. It was hard to find consensus on these stories, but all accounts did state that syphilis was likely to be one of the reasons for the needed medicine.
The pirates were basically terrorists. They relied on fear and overwhelming force to get what they wanted. “Blackbeard was into branding - he created this character. He put lit fuses in his hats and lit them on fire so he had a haze of smoke around him. He would sit in the hold and light sulfur and gunpowder to fill it with smoke to see who could last the longest. It was always him,”McDevitt said. He wanted to show off and create a legend around himself. The effect worked; he rarely had to kill anyone directly.
This was one of my favorite parts of Assassin's Creed 3, the idea that the Templars were sympathetic characters. It was easy to agree with many of Haytham's long speeches about power, and who should wield it. McDevitt said to expect more of that.
“For me, evil isn’t contained in any one philosophy. In our game, Templar or Assassins aren’t essentially evil philosophies,” he said. “The badness would come from an individual personality. We’re not going to paint the Templars as evil or good, or pirates as evil or good. There are nasty characters, but that is a part of their personalities, not their philosophies.”