Assassin's Creed 3's Alex Hutchinson: Stranger In a Strange Land

"I see ourselves as a group of indies trying to be progressive."

The beginning of every Assassin's Creed game starts with the same warning, informing the player the game was created by a multi-cultural band of developers across a variety of countries, all of them with different religious and spiritual beliefs.

It's an attempt to filter the reactions of players who might be offended by the game's premise: that religions and world leaders throughout history are merely pawns in a battle between two rival factions dating back to the mysterious creation of mankind.

Assassin's Creed 3, the fifth main title in the series, will have the same warning - if creative director Alex Hutchinson has anything to say about it.

"That message at the start of the game, it has such an impact. The fact a game states how seriously the team takes the process, it all comes down to that love of history and wanting to tell a story with respect," he tells me on an early-morning phone call.

Hutchinson's typical of the multi-cultural make-up that's behind Assassin's Creed. A native Australian, he moved to the United States early in his career before heading to Montreal. Although he's been adjusted to North American climates for several years now Canada is completely new, and his warm Aussie blood is having a hard time adjusting.

"I'm rugged up a lot." He laughs, but barely.

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Alex Hutchinson.

Yet watching the mercury drop is the least of worries. Hutchinson is at the head of one of the year's biggest games, a conclusion to a trilogy that dates back five years across four separate titles, and that's not counting myriad handheld, mobile and social variations. And Ubisoft says that Assassin's Creed 3 is its most ambitious title yet.

It's hard not to be pessimistic. In an industry with so few original ideas the odds are stacked against Hutchinson and his team - so it's a surprise to hear that "entertainment" ranks low on his priority list. When probed on the impact he hopes Assassin's Creed 3 leaves the industry, Hutchinson doesn't waver. His answer comes rolling off the tongue even before I've finished the question.

"You don't need to separate blockbuster games from the need to be progressive."

If there's one word that could sum up Hutchinson's approach to the franchise, it's progressive. That word comes up about two dozen times during our half-hour conversation, and usually without prompt.

So what does it even mean? While there are plenty of developers attempting to push the boundaries of what gaming can do, both technically and in questioning social norms, most of that is left to the indie scene. Hutchinson wants to bring some of that to the mainstream.

In an accent that pledges allegiance to both the United States and his down under home, Hutchinson is bursting at the seams to stress the need for AC3 to differ from its predecessors not only in gameplay, but in sharp, chiselled social commentary.

"There are plenty of franchises in the gaming world that have made huge leaps within a consistent universe. To sort of cap games with that definition isn't fair, I think. We're trying to be as fresh and innovative as possible, across a bunch of areas."

"Whether it's the writing staff or the leadership staff or the creative team, everyone takes this very, very seriously, and is trying to be as progressive as possible."

Cultural sensitivity is a tricky topic in gaming, and for a disappointing reason - the industry barely has any. The critique of a deficit in minority and disadvantaged figures needs no repeating.

Hutchinson, who speaks not in the soft tone of a forward-thinking apologist but in the clear and decisive timbre of a politician, is taking this opportunity to drag gaming, and gamers, forward. Like a wolf seizing its prey by the neck. He wants to shake things up.

"There's an entire book in the answer to what we want to do with this game, but as a whole, I think it's about living history and experiencing it first hand, or as close as you can get to it."

The setting of this chapter in history demands sensitivity. While the American Revolution is viewed as a time of celebration and freedom for many, for other groups including Native Americans, it conjures images of war, fear and destruction.

When Ubisoft announced the protagonist of Assassin's Creed 3 would be a Native American the decision was met with optimistic surprise by some, perhaps hopeful the franchise was leading as an example for other developers.

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Assassin's Creed 3 won't be taking any sides.

But after judging Hutchinson's temperament and culturally sensitive approach to games, it's really no surprise at all - he's adamant the game refuses to be a rallying cry for the United States, nor the British. He wants the main character, Connor, to be "one step apart".

"If you're a historical tourist and then analyse the plight of your particular context, or the character's context, and what it means to you, then we can make an emotional connection between yourself and the player."

The game is set to begin as Connor watches his village burn. Hutchinson says he wants to get in people's heads, and let them see how it feels to be disadvantaged. Not for revenge, the driving force of previous games, but for justice.

"If we can get that...I think we will have done very well."

As with many developers gaming was a staple in the Hutchinson home, where he spent hours in front of a ColecoVision brought home by his father, whose career inadvertently kick-started Alex's own.

"My father has been a writer for 30 years, and he was a syndicated columnist for many of those. He's written many books on everything from sport to travel to war history to everything else. He's the definition of a journalist."

"So when I was in my 20s, I started to see advertisements on recruiting websites for game designers. I thought it was something I could potentially do. It was the fusion between writing and theoretical game design that hooked me in."

Hutchinson landed a job at Torus Games in Melbourne, where he mainly worked on Game Boy titles. It was a crash course in design, where he shipped half a dozen games in one year - a stressful cycle by any standard.

"The challenging part is that when a culture is sound bite based as opposed to discussion based, you have to give a more nuanced answer than the headline picks up when talking about things like the race of the main character."

This was back when the gaming scene in Australia was becoming fatter. Since then, studios have all but abandoned the country, scared off by economic woes that picked it to a skeleton where independents are now the order of the day. But back then, Hutchinson was preparing for the ride of his life.

And it was that hectic production cycle that got him used to seeing a game through its entire cycle, a privilege many developers don't even experience several years into their careers. It was an experience partly responsible for his rapid shift in responsibility.

"Game design is an incredibly challenging job, exactly because it's so multifaceted. It's leadership, communications and writing all combined into one job, and it's extremely difficult to become decent enough to be all of those facets at once.

"I think that's why there's such a high turnover rate, and it's hard to find better game designers than engineers. There are so many tracts of education that you need a good feel for, a good rounding, in order to design games. It's only the last five or six years I've been getting more comfortable in that - at the start I was just trying to keep my job."

"There are people who spend five years on one big title and don't learn the loop of game design, with internal pitches, followed by design etc., you don't learn the arc of a game. Doing it a couple of times is a huge boost."

He left home - as many Australian designers are wont to do, given the variety of opportunities across the shores - and headed over to Maxis in California. After finding out his original game job was scrapped, (while he was on the plane, no less), he moved over to other Sims titles before leading the design team on Spore. Hutchinson worked on Army of Two for EA before eventually taking his current role. He came from leading a small band of developers in the suburbs of Melbourne to heading up one of the biggest releases of the year.

Great designers flop when they've given a team and can't control them. You move from simply working alongside designers and artists to giving them direction. Hutchinson has long past that point now, having taken leadership on other titles. But this is his biggest team yet, and the company has already promoted the title as the most ambitious in the franchise. Hutchinson has to balance his desire for progressiveness flowing through the game's every vein with a more hands-off approach.

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Trading renaissance Italy for the serene outdoors.

"I've always been a very big believer in ownership, of groups that can own a system of work and what they do. Others shouldn't have to get too involved in whatever's outside of their scope."

"If you've got more than 30 people, then no one can be involved in every feature and you simply can't be there for every meeting. You've got a structure to put people in, they go away and do their thing, and then you really work as an editor."

"That being said, we have a ridiculous amount of meetings."

But there's always fear. Hutchinson is still relatively young, and being in charge of such a huge team is a daunting task. In order to make sure his vision for the game is carried out correctly, he needs to scrutinize every detail and balance that with a team looking to him for guidance.

"There's always fear. It's a giant game. But the fact our team is talented is a good start, and when you put yourself in front of such a large group of people, the chances of you being found out if you're not at the top of your game are really high."

"What gets me up in the morning is the challenge and having a chance to make an important game. Something that actually makes a difference in the industry, and is remembered for something more than being fun."

"I feel for the Mass Effect guys, they spent years working on a fantastic game. And ironically, I think it's a big deal, whenever you have people invest in your project for years and years, you do have a responsibility to deliver something cool."

So, in other words, progressive.

It's the urgent need to say "something" that rivals Hutchinson's need to entertain fans. He's a man with a message, and admits he becomes frustrated, almost audibly so in our conversation, about the mischaracterisation of blockbusters as "stupid" by default.

"There's often a misunderstanding that a sequel or a franchise is by definition not innovative or not fresh. That's complete nonsense," he says.

It's an assumption that can be forgiven, however. Critics would suggest it's the independent scene that is doing all the thinking these days - Taylor Clark's piece in The Atlantic earlier this year profiling Jonathon Blow caused a furore when he made a similar suggestion.

With smaller, downloadable games such as Fez causing as much noise as huge titles, it's little wonder Hutchinson acts like he's pushing a boulder up a hill. "There are plenty of franchises in the gaming world that have made huge leaps within a consistent universe. To sort of cap games with that definition isn't fair, I think. We're trying to be as fresh and innovative as possible, across a bunch of areas."

"Whether that's through things like having a minority figure as a lead character, breaking some barriers down there, or other things like narrative decisions we make, then we're making good progress."

The outcry over the announcement that Connor would be a native American exposed, without surprise, how quick to judge the gaming community can be. Even the slightest push towards a progressive understanding of race and culture in gaming is dismissed as political correctness, or pandering.

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Rooftops and guard towers will be partly replaced by hunting in nature.

It's a reaction that's hard to ignore as a creative director. How can you attempt to introduce cultural sensitivity to a group of people, a cursory look at what's selling suggests, who don't particularly care what race the protagonist is just as long as he's a white male?

This year has been particularly bad. Not only have we seen sexism exposed in the professional fighting game scene , but we've watched a group of men complain . the number of female protagonists is just too much to bear.

But to Hutchinson, it's simply a matter of doing what he feels the industry needs. "The challenging part is that when a culture is sound bite based as opposed to discussion based, you have to give a more nuanced answer than the headline picks up when talking about things like the race of the main character." "Games are always involved in a dialogue with their players. They play and do things in their games they don't expect, and there's a huge online discussion about that."

"We're much closer to our fans than other media. It's a big dialogue all the time, but I think it shows people care."

There's another aspect to this decision. It acts as a hedge against those who would criticise any of the designers for being on the American side of the Revolution.

"I see ourselves as a group of indies trying to be progressive. I don't see why there needs to be any divide."

But Hutchinson is crystal clear - there are no sides here. He's so concerned about being culturally sensitive to Native Americans Ubisoft has gone so far as hiring a consultant of native origin. It's a move that's saved them a few embarrassments.

"It's sometimes really unclear to us when we think we're being educated, well meaning people, and when that's just not the case. It's very hard to predict what's going to be an issue and what isn't."

"For a while, we had tribal masks as an element in the game, and this actually became a very sensitive issue and was something the consultant didn't want represented. We could have never predicted that it would be such a sensitive subject."

"Even things like the use of traditional music, to them that's something incredibly important and they don't want it used for just a pure entertainment value."

But there are good steps as well. The lead character is voiced by an actor with Native American heritage, while the languages are being authenticated by linguistic experts. This is where his Australian background actually helps. With no personal ties to the story, Hutchinson says he's not sitting up late at night wondering about his objectivity. As the warning says: this is a multicultural group.

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Preparing to strike.

"I think it helps. Our lead writer is American and history takes a big part of his mind, so he's not as removed to it. But it's something I'm aware of, and we're a French company as well, so we have a very big array of people working here."

"Personally, I don't feel any huge personal echoes in this setting so hopefully that helps us be objective."

"But it's the research that really helps you out. You watch endless movies, read heaps of books, and get stuck into the history of the time. That sense of not knowing as much as you should really goes away pretty quickly."

Cultural sensitivity and a need to be progressive is all well and good, but there's an underlying factor to all of this. Fans of Assassin's Creed may not be as diehard as some of other titles, but the series has some dedicated followers. And this game represents the end of a very narrative-heavy trilogy.

Throughout our conversation, it becomes clear Hutchinson isn't so much concerned with what fans want as much as he is that the game says something meaningful. But at the same time, there's definitely pressure here. Fellow Canadian studio BioWare was massacred for its ending to Mass Effect. Hutchinson feels similar pressure.

"I think at a certain point, you have to black it out."

"I feel for the Mass Effect guys, they spent years working on a fantastic game. And ironically, I think it's a big deal, whenever you have people invest in your project for years and years, you do have a responsibility to deliver something cool."

The Assassin's Creed 3 story hints at a culmination of the game ending in a world-shattering event at the end of 2012. As far as story endings go, there are few bigger.

But Hutchinson also maintains strength in his position. Part of his progressive nature is that he feels he has a story to tell, and as a result, feels less of a tether to what fans may dictate.

"You don't have a responsibility to deliver what people want all the time. If you can give a true ending, and a consistent ending that doesn't diverge from the rest of the game, then you just need to do your best."

"There is some nervousness about the ending in context, but the beauty for us is that Connor has a story with a beginning, middle and an end. That helps us out."

When I spoke to Hutchinson earlier this year about an unrelated story, he repeated his opinion that although games may try to tell complex narratives, the real story of a game is what the player experiences and tells themselves while playing; a player-dictated narrative.

The rise of indie games over the past few years has drawn a divide in some players' minds between what blockbusters do and what independent developers do. Hutchinson is trying his best to dictate a message of his own. He's not so much breaking down the wall as suggesting it doesn't even exist.

"I see ourselves as a group of indies trying to be progressive. I don't see why there needs to be any divide."

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