November 20, 2010


Assassin's Creed and the appropriation of history: How Ubisoft has turned the past into a gameplay feature – and why more developers don't follow suit... (Keith Stuart, 19 November 2010, The Guardian)

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is the latest in Ubisoft's highly successful series of visually stunning action adventures. Following the travails of a secret society of assassins through hundreds of years of European history, the games combine acrobatic exploration with twisting conspiracy narratives and gutsy combat. While the opening instalment explored the chaos of the Crusades-era Middle East, Assassin's II and its follow-up move the action to Renaissance Italy, where the killer sect must once again confront its ongoing enemy, the shadowy Knights Templar order, now harboured within the increasingly powerful Catholic church.

What's interesting about the series is its successful use history as a game mechanic, and its ability to construct realistic environments around the largely fantastical story. The evocations of cities such as Jerusalem and Rome, while not always painstakingly accurate, have a sense of place and life that is almost unique in the video game sector.

Unsurprisingly, the design team talk of long field trips to each location, with artists taking thousands of photos and hours of video footage. While researching Florence for Assassin's Creed II, co-writer Corey May studied Machiavelli's contemporary history of the city, and consulted an array of historians. In a blog post on the process he wrote, "The Vasari Corridor is not in our game. Nor is the Uffizi. They hadn't been built yet. The façade of the church and clock tower in Venice's Saint Mark's square didn't look quite as they do now. San Gimignano had more towers. And on and on."

The titles have also employed the vast processing power of the modern console to create bustling urban populations. One of the key gameplay features of the series is the ability of the lead character to hide within crowds of computer-controlled civilians; although just watching the various thieves, prostitutes and noblemen going about their business is often interesting enough. Real-life historical figures are also drawn into the vast conspiracy-laden plot. In Assassin's Creed we witness the military brilliance of legendary Muslim leader, Saladin, in Assassin's Creed II, we make friends with Leonardo da Vinci, and in Brotherhood the key antagonist is Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, whose family the game links with the Templars.

Indeed, the whole set up is so fecund with narrative and interactive possibilities, so rich in atmosphere, so sensuous, that what Assassin's Creed does most of all is make you wonder why more games don't explore historical themes. Let's face it, the mainstream games industry is pretty much a chronological wasteland.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 20, 2010 6:44 AM
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