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The (Fun, Violent) History Lesson Inside "Assassin's Creed Unity"

How Ubisoft researched and integrated real history and the French Revolution into its biggest franchise.

[Photos: courtesy of Ubisoft]

You're running through the streets of Paris. The year is 1789 and you've just killed a guy with your bare hands. The question is, do you care if the graffiti you just sprinted past is historically accurate? Ubisoft does.

The video game giant's latest installment of its biggest franchise, Assassin's Creed Unity, takes place in Paris during the French Revolution and developers went to great lengths to not only make sure its multi-player mode was firing on all cylinders and the story of protagonist Arno is engaging, but that the sights, sounds and action all around the city were as close to the real thing as possible.

So far, reviews have said the game is "the most elaborate interactive simulation of the tumultuous time yet conceived," and that its "obsession with history is what keeps it feeling new and fresh."

Maxime Durand's official job title at Ubisoft is a production coordinator, but in practice he's been the in-house historian for every Assassin's Creed release since 2010. "History in our games is not just a setting or empty buildings on a Hollywood backdrop," he says. "It influences how we think about the game. How enemies behave, how the artificial intelligence works—it’s all for us to make sure it’s relevant and coherent with the whole idea of the time period. It’s a driving force, making sure everyone and everything is aware of the kind of history we’re trying to recreate."

Work on the game started about four years ago. The first year and a half were focused on the tech aspects of the game—the team knew it was going to be the French Revolution, they knew it would be set in Paris, but the emphasis was on things like adapting for the next generation consoles and testing its technologies for multiplayer use. Once the technical parameters were set, two years ago or so the historical research began. Durand helped coordinate 12 to 15 various types of directors—art directors, narrative directors, design directors—to get thoroughly schooled in the Revolution.

"It’s a complex political and historical setting, so a lot of it is doing as much reading as possible to take in the different viewpoints and perspectives," says Durand. "If you look at an archive, you need to be able to interpret that archive before using what’s there, you can’t just assume it’s fine as is. One example is the Bastille. There are no records of what happened from the time that interpret the events in the same way. You need to know who wrote it and what their goal was. A lot of information around the Bastille was meant to convince people the Revolution was good and everyone was against the monarchy."

In the game, Paris is split into seven different wards, all of them are like mini-cities unto themselves with their own flavors, architectural styles and people. "All of it is based on research, so the more time we have for that, the better prepared we are to make those decisions around the design," says Durand. "One detail is the graffiti in Paris at that time. Most people won’t notice all these little details, which is fine, but our goal is to create something that’s believable, where you feel like you’re in Paris during the Revolution. It’s the small details that really make that happen."

In addition to Durand, Ubisoft also enlists the help of academic historians. Dr. Jean Clement Martin at the Sorbonne in Paris was a script consultant, while University of Quebec, Trois-Rivieres history professor Laurent Turcot, advised developers on the look, feel and daily life of 18th-century Paris. Dr. Martin actually influenced some significant changes in the script, helping to balance the story.

"In the game, Arno isn’t a super pro-revolutionary; the Revolution is more in the background of his own personal quest and struggle," says Durand. "But Dr. Martin felt we had a bit too much of a royalist view on the Revolution. We had been trying to not seem too pro-Revolution but swung a bit too far. So we were able to shift back and give it more of a neutral view. When it comes to history, we set the games within these times and events, but don’t want to take a particular stance, instead allow players to play within these contexts and have fun interacting with it. But we didn’t want to force a viewpoint on anyone."

For the look and feel of the city, Turcot had to go beyond architectural archives. "Archives only do so much, it doesn’t give you a sense of how people lived," says Turcot. "You have to look at paintings, engravings and use these to show the developers what life looked like."

One such artist was Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet. "He’s not very well known, but throughout his work we get a feeling of what the city looked like, what people did along the banks of the Seine, how they cleaned their clothes, how they used the water, as well as the color of the water," says Turcot. "Clear water doesn’t exist. It’s stained with blood and everything else running through the city."

Turcot is also impressed with the level of historical integration in the game, like the legend of the Little Red Man of the Tuileries. "To create the garden of the Tuileries, many homes were destroyed and one of the homeowners killed in that process swore he’d haunt the Tuileries forever," says Turcot. "This is a Parisian myth a lot of people don’t know about but it’s in the game. It’s great just how deep they integrated the mythology of Paris into the game."

Turcot sees the potential for video games to introduce students and others to how people lived in the past. "Games like Assassin’s Creed are sparking interest in different eras of history," says Turcotte. "I think it’s useful and we have to do something in universities to integrate these things into our teaching. We’ve done so much work with Ubisoft, recreating 18th Century Paris, I hope to create environments to use in lectures and research, for college and high school students to get a better sense of what Paris was like. Like a historical Google Streetview."

Even though it's a video game meant to provide players with escapism and fun times, Durand says there's still plenty of pressure to be historically accurate. "It's a good balance between fun and history, but people are paying attention," he says. The cycle of research has seemingly gone full circle—Durand was recently contacted by a student writing his Master’s thesis on how Assassin’s Creed interprets history.

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