Game review: Assassin’s Creed’s new life as a virtual museum
What happens when you remove the fighting from a video game and turn it into an ancient world to explore? The creators of Assassin’s Creed Origins found out.
Even if you’re not particularly interested in video games, you’ll probably have heard of Assassin’s Creed. They’re a series of historically themed action games that take place in digital recreations of places such as Revolution-era Paris, medieval Jerusalem and 1860s London. Playing Assassin’s Creed involves climbing up ancient buildings and mingling with the residents of cities of the past, meeting (and occasionally assassinating) historical figures as a member of an ancient, clandestine brotherhood working against the Templars.
The games have been around since 2007 and have made an awful lot of money for their publisher, Ubisoft. The company employs a team of hundreds of artists, historians, writers, coders, sound designers and more to create these virtual places. An hour in the company of any of these games is enough to discern how much effort goes into their historical settings – though it’s hard to appreciate them fully when you’re busy fighting, talking or running away from guards.
The latest Assassin’s Creed game, Origins, is set in ancient Egypt – a time and place redolent of historical discovery and mystery, the subject of thousands of school projects. It has been enormously successful, selling millions of copies, supported with the usual drip-feed of paid-for extra content that follows almost all big video game releases these days. But in February, Ubisoft released a different kind of update for Assassin’s Creed Origins – one that turned it into an interactive museum.
We have the legitimacy to do it now, after all these games showing that we treat history with respect
The Discovery update, as it’s called, removes all combat, missions and story from Assassin’s Creed Origins, leaving you free to explore its detailed recreation of ancient Egypt at leisure. It also adds in 75 interactive tours, written in collaboration with Egyptologists from around Europe, which teach you about everything from mummification to the city of Alexandria. It’s like one of those audio guides that you can pick up at museums. The difference between Assassin’s Creed Origins and a museum, though, is that you are immersed, walking the streets of a village as an Egyptian child or riding a horse in the shadow of the great pyramids.
It has the potential to be an extraordinary learning tool, as its developers discovered when they ask educators and researchers at schools, museums and universities to offer feedback on the early designs. When 300 10-year-old students in eight different schools played around in Discovery Tour’s ancient Egypt as part of their classes, their teachers found that it helped students to retain a lot more information – plus, what 10-year-old wouldn’t enjoy playing games in class?
Whether in or out of school, there are a great number of people who would relish the chance to step into the past in the way Discovery Tour enables. “For a lot of people, ancient Egypt is ungraspable,” says Jean Guesdon, creative director on the Assassin’s Creed games. “We give access to a world that was lost. Nobody knows exactly what it was like – this is an interpretation, of course – but it has good foundations in terms of research.”
The Assassin’s Creed team first considered making a combat-free educational version of the game back in 2009, when the series was tackling Renaissance Italy, but the usual restrictions of time and money made it impossible. Instead, the historians and researchers ended up pouring their passion into the in-game encyclopedia. “This has been a dream for a long time,” says Maxime Durand, lead historian at Ubisoft Montreal. “I started here in 2010, and it’s always been in the back of my mind. But this time [with Origins], I really wanted it to happen. It was the 10th anniversary of Assassin’s Creed, we had this fantastic setting. [I feel that] we also have the legitimacy to do it now, after all these games showing that we treat history with respect.”
It would be technologically feasible to go back and do the same with Paris, London, civil-war-era America or any of the other settings that Assassin’s Creed has explored, says Jean – but it would be difficult. “Initially, we thought: all we have to do is take out the combat and we’re done,” Guesdon says, “but it was way more technical than we originally thought. We knew how to do an interactive experience, but this type of experience was new to us.” Questions the team asked themselves included: “Do we need to gamify it more? Do we have character unlocks? Do we have to integrate scoring, or a quiz?”
“Originally some of the tours were two hours long, which was useless,” adds Durand. “It’s a challenge-less system, not like a normal mission or quest. It’s more about the immersion, to bring you into this world and present the information. Those who’ve played through Assassin’s Creed Origins know this world, but they haven’t taken the time to look and listen to it.”
Jean hopes that Discovery Tour can appeal to and edify a much wider range of people than the 18-rated Assassin’s Creed games have before. “I’m a father of two, and for years I was in the situation where I was proud of our work, knowing the amount of detail that was in those games, but reluctant to bring [my children] with me in front of the screen,” he says. “I had a very personal motivation in that I want to be able to explore Egypt with them, and for them to learn something. Discovery Tour will allow a lot of our players to revisit this world with their kids, or even their parents.
“Video games have tremendous potential, not just for fun,” he concludes. “The medium itself has incredible power to convey so many different things through immersion. This is an attempt to push ourselves, and say to people: look at video games differently. And to look at the game we made differently, ourselves.”