Can “Historical” Games be Studied? A Look at Assassin’s Creed

This post originally appeared on student Dalton Jones’s website.

Notre Dame within Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Ubisoft, 2019

I believe gaming as an artistic medium can do well to serve cultural heritage if utilized properly. I am a massive Assassin’s Creed fan, having played and owned all the major installments. The extra care Ubisoft has always taken to create beautiful and reasonably accurate locales and time periods is one of my main draws to the series. I also remember being blown away by Notre Dame in Unity, and thought it was so tremendously cool that this digital space I had spent so much time exploring in a fake digital world may be a huge part in restoring the real cathedral.

As Khunti mentions, there is a proclivity for recreations to misinform both historians and non-historians alike (p.4). Basing things off of games such as the current situation with Notre Dame being reconstructed using the 3D model of it in Unity is dicey at best, and the work being done currently is very much the exception, not the rule. Games are not going to have anywhere near the same fidelity as a single-object recreation, due to the fact that they are attempting to render so many things at once and must do so as efficiently as possible. Therefore, higher details are usually actually not modeled into the object’s shape itself, known as the mesh, but to a flat texture, which takes much less processing power to render. Also, Ubisoft is known for their attempts towards historical accuracy especially when concerning physical objects and appearances, making them an outlier in most scenarios. It is not so much the 3D model of Notre Dame being used to aid reconstruction, but more the research collected to originally make the model.

Because of all this effort and research, under some circumstances some games can be used to help educate, again I will point to Assassin’s Creed. In the last two installments, Origins and Odyssey, set in late Ptolemaic Egypt and Classical Greece respectively, a few months after the games released and we as players got to live through fabricated stories in the time periods that of course take plenty of artistic liberties, Ubisoft released what they titled Discovery Tours as free expansions as well as standalone software for people solely interested in them.

In these tours, you no longer play as an assassin, but are allowed to pick an avatar of famous historical figures like Julius Caesar or Socrates and go on digital guided tours, narrated to show you exactly what you are looking at. There is no longer a mix between history and fiction for the sake of story, but rather showing just how much work went into getting the historical side right to properly mix in. For example, in Origins, you could take a tour through Roman camps where they discussed accuracy of the armor worn by the Roman NPCs, or go to the Library of Alexandria where they discussed the kind of information stored there as well as their practice of taking original documents, making copies, and then returning them to the original owner, so on and so forth. 

However, these games are often made by corporations, and while they may claim to strive for historical accuracy, they are ultimately trying to sell this new game, and therefore take certain liberties that are not always beneficial. Khunti refers to this practice as “Disneyfication,” or essentially taking out all the parts of a culture that won’t sell well (p. 6.). Again with Ubisoft, there have been articles written about how the newest installment in the franchise known as Valhalla has tones of colonialism within the narrative. Seemingly in an effort to make the protagonists more likeable, Ubisoft has neglected certain aspects of Viking culture, such as their ownership of slaves. While this may seem like a good idea to some as to not ruffle any feathers, it is essentially telling a narrative that is not true and favoring one culture over another, as the Christian characters are included with no flaws omitted.

For this reason, I believe that games as a whole as they are marketed and sold should not be utilized as any sort of cultural study opportunities, because ultimately they have been Disney-fied, but the work done that is used to create them can be repurposed, such as we have seen with Discovery Tours, and put historical and cultural information into an effective and easily digestible form.

Works Ctied:

Khunti, “The Problem of Printing Palmyra

Devereaux, “Collections: Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and the Unfortunate Implications


Source: Can “Historical” Games be Studied? A Look at Assassin’s Creed