There has long been a debate over the treatment of video games as a literary and narrative medium. One of the more innovative methods of storytelling that video games can provide over other media is the direct interactivity of the player with the narrative. Because the player is directly controlling the character, they are getting more of a feel of the characters’ motivation and the setting than as an outside observer. Beyond the characters, video games also allow much more world building to be present and accessible to the player than books or movies do for a reader. This is especially true with regards to open world or sandbox games, where the player is free to roam around the world while not advancing the story and is free to just immerse themselves in the setting of the game. This factor is compounded In historical themed games such as Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise to make history exciting, fun, and most of all relatable. With the amount of work done on making the settings of the games accurate and detailed, the player is truly immersed in the past and the historical setting of each game.
Assassin’s Creed is a series of historical stealth games where you play as a member of the assassin order, fighting the Templar Order, with the story revolving around finding and assassinating characters using parkour, stealth, and close combat. The first game of the series kept much with the original premise of the orders. You play as Assassin Altair ibn La’Ahad, advancing through the assassin ranks while exploring Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus during the First Crusade. However, the subsequent games have expanded the backstory into a secret history of a war between the Assassins and Templars throughout history, which also allowed different historical settings. Assassins Creed II follows Ezio Autidore di Firenze, a member of the Assassin order in Renaissance Italy, with Florence, San Gimignano, Forli, and Venice as the principal locations of the game. Spinoff games followed Ezio to Rome and later Constantinople. Assassins Creed III follows Ratonhnhaké:ton (also known as Connor Kenway) and moved the setting to the Thirteen Colonies in Boston, New York, and the Frontier from Massachusetts to Fort Duquesne in Pennsylvania.
The cities in the games are rendered to an amazing historical detail, from the architecture to the dialogue of the non-player characters (NPCs) as they go about their day. From just walking the streets, you can get a good feel of what it would be like to live in that era. In Assassin’s Creed Revelations, set in early 1500s Constantinople, you are surrounded by a multitude of languages as merchants sell their spices, medicines, and wares. In the Grand Bazaar, Turkish is heard alongside Greek and Italian. In the colonial New York of Assassin’s Creed III, NPCs will speak German and Dutch just as often as they speak English in street conversations. The use of multiple languages really gives the sense of walking around an actual city and shows the amount of work the developers put into making the city come alive.
Of course, the realism and immersion of the passersby would be nothing without the realistic depiction of the cities’ layouts and architecture. Again, the Assassins Creed series excels at the detail put in to the rendering of the cities as they were during the time periods you are playing in. While the size of each city is condensed due to graphical limitations and to make it faster to get from one side of the city to the other, the major landmarks and architectural styles present in the game are historically accurate. From the Great Ummayad Mosque in Damascus and the Dome of the Rock in the first game to the Coliseum and Rome, the Duomo in Florence, and the Old North Church in Boston in subsequent games, the most recognizable structures in each city you visit are present in accurate detail. However, the games even include some of the more obscure locations. The many aqueducts and squares dating from the Roman Empire that were still in use and restored during the Renaissance are featured in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. San Gimignano’s towers dominate the view of the city, providing ample high points for Ezio to climb up to. Assassin’s Creed III features locations like the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston where the Sons of Liberty met, and the old Broadway covered market in New York. New York also includes the husk of the first Trinity Church, which was burned out during the Great Fire of 1776. Not only are many of these structures in the game, but you can also enter several of them, all with period accurate interiors. Saint Peter’s Basilica is still under construction in Brotherhood with scaffolding scaling the walls, and the interior of the Sistine Chapel does not yet feature Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes. Additionally, each historical landmark brings up an entry in the game’s database with further information about that location if you so desire.
With all the delving into historical accuracy for the layout and setting of the game, what about the story? While the millennia long conspiracies and war between the Assassins and Templars are obviously fiction, the people and events the player character interacts with are almost all real. In Assassins Creed II, the player stops the Pazzi Conspiracy, an assassination attempt on Florentine leader Lorenzo di Medici, takes part in the siege of Forli by Cesare Borgia, and builds up the public support to depose Girolamo Savonarola during his brief reign of terror over the Florentine Republic. The other games feature even more historical events, as the player experiences the Third Crusade or the buildup to the Revolutionary War. Meanwhile, the player also interacts with dozens of real people from the area. This is especially true for the targets of the players’ assassinations. In the first game, all nine people the player assassinates died around 1191, and in their correct locations. While not all of the targets in the later games are real, many such as Antonio Maffei and Thomas Hickey are. During the games, figures such as Machiavelli, Suleiman the Magnificent, and Samuel Adams also feature as friends of each of the main characters in those games.
All of these would be good enough for getting a sense of the time period and immersing the player in the social, political, and general history of the periods covered. But then, there are the smaller details that really add to the experience of playing the Assassin’s Creed games. These are the little additions that take the effort of the developers above and beyond. For instance, in Assassin’s Creed Revelations, Ezio meets the noted Ottoman cartographer Piri Reis in 1512. On the desk in Piri Reis’s office, there is a small globe. On a close look at the globe, I realized that the map used for it was the Waldseemüller map. The map was published in 1507 and had gores made for use in globes, and was the first map to use the word “America” to describe the New World. Additionally, the crew of the ships featured in Assassin’s Creed III will sing actual sea shanties from the time.
These techniques help to immerse the player in the era of each of the games throughout the Assassin’s Creed series, and help attach the player to the story and the setting. While a book can achieve this immersion through vivid description, if done improperly it can bog down the plot and take the reader out of the narrative. However, the sandbox setting of video games such as Assassin’s Creed lets the players explore the world at their own pace. It lets the player take a break from the story to just wander and discover things, which a more linear narrative does not allow. This ability greatly expands the possibilities for narratives and world building in video games, which Assassin’s Creed uses to create a vast secret history that underscores and encourages learning about our own.