Released last year, the game Assassin’s Creed Unity, in the Assassin’s Creed series by Unisoft, is set in Paris during the Terror. “Point and click” is about my limit as far as gaming is concerned, but I love this game's beautiful recreations of Revolutionary Paris.
Ubisoft aimed for "real-world scale" in the central section of the game. About a quarter of the buildings are playable - meaning your character wander (or creep, run and leap) around them and move seamlessly from outdoor to indoor scenes. The effect is really impressive.
According to Art Director Mohamed Gambouz, who is based in Montreal, the idea was not to provide total historical accuracy but a Paris of the imagination, the "postcards people have in their minds". Nonetheless considerable effort was spent in recreating the historical city. Designer Nicolas Guerin spent three months poring over more than 150 old plans. Numerous iconic landmarks – Notre Dame, the Hotel de Ville, place de la Concorde, the catacombs - were lovingly reconstructed. Caroline Miousse, artist on the project, took two years to model Notre Dame alone. Ubisoft even toured Paris to compare the gameplay video on a tablet to the real life monuments.
There are some deliberate anachronisms, mostly to signpost the period clearly to gamers: the most notable are:
- The Marseillais and tricolour flag of the Republic are adopted before time
- The Bastille - marvellously and atmospherically reconstructed - remains intact in 1793
- Despite the research, Notre Dame has its later iconic spires which today make it a recognisable landmark
- The statue of Liberty is transferred from New York to Revolutionary Paris
- There are street signs although these were only introduced to Paris fifty years later.
On its release in late 2014, the game came in for criticism not only for the unimaginative plot and the glitches in gameplay but also for its historical bias. The French Left was certainly not amused. Euro-MP and former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon gave a TV interview in which he denounced Ubisoft’s portrayal of the French people as bloodthirsty savages and Robespierre as a monster. But since he also described Marie-Antoinette as a “cretin” perhaps the problem wasn’t so much bias as the wrong bias?
In search of a more balanced verdict, the Nouvel Observateur approached the handsome academic historian from the Sorbonne Guillaume Mazeau. Guillaume was not too fazed by the obvious anachronisms and admired all the detail – for instance the inclusion of Louis XVI’s actual speech to the Estates-General – though he too was upset by the violence of the crowd.
Personally, I think everyone is worrying unnecessarily. If you don't like gratuitous violence, you don't play Assassin's Creed! The average gamer knows full well that the behaviour of the crowds is nothing to do with historical accuracy – it is dictated by the needs of the gameplay. The most discerning critics point out that Ubisoft has in fact done very little to integrate the plot of the game with its historical location in any sophisticated way - the assassin is just plonked in 18th-century France with the same old killing mission. Assassin's Creed Unity is not educational and its is not history; it is just a computer game with some first-class graphics to enjoy.
Steve Dent, "Exploring modern Paris to find the roots of Assassin's Creed Unity", Engadget.uk, 6 Oct.2014.
Andrew Webster "Building a better Paris in 'Assassin's Creed Unity'TheVerge, 31 Oct.2014
Rory Mulholland, Assassin's Creed: Unity 'makes travesty of the French Revolution' The Telegraph 14 Nov 2014