Being a PhD History student, I am fascinated by the past – the sites, the smells, the culture! In this modern age, it is hard to realise that life had completely different (and in some cases not so different) challenges that a modern day person would find hard to comprehend. Life, in some ways, appears simpler in the past, less complicated and – by and large – more violent. Yet this can be hard to even imagine. History is a teacher but it is also a story filled with many wonders, intrigues and innovations that has ultimately led to where we are now. In the same way that people can get lost in watching a TV series, I get lost in the past and the wonderous world that used to be that can feel so far removed from what we have now. My interests are not only reserved for history and drama as video games play an important past time of my life and, through this, I can excite my imagination for the past in the same way that a historic novel or drama can. However, can video games be used as a historical teacher and story teller in the same way?
Many gamers will know that there are a number of games on the market that represent the past in some form or another. You have the likes of the Fallout series which, on the surface, doesn’t look like a historical based game but in reality shows a future in which America never left the 50/60’s and embraced nuclear power and the ‘Fallout’ of alternative actions taken in our own past. Bioshock looks at the future through a historical ‘steampunk’ aesthetic and you have games series like The Elder Scrolls and Thief that are set in a medieval fantasy setting heavily influenced by fantasy authors but also our own historic past. You also have game series that have a reliance on the past – most notably the Age of Empires and Total War series as well as first person shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield series. A lot of the games produced by these series are set in history and provide exciting back drops for heroic deeds. However, there are a few games series that take a more in depth and educational approach to depicting history. Game series like Assassin’s Creed.
Assassin’s Creed as a series does have its dissenters: gamers who take umbrage with game mechanics, glitches and the story. And, indeed, they wouldn’t be wrong. Ubisoft have had problems with all of these: from the slow pacing of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations to the glitchy Assassin’s Creed: Unity to the complex and confusing story of Assassin’s Creed 3. However, I would argue that Assassin’s Creed has immense historical interest and intrigue. In comparison to some other games on the market, Assassin’s Creed has the ability to immerse the player in a gaming world that is rich in detail and, generally, well researched. Not only can players explore historical environments but also get an understanding of the attitudes and the people of the time. One of the most beautiful game worlds created as well as the most expansive is Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag – the colours, the quality and the attention to detail makes the player feel as if they are onboard the Jackdaw, sailing around the Caribbean. Assassin’ Creed: Origins also boasts an impressively beautiful and intricate gaming world. The massive scope of the world as you explore Ancient Egypt – every desert is different and yet the same and you feel, as a player, you are exploring Egypt. It feels real and an accurate representation of what it used to be. An amazing testament to the research undertaken.
There are, of course, issues even with this. To begin with, the worlds that the players traverse are not strictly to scale. This may not be so surprising considering the enormity of the task but it can provide misconceptions on what the world was genuinely like. Although, this can be knowledge dependant. A good example is Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey which is set in Ancient Greece. This is a remarkable and interesting world in which to explore – it is a world that everyone has learnt about and has limited representation in other media sources. Odyssey combines the basic Assassin’s Creed game play with the expansive and exploratory gaming world of Origins and Black Flag, all wrapped up in the sights and characters of Ancient Greece. It is colourful, it’s alive and it does feel like an accurate representation of Ancient Greece. However, its drawback comes from more personal experience and knowledge. The Greek Islands are represented in the game and they are also places I have visited before. While in-game you can make your character get from one side of the island to another in a matter of minutes at a run, in reality it would take a person hours to do the same – meaning that the islands are in fact smaller in-game than they are in reality. This gives an inaccurate depiction. In a similar vein, the environments on each of the islands in the game are different from reality. Most Greek Islands are pretty barren and desert like except for round the ports and floodplains but in the game, some have dense jungles or wide farmlands that cover the entire land. Based on historical evidence, there is nothing to suggest that the islands were massively different from what they are now. It is clear that both of these decisions were made to keep the player engaged – traversing large environments that are identical to ones previously travelled would prove boring. However, the research on each island is generally accurate: the design of the Greek settlements and ports on each island are accurate, as are the industries and specialities of the island are accurately portrayed. The island of Serifos, for example, is an island well known for its iron mining and, in game, this is also the case.
In terms of fine detail of the world, the more personal character items are also impressive. The clothing and fashion of the interactive characters and NPC’s are also accurately portrayed as are the weapons (with the exception of the hidden blade and the special abilities of some), the design and styles of the ships as well as building designs of settlements. Even the general beliefs of Ancient Greece, as we understand them, are rendered accurately on screen. A novel quirk of the Assassin’s Creed has always been the incorporation of real famous figures from history. Assassin’s Creed II allowed the player to befriend and interact with Leonardo Da Vinci; Assassin’s Creed Unity had you fight alongside Napoleon Boneparte and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate had you solve mysteries with a young Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Of course, how these characters fit into the overall story arch is fictitious and the subject of creative licence but how these characters are, how they speak and how they think are accurately brought to the gaming screen and help educate the player of the difficulties of the time period and how these influential people view the world. In Odyssey, the player befriends the Ancient Greek historian Herrodotus who follows you around Greece and provides insight and guidance throughout your journey. You even meet Socrates who sets you moral and philosophical challenges as part of the game. Again, this could be viewed as a gimmick but what these characters make you do is understand more of who they are and why they are influential. They educate and encourage the player to learn more.
There is a uniqueness to Assassin’s Creed. It is not an interactive doctoral thesis but, as a game, I see it as a pretty clever and insightful way of educating players in our own past. It does it in a more immersive and interactive way than other forms of media. Though artistic licence plays heavily on the series, there are well researched elements that are indeed accurate. If you fancy learning more about our past, you can do worse than Assassin’s Creed!
Elliott Brindle is a PhD student who loves history and drama. He is Finance Officer with 1UPSTARTS and has performed in 'Triana Telebumble and Her Time Travel Tumble' and 'Ripper Quays'. He has an extensive history of acting, directing and improvisation and enjoys video games like Mass Effect, Assassin's Creed and Red Dead Redemption.