Ancient history shines in Assassin's Creed's new Discovery Tour - but it's the gaps that are truly thrilling
"It's about making people curious."
One of the most fascinating things I ever read about Shakespeare revolves, rather perversely, around how little we actually know of him. Putting the plays and the sonnets to one side, everything we know about Shakespeare the man is "contained within a few scanty facts," according to Bill Bryson. In his book, Shakespeare: The World as a Stage, Bryson marvels that Shakespeare exists within the historical record in a mere hundred or so documents. Despite almost a million words of text in his drama and poetry, "we have just 14 words in his own hand - his name signed six times and the words 'by me' on his will."
Facts, as Bryson argues, "are surprisingly delible things." So delible, as it happens, that much of our knowledge of the physical realities of Shakespearean theatre - our knowledge of what Shakespeare's working environment would have looked like and how it might have operated - is based on a single sketch by a Dutch tourist visiting the Swan Theatre in London in 1596. The original sketch has not survived, of course - why make anything easy? - but a friend made a copy in a notebook that was rediscovered, in 1888, in the library of the University of Utrecht. Voila: "The only known visual depiction of the interior of an Elizabethan playhouse in London. Without it we would know essentially nothing about the working layout of theatre of this time."
When I think of history, I do not often think of what we do not know, and how much of what we do not know there must be out there. It messes with the head. Shakespeare's one hundred or so documents, according to Bryson, actually make him one of the more historically visible people from the late 1500s. Even so, much of his world, of its details and quirks and busy contradictions, has faded in the 400 years since his death.
And that's just 400 years. Shakespeare had it easy, you might say. Shortly after he died we had Pepys and Evelyn and their diaries, and we had the slow professionalism of the civil services and of government, and a great uptick in documentation, in recording the ways in which things worked. The closer we get to the present, the more visible the world of the past becomes. But what if you spin the dial in the opposite direction?
It is dizzying to think of this stuff when confronted with the big-budget three-dimensional certainty of an Assassin's Creed game. Here is the distant past, and yet you can run about in it, pickpocket its citizens and knock their hats off, ride its horses and explore its landmarks. Here are destroyed temples, rising intact from the ground once more. Here are the greats of history cracking wise anachronistically or sending you out around town to collect their scattered papers.
I had never really thought about this, about the great contradiction that drives this fascinating series. To convince as games, as open worlds, the Assassin's design team must reconstruct historical real-estate with no gaps, with no dithering or uncertainty. And yet history is filled with gaps, and even the certainties are frequently not as certain as you would like. Sure, sometimes these certainties are heavy ledges of dates and figures, of triangulated testimony regarding who did what and how. But sometimes the certainties are a copy of Dutch tourist's offhand sketch.
And more: these gaps in history, these mysteries that allow pseudohistory to bloom and fester, are ultimately essential if you're going to seed the game's central preoccupation in the first place. You need the uncertainty if you're going to try to tell the unlikely story of a global, millenia-spanning war between secret societies.
All of which makes the Assassin's Creed Origin team's latest work seem curiouser and curiouser the longer you think about it. With the main game wrapped and the DLC plans taken care of, a core group of developers have returned to Bayek's Egypt and opened it out, removing the fighting and the death and the missions and allowing you instead to wander the land freely and in no danger in a brand new mode, and stumble across - what's this? - 75 separate guided tours, rich in historical detail.
The team's calling it the Discovery Tour, and it's out on the 20th of February as a free title update for people who have bought Assassin's Creed Origins (it's also available as a paid standalone on PC). Man, it's a gorgeous, lavish, bewildering thing: a tool for examining this ancient world that Ubisoft has brought back to life. But it's also a fascinating glimpse into the gaps in the historical record - and how Assassin's developers navigate those gaps. It's a mea culpa, in manner of speaking, albeit an extremely generous and detailed mea culpa. It's the design team stepping forward to explain how they knew what they knew - and to talk, at times, about what they didn't know and couldn't find out.
"The interesting part is that what people have in mind about Ancient Egypt is very diverse," Ubisoft's franchise historian Maxime Durand explains to me after I've spent the morning messing around with the Discovery Tour. "Some people don't know anything at all, some people think of Gods of Egypt, Exodus, Antony and Cleopatra. So when they can get into contact with a digital world like ours, that becomes their new paradigm of Ancient Egypt.
"But it's not perfect!" he laughs. "And this is why it was important for us to finally be able to do the Discovery Tour, to explain this." He thinks for a few seconds. "I always think that making these games is like making the cover art for a puzzle box," he says. "The box says there are 2000 pieces, but maybe you only actually have 50 or 100. It can be scary at first, but this is why you do research from the start and talk with Egyptologists. You look into all these different sources and then at some point you make up your mind."
Let's take a single example: The great library at Alexandria, one of the most famous academic institutions in history and home to anything between 40,000 to 400,000 documents, depending on who you choose to believe. It was a thrill to discover the library a few hours into Origins, and the depiction of this famous space seemed so assured: here it was, substantial and surprisingly colourful on the outside, airy and filled with inviting shadow on the inside. Maybe, it seemed to say, some things about libraries will never change. But as you walked through its chambers, it was hard not to ask yourself: how? How did Ubisoft put all this back together?
The truth, according to the Discovery Tour, is educated guesses. With few firm details of the library itself, the team turned to other sources, primarily the Library of Celsus in Turkey. The Celsus library is not an ideal match - it was built much later than the great library - but it was inspired by Alexandria, and besides, enough of it survives, or has been reconstructed, to give the team something to build on, something where they can be relatively sure that they're on the right track. Crucially, for the interested player, learning all this is an end in itself: a source is revealed, and the rabbit warren of history beckons. This is where the Discovery Tour comes alive.
And the Tour update is filled with this stuff: it is a thrilling glimpse into the blend of creation and recreation that a game like Assassin's requires. Take Alexandria itself. No biggy, according to Jean Guesdon, the creative director on Assassin's Creed Origins and the Discovery Tour. "Yes there are large gaps that we need to fill," he tells me. "But the structure of a big city like Alexandria, it is quite well known, even down to where the administrative buildings were located, or the fact that the rich people tended towards the North where they could get the good air from the sea. We pick the most iconic landmarks, we position then, and then we try to project the life of the city around them."
The tours themselves are wonderfully straightforward, all 75 of them, divided into five categories covering Egypt, the Pyramids, daily life, Alexandria and the Romans. Stripped of the ability to start fights or get yourself killed, you can encounter these tours either by fast travelling to them from a new passport screen in the menu, by highlighting them on the map, or even by encountering them as you walk around the real world. Once you find a tour, it works as a sort of glowing breadcrumb trail, a ribbon of light that links together a dozen or so stations, nodes you click on to hear a bit of detail regarding what you're looking at, switching between a cinematic camera and some documentary sources, perhaps, before moving on again.
Since this is Assassin's, freedom is a defining principle: you can leave a tour or rejoin it at any station. You can conjure your horse and ride off the moment you get bored. You can scout ahead with your eagle or switch between any of 25 avatars, all of which are unlocked from the start. And since it's Ubisoft, the menu keeps track of how many tours you've started and how many you've completed. Compelling busywork, even before you get to what you're actually learning.
Speaking of learning, since Assassin's Creed 3, Ubisoft has been in touch with educational establishments around the world who have been using the games in an informal manner to teach history to their students. In this regard, Guesdon and Durand suggest that the Discovery Tour is the next step in an ongoing journey.
But it hasn't been easy. The process for designing and implementing the tours began with the development team talking to teachers and lecturers to try to get a sense of what they would like Ubisoft to build. Next, they asked Egyptologists to write 20 or so tours which they could then use as the basis of the new mode. From these original texts, Ubisoft broke out a handful of different tours, focussed around accessibility, and tried to integrate them into the 3D world.
"That didn't go well," says Durand with a wince. "These twenty tours were way too long, we were covering way too many things with each tour, and a tour might last maybe two hours."
So they returned to the basic design. They sat down again and tried to cut the tours down into smaller - and more localised - affairs. In the process, they moved from twenty lengthy tours into 75 much shorter tours which worked better as they moved across the game's landscape. Instead of one mega-tour covering multiple aspects of daily life in Egypt, for example, the team tried to envision a smaller tour which they could mount in a single location and which might cover one aspect of daily life before the player moved on to do another tour elsewhere.
During its development, Ubisoft took the tours into schools to see how they fared as an educational tool. It turns out that kids can learn a surprising amount about ancient Egypt from Assassin's new mode, although time spent with a proper teacher is still far more productive. The point, as both Durand and Guesdon are at pains to make clear, is not to replace teachers anyway. Ideally, teachers would be able to talk to their students about ancient Egypt while they were all exploring the 3D world together. It is an interesting idea.
Whatever happens from here, the Discovery Tour feels like a perfect fit for Assassin's. "We want to make history everyone's playground, we want to make it mainstream," says Guesdon. I ask him if he thinks that his job, over the years, has started to include finding a way to preserve the past. "The way we see our mission is making people aware of what's existing," he tells me. "Especially now with 360 cameras and things like that, when it comes to digitisation and preservation of the real world, that stuff is more accurate, definitely.
"But what we are doing, we are able to make a lot of people aware of what exists and interest them in that. The more people know about these places and start to care about them, the more we can trigger an interest. And that is a path to preservation. This is a way of saying: this is important, we need to care about it, it must not disappear. It's about making people curious."